Thursday, October 22, 2009

Trip Report: Oaxaca - The Restaurants

We arrive just around midnight on Monday and had room service bring some fresh fruit. Previous to the trip we used the Moon Guide, which we found deep in content, but completely worthless for its index. We had also culled restaurant recommendations from Chowhound, Trip Advisor, Mouthfuls and eGullet. Oddly, none of those sites had current suggestions, most were more than two years which in Oaxaca time might as well be a different century.

Oaxaca has a long tradition of protests and often they become violent. The violence often will grow so severe that tourists stay away and that means restaurants close. Add to that mix swine flu paranoia and you can imagine its not a good time to own a restaurant in Oaxaca. It didn't matter if we went to a hole in the wall or the sure-thing tourist restaurant, everything was quite and kinda sad (says the restaurant owner). We learned quickly to disregard the suggestions and make our own path, although many of the places we went were leads from locals. I also recommend visiting for address, hours and menus...if you speak Spanish.

We tried to dine like the locals where our mid-day meal was the large meal and the late night was lighter, but if you know me at all, that normally meant two full meals. So, here we go:

Breakfast - Camino Real
Our guidebook said that the hotel had one of the best breakfasts in town. It is a 5-star hotel, so we gave it a try. Tyler ordered alacart while I headed to the buffet. A slow buffet is never the time to walk the buffet line and sure enough there were a number of dead items. Being my first meal I sampled pretty much everything and it was all good enough to eat, so I would recommend this for someone with little time who wants to get a good spectrum of the offerings in town. It was also my first exposure to chocolate con aqua and Oaxacan tamales.

Lunch - Comala
Still a bit guarded, we weren't venturing too far yet and found this little café just around the corner from our hotel. The price looked right after our expensive breakfast so we stepped in.

Here's where I found my love for Indio beer. It actually comes from the Monterrey region, but it soon became my meal beverage. You'll see Tyler's mojito hiding behind. This was also our first sopa - I don't remember, but odds are good that it was squash blossom soup since almost every soup was squash blossom soup.

And when you're in a landlocked city in rural Mexico, its always a good idea to order the fish...

While I didn't care for the dry fish, I did enjoy my one brussel sprout. But, that was okay because I love a good rich why did they send me this!

Fresh fruit with sprinkles! ugly American was going to come out - "Barkeep! Send me another Indio - fast!"

Dinner - El Naranja
This was one of the highly recommended restaurants from some online source so we hit there on our first night. Oddly I can't find it at the restaurant review site I mentioned above. And it may not be worth mentioning since we were told that its up for sale - $85kUS for the restaurant business, not building. And we were the only guests when we arrived, so that meant...drinks with the bartender - possibly the nicest service person we met on the trip...a real gem!

He started us off with margaritas and hibiscus tea - also a recurring theme on the trip.

That evolved to "Do you want to try our most expensive mezcal?" Sure, why not, we're two dumb gringos with lots of money to burn (at least in comparison to pesos).

The nice thing was that we both now knew that we didn't care for mezcal - for me it is the smokiness that I could do without...but that doesn't mean we didn't enjoy some at almost every meal since its part of most meals. But I digress. This was also when I started simply enjoying the menu del día - You may remember my book review of the same name. I learned that its best to go with the chef's suggestions (and now as a chef, I concur). So that meant...squash blossom soup.

That was followed by albondigas in a green tomatillo sauce. Albondigas are typically poached and these were very nice.

Dessert was simply flan - "the special of the kitchen since you are a chef." It was a bit tough, but good (anything with syrup is good).

Breakfast - La Olla
Tyler found this one for us.

Just around the corner from the hotel, this café was definitely game for servicing tourists, but they had very good food. For me...chocolate con agua and today - memolitas - the Oaxacan breakfast of champions.

A couple of thoughts here. First, if any of the tortillas that we ate the entire week were from a factory, then that is the best factory tortilla ever. Second that queso Oaxaqueño is some great stuff! Simply beans smeared on a tortilla with cheese and sometimes meat, these are a nice start to the day - and often snack or street food.

Lunch - Maria Teresa
Found within the 20 de Noviembre Mercado, this little stall was the cleanest and friendliest so we had a seat. Now, market dining is not for everyone. Its one step up from street dining. And neither is highly recommended for squeemish diners - but both are safe if you keep your eyes open. Just make sure everything is cooked well and in front of you...and whatever you do, don't eat the pork! (set up for later joke).

I started off with an atole because I'm a tourist and I'm supposed to. Think liquid grits out of an old ladies' barrel. Ummm...yeah, done it, moving on...

But then the ladies go to a cookin' for the only tourist within earshot except for some Japanese dude who seemed to want the safety of our company but couldn't sit hit twitchy little butt down for more than 30 seconds.

I went for a working man's lunch - tortillas, beans, rice and chile rellenos con queso. Fresh OJ was used to douse the heat.

Dinner - Fuego y Sazón
Definitely in the top of our list, F&S was a real treat. We were recommended to come here by Sean, an American expat working at Yasín, an organic/natural food store. He said that his friend had the best steak of his life...and since Sean is a vegetarian and neither of us eats much red meat...

The room was too dark for good pics, but I had Indio, and then camarones y coco in a mango sauce. Really, really good. Basically coconut battered shrimp, fried and served with a killer sauce. Not what I would consider Oaxacan, but a fresh, sharp dish. I'm pretty sure that I had more than that, but geez, no pics, no memory (think tree falls in the woods).

Breakfast - La Olla
Yogurt and jugo de la olla - their special house juice.

Lunch - La Biznaga
Here was a gem that we stumbled upon accidentally.

Run by two scary looking leather dudes from what I guess to be Hungary or San Francisco, these guys run a nice show. This was the first place we went to that allowed smoking which was unfortunate since I was really enjoying the smoke free dining. It turned out that the majority of places are smoke free, and I rarely saw Oaxacans smoking anywhere.

Who cares what I had after my Indio...this bad mamba jamba will be re-created in my kitchen. You might remember my papas rellenos recipe - well this is a plantain relleno. Think mashed plantain filled with pork picadillo and guayaquil molé. Single best dish of the trip!

That called for a celebration so I had pear almond was fine but I started giving up on Oaxaca having anything sweet to offer me that wasn't alcoholic.

Dinner - El Asador
This is a little street stall across from the first-class bus terminal. While we perused the menu, I just reminded Tyler, "Whatever you do, don't get the pork." So they prepared my tacos Tyler pondered...

And of course, ordered the pork! The most neon read, not-nearly-cooked-enough-pork I've ever seen. With his fondness for talking himself into any illness, if this dish didn't make him think he had food poisoning, then nothing will. But he ate it, and he said he liked it.

That's it to keep this post manageable. Friday through Sunday will get posted tomorrow.


Kevin Knox said...

Great writing as usual Rob. La Biznaga and Danzantes are the two higher-end fusion places that always seem to be recommended. Otherwise, you can't rely on sites like Chowhound or Trip Advisor because all you get from them is a subset of experiences from gringos who don't speak Spanish and rely on guidebooks or staff at a few guidebook-sanctioned hotels for recommendations. You don't get to the places the locals eat that way. The good places don't have English menus or English speaking staffs and are outside of the tourist walking corridor.

If you go again, try Rob at He is the leading guy promoting Mexican ecotourism and has lived in Oaxaca for years. We met him at the organic mercado and he knows the great places to go. We also have a Mexcian friend who exports organic coffee and lives there, and he'd be happy to send you a list of great local dives next trip.

Mezcal, even the very best such as Del Maguey (great website, by the way, that gives a wonderful feeling for Oaxaca off the beaten track) are indeed very smokey. We drink good blanco Tequila (El Tesoro, Fortalezza, Don Julio, Herradura) with Oaxacan food, to the consternation of the locals - and it works much better.

Indio is fine but it's poor man's Negra Modelo. The pecking order for Mexican beer, top to bottom: Noche Buena (seasonal Xmas beer), Negra, Bohemia and Indio (Bohemia the only decent lighter one), after which you're better off with water or hard liquor, IMHO.

We'll likely be in Oaxaca and Chiapas later this winter and will work on compiling a list of good places.


Gfron1 said...

We were definitely looking for the non-English menu places, but the first few days we were getting our feet wet, so in the next post you'll see some more interesting sites. I did check out and it was helpful - one thing we stupidly did not expect was the irregular closures - many spots on our list were closed for the day, the hour, the season or the mood.

racheld said...

What a rompin' stompin ride that was!!

And I'll have you know this old lady's barrel meets all FDA standards of cleanliness, serves up only the most delicious things, and is very, very attractive, as well.

Hmmmmmph!! Flounce!!

shelora sheldan - Cooking with a Broad said...

Looks like you really dove in to the food and had a wonderful time. I'm glad Itanoni is still going but I wanted to comment that what you did eat there was indeed unique in that you were consuming criollo (wild, heirloom ) varieties of corn.