Monday, November 2, 2009

Trip Report: Oaxaca - Final Thoughts

I've been sitting on this final post for a while because I'm going to step out and suggest that Oaxaca is not the great foodie destination its been made out to be. Prior to going, we researched a variety of forums, sites and guides, many of which stated that Oaxaca is one of the premier foodie cities, a top food-lovers region, or other such claims.

What we found was a community that had a vibrant organic and slow-food movement, albeit not marketed to death like an American community might. But is that enough to live up to the claims. We hit a number of restaurants on the suggestion list, as well as suggestions on Bayless' site and the foodie forums. Claims that Tllamanalli in Teotitlán del Valle was the best food in the valley appeared overblown. Meal after meal proved good, but not great. The food was clearly fresh and tasty, and often times very good, but enough to lift Oaxaca to the pedestal?

We both agreed that we would re-visit Oaxaca, and that we had a very enjoyable trip. We loved exploring the markets and neighborhoods and discovering the finds that they had to offer. We enjoyed the touristy moments as well as the more authentic local experiences. We particularly were pleased when we found non-tourist shops that featured specialty food items. There is no question that we would recommend Oaxaca to our friends, and would definitely consider it for a re-visit.

But, I still linger on the fact that the food was no better than most places that I have visited. Slow food movements, organic producers, great restaurants are everywhere these days. Is the claim to greatness because of Oaxaca's relative remoteness? Maybe a decade ago, but now there are direct flights from a variety of US cities including our route through Houston. At nearly 300,000 inhabitants, I would expect the quality of food that we found pretty much anywhere in the world.

One aspect that I do believe lifts Oaxaca to an important culinary destination is the convergence of cultures and how that plays out in the kitchen. Playing the historic role of buffer between the North and South, hosting the Spanish invaders, and currently playing home to Americans and Europeans seeking a unique affordable community - all of these aspects has influenced the cuisine of the community. And that is special, but not unique across the globe.

So, while many would suggest that we just didn't hit the right restaurants on the right day and order the right food, I will suggest that for people who are used to eating freshly prepared foods that celebrate indigenous ingredients, Oaxaca is a great vacation spot, but not a premier foodie destination.

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