When I asked Mikko Tamarra, chef and owner of Calgary taqueria Con Mi Taco, his recommendations for the best local cuisine in Oaxaca, he didn’t know where to begin.
“The building architecture, the churches, the extra large wooden doors, the street dances, the smell of street food and especially the freshly ground cacao,” he says. Tamarra has made the pilgrimage to the gastronomic capital of Mexico several times, and enthused about how much he loved the local food.
Mexico City native Iván Castro, chef and co-owner of Toronto’s vegan Mexican restaurant (and recent Michelin Guide addition) La Bartola, has other ideas.“Go to the local market, talk to the people, grab a bite of fresh fruit and drink a refreshing glass of tejate (a traditional Oaxacan beverage made from corn and cacao),” he says. “[Then,] by night you can have drinks on one of the many beautiful rooftop patios with incredible views of Santo Domingo Church.” If you’re really lucky, he adds, you’ll be invited to a street wedding along with the rest of the town, where you can enjoy local Oaxacan culinary delights alongside musicians and traditional Mexican marmotas (giant paper mache puppets).
I had set out to find the best local food and drink around the world, consulting chefs across Canada on their favourite international destinations for a culinary journey. From tea plantations in Kyoto to bakeries in St. Lucia, the votes came in – but only one place received a recommendation from two chefs: Oaxaca de Juárez, also known as Oaxaca City. Widely praised in culinary circles for its preservation of traditional Mexican culture and variance in international cuisines, it’s a foodie destination that can’t be missed.. But where to begin? The mole? The street food? The mezcal? I asked the experts – Chef Castro and Chef Tamarra, whose approaches to Mexican food (vegan and traditional, respectively) were formed in part during their time there.
Mikko Tamarra, head chef at and co-owner of Con Mi Taco in Calgary
According to chef Mikko Tamarra, in El Centro (the city centre), the smells of street food and freshly ground cacao provide the perfect sensory experience to accompany the feast you’re about to have. The towering wooden doors and street vendors selling pottery and colourful alebrije wooden sculptures are entrancing, but a gastronomic journey can be found just about everywhere you look. “Being able to taste a properly made tortilla [made from] freshly ground corn and hand-pressed super thin and cooked on a comal (a round, flat griddle) until nice and toasted was life changing,” he says.
Tamarra says you cannot skip Crudo, a five-seat Japanese-inspired restaurant that uses Oaxacan ingredients to create fusion cuisine – the likes of which you’ve probably never had before. And while in Oaxaca, you may as well head out beyond the city limits to the town of Zimatlán, a 45 minute-long drive south where, says Tamarra, you’ll find the best weekend brunch at Portozuelo, a small restaurant attached to a farm and orchard where many ingredients from their recipes, like water chilis and guava, are grown. “[Everything is] cooked over fire on a comal.”
Union Street s/n, La Raya, Zimatlán de Álvarez
#309 Av Benito Juárez, Ruta Independencia, Oaxaca de Juárez
Iván Castro, chef at and owner of La Bartola in Toronto
As described by chef Iván Castro, Oaxaca City is full of romance and whimsy. “You can get lost in its beautiful streets, and you will always find a new gem,” he says. “Try the street food and the typical Mexican candies. Grab an ice cream or a paleta [a Mexican popsicle made from fresh ingredients], sit down in front of the cathedral and just watch the people walking by. Smell the air and pay attention to the sounds – there’s always the sound of joy in the air.”
Most of the mezcal in the world is produced in Oaxaca state, and the drink’s cultural and historical significance is ingrained in the fabric of Oaxaca City. For a tasting, Castro recommends booking a class at La Mezcaloteca, where you’ll get a crash course in the rich agave spirit and a tour of a nearby palenque Oaxacan mezcal distillery to learn about how the much-lauded spirit is made. If you’re looking for a more glamorous style of cocktail, Castro says to try Selva, listed on North America’s 50 Best Bars.
Reforma No. 506, Ruta Indepedencia, Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez
Selva Oaxaca Cocktail Bar
C. Macedonio Alcalá #403-int. 6, Ruta Indepedencia, Centro, Oaxaca de Juárez