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Mar 28, 2003 12:22 AM

A few quick notes on Oaxaca (for dickson)

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Hey David,
Sorry it took so long to reply. I remember that you said in your email that you're leaving on the 28th (that's tomorrow!) I hope that you catch this before your flight and that you find these few notes helpful.

Oaxaca is one of the greatest food cities in Mexico. There is just simply an astounding number of places to enjoy sublime cooking. Even if I had the time, I could not possibly list them all. I'll try to list a few interesting places that I think would be convenient for you to get to from the hotel that you told me you will be staying at.

There are two famous markets in the city, the Central de Abastos near the 2nd class bus station and the Mercado Juarez/20 de Noviembre, just a block south of the zocalo. All the guidebooks list only these two and neglect to add that there are several other tiny neighborhood markets, many of which hide a few gems of their own.

One of my favorites among the smaller markets is just up the street from Hotel Golondrinas. The market is called Sanchez Pascuas and is about 3 or at most 4 blocks north on Tinoco y Palacios. The main entrance is actually on Porfirio Diaz but I am very sure that there is a back door on Tinoco Palacios. This is a really mellow place and never very crowded as the stalls are widely-spaced. In Oaxaca, I usually stay at a hostel on Cosijopi and so I consider this MY own personal neighborhood market.

There is a handful of fondas (food-stalls) on the T y P side of this market and a couple of excellent bakers towards the front. But the jewel of this market is the stall that offers quesadillas/empanadas. It's really nothing more than a couple of tables/benches and a comal set against a wall (the first dividing wall on the right if you come in from T y P). Try to sit right in front of the comal so that you can watch the senora pat out your tortillas and griddle-bake them on the lime(cal)-seasoned/lime(cal)-whitened comal. In the meantime, the other senora will probably be trimming the squash blossoms and getting the quesillo and epazote ready for your quesadilla de flor de calabaza. Since we have discussed and argued this little detail at length on the Chicago board, note that only the trimmed petal (the yellow part) and not one bit of green (calyx, stem, pistil) is used here. This is one of the finest quesadillas de f de c I have tried anywhere but make sure to try their other quesadillas as well (specially the empanada de mole amarillo). There is an excellent vendor of tamales sitting right next to them with a wide assortment of typical Oaxacan tamales, including tamales de chepil (we've discussed this herb on our board). If I remember correctly, the list of tamales is actually painted right behind them on the wall.

Re: Clayuda/Tlayuda

This is arguably the most glorious of Oaxaca's many street food forms. It's unique, it's delicious, it's beloved by all and could be found everywhere. Yet strangely enough, I have never seen a reference to it in any guidebook or food-listing for this city. Could all these gringo-tourists possibly be so stubborn about insisting on eating only their stupid resort-style fish tacos and California burritos and their fajitas that they could actually miss this splendor right in front of their eyes? I'm not going to describe it again as we've discussed this extensively on our board. The tlayuda itself (a thin masa "wafer" or disc, about a foot in diameter) could be bought from ladies sitting on the floor near the entrances of Mercado Juarez and crying "blandas, tlayudas". These blandas ("the" tortilla of Oaxaca) and tlayudas are still made painstakingly, in the traditional manner (metate etc) and only from the purest strains of corn. Several places around the market offer the "tlayuda preparada". That is, they turn those tortilla-discs (which look intriguingly a little bit like Mario Batali's Sardinian carta da musica) into the famous snack. They start by smearing one side of the tlayuda with asiento (see Chicago board) and black bean paste and stuffing it with queso natural and a choice of tasajo (air-dried beef) or cecina (in Oaxaca, cecina is always pork). The tlayuda is then crisped over coals on a small grill before being folded over like a quesadilla. During fiestas, dozens of vendors of this specialty will set up make-shift shops in the main plazas and in front of churches.

A personal favorite of mine for tlayudas is a rather evocative place open only from 8 to 12 at night. The address is:

Tlayuderia Las Reliquias
Morelos 402

This is very close to your hotel (Morelos is 2 or 3 blocks to the south). It's on the south side of the street, east of La Soledad and within a block of the corner of T y P and Morelos. You might consider a tlayuda here as a possible late-night snack. This tlayuderia is actually a little atypical bec it is set-up (as a kind of side business) in someone's private house. You enter through an old wooden gate, cross a beautiful courtyard and head for the corner of the patio where the entire extended family encompassing several generations is sitting glued to the latest episode of some soap opera on the small TV. Someone will offer you the choice of the excellent tasajo or the cecina marinated in guajillo, fan the coals and make you your delicious tlayudas, all the while keeping one eye on the drama. There are a couple of tables and plastic chairs in the middle of the courtyard where you can enjoy your food right under the stars.

Alternatively, you could make this your dinner and then head a few blocks west to the nieverias in front of La Soledad church for dessert. The ice creams here are renowned and are still frozen and churned in the old way. You can see the garrapineras/barriles (holding salted ice) all in a row on the counters. Most of these vendors offer up to 3 dozen (!) different flavors including (in season) such tropical fruits as zapote negro, chicozapote, mamey, as well as "rose petal" (from the rosa de castilla). Note that they start from fresh fruits/flowers and do not use purees, preservatives etc. When I was last in Oaxaca in January, these places started closing down by 8 and I am not really sure when they start keeping late (summer) hours again. There is an excellent bookstore + cafe + internet cafe at the corner of the lower part of the plaza but they were also closing down by 8 in January. La Soledad is one of the greatest of Mexican churches and is home of the patroness of the city (la Virgen de la Soledad). It should (along with Santo Domingo church) definitely be in any visitor's itinerary of the city. The part of the La Soledad plaza that is elevated (going up towards Morelos) is called Plaza de las Danzas. At night, there are usually (traditional) dance or theater troupes practicing out in the open. Sit and people-watch on the steps of the plaza while enjoying your "nieves" as an unforgettable way to end your day.


I am going to make some tea and will be right back.

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    Re: Central de Abastos

    This is the great market of Oaxaca, a huge chaotic sprawling affair. Not as "cute" or as "photogenic" as Mercado Juarez but a must for anyone passionate about food. You can actually walk there from the center of town in about 20 minutes but the buses going there pass right in front of your hotel on Tinoco y Palacios (look for signs saying "Central" or "Abastos"). This might be a good chance for your kids to experience a Mexican bus ride (I think the fare is US$.35 or so pp). A taxi will bring you back to the center or to your hotel for about $2 or $3.

    Most guidebooks will tell you that Saturday is market day. This is certainly THE great day when Oaxacans from every corner of the state, representing many different ethnicities, speaking a dozen different languages (not to speak of the many dialect forms), wearing colorful dresses, and bearing the most astonishing range of traditional crafts, descend on the city. But it's still a great market on any other day of the week and I would argue that Tuesdays and Fridays (which are the actual days for the food/produce market) are even better days for pure food-hunting as one would then not be as distracted by all the superb handicrafts around.

    The market is divided into several section: the zona humeda (wet market), the dry goods area (zona seca), an extensive area of food stalls, plus a large loading/storage area (zona de bodegas). After several visits, I think that I now have a sense of its floor plan and wish that I had a way to sketch it right here onto the computer. There are few orienting points or distinctive markers within the market and at first it will seem as if you are just going around and around aimlessly. I promise you that you WILL get lost. Just don't worry about getting lost, then, and go ahead and just concentrate on looking at stuff. When you are ready to move on, just ask anyone where the "Central de autobuses" or Mercaderes (see below) is located (the 2nd class bus station is across the street) and you should get back on track in no time.

    The food-stalls (fondas) in the eating area of this market offer an even more extensive range of everyday dishes than the fondas at Mercado Juarez/20 de N. The food at Juarez/20 de Nov represents the most beloved, the most famous of Oaxaca City's everyday dishes/of its "comfort food". There you will find dishes such as chichilo de res, pollo almendrado, enfrijolada, entomatada, enmolada, verde de espinazo etc, dishes generally considered standard-bearers of the cuisine. The fondas at Abastos go beyond those favorites to encompass even more down-home items (for instance, humble dishes made with dried shrimp or with sardines). To someone who is starting out to explore Oaxacan cuisine, I would recommend concentrating first on Juarez/20 de N to get a good grasp of the classics (more on these below). But for those ready for unique adventures, there is certainly no end of things to tease out and discover at Abastos.

    The celebrated "Indian" market is in that open part of the market complex next to Mercaderes Street (catch a cab on Mercaderes to get home). It is actually one extraordinarily long "sidewalk" lined with two (or more) long long long rows of vendors with their wares or produce displayed right on the ground. It is a procession of glory: a breathtaking show of abundance and plenty. As many of the older "Indians" do not even speak Spanish, it can also seem like a contemporary version of Babel.

    As Mercado Juarez/20 de N is right in the heart of the city, is frequented by tourists and patronized by the middle-class, the produce here tends to be the most beautiful but also tends to be of the type whose stock can be consistently replenished. Abastos, being much bigger, is less brilliantly focused and "edited", but the massiveness permits much more things to be represented within its realm, even those things that do not reach a certain economy of scale. In the midst of the overwhelming series, it is possible to stumble on a stall with unusual/rare fruits from naturally low-yielding trees or small quantities of off-schedule/off-season produce from an atypical terroir or the harvest from a tiny pocket of trees (or even from one tree) hiding in some mountain off the main production zones.

    The "Indian" market encompasses an even more precious level of the miniscule and "small". Some of these Oaxacans walk for miles to get to the market carrying the miscellaneous vegetables or fruits from their tiny piece of land, perhaps a handful or two of a less-often-seen variety of beans, a few foraged branches of herbs or flowers. The sheer diversity of the colors and size of corn or beans, the obvious multiplicity of the genetic heritages (some heritages specific to only one single vendor) takes one's breath away. This comes close to that primal horizon of true plenty and true manyness before any standardization for the market.

    David, I have never been to Oaxaca in March and so don't really know what kinds of rare herbs or fruits will be available at this time. But when I was there 2 months ago, I saw several "relatively" well-known (but still rare) things that might still be around and that you might also look out for. These include scarlet "colorin" flowers (these are used in bean dishes) in very small bunches, scarlet pea-flowers, hierba de conejo, piojitos, chepil (of course) etc.

    (to be continued/going to make some more tea)

    5 Replies
    1. re: RST

      RGR, hope your tea was good. Waiting in anticipation for more!

      1. re: RST

        (continued from above)

        Re: Mercado Juarez and 20 de Noviembre

        These are actually two interlinked buildings. Juarez is a block from the sw corner of the zocalo. 20 de N is the building to its south with all the food-stalls (fondas). They are both rather well-known and there's quite a bit of description of these in the your regular tourist material.

        Juarez, with all its colors and smells and sounds, is without a doubt one of the "must-do" destinations. But probe a little more beyond the apparent drama (all the roses and tuberroses, all the votive candles in front of little altars, the gorgeous mounds of fruit) and you get even deeper into the soul of the market.

        Don't be shy about stopping every lady walking around selling something and asking to peek inside their basket. You don't know what kind of treasure is hidden within. Many of the unusual items (for instance: delicious fried crickets/chapulines) are openly available, but one often has to search actively for the humbler but no-less-spectacular prizes.

        I was once told that there is a lady who brings down fabulous handmade wheat tortillas (apparently a rare specialty of some tiny Mixtecan community) from the mountains but have not been able to track her down.

        Watch out for nicuatoles, which are jelly-like sweets set with starch hand-processed from corn. There are several ladies (hidden in dark corners) who make tejate, an ancient "fermented" drink made from corn, ground cacao, the ground pit of the mamey fruit and perfumed with the flower called "rosita de cacao". This is one of those profoundly Mexican (Oaxacan) foodstuffs that might repulse you at first because of its radical difference and because it does not have an easy reference in "our" system of taste and our categories of "deliciousness". (Other such items might include the "austere" mole chichilo or the viscous aguamiel etc.) Once you have learned to enjoy these however, you will keep thinking about them and even crave them.

        In the middle of the market, there are a couple of specialists in aguas frescas (one is called "Casilda", I think). You can get fresh-squeezed juices and aguas (everyone nowadays uses agua purificada) of all sorts as well as horchata tinged a day-glo shade of pink with the addition of a bit of tuna (prickly pear) paste and nuts.

        Wheat bread (rolls, pan de yema etc) at this market is of very high quality. The norm in Oaxaca (as in Puebla) is still baking/breadmaking in wood-fired traditional ovens (adobe), often using generations-old yeast starters. You might also look out for little packs of totopos, which are small round masa crackers made by flattening balls of masa against the wall of a tandoor-like oven (just as you would to make naan) and "baking" these until crisp and hard. (I saw how this is made in Guerrero and assume that the process is the same in Oaxaca.) There are neat rows of pinpricks on the surface of the totopos (as in that of matzach) which prevent "ballooning" and unevenness on the surface.

        There are several mills (molinos) for chocolate and mole pastes in this market, although Abastos is probably a better place to observe the process as it is less crowded. Most families continue to prepare their moles and chocolate (toasting the individual ingredients: cinnamon, cacao) at home using recipes handed down through generations and then bring these to the market to be milled.

        Bars of Oaxacan chocolate make great gifts but may be too heavy to lug around on the plane. When buying chocolate as gifts, don't forget to buy the turned-wood molinillos so that those getting this gift can "whip" it up the tradtional way at home. If you don't get to see the way chocolate is whipped and prepared while in Oaxaca, you can still go to Restaurante Oaxaca here in Chicago at Ashland and 47th and see Senora Guadalupe whip chocolate using bars they have lugged all the way from Oaxaca.

        (A few more notes about the fondas of 20 de Noviembre and about memelas in one last post. Back in a bit.

        David, if I don't get to this before your flight, see if you can catch the last post from an internet cafe in Oaxaca. There's an internet cafe virtually every half-block wherever you walk in the center of this city. It's about US$1 for an hour's use and generally .60 or .70 for half-hour.

        Enjoy your trip and eat wonderfully!)


        1. re: RST

          What a wealth of information you have given to all of us, RST. These three posts have been fascinating reading, even for an old Mexico hand like me. I'm gonna print them out and stick them in my travel file for my next trip to Oaxaca~and I wish I'd had them for my last trip there. Next time you're in Jalisco, c'mon over and I'll treat you to way of a muchísimas gracias.

          1. re: Cristina

            I'll second that. I too have printed out and saved RST's missives from and about Mexico. Thanks RST for your generosity. I too wish I had had access to your info before my trips to Oaxaca, not to mention Puebla, Chilpanchingo, etc. etc.

          2. re: RST

            Muchas gracias RST--I am in the middle of planning a trip to Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead festival and a weeklong culinary course. I'm going a few days early so I ventured over here and what a wealth of information---a big thanks from San Francisco!

        2. Thanks for those "quick notes" --a virtual tourbook.

          1. RST (Rob?),

            Thanks much. In fact am printing in Internet cafe in Oaxaca having had first wonderful dinner (mole negro and coloradito at Restaurante Naranjo)last night, and wandered aimlessly in Abastos this morning (lordy, what a large place).

            Will try to provide an update deserving of the excellent info I have received upon my return. Thanks much (that one is for parts 2 & 3),

            1. I think you are my favorite person I have never met. I'm going to Oaxaca next month. Thanks for you all this amazing info on markets and the Tlayuderia recommendation. I'm definitely going to check that out. Just have to decide...pork or beef, pork or beef...

              I've just started searching for good restaurant ideas, so forgive me if you've posted elsewhere, but do you have other recommendations? We're in Oaxaca for 4 days. Also, what are good places to eat in Nochixtlan and Mitla - we'll have a car and will be trying to get around.

              Thanks (in advance)!