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Hard request: Vegetarian in the Yucatan or Oaxaca

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My father and I are planning on taking a 3-day trip to Mexico in the next two weeks, and we are trying to decide between going to Merida or Cozumel in the Yucatan or Oaxaca.

What's making our trip planning really tough is that we're both vegetarians by religion, so that means no beef, chicken, pork or fish (lard is a don't-ask-don't-tell thing, and dairy/eggs are fine). Are any of these areas accommodating at all for strict vegetarians who know enough Spanish to ask for just cheese and vegetables, or are we better off hauling our own food around? The latter prospect is truly disappointing in a country with such a rich food culture, so any suggestions would be really helpful. Thanks!

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  1. You'll be fine - Oaxaca has a few vege restuarants and is considered by some o be the 'culinary seat' of Mexico - it is a stunning city with much culture and a large student population. Be sure to eat at casa de ollas attached to the hotel Bouganvilla ( I think that is the name) Have a great time. Perhaps have a Spanish speaking friend write a card that says you are veg/what you can eat and present it to the waitstaff when you sit down. I find the Mexican people to be very gracious when it comes to accomodating traveling foodies!

    1 Reply
    1. re: jbyoga

      Las Bougambillas is a B&B owned by the family that also owns La Olla - it's a great place to stay for a vegetarian, as the kitchen is lard-free and the breakfasts include outrageous fresh juices, different daily fruit plates, and cold and hot vegetarian offerings - enough to keep you going all day, though you'll want to stop for the comida!. Most upscale restaurants, at least in the center of town, seem to use sanitized organic vegetables, cook with olive or vegetable oil, and offer a lot of vegetarian dishes and salads with rich local flavor, even without meat. Los Danzantes puts a green leaf next to veg items on its menu and offers plenty of mezcal without the worm. (Lovely for lunch by the way). La Biznaga had a great vegetarian soup on its menu - hard to find. Quite different from Oaxaca 25 years ago when I ate beans and tortillas and asked no questions about either!

    2. In Playa del Carmen, the closest to being all vegetarian is 100% Natural, on 5th ave. between 10 and 12sts. A pretty, open setting among shade trees and bouganvillas. Dairy/eggs being ok frees you up for cheese-filled chile rellenos (very good at Jaguar, 5th ave and 6th st). Also, there are 2 very good green grocers; Dac's at 30ave 1 block north of Constituyentes, and Marsan at 30 ave and 1 st sur.
      I'm not aware of a vegetarian restaurant in Cozumel.

      1. Given that most Mexicans only consume animal flesh less than two times per week.... you should have no problem in the Fondas... just let people know that you can't eat meat. Many of my favorite dishes in Mexico are meatless specialties at the Fondas in the Mercados... however you will get a lot of Capeado (Egg battered) dishes such as Chile Rellenos, Cauliflour, Chard or Wild Greens... served along side Beans, Pumpkin Seed relishes or sauces etc., The caveat is that most of Mexico's cooked sauces have some kind of broth, stock or bouillon in them (I hope that you can see that as Lard... don't ask don't tell etc.,)

        10 Replies
        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          EN, 2 comments:
          1) I am hopeful that the tired statistic that the average mexican eats a meat meal only twice weekly, has increased substantially in the last 10 years. Evidence of increased prosperity is abundant. The Infonavit-sponsored "viviendas" (little 55m2 casitas) are everywhere, with satellite dishes on the rooftops and cars in the drive. I like that.
          2) The lard factor in sauces. I know it's there; it doesn't matter to me if that's what it takes to make mexican food so delicious. I'll admit that I have never taken home a doggie bag (is there such a thing as a bolsa para perros?) because I love the food and I eat the whole portion every time. But it might be scary to see leftovers after a night in the fridge, unless I wanted to go practice my old slapshot.

          1. re: Veggo

            Veggo, people will start thinking "Veggo" has something to do with vegetarian. The point about the lard and caldos is if they're both don't ask-don't tell.

            My reply: I would do a lot of eating in taquerias, plazas, streets, and markets, places where one can see the ingredients. You can easily ask for the tortillas with cheeses, tomatoes, onions, chilis, cilantro, ... I'm also certain that cooks in restaurtants would be willing to make vegetarian versions of their fare on request.

            Have a good time!

            1. re: Veggo

              Hi Veggo... it all depends on demographics. Mexico City residents with jobs basically eat animal flesh every day... not in the same quanities as we do in the States but still a solid (and in my view excessive) 6 oz average (the cheap protein delivered by Taqueros & Fondas is probably much to blame / celebrate for this).

              If we look at Rural Veracruz... the answer is many people eat animal flash just a few times per year... I am not sure its such as bad thing as long as cheese, eggs, legumes & seeds are readily available (remember an entire civilization with very dense population was built on such a diet). OTOH... traditional River / Lake communities in Veracruz have been dealing with malnutrition as Mexico "modernizes" and private land ownership expands (reducing access to previously communal lakes & rivers)... most of these communities were in the Mostly Masa, not much Beans or Seed category.. suplemented with marine foods etc.,... perhaps they just need some education on complete proteins.

              If you go to Tierra Caliente in Guerrero, Michoacan, Jalisco etc., the situation can be dire with reports of people barely getting masa... much less been able to afford beans (they are in the midst of a Global Warming driven ecological nightmare).

              Finally... I wouldn't worry about Lard & Caldos if you follow a traditional, balanced Mexican diet because the insane amount of soluble fiber it provides really does inhibit absorption of a great deal of the Saturated fat.

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                pssst...EN...trying to give ttraveler08 and dad, both vegetarians--more options in terms of being able to not avoid foods with lard and meat based caldos.

                1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                  Actually its pretty easy... if they eat the least expensive foods in Merida or Oaxaca (market stalls & "Marias") their will be minimal amounts of relatively expensive lard & broths. In Cozumel... the restaurants really cater to trendy tourists and should not have a problem finding vegetarian places (may not have a lot of variety... but should be easy to find once they are on the ground).

                  In the Yucatan... look for dishes such as Papadzules (room temperature tortillas sauced with Pumpkin seed sauce & stuffed with hard boiled eggs), Bean Stews, Tropical Fruits etc.,

                  However... how do I put this gracefully... because there is so much fiber in Mexican cuisine... I recommend eating alot of low fiber starches to balance out (basically Rice & Pasta based dishes).

                  Actually... that just provided the answer.... Mexico is so full of decent (at least by maintream U.S. standards) Italian food that it should really be no problem finding vegeterian foods that avoid Lard & Broths.

                  1. re: Eat_Nopal

                    Thanks for the help Re: Cozumel and Merida -- we'll definitely put your tips to use!

                2. re: Eat_Nopal

                  EN, "Rural Veracruz" in my experience is endless hillsides of perfectly maintained rows of citrus trees sometimes as far as the eye can see. And the valencia oranges there are world class. And some arabica coffee, too. One would hope that this would enable trade for all the meat, fish, and cheese they desire. But maybe 4% of the population own all this, and 96% are condemned to the factories and shrimp boats and eat beans and rice and plantains in urban Veracruz?
                  Gimmee a southern view between the giant eucalyptus trees in eastern Michoacan or Guanajuato across a 70 kilometer valley without anything more complex than a trout stream, and I think I could give up Ruth's Chris forever. The areas you referenced to the west of the Sierra Madre in Guerrero and Jalisco, and the poster's interest in Oaxaca, sound very distressed by the whimsy of weather this season. Saddening.

                  1. re: Veggo

                    I assume you were referring to the Xalapa-Coatepec area? Not all of Veracruz is this well connected to the modern economy... most parts of the state near Yanga, in the Huasteca & over in the Totonac areas are still very much self-contained survival agricultural.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      EN, I echo your earlier comment about demographics: 26% of mexicans live in Mexico City, which is not imbued with prosperity, but many there live and eat well. I don't know the profile from Veracruz to Campeche, beyond my own observations. I always learn a lot from you and Chowhound is fortunate to have you as a regular contributor. Thanks.

                      EDIT: Your choice of C'hound name comes with some responsibilities. I have a 420 gram jar of nopalitos in my pantry. What should I do with them?

                      1. re: Veggo

                        Thanks Veggo.... nopalitos from a jar... as I am sure you know.. its a challenge to get rid of the brined flavor... I would make a very herbal Mole or Pipian verde... and add the Nopales... off the heat for 10 minutes or so.... or drain them well & sautee with chorizo, white onion & cubed (pre blanched) red potatoes... or Fava Bean, Nopales & Mint soup (with a little swirl of chorizo or adobo).... maybe even some Tortitas de Nopal with some sauteed shrimp & Salsa Diabla.

            2. I'm a vegetarian/sometimes vegan living in Oaxaca, and the choices here are abundant. I admit that I am not strict about lard but, even if I was, the choices would be numerous. The guidebook veggie standbys are Flor de Loto, Manantial (which has an big Saturday brunch that is typcially half veggie), and Cafe Alex. Maria Bonita has a great mole tlayuda on the appetizer list. Cafe de la Olla is superb for soups and salads; in the past, I loved their Sopa Azteca, but now I am into their squash blossom soup. Street food options include fabulous tamales (ignoring lard) with black bean and epazote, raisins, or pibil. Nearly any restaurant can do a good rendering of chilaquiles without chicken and, if you're into Oaxacan cheese, funky quesadillas spiked with herbs. The markets and fondas will all have options for you, too, though you may have to reinterate that vegetarian truly means "sin carne" absolutely no carne, not even a little bit. Provecho!

              3 Replies
              1. re: serenamak

                Many years ago I stayed at the Hotel Santa Fe (I think that is the name) in Puerto Escondido, and ate some wonderful vegetarian food. If the OP is going to the beach in Oaxaca, she could check that out.

                1. re: serenamak

                  There's also a 100% Natural by El Llano, which I was surprised to enjoy after living there for awhile, though it's a less traditionally Mexican. The organic market on Fridays has veggie options, including one of the best tlayudas with toppings ever, next to the nice Korean woman selling lots of baked goods and Asian veggie foods, including samosas and dumplings. (She lived for a long time in India so it's not completely random.)

                  Aren't most moles made with chicken broth? Though it is the last thing that's added, so maybe the thicker mole that's put on tlayudas is just the broth-less paste.

                  1. re: serenamak

                    Thank you so much for all the tips -- although I am unfortunately not going to Oaxaca, my foodie friend is staying there while studying abroad for the next three months -- I will be sure to pass on the information.

                  2. Reflecting further on your query, the either-or options you pose are 2500 kilometers apart, the pacific vs. the caribbean, and you have summoned up valuable minds and their time in an effort to help you, a perfect stranger in their world, along two oceans. At a minimum, half of their energies to help you will be wasted. Please be respectful and not selfish with the resources here, and choose, at a minimum, your coastal preference, and let those most aware of your choice assist you, and relieve the others from feeling again that they have wasted great enthusiasm and energy on a deadbeat.

                    1. Thank you so much, everyone, for responding! I certainly didn't mean to ignore the posts -- I was just planning on responding after we'd returned from our trip. Reading over the responses and factoring in our time constraints, we've decided to go to Cozumel. It's great to hear that there are options there, and Oaxaca is definitely a place I would like to travel to in the future. I will be sure to post back on our experience once we return.

                      1. Either Merida or Oaxca can accommodate your requests. Especiallyif you have no qualms about eating in the fondas in the markets - you can direct what goes in or on your memelas, huaraches, molotes, sopes, etc., and it is freshly made ... usually before your eyes. The cheese, expecially in Oaxaca, is wonderful - you will likely find you'd like to live on quesillo, rajas de poblanos, and flor de calabaza tacos, etc. You will also find bean or bean and cheese tamales ... with a don't ask-don't tell fat in the masa. There are also a lot of vegetarian restaurants in Oaxaca ... as long as you eat dairy and eggs, you'll be ok.

                        In the Yucatan, you will find a lot of traditional bean and corn dishes, fresh salads, and cooked greens. They're a little more into the roasted meat thing that other regions, but with the array of fruits, and very traditional dishes like papa dzules - tortillas dipped in a roasted pumpkinseed sauce, filled with chopped hardboiled eggs, and bathed in a light spicy tomato sauce, will make you one smug vegetarian indeed.

                        1. Thanks to everyone who posted! I just returned from a 3-day stay in Cozumel with my father. We found Mexico to be especially accommodating and were completely happy food-wise with the Yucatan.

                          For more specifics: we stopped in at the Rock 'n Java cafe for dinner on Friday night. The vegetable fajitas and their acclaimed veggie burger were not bad, but nothing to write home about.

                          Dinner on Saturday night was much better -- Casa Denis seemed very familiar with vegetarians. The tortilla chips were perfect and the salsa was nicely sharp. We had vegetable fajitas again -- these arrived still sizzling on a skillet with warm tortillas and fresh guacamole. We also had cheese enchiladas that were absurdly delicious.

                          If we had more time in the area, it would have been really exciting to explore some of the panaderias in town and branch out into less touristy chow spots. I look forward to doing this on another vacation -- as it is, I completely understand why anyone with access to Mexico complains about Mexican food in the US. Thanks for your help!