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Eating around Oaxaca

After years of wanting to go, I finally made the trek to Juchitan de Zaragoza and hid it in the old – we’ll take the non-mountainous way to Puerto Escondido which just happens to go by Juchitan – trick to get the family on board with this semi out of the way excursion. En route on the Pan American Highway, we got waylaid by a bloqueo (road block) and waited it out at a Pemex station for three hours. This meant driving in the dark and trying to navigate the streets of Juchitan, in the dark with google maps as our guide, until we finally arrived at the beautiful home where we stayed for two nights.

En route to Juchitan, a stop in San Dionisio and a special gordita snack

Our host Vicente put us in touch with a taxi driver who picked up garnachas, tlayudas, and beer and then delivered it to the house. Granted we were starving but they were hands down the most delicious garnachas I’ve ever had – leave it to a taxi driver to know where the best <fill in the blank> is.

Garnachas and tlayudas in Juchitan.

The next day we hit up the market, an overwhelming and dizzying assault on the senses – smells, sounds, mass of people. Gorgeous. We feasted on tacos and fresh squeezed orange juice. Later, based on another tip from Vicente, we ventured to Santa Maria Xadani, a nearby town right by Laguna Superior to eat seafood. This was where we officially died and found ourselves in heaven. Three people from Maryland found themselves walking into the Oaxacan version of a crab shack. All seafood is roasted in an earthen oven and you can get it with chipotle mayonnaise or without – we tried everything both ways – fish, shrimp and crab. It all came with black beans, queso fresco Ismeño, slightly drier and saltier than the usual, and thick tostadas. It was all washed down with micheladas and aqua de piña and it was completely hands down the best meal we had during our trip to Oaxaca. The restaurant is a family run affair, down to the taxi that was owned by one of the cousins who took us back to Juchitan, the sun setting, casting a beautiful glow across the flat grasslands dotted by steer, goats, and lamb. Like how I dream about the tamales filled with small mussels in Chacahua, I will dream about those sweet little blue crabs we picked and the fish that tasted of the sea to the end of days.

In Puerto, I ate shrimp every day in one form or another; agua chile, con ajo, ceviche, grilled, del diablo. We shopped the market to buy whole huachinango, line caught red snapper, and kilos and kilos of wild shrimp. And when we didn’t eat shrimp or fish, we ate pizza because, perhaps a little known fact, there is some delicious pizza to be had in Puerto due to all of the Italians who moved there in the 80s/90s. The only “fancy” meal we had in Puerto was at Espadin which sits at the top of a cliff overlooking Playa Carrizalillo and is a fantastic place to watch the sunset over drinks and tasty bites.

Aguachile at Agua Blanca in Puerto

After the feast, shrimp

 

And perhaps that is what it all comes down to when traveling and eating – you want it to anchor you to where you are, so place and flavor are inseparable, and you walk away knowing it is something you can only experience there.

 

 

 

Eating in Oaxaca

Isaiah,  my 12 year old growing boy,  requires a constant supply of sustenance. For a budding teenager, he has a pretty developed sense of taste, aside from a couple of major failings, number one being he does not like Oaxacan chocolate followed closely by his disdain of that oh so Oaxacan dish, mole negro. He will however chow down on a bag of chapulines and even has his favorite vendors at the 20 de Noviembre market.

Isaiah is an oddity. He is not like some of the foodie kids you encounter in the Bay Area, which is to say precious, he just loves food: Thank god for the insane exchange rate! He would happily eat octopus a couple of times a week, loves gamey meat, thinks enchiladas drenched with salsa verde are the best, and will try anything, except vegetables, once. He has very strong opinions on sauces, and makes a mean fried chicken using sal de gusano. He can also tell you the difference between tequila and mezcal, but thinks both kind of suck, even though he did try to buy me two bottles of mezcal for Christmas. He is also a terrible dining partner as he gobbles his food in 15 minutes and is then ready to go.

Left to right – vanilla, nuez, tuna – a flavor for everyone

But if there is one thing he loves more than anything it is exploring markets and eating anything there. As much as he hates chocolate, he loves vanilla, especially vanilla ice cream. And he loves Mexican vanilla, which in my humble and semi informed opinion, is the best vanilla to be found and should be more prevalent in the market in the US. After being introduced to tacos and taco trucks at the age of three, he has a particular fixation on street food and has made it a point to seek out not only the best tacos, but also elotes, hamburgers, and quesadillas.

Over the years spent in Oaxaca, we’ve explored just about all of the markets in the city, and a few outside like Tlocalula and Ocotlan, so this trip we decided to check out the markets in Etla and Zaachila. The amazing thing about the markets in Oaxaca is how much each retain such an individual identity. While you see more and more cheap plastic items and other crap making inroads into the markets, you can still find all the distinctive local items that make the markets worth a trip unto themselves – especially the local dishes, artisans, and sights.

The barbacoa in Etla

Centro de Artes San Augustin (CASA)

We hit the Wednesday market in Etla for the first time this year and found ourselves gorging on barbacoa at 10 in the morning. It was absolutely delicious – perfectly cooked, with balanced chile flavor and oh so tender. And despite Isaiah’s lack of Spanish, he and the man serving up the barbacoa developed a repartee and soon he had Isaiah tasting all sorts of other things, including sangrita, a pressed and baked blood dish. Then there were the salsas – a range of habanero, verde, morito, and more offerings. Bellies full we still managed to eat ice cream, taste cheeses, and pick up some delicious fresh baked flat breads. Also, despite promising ourselves that we absolutely did not need and would not buy any ceramics on this trip, we bought a set of beautiful blue and white plates from a lovely elderly couple from Aztompa. We topped the day off with a stop at the Centro de Artes San Augustin (CASA), a restored textile factory now home to a beautiful art center.

The Ex-convento at Cuilapam

The surrounding hillsides near Cuilapam

The next day we headed toward the market at Zaachila, with a detour to Cuilapam to visit the Iglesia sin Techo (roofless church). This is such a gorgeous spot and is well worth a trip. Oftentimes visitors (myself included) can end up spending all their time in the city that they don’t get a chance to experience the lush beauty of the surrounding countryside that sits just outside the centro. As the driver meandered around Zaachila to get us as close to the market as possible, we entered on a small alley that was lined with the most incredible murals from Dia de los Muertos. This long alley sits directly across from the panteon (city cemetery) and we were so happy to have stumbled upon it.

One of the Dia de los Muertos murals

Carnitas in Zaachila

 

Immediately upon arriving at the market, we made a beeline to the food (starving 12 year old boy) and stuffed ourselves with carnitas at the Thursday Zaachila market. The carnitas was  perfectly cooked and flavored – we also sampled a simple caldo de pollo packed with subtle flavor, clear broths don’t get any better than that. Zaachila for me was the perfect market – it is small and compact and easily navigable. It was nuez (pecan) season so we gorged on them as we walked around, tasted honey (always), and bought lots and lots of avocado (another thing Isaiah hates, but touch luck.)

I am thinking at this point Isaiah could lead his own food tour in Oaxaca. He has the most uncanny memory, and like any good Oaxacan, has no idea what street you might be on, but definitely knows that the best elote in town sits in the shadow of the Catedral, right on the corner of the street that leads into the Zocolo and is right by the post office (Hidalgo and J.P. Garcia).

 

No mezcal, gracias — por favor, destilado de agave

What do you call it?

Editor’s Note: This contribution comes to us from Lou Bank, a mezcal aficionado and force of nature in the mezcal world who organizes tastings, fund raises for causes in Oaxaca, and generally spreads the good word about mezcal. He’s based in Chicago and travels frequently to mezcal country.

We’ve had a variation of the conversation below with Lou ever since we met him. While in so many other areas of the world appellations have worked to the advantage of most people involved in creating traditional agricultural products, the world of agave spirits in Mexico has left people and traditions behind. Read more

Cala SF launches mezcal dinner series

Call this perks of the job… I recently was invited to the kickoff for a new dinner series at Cala, Gabriela Camara’s Mexican restaurant outpost in SF, centered on mezcal. We’ve written before about the restaurant and its focus on not only sustainable food, but also sustainable mezcal. This was the dinner that really brought it together in a fantastic way.

The brainchild of Cala bar manager Marsilio Gabuardi, the idea is to pair a mezcal with each course. It’s not new, the difference here is that there is only a mezcal pairing – no cocktails, no wine, no beer, just mezcal. This first dinner highlighted Mezcal Amaras, which is pretty much the house mezcal at Cala. The surprise of the night was being able to taste new Amaras expressions, including a tepeztate and cenizo, along with three different espadins and their cupreata. We were joined by Amaras U.S. brand rep Sofía Acosta Rascón and, to the delight of all of us, Gabriela Camara herself. Read more

A very Oaxacan Christmas

The remains of the holidays

I know, I know, it’s almost February and we’re just writing about Christmas? I get it, it’s been a busy month what with the Fancy Food Show and setting up all the tastings over the coming months. But before February actually arrives here’s a quick recap of Christmas in Oaxaca. Read more

Can mezcal learn anything from wine?

The tasting and menu.

In early November I was fortunate enough to attend a Sagrantino de Montefalco tasting at Perbacco. Sagrantino is the grape, Montefalco the region within Umbria in Central Italy. This small appellation doesn’t get much exposure outside of the wine world. Not much is made, the price point reflects that, and the structure of these wines cries out for the cured meats, wild boar, and pastas particular to Umbria. That shouldn’t deter you from trying it because Sagrantinos are truly fantastic and unique. But this is a mezcal blog so what do they have to do with mezcal? Read more

Oaxaca notes: An encuentro of (many) Maestros del Mezcal

It was a fabulous three weeks in Oaxaca that now feels simultaneously like I was there for forever and that it was all a dream. I’ll just sum it up in five words– so much damn good mezcal.

Max did a great little write up about how the mezcaleria scene is changing, with differentiation coming in style and design and of course breadth of offerings. To my great dismay, I was not able to get to Cuish to see live and in person their newly revamped space. By all accounts, it is beautiful and is at the top of my list when I return. I have such high regard for what Felix Hernandez Monterrosa and Hilda Martinez Popoca have done for mezcal in Oaxaca. When they opened their doors in 2011, Read more

Where Fancy Food and Mexico collide

The Mexico pavilion at the Fancy Food Show 2017

Monday Susan and I spent much of the day wandering the cavern known as Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco attending the annual Winter Fancy Food Show. There are hundreds of vendors hawking every food item imaginable, after a few hours you can’t help but be overwhelmed by all the pitches. It’s easy to drift into thoughts about late capitalism and commodity culture because so many of the foods are so similar and just one of them will probably break through, if any. Read more

Open questions

It’s a new calendar year and things are changing for mezcal. As we all hold our breath this Friday we do know a few things, and all of them have some impact on the mezcal world.

It’s never been so cheap to create a mezcal brand

There are more mezcal brands on the market in the United States than ever before. With the growing interest in the cocktail space and even the retail world, the business case is there and brands are being built to fill niches in the market. We routinely talk to distillers, brand creators, and others who are interested in creating or bringing a mezcal brand into the United States.

In Mexico there are even more brands, so many that it’s been difficult to even imagine what’s going on in the mezcalosphere. That points to one fascinating contradiction in our moment: The production is there, the business interest is there, arguably the consumer interest is also there. But there are some big questions. Read more

As mezcal goes, so go mezcalerias

Murgia

You know that with mezcal’s surging popularity Oaxaca is seeing lots of tourists who want to taste and learn about mezcal so you’d expect the town to boast some of the world’s best mezcalerias. That’s true in resplendent variety. There’s Mezcaloteca’s very structured tasting environment. In Situ’s rough and ready bar. Txalaparta’s mezcaleria within a hookah bar. Amantes’ old time store front replete with resident guitarist. And then there are all the restaurants that feature great mezcal selections. We could go on, just check our Where to Drink Mezcal in Oaxaca for a great guide. Here’s our latest updated map. Read more