Susan is just back from Oaxaca while my most recent trip was in April. After years of relative stasis the city and region are positively exploding with change. There are new roads, updated facades, and the feeling of change in the air. A few notes for future travelers.
A cultural revolution
It’s nice to see so many local people doing interesting things. While Oaxaca has always been driven by cultural highlights like the Guelaguetza, Dia de los Muertos, various and sundry religious festivities, and all the celebrations of the region’s crafts it also had a relatively underground house party feel to it. That meant fantastic street cred when only your friends knew about the great band playing that night because it was literally in their living room or a closed bar. But with the impact of social media and more galleries (an ironic result of the crackdown on street art – many of the artists now have collectives and galleries) and bars, there’s tons of stuff going on in town these days.
Music, movies, festivals, galore. It’s all there and it’s all out in the open. It’s breathtaking how many places are opening around town and where they’re fitting them in. There’s more and better coffee, mezcal, food, crafts, and everything in between. This of course all makes a very valid argument for the gentrification of Oaxaca– which Susan touched on here.
The coffee revolution hits Oaxaca
We haven’t found any white tiled, blond wood, espresso emporia in Oaxaca yet but the town is finally catching that third wave of caffeinated development that is busily leaving no point on the globe untouched. That’s a great thing given that such great green coffee is grown in the region. Cafes are appearing everywhere around town. It used to be that Oaxacan coffee culture started with Lobo Azul for good coffee, company, and bike maintenance and ended with the the completely oxymoronic Italian Coffee Company, neither Italian nor decent coffee.
Now local chain Brújula is ubiquitous in tourist areas while the Oaxacan Coffee Company has a cluster. Many independent places dot the landscape, but Fika at Reforma 406 is the place for your third wave fix. They will prepare a fantastic cup any way you want; Aeropress, chemex, espresso. The obsessive attention to detail shared by the tattooed and aproned classes is in evidence. And I even wandered into a cupping of local beans. More of that please!
The culinary evolution begins
It used to be that traditional food dominated. You went to Oaxaca to eat mole and tlayudas. Some places like La Biznaga or Los Danzantes added atmosphere, technique, and novelty even if it was still impossible to find some of the rich vegetal representatives of the local farms on menus. Today restaurants are opening at an astonishing clip. The amazing Zandunga, Zicanda, and Origen are just three of the more recent and most accomplished which polish regional cuisines while other innovations seep in. Chilhuacle Rojo and the sister Mexican tapas/mezcal bar Chimiscuis are mixing Adria technique with local ingredients from their ranch about an hour or so south of the city. We can only hope that these are signs of what’s to come.
Mezcal and how
You may think people have always gone to Oaxaca for mezcal but that’s a relatively new phenomenon. It’s only been in the past 5-7 years that mezcalerias have appeared and, even then, they have been relatively thin on the ground. Now they’re opening like some form of breeding program gone awry – in just the past year or so you have La Medida, Mezcalogia, and Piedra Lumbra to name a few. They are opening here and there, in clusters, in waves, everywhere in town. There is even a bona fide mezcal boutique, Mis Mezcales, just a few doors down from Mezcaloteca with a cluster of artisanal brands.
Speaking of Mezcaloteca, it’s still there, just as great as always. Ulises Torrentera’s In Situ is old by the new mezcaleria standards but still more than a benchmark. Los Amantes is still booming night after night. But Oaxaca has finally come into its own as far as mezcal is concerned. It’s even, gasp, starting to feel like too much of a good thing.
While we’re scandalizing you I’ll say this: Mexican craft brews are equally as interesting as mezcals. The country’s long history of German immigrants creating light pilsners and traditional low IBU beers has been picked up and developed. The heavy hop fixation north of the border is seeping through the cracks but it’s really nice to see Mexican brewers build on that German heritage and run off in different directions. They’re adding fascinating ingredients like flor de jamaica which really raise the game. Look out for brands like Saga from Puebla but Oaxaca is well represented with at least three breweries right now. And check out local brew spot La Santisima for some really interesting beers.