Real Oaxacan food remains a mystery to a majority of visitors to the city of Oaxaca and its central valleys. Most hotel managers, tour guides and others in the business have a preconceived notion of what tourists want when they come to Oaxaca seeking culinary seduction. And reasonably so, since visitors to the city in fact arrive with their guidebook dining lists, including the likes of Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes, La Catrina de Alcala, La Biznaga and La Olla; and they systematically cross each off the list in the course of their vacation.
But ask any chef in Oaxaca what he likes to eat, or where, and pesos to pozole he’s tell you about a roadside eatery, a comadre in the countryside, or a diner down the block from his own establishment. The fine downtown restaurant of a colleague customarily doesn’t make the cut.
It’s not really a fraud on foodies that’s being perpetrated, but rather a deception, partially unintended.
The realization gradually came to this writer in three ways:
• after several dining experiences with a chef friend in Oaxaca;
• in the course of organizing a gastronomic tour for Mexican food aficionado and critics, and;
• sitting around the table with five Oaxacan couples at a monthly get-together for dinner, drink and dialogue.
A Chef’s Guide to Indulging in Oaxaca
The Oaxacan chef occasionally dines at the aforementioned downtown Oaxaca restaurants. But it’s the roadside eatery an hour’s drive out of Oaxaca, El Tigre, without fanfare (or even electricity), which provokes her palate – the freshest food possible (El Tigre doesn’t know organic or free range, because that’s all there is), over firewood. Every dish is prepared on the spot, even salsas and tortillas.
Another favorite haunt, El Caminito al Cielo, is a tiny diner a block away from, of all places, the largest cemetery in the city. And a third, specializing in the cuisine of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, is in the suburbs. How often does anyone in the tourist industry (save this writer) recommended departing the ease and familiarity of downtown for a comida, or a cena by the cemetery?
Gastronomic Tour of Oaxaca
The gastronomic tour of Oaxaca was designed to give participants a grounding in the cultural richness and diversity of the central valleys of Oaxaca, with food and dining a focus. Restaurants included four of the five noted “stalwarts,” in theory representing Oaxacan cuisine at its best. But as could have been predicted, the quality of service and fare at a couple of the restaurants was not exceptional. Service is often provided by waiters and even cooks without a personal interest, and food is usually institutional. No matter how haute the cuisine, it is frequently not truly reflective of the food which has given the state of Oaxaca its reputation for gastronomic greatness.
The tour was a success, and there were no significant restaurant disappointments. But the majority of accolades were directed at the un-touristy experiences the organizers wished to highlight, two of which are noteworthy.
Lunch with a rural family at their homestead ranked high, the meal materializing over open flames, as has been the custom with the family for generations. The welcome was warm, air of informality striking and everyone was given an opportunity to pitch in. Sopa de guías, frijoles, tasajo, aguas frescas and a traditional dessert – a typical Oaxacan comida, with a Oaxacan family.
A unique restaurant, Caldo de Piedra, provided another primordial yet exceptional dining indulgence. It replicated the practice of pre-Hispanic hunters & gatherers who cooked freshly picked herbs and vegetables together with the spoils of the hunt, on the spot, in the pot. At the palapa-roofed eatery, diners watched as an herbed-tomato broth was ladled into half gourds, snapper or shrimp added, then red-hot rocks gingerly placed in each individual receptacle, resulting in meals poaching before one’s eyes.
Oaxacans Cooking for Themselves and Their Friends Produces Pure Magic
Each month a group of friends gathers in the home of one couple on a rotating basis for fabulous fare prepared by each couple, a la 1960s style, but with nary a Bob or Carol, Ted nor Alice. While concept is dated, sampling the finest of food based on traditional recipes passed down through generations is unmatched.
The opportunity to experience home-cooked dishes eludes most if not all travelers to Oaxaca. This is the food from which the modern-day recipes of Chef Pilar of La Olla, Chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca, and Chef Juan Carlos formerly of La Catrina, has emanated.
Fly in the Ointment
But the modern chefs of Oaxaca take the history and diversity of the state’s cuisine to new levels. Their cuisine arrives at one end, at one point in time, along an ever-progressing continuum. And so new faces are compelled to continue to forge unfamiliar ground on the Oaxacan culinary landscape. Their restaurants should indeed continue to be patronized by both residents and tourists alike, for this reason alone.
Native Oaxacans will continue to appreciate both the humble roots and Spanish influence of contemporary Oaxacan food. The region’s culinary development is part of their heritage, as the couples sitting around that dinner table boast every month with every mouthful. It’s the visitor to Oaxaca who is likely losing out.
Continue enjoying the restaurants in Oaxaca praised by guidebooks and reviewers. But jump at any opportunity to attend a fiesta, accept an invitation to dine in the home of a native Oaxacan, or wander off to wherever the locals are dining.
In 1969, a youthful Canadian hippie, hungry for experience, knocked on the gate of a rural homestead, intrigued by smoke billowing from inside a thatched-roof abode. He was invited in, and sampled his first hand-made tortilla together with beans and salsa, and nothing more. Decades later the memory lives.