Oaxacan cooking has a great reputation in Mexico. It makes use of more ingredients from the lowlands than central Mexican cooking. It's known for its moles and for a wide variety of chiles, many of which you don't find in other parts of the country. Oaxaca is also known for its mezcal, a distillate of the agave or maguey plant (a different variety from the blue agave, from which tequila is made). This drink has a rougher taste than tequila, and it's commonly drunk with lime and sal de gusano (salt with powdered chile and ground-up maguey worms -- the same that show up in some bottles of mezcal). Any cantina worth its salt will offer sal de gusano to its customers.
Restaurateurs here seem bent on providing travelers with something more cosmopolitan than the local cuisine. I'm not sure why. A number of fine-dining places are trying hard and, in my opinion, are overrated. Casa Oaxaca, the restaurant (Constitución 104; tel. 951/516-8889; www.casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com), gets the best press, but if you're tired of moles, then one visit is enough. Los Danzantes, Macedonio Alcalá 403 (tel. 951/501-1184; www.losdanzantes.com), brings Mexico City chic to Oaxaca. I like what the owners have done with the place, but not with the food. Go for drinks. La Biznaga, García Vigil 512 (tel. 915/516-1800), usually has the most interesting menu -- try it sometime when you feel completely at leisure, because the service is absurdly slow.
Good coffee and espresso are easier to come by these days, but you still have to seek them out. Café Brújula (tel. 951/516-7255; www.cafebrujula.com), at 409-D García Vigil, serves excellent coffee and light food to go with it, including bagels (a rarity in Mexico that the cafe makes on the premises), sandwiches, and other goodies.
Oaxacan Street Food -- Unless it's during a festival, don't be surprised to find many restaurants empty. Oaxaqueños do not frequent restaurants, but do like eating in market and street stalls. They favor foods such as tacos, tamales, tlayudas (12-in. tortillas, slightly dried and chewy, with a number of toppings), and empanadas (in Oaxaca, large tortillas heated on the comal -- a flat, earthenware pan -- or among the coals, with several types of fillings). For adventurous diners, here are my picks for enjoying the people's food.
Empanadas are a morning food, and the best place to eat them is in La Merced market (on Murguía, about 10 blocks east of Alcalá), where you'll find a number of food stalls; look for La Güerita or La Florecita. My favorite empanada is filled with huitlacoche.
The following places open only at night: A little taquería called Tacos Sierra (on corner of Morelos and Alcalá) is a Oaxacan institution. They make simple tacos with pork filling and a spicy salsa, but I can never order enough. It closes when the pork runs out, usually by 10pm. Don't expect these tacos to come cheap. Another taquería is El Mesón, which is across from the northeast corner of the zócalo at Hidalgo 805. It serves tacos de la parrilla (grilled meats) and de cazuela (meats and vegetables cooked in a variety of chile sauces).
For tlayudas, seek out El Chepil, a hole in the wall on Constitución around the corner from Calzada de la República. They come with a number of toppings, and with tasajo (dried beef) or cecina (pork rubbed with red chile) on the side. If you don't like lard, tell them that you want your tlayuda sin asiento. El Chepil also prepares excellent tostadas. For tamales, find the woman who sets up her little stand on Avenida Hidalgo and 20 de Noviembre, in front of the pharmacy. She often doesn't get there until 7:30pm, but when she does, she quickly draws a crowd. She sells seven flavors, and my favorite is always the last one I've eaten. Given that you're in Oaxaca, though, you might want to ask for a tamal made with mole negro, mole amarillo, or chepil (an herb).
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