It’s a futile task, but one can in fact list the top ten restaurants in Oaxaca, and a second ten. But any such listing must not be restricted to high end.
Oaxaca is known worldwide for its gastronomic excellence. The richness and diversity of its cuisine began to take shape during colonial times, with the arrival of Old World ingredients which were then combined by residents of both European stock and indigenous heritage, with fruits, vegetables, herbs and meats which were native to particular regions in the state, to create some of the most notable Oaxacan dishes today. Mole negro is a case in point; sauces existed during pre-Hispanic times, but it was the arrival of the Spanish and with them many “new” ingredients, which enabled Oaxacans to develop what we now know as mole negro. The same holds true for other traditional Oaxacan delicacies including other moles, its famed sweet and savory estofado, and so on.
Oaxacan food continues to evolve, primarily through a combination of what its chefs have learned from their own family members dating back generations, coupled with what they have been taught in schools of gastronomy, and supplemented through the interchange of ideas with fellow “experts” in the culinary arts. Hence, we find in Oaxaca an ever-developing group of chefs bringing their domestic as well as global experiences to the Oaxacan gastronomic table. These are the chefs of the popular Oaxacan restaurants, usually ranging from high end, to middle-of-the-road – the latter only in terms of dining ambiance and price.
These urban chefs, however, advance their gastronomic growth through contact with rural folk who keep the most basic, yet splendid culinary conventions alive. They venture into the villages and throughout the countryside, in search of a locally cured chorizo, or a mole coloradito the essence of which is established by an herb rarely encountered in urban marketplaces.
The ten best restaurants in Oaxaca must, therefore, without any doubt in this writer’s mind, include the high end, the urban local eateries, and a sampling from the roadside comedors flecking the countryside of the state’s central valleys within an hour’s drive of the city. But remember that in a month’s time there could appear a further top ten, enumerated by the same writer, yet entirely different. Thus, the task is indeed futile, yet worthy of an attempt – or three.
High End Restaurants in Oaxaca
- La Catrina de Alcalá on Macedonio Alcalá took a couple of years to gather a following, but now is acknowledged to be in the top three for white-linen dining. Executive chef Juan Carlos is usually on hand, and willing to explain dishes as they arrive at the table, for the asking. It received top marks from a recent gastronomic tour of Oaxaca by Canadian chefs and food critics. Author’s note: Since this article was first published, La Catrina has been converted to an Italian restaurant, a sign of slow tourism in Oaxaca.
- Casa Oaxaca on Calle Constitución had a hold of first place for many years, but with the increasing obligations of owner / chef Alejandro Ruíz keeping him away from the restaurant, and the opening of other quality eateries, it’s lost a bit of its glitter, though not for the upper echelon of Oaxacan society. Indoor and rooftop dining are available.
- Los Danzantes, also on M. Alcalá, boasts arguably the best ambiance of any entry in the restaurant sweeps. Service has been its only shortcoming from time to time, but that should not keep diners away. It’s has a more casual ambiance that the foregoing two, making it a favorite for late night lounging. Jaime, Los Danzantes’ owner, is a “slow food” disciple.
Casual Eating in Oaxaca
- La Biznaga’s food has been unique and exquisite from the first day the restaurant opened. Service has been the big issue off and on, at times having been described as snooty. Margaritas are deadly, mojitos marvellous, and the selection of mezcals impressive. Be sure to order a couple of the appetizers. La Biznaga is on Garcia Vigil.
- La Olla on Calle Reforma has been around for about 15 years, under the ownership of Luis Espinosa and executive chef Pilar Cabrera who also owns Casa de los Sabores Cooking School. Food is wholesome, prices reasonable, and service cordial. Chef Pilar’s recent foray onto the international stage has only helped to improve her recipe for success, with the import of new ideas. She’s a believer in using organic ingredients.
- Tlayudas on Libres is a curbside eatery open from about 9 p.m. to 5 or 6 a.m. It’s a Oaxacan institution, known for its tlayudas grilled over charcoal, and soothing, hot Mexican drinks such as champurrado, atole and chocolate – always welcome during the cool, wee hours of the morning. Walk to Calle Libres, between Murguía and Morelos.
- Terranova makes the list, but only since one should include a restaurant on the zócalo for one reason: virtually all tourists will want to eat at least one meal on the zócalo, people-watching and soaking up the atmosphere at what many consider to be the most picturesque and vibrant square in all Mexico. Weekend evenings it’s a favorite for many locals.
Restaurants and Comedors in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys
- Azucena Zapoteca is located on the highway to Ocotlán, at the entrance to San Martín Tilcajete of alebrije fame. It’s known for its smart decor, offering both unique signature dishes and standard Oaxacan favorites, and its enticing presentation. If offered, don’t pass up the complimentary mezcal and soup of the day.
- Los Huamuches is only a half mile or so down the road from Azucena Zapoteca. Proximity to one another is the only feature the two in common. Los Huamaches serves strictly down-home traditional fare in a rustic setting with palapa-style open-air rooms. Live music from lone troubadours or mariachis is customarily heard.
- El Tigre is as good and basic as it gets. Time and again when tourists happen by the comedor after having been to restaurants in the first category, they comment, “now this is the best we’ve had on the entire trip.” All food including salsas, tortillas and meats, are cooked over an open flame. Mezcal is on the house. El Tigre is on the old Highway 190, en route to Hierve el Agua, just before the San Lorenzo Albarradas exit.