Travel Far, Eat Local
Ultimate Oaxaca Street Food Guide 🇲🇽
Updated: Sep 15, 2022
Mexico is well-known for its food, of that there is no doubt. And I'm not talking about the junk you see scattered across menus of "Mexican" restaurants in the United States - stale chips, watery "salsa", oxidizing and flavorless guacamole, humongous portions covered in processed cheeses. No. I'm talking about complex, rich, intensely-flavorful cuisine that should be the envy of any gastro-tourist around the world. And of all the places in Mexico one can travel for food, Oaxaca comes to mind first, a place that is well-known for having some of the the best food in the whole damn country.
Oaxaca, of course, is the state, its capital being Oaxaca City. Oaxaca City is a beautiful city, full of cobblestone streets; bright, colorful hacienda-style buildings; beautiful Spanish churches; and a vibrant, lively zócalo, the main square where you can sit and have a mezcal, watching the world go by outside your cafe table.
There are many markets, or Mercados, serving both wholesale and retail foods. But with such gastronomic diversity and depth, it is easy to become overwhelmed with where and what to eat when you are in Oaxaca. Well, in this post, I'm going to take you through the must-try dishes in Oaxaca, the best places to find them, and a few other things to know about traveling through this must-visit Mexican destination.
There are actually 7 different types of Oaxaca mole, but the one you're going to searching helplessly for in Oaxaca is mole negro. It's a thick, savory-sweet, slightly bitter sauce that is the ground product of bananas, multiple spices (cinnamon, cloves, dried chiles), chocolate, and bread (among many, many other ingredients). These are ground in a mill to form a thick paste that is cooked down into a glorious, sweet but slightly bitter, thick black sauce that is smothered over chicken (or any other meat, for that matter). It's usually served with a side of Mexican rice. You can mole all over Oaxaca, but in Oaxaca City, I'd recommend checking out Mercado de 20 Noviembre. This is one of the central markets in Oaxaca, and if you head to the back after entering, the are several comedors where you'll find mole negro (as well as the other 6 Oaxaca moles).
Our Mole Stop in Mercado de Benito Juarez
2. Mercado de Abastos
If you are coming to Oaxaca with intentions of eating real Mexican food, this is a place you CANNOT miss. It is daunting, I will say that. And maybe unsafe? More on that in a little bit. But this is to place to find real Oaxaqueños making insanely-good Oaxacan street food. Women pressing masa for tortillas and cooking them on steaming-hot comals, freshly-made salsas in giant molcajetes, and any number of wholesale meats, seafood, vegetables, and fruits. We walked through this labyrinth market eating beef consommé with fresh tortillas, zucchini-blossom quesadillas fresh off the comal, hand-spun ice cream, and watching porters dart back-and-forth around the tight walkways, delivering fresh produce and meats to eager vendors.
One word of caution: This market is not in a good area. It's a high crime part of Oaxaca City - petty crime, like pickpocketing and minor theft, but crime nonetheless. You will find street hookers and a whole lot of policia around the market. Two vendors told us to keep our phones in our pockets at al times. With that said, I took my camera in there with two lenses, a microphone, and tripod without any issues. Just keep your valuables close to your body, and you should be fine. But if you are traveling to Oaxaca to eat, this is not a market you should miss, just because of a few reports o petty crime. Go. Just be alert.
3. Tacos de Cazuela del Carmen Alto
Hands-down, no doubt about it, my favorite meal in Oaxaca. You find street stall vendors all over Oaxaca City. And when I say all over, I mean all over. Tacos, chalupas, tamales... but there is something special about this stand. Just up the cobblestone street from Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, surrounded by beautiful, colorful hacienda-style buildings you'll find Carmen Alto. I had heard about this place on a blog called Culinary Backstreets, and it sounded like absolutely what I wanted for breakfast, so I decided to go find it.
The main thing that sets Carmen Alto apart from the many other street vendors I tried in Oaxaca is their diversity and unbelievably fresh ingredients. I spent a good amount of my time just watching these amazing women work: one was behind the counter, taking orders and constantly tending to the multiple stews of meat, vegetables, and eggs that were to be fillings for the tacos. Another was diligently pressing masa on the máquina tortilladora into tortillas before gently laying them down on the comal, while yet another was filling the tortillas and completing the cooking process on the comal. Locals came and went, grabbing breakfast before work. I grabbed a low plastic stool, a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice, and ordered two tacos.
The first was a combination of potatoes, eggs, and (I believe) chorizo (as my Spanish is non-existent, I was never too sure of what I was ordering/eating in Mexico). Add to that some fresh onions and homemade salsa, and I was in heaven. The next was a chopped chorizo taco (I think), which also did not disappoint. And to top it all off, these ladies were incredibly friendly, kind, and patient with my limited Spanish and the fact that I filmed everything while there. If you want real-deal Mexican street food in Oaxaca, this is the place to go.
The BEST Tacos in Oaxaca, Hands Down
If you're looking for a fine-dining experience and wonderful night out in Oaxaca, Pitiona is your place. Located directly across from Santo Domingo Cathedral, the restaurant has a wonderful rooftop-terrace overlooking the cathedral, downtown Oaxaca, and surrounding mountains. Try to arrive before sunset, as you'll have the opportunity to view the mountains and cathedral in the late-afternoon glow as the sun sets; it's absolutely breathtaking.
Chef José Manuel Baños' menu offers modern takes on classic Oaxaca and Mexican fare, such as the Gordita de Trips or braised pork chops with mole negro and risotto. You'll find something for everyone on the menu, and what really makes this place special is their cocktails. Unique, flavorful takes on Mezcal cocktails and more, you will not be disappointed.
5. Zocalo Street Food & Tamales Mina
Each night, on the edge of Zocalo heading towards street 20 de Noviembre, you will find tons of street food vendors selling everything from tacos to hamburgers. While most of these stalls are fairly mediocre and catering to tourists, there is one that you do not want to miss. Continue heading towards 20 de Noviembre, and just before you reach the corner you will see Tamales Mina, which is a tiny stand illuminated by the faint flow of incandescent light. She sets up each night at 730pm, and serves homemade tamales out of huge coolers. She has everything, including the classic Oaxaca tamale - mole negro wrapped in banana leaf rather than corn husk.
Don't Miss These Tamales in Oaxaca
5. Mercado de 20 de Noviembre
If you want to try local Oaxacan food, venture no further than Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Named for the start date of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, here you'll find primary prepared foods and comedors, as opposed to the wholesale operation you'll find at Mercado de Abastos.
Head towards the back for your selection of comedors, and be prepared to have several stall owners jump out at you with menus, trying to convince you in Spanish to eat at their stall - don't worry, though. It's not menacing or malicious in any way, and this practice is performed to both tourists and locals alike. And you will find many locals in this market, as the food here is really traditional and damn good.
Some common menu items you'll find here:
Tlayuda - A thin, crispy, pizza-sized tortilla covered with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, Oaxaca cheese, various meats, avacado, and salsa. It is a huge, filling dish that is classic Oaxaca and a must-have at this market.
Consomme and Soup
Grilled and Barbecued Meat!
6. Zucchini Blossom Quesadilla
These were high on my list of dishes to try in Oaxaca. I had heard a lot about them and seen many videos of people eating them, but I honestly did not know where to find. Turns out they are ubiquitous throughout Oaxaca City, and you'll find them almost everywhere on the streets or markets. Just look for a stand with a hot comal making tacos and guarantee you'll find zucchini blossom quesdadillas.
They begin with homemade tortillas on the comal, which is fairly common throughout Oaxaca. The tortillas are fresh, pressed right there on the street, and they are simply fantastic. Nothing like we're used to here in the United States.
Toss the tortilla on the comal, add some zucchini flower blossoms, quesillo (the Oaxacan cheese you see EVERYWHERE), and beans... that's literally it. Served with homemade salsa, it's light, cheap, and incredibly fresh. Can't recommend trying this dish enough when you're in Oaxaca.
This was a very quick run-through about some my favorite dishes and places to eat while I was in Oaxaca! There are literally TONS more types of food, and Oaxaca truly is Mexico's breadbasket. You could spend weeks in Oaxaca and not try everything. But I hope this gives you a good head start for your trip to Oaxaca and Oaxaca City! If you have any comments, or have been to Oaxaca and tried some of these dishes, I'd love to hear about it in the comments! Until the next one, keep eating!