Cousins Margarita Garcia and Tere Lopez say that a lot of people make chocolate in their town, but not everyone does it the traditional way anymore. The pair toasts organic cacao beans from soft brown to a nearly charred black, swirling them over the comal. They then peel them, releasing the shells, and grind the beans on a metate, a stone grinder that has a small flame underneath to keep it warm and helps liquify the cacao as it transforms from small pieces to silky chocolate. They then mold it into bars for hot chocolate. They make it look easy, but it’s hard work.
The cousins are in San Dionisio Ocotepec, a small town where their family also make sandals and mezcal (so…otherwise known as heaven). The chocolate production area involves one comal and two metates and feels far away from the Mayordomo chain in Oaxaca city where your chocolate is ground in mechanical grinders and melted into perfectly shaped discs. Oaxaca is home to the most diversity of chocolate drinks in Mexico, you can find hints of that in the tejate on street corners and the hot chocolate that’s offered up as easy as coffee. But like mole or mezcal, the best stuff is mostly in the countryside, and it’s getting a little harder to find a good chocolate in the city these days, especially with cacao grown naturally or in Oaxaca. Theirs comes from Tuxtapec, bordering the state of Veracruz. It’s a small farm that also grows ginger, coffee and turmeric, which you can find added into some of their chocolate as well.
The hot chocolate that Margarita and Tere served me had deep flavors of smoke and nuttiness, and after a good bateado (the technique of using a wooden whisk used to froth chocolate) in the traditional glossy green pitcher, it almost tasted creamy despite that it was just made with water. They have a few different variations of bars that with water or milk melt into hot chocolate: bitter, semi-bitter or traditional which has sugar and cinnamon mixed in. I loved that the traditional wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet which is the case anytime I order any drink in Mexico (even a fresh juice!) They also have chocolate covered coffee and nuts, as well as bars with different nuts, honey mixed with cacao nibs and jams made with seasonal fruit like passion fruit.
If you’re interested in visiting them and seeing a demo or buying chocolate, you can plan ahead with Margarita. The town is a little over an hour from Oaxaca, not far from Tlacolula or Matatlán. You can email Margarita at email@example.com or text her on whatsapp: +52 1951 285 5155.
While I’m actually pretty satisfied with a yellow mole empanada on the street corner every night, I also found some five course meals and tacos this time that gave me that desperate pang of nostalgia when I got home. I just wanted to try one more dish, one more guisado, one more breakfast to offer a soft landing for my hangover. Until the next time, I guess. Here are a few places I visited in January.
This menu caught my eye for the way it split up dishes: typical Oaxacan dishes, ceremonial, rescued, and creative. As you work your way down it’ll start with the most typical like tlayudas and mole negro, and then it cascades into dishes not commonly seen on menus in the city, like mole de fiesta con pozole seco, a tribute to the time before rice was introduced to Mexico and hominy accompanied dishes as the starch. Rescate is a word I hear often these days in Mexico as cooks are calling out dishes that people no longer make as often or the ingredients are either difficult to acquire. At Levadura, they’re prioritizing using different heirloom beans, corn and other traditional ingredients.
A good example is the tamal de jumil, tiny stink bugs. This is a traditional dish from San Mateo Yucutindó, in Sola de Vega. To collect the bugs they have to walk four hours in the early morning, capturing the insects before they wake up and fly away into the daylight. They’re cooked and layered into the tamal with black beans.
If you’re not feeling up for bugs, another ancient dish from the Valle area is a hearty almost stew-like dish called segueza, known as a mole de maiz for the toasted corn that’s coarsely ground and incorporated into the dish. This one came with black beans and chicken. There are a number of options here for vegetarians here too: a few salads and a tamale de requeson with squash blossoms imprinted on the outside of the masa like pressed flower paper.
This young duo got their start making food for events and just a month ago took the leap into their own restaurant, and I’m not going to be surprised if their place will soon be hard to get into. Open 8 am to 9 pm every day of the week.
Last year I interviewed cocinera tradicional Catalina Chavez, who was in the middle of constructing her first restaurant. It’s now open and if you are looking for that perfect mole to complete your Oaxaca trip, go here. Catalina is not just a lovely person to talk to about any topic, but she’ll spend time with you to explain each of her dishes and their history.
On Sundays they try to have Oaxaca’s seven signature moles, in addition to other dishes that are traditional of the region. Segueza was one, hers made with guajillo and chile de agua. She also served a chichilo, a special mole that leans charred and acidic with a base of cumin and avocado leaf.
Her coloradito is prize-winning (literally) and helped her earn the money to open up her place. It’s bright with almond and chocolate and served with turkey taquitos topped with queso fresco, cucumbers and cilantro. Mancha manteles is a fruity mole made with pineapple, apple, bananas, and pear with a base of chiles that kick a little at the end. Her verde is like a hug from a big strong dude: herbal and fierce with greens like hoja santa and fresh oregano. The simplest sauce on the menu was made of tomatoes, onion, garlic, and chile de agua served with pork ribs, and my friend and I both agreed it’s one of the best tomato sauces we’ve ever tasted. She gave a friend some tea to help his stomach and joked about how she’s also a bruja, and honestly I wouldn’t be surprised because her food is magic.
This restaurant is outside of Oaxaca City in Tlacolula, so I would recommend that you check out the Sunday market and then visit her for lunch (or go for breakfast). Open 7 am to 7 pm Thu-Sun. Phone number: +5219512941249. Donají 48, San Isisdro 70400, Tlacolula. To get there if you are taking a taxi say you are going to Catalina’s restaurant in Colonia Tres Piedras and they will probably know it. You will want to tell the taxi to come back to pick you up as it’s a residential area.
I love the vegetables in Oaxaca. Bright squash blossoms, herbs that bring black beans to life or garnish a tostada, wild greens swirling in a sopa de guias. But when looking for a casual dinner in Oaxaca city, you’re mostly out of luck for anything light and green. Dinner isn’t really a big custom here, suffice for a tlayuda or a taco to hold over your mezcal better. But one night, after a long day of meat, I went to a new restaurant called Teocintle. It’s reminiscent of Alfonsina, there’s a daily menu with a few courses, and produce and ingredients carefully selected.
The dinner started with a red corn tostada, pink and delicate, holding a curtido mix of carrots and cauliflower over hutilacoche (corn smut, which is a delicacy) and a sprinkling of chapulines and greens. It was refreshing. After, there was a light bean soup, a tetela filled with quesillo and sauteed squash, and the main course was a pork belly in a chapulin (grasshopper) salsa. It’s rare to go through four courses in Oaxaca (or anywhere) and not feel stuffed, but I felt perfectly satisfied after eating here. The dessert was by far my favorite, a light passionfruit cream underneath a biscotti made with frijol tostada, and caramelized potatoes.
Teocintle is a family operation, two cousins who have done the circuit in Oaxaca’s fancier restaurants. You can find testaments of their experience in the small details in the service and the presentation of the food— garnishes galore, and an agua de mamey that puts others to shame casually served in a jicara as part of the meal, for example.
Five courses will cost you $300. They also have mezcal and beer. Open 2:30-10 pm. Make a reso via IG/FB or go by in person because their place is small.
Sabor de Cecy
This hole in the wall serves tacos de guisados, which always look different wherever you are in Mexico. Here the tacos are on big tortillas, toasted on the comal, slapped with a layer of black beans, filled with a guisado of your choice, topped with rice or a nopales salad and then rolled almost like a little loose burrito. She has a bunch of guisados: costilla in red sauce, chicken tinga, mole, and for the vegetarians, mushrooms and huitlacoche or spinach and eggs, and quesillo and squash blossoms. They also have tortas and empanadas (what might be called quesadillas elsewhere), and one or two aguas. There’s a big white wall with signatures and scribbles that indicates that foreigners have definitely found this place, but at $25 pesos per taco (one is a solid meal) it’s for locals too. Open 8 to 6, closed Sundays. On Porfirio Diaz, on the opposite side as the Sanchez Pascuas market up a block.
One thing that I love about Mexico is that it’s common to find restaurants or stands that do one thing and one thing well, for example a specific kind of taco. At Baltazar it’s tetelas, a masa triangle filled typically with a thin layer of black beans. Opened by the same chef as Tierra del Sol, Baltazar takes one of the popular breakfast restaurant’s signature dishes and uses it as a platform to take guests around the culinary regions of Oaxaca. The tetelas are filled and topped with dishes from the Mixteca, the Sierra Sur and other areas whose recipes you might not get to try if you just hang out in the city. The Valles was my favorite: an amber estofado made with almonds, sesame seeds, spices and tomatoes on top of a blue corn tetela stuffed with a layer of lengua. They also have several vegetarian options.
The restaurant is located in a huge courtyard that also houses the Convite tasting room, so all of the mezcal drinks on the menu are Convite. I tend to avoid cocktails these days, so I can’t report back.
They also serve breakfast and juices. My recommendation is to go with friends and order the sampler plate of three so you can try different ones.