It could be the reverberation of a night of mezcal, but breakfast tastes better to me in Oaxaca. It might also be that it satisfies my need for variety. Breakfast here can be decadent like mole, fresh like green juice, comforting like hot chocolate. It can be enjoyed in the corner of a restaurant playing Joni Mitchell, it can be in the halls of a busy market. I am into all of the possibilities. Here are a few places I visited this last trip.
The juice bar at this neighborhood market is bumping club music at 7 am, and it gets me pumped for the day. They have pitchers ready to go, they have multiple blenders grinding, they’re chopping papaya and strawberries for your fruit salads, the neon lights are flashing, and they will get you your order before the track ends. There are many things I love about how straight up Mexican juice bars are, and one of them is the drink names. In the U.S. juices are often aspirational: the cleanup, cosmic cocoa, golden cure. But in Mexico they’re prescriptive, so the walls are plastered with juice combos labeled for heath problems: indigestion, diabetes, exhaustion… Shout over the music, “I’ll have diabetes please” and you’ll be set with an excellent start to your morning.
Immediately across the hall (the stand second from the left) is a woman making memelas and her guisados are a cut above the rest. Memelas are masa vessels covered with beans and cheese and a topping of your choice. You can also get the same topping in a quesadilla. The costilla de res, tender short rib dripping in herb-laced yellow mole is where it’s at here for meat. The mushrooms, ever so humble and overlooked next to the bright squash blossom, look different depending on the rainy season’s offerings, but always glisten with sautéed red peppers and come topped with queso fresco.
For a solid breakfast I often relied on this market with organic goods and products from small farmers, as well as a bunch of stands serving hot food. In the center are shaded picnic tables, so you can order at multiple stands and they’ll bring your food to you. I also came here sometimes when I just wanted a chicken soup or felt like picking up some dried mangos for a road trip.
One of the drink highlights for me was a stand serving pozontle. Oaxaca has the greatest diversity of cacao drinks in Mexico, and this one includes cacao, panela, a root called cocomecatl and maiz. It’s frothy and tastes of lightly grainy chocolate milk, and served frothed in a giant jicara. If your hangover brain is struggling between choosing sweet chocolatey comfort and caffeine, no fear! Get a choco-café (the cute word for mocha) from the guy who sells coffee and he’ll whip it up in a clay pitcher right over the fire. There is also a juice stand, which takes so long they might be off plucking the parsley from a secret garden but you’re enjoying your giant chocolate beverage anyway.
My favorite stand was introduced to me by T.J. Steele, who buys his corn for his Brooklyn restaurant, Claro, from this cheesemaker and corn farmer couple. The cheese stand’s natural guayaba yogurt is light and tropical, and makes me wonder if I would be a happier person if I dipped my spoon into something like that every morning. Anything with cheese here is a winner, try the empanadas to start, the fried golden pockets melt with a ricotta-like cheese covered in refreshing crispy lettuce and salty crema. She also has ricotta and quesillo to take home.
Beatles paraphernalia, black and white photos of old Oaxaca, and plastic 1980s style office chairs braid the decades together at this family restaurant north of the centro.
There is also a fetish for a time that never existed. The walls carry artwork by Jesus Helguera, you’ve probably seen his work from the 1940s: mostly calendars depicting romantic scenes of Mexican life with characters that are dressed in traditional indigenous textiles but look European. The Aztec warrior carrying the Barbie-bodied white woman with long hair over a smoking volcano, for instance. The important point is that the food is not quirky, it’s tasty and affordable.
I love the decadence of a Mexican breakfast, and this is a place for that. We ordered fresh juice, hot chocolate, coffee, atole, and they brought over a basket of pan de yema, an airy bread made with egg yolks. My housemate was anxious to try the estofada, a mole you might not see as often at restaurants. This one was certainly on the sweet side, with flavors of almonds and raisins, and served in enchilada form. They offer lunch too and if I were to come back I would try their caldos, there were several options. Open from 7 am to 7 pm.
Being in Oaxaca for six weeks, I appreciated this deli and all-day restaurant with a variety of offerings. If you want to get good bread, artisanal Mexican cheese, and cured meats (the lengua especially) to compliment your market produce at home, this is the place. If you want a well-made cappuccino and a bagel with perfectly cooked eggs and cheese that makes you feel like a kid again this is the place. If you want to be a responsible grown up and have a salad, this is also the place. You can also get a meal here at anytime of the day (if you miss the comida window in Oaxaca the variety of casual food for dinner can get slim). They have a well curated artisanal beer selection too.
Chepiche Café is like the neighborhood it lives in: so peaceful it feels far from Niños Heroes, the busy PanAmerican highway that cuts through Oaxaca city even though it is a few blocks away. Xochimilco is lined with stone streets and walls, bougenvia that hangs over colorful garage doors, and on the right corner the sounds of weaving looms. Chepiche Café fits in. There’s a big patio with enough leafy big plants and space to make you feel like you are dining alone. Joni Mitchel played in the background. There’s just enough cement, Easter-egg pastel colors on the walls and chairs, and pockets of shade under lime tree blossoms for it to feel cool on an ominously warm morning.
I was tempted by the breakfast torta ahogada but I ended up trying a dish of plantains, quesillo melted with beans and wrapped in hoja santa, floating in a mild chile-tomato sauce with two poached eggs. It had all those textures and flavors you want together: creamy, salty, spicy, sweet with the singular earthiness of hoja santa and black beans.