As a journalist who recently quit my day job, I was in heaven eating cheaply in Oaxaca. I cooked with beautiful market ingredients and ate at cocina economicas, market stands, and drank green juices all day (with the extra shots of bee pollen— take that L.A.) My food costs probably came to a third of what they are in the Bay Area and the level of pretension was also remarkably lower. Just as important, I supported and met lots of local folks on a daily basis who I wouldn’t have met otherwise.
But it always irks me when people who have the means to travel to Mexico look for the cheapest deal, especially when it comes to food. I absolutely understand it if you are pinching pennies and making a big sacrifice to travel— much respect. But if not, you’re robbing yourself of an experience (and probably operating on some kind of racist assumption that all so-called ethnic food should be cheap but I will leave that conversation for another day). Usually for much less than what you would spend at home, you can have an experience where the service, the technique, the creativity, the flavors, the whole story is something you can’t get anywhere else. Here are two places that stood out from the rest.
I’ve walked the wholesale market with Chef Rodolfo Castellanos twice now and he spots ingredients like a hawk. Somehow, peering through the curtains of tasajo and chorizo, past the dark alleyway of garlic, and dodging the wheelbarrows, he’ll find the one woman with orange-red heirloom tomatoes, and go through all of them for the perfect burrata and tomato salad. Having grown up in Oaxaca, you can tell he’s in his element navigating this beautiful mecca of ingredients, but he’s also had successful stints cooking in San Francisco and Monte Carlo, and is currently killing the game on Top Chef Mexico.
At the entrance of the restaurant is the original dining room: a courtyard with pops of color, the hallway leading you in with a bright corn mural and in the back a mural of a bright, triumphant chicken at the center. Upstairs there are plush booths and white tablecloths, with the windows overlooking the busy block leading up to the Zocalo. It would be hard to go wrong here, but I dream about the octopus, the seafood pozole and the grilled romaine salad. I always dream about salads when in Mexico but this one would be a delight anywhere. Make a reservation during busy season.
Sample the flavors of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec at this restaurant popular with both locals and tourists. The Isthmus is the most narrow area of mainland Mexico, making it a former trade route between the Gulf and the Pacific, and a unique place with strong traditions that’s split between Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco. I was told that my next trip has to be there, for the food and also for the gorgeous textiles and gold jewelry.
If the kitchen at La Teca makes you feel like you’re in a home kitchen, that makes sense, because this is the home of Tehuantepec native, chef Señora Deyanira Aquino and her family. It’s refreshing to be in Reforma, a neighborhood outside of the centro, in a plant-covered patio with a backyard feel and a glass of ice cold tamarind slushie-like agua fresca.
There’s a unique savory-sweet-spicy thing going on with some of the dishes here like the chile relleno and the cambray tamal, combining ingredients like raisins, almonds, olives and capers. Although they were interesting, it wasn’t my flavor palate. The moles and the estofado de boda (a beef stew cooked with fruit and chiles) were my favorite: the flavors were rich, with layers that kept punching.
A tasting menu is $320 pesos per person, and they will let you split it, which was more than enough food for me and a friend. I called and made a reservation for the patio although it wasn’t crowded.
Thanks to my bestie Essence for coming with me to these places, it’s always the company that makes a meal even more memorable.