Where to Eat in Oaxaca: Alfonsina

“I wasn’t trained formerly as a chef but growing up in Oaxaca, you know the taste of a good tortilla, a good mole, corn…” Jorge León, the chef and owner of Alfonsina trailed off while we shared a taxi to Oaxaca city from his restaurant. 

Alfonsina is in a community called San Juan Bautista La Raya, where Jorge grew up. If headed there from the city, after the airport bridge you’ll take a left instead of going straight into the airport. The paved road will soon turn to dirt and a few houses after, an iron gate marks the entrance to Jorge’s family home and the restaurant. 

In a city, especially a downtown, where the textiles, murals, and flowering purple Jacaranda trees are so striking they interrupt your thoughts, I think it’s the quietness of Alfonsina that makes it so enchanting.

The restaurant and kitchen is in one corner of the courtyard, under the shade of a huckleberry tree, next to the patio where Jorge hopes to grow more things once he has time. Inside is there is a comal and stove facing the dining room just like in many Oaxacan kitchens. But here almost everything inside — the brick walls, the plates, the squash in the corner and the wood furniture— is the color of burnt clay, log cabins, warmth. Once the restaurant is formalized, and not just tethered to eaters-in-the-know by Jorge’s whatsapp or IG, there may be more things inside that alter the color palette, but I secretly hope that it doesn’t change too much. There is no music in the restaurant, but from the patio where people hang out and the family works around the house you’ll hear some filter in along with the rooster’s crows, and the sounds of the fire cracking under the comal.

Jorge is generally a shy guy, not socializing too much with guests and disappearing from the kitchen after courses without a word. His food is also plated simply and neatly on ceramic plates and bowls, with few extra flourishes. 

Also unlike parts of the centro, nothing here feels exclusively made for the entertainment of foreigners. The first time I walked in an entire table of people from the neighborhood were halfway through their comida. While visitors can come here for a five-course lunch, the restaurant also make breakfast and comida for the neighborhood. Jorge’s mom is frequently pressing tortillas for people to take to-go. 

Jorge got his cooking start at Casa Oaxaca, and then later at Pujol where he worked for six years. He recently returned to Oaxaca to open the restaurant with his family’s help. Because here the ingredients he loves are at his fingertips. His family is originally from the Mixteca, and so is the beef and corn at the restaurant. He’s picking special ingredients from friends and the rest comes from the central de abastos (Oaxaca’s wholesale market).

The first time I came here was for comida, which included five courses and mezcal or beer (and a passionfruit agua). Not sure how the prices will change as they formalize the restaurant, but for now it’s a great deal. 

The first course had all the flavors of Oaxaca but scaled back and proportioned differently from what you might normally get: fresh black beans from his farmer friend with generous pieces of huitlacoche that looked like hunks of eggplants, a chorizo oil hanging back and coating the dish, and a generous pile of quintonil greens on top. Later the purslane stems (a common green here, but rarely served with the stems) were treated with the same chiles he would use for barbacoa, and made into a smokey pasta dish. The star was the mole negro, made with an imperfect stone like they do in the Mixteca instead of a metate. The consistency was a thicker but still silky, almost overwhelmed by the flavor of cacao but brought back from the edge with the subtle heat of toasted chiles. My second favorite was the yogurt dessert, which I could have for breakfast every day. Made in house, and then served in a mug with mango, strawberries and the huckleberry jello (the berries came from the tree outside). It was refreshing and lighthearted.

For breakfast they’ll again serve you a daily menu — could be chile relleno tacos and a garbanzo soup, or chilaquiles and a memela— with juice and coffee. Whichever meal you arrive for you’ll probably find ingredients and dishes that seem similar to other daily menus in Oaxaca, but take note of the details: maybe an underused fish from the Oaxacan coast will get its due on your plate, or the texture of a sauce will feel different because of the tools used to make it, or the masa will be a bit lighter on your tongue. It’s these touches that make all the difference.

To make a reservation you can text Jorge via WhatsApp at +52 1 55 2659 3941.