It might seem like I only ate fancy restaurant fare in Oaxaca (wanting to take advantage of a favorable exchange rate and a desire for regular everyday food has always been a balancing act when traveling in Latin America and Asia) but that’s not really the case.
On my first full day I ventured a bit east of the city center to the smaller, for-locals Mercado de la Merced. I might have held off if I had known that my cooking class at Casa de los Sabores later in the week was going to provide a detailed tour of this market. But that was for learning and buying ingredients, not for eating.
Just inside of the indoor section is a small courtyard with female-run fondas occupying three sides of the square, each bearing the name of the proprietor. The fourth wall contains a shrine. I was initially struck by how hawker center-like this set up was, except hawker centers are much easier to navigate. At least in Singapore there is always a menu posted with prices and each stall is known for a particular specialty. English is no problem whether the owner is Chinese, Malay or Indian.
I randomly picked Comedor Lupita. But as mentioned above, you kind of have to know what you want though you can get an idea by seeing what’s on display and what others at counter stools or communal wooden tables are eating. A long list of items was rattled off when I asked what they had. I only understood maybe half of what I was being told and after asking for something not too big (I was hoping to try more food at another stand but then I worried if you offend the first place you eat at by going to another) a quesadilla was suggested. Perfect, you can’t go wrong with cheese and tortillas. This is a very basic example filled with Oaxacan cheese, which is a more artisanal American string cheese.
Simple, crackly-edged and flavorful, what really makes these quesadillas so special are the freshly made and grilled tortillas. A very rare breed in NYC. Make sure to get the deep crimson pureed salsa—I was about to ask when they remembered to bring it over. A glass of jamaica (I’m still not clear why hibiscus is jamaica in Spanish—more confusing is that it’s called sorrel in Jamaica) is always refreshing when it’s hot. And it was much hotter than I had expected in late November.
After walking around a bit and surveying all the produce for sale (not all local, mind you, there were apples from Washington state) and regretting that I didn’t really have the time or facilities for cooking, I decided to have another snack. This time I settled on Fonda Meche (or Teresita, I have both written in my notes) and asked about a golden puffy fried blob sitting in the glass case (I didn’t ask about the giant glass jars of eggs sitting on everyone’s counters. Were they hardboiled for eating out of hand? They didn’t look pickled like you’ll find in non-NYC convenience stores) Oh, it was a chile relleno. It didn’t resemble the ones we have here, and to be frank, I’m not crazy about them even though I haven’t eaten one in over a decade. But once I show interest in something, I feel compelled to go with it.
You don’t get the stale example; they cook one on the spot for you. I would’ve been fine with just the chile but after being suggested sides I caved and got black beans too. A big inky pool of legumes. The chile relleno was a bit oily but not unappetizingly so. In fact, it was kind of amazing in its lacy-crisp lightness and was filled with rich shredded beef. The difference might be that in the US we typically use poblanos while in Oaxaca they use dried pasilla oaxaquena chiles, which are smoky like chipotles. As with most meals in Oaxaca, you are also offered corn tortillas or bolillos and butter. I always went for the tortillas but based on casual observation the bread basket was more popular with other diners.
More of my Mercado de la Merced photos, if you are so inclined.
On my last full day, Thanksgiving, I wandered around town doing all the touristy things I hadn’t done yet like visiting museums and hitting all the popular markets. I eventually got sucked into the rows of casual eateries inside the Benito Juárez market. Tacos? Tortas? Smoky grilled meat? It was a bit overwhelming. And then I noticed a pancita stand with booths and one open seat at the counter. I love menudo, or pancita as they were calling it. Menudo isn’t much of a thing in NYC, and it’s not not a big deal in Oaxaca either, which is kind of why I wanted to try it.
I thought my language skills had improved after a week, but I was seriously getting stumped by much of what I was being told and asked. I managed to get a small bowl with cilantro and onion (despite being warned against eating both fresh ingredients in markets—I didn’t want to get into it above because I don’t like playing into stereotypical hand-wringing over eating foreign street food, but serious gastrointestinal distress set in after day one at the Mercado de la Merced. By this point, though, I figured all damage had been done why not go wild with raw vegetables). There was an issue over my choice of club soda when asked if I wanted anything to drink because they’d have to go elsewhere to get it and didn’t seem to mind but that seemed crazy to me and I got to use my favorite phrase I learned and that was fitting in so many Oaxacan situations, “no vale la pena.” It’s not worth it. I had a bottle of water from the hotel in my bag.
The soup was spicy with a substantial amount of thick chewy pieces of tripe (when they noticed I’d eaten most of the offal out of my bowl, I was offered more—I declined). But the most interesting part was that instead of hominy they used garbanzo beans. A Oaxacan touch.
Afterward, I picked up a cajeta popsicle at a storefront Popeye (they also have roving street carts), supposedly one of the better paleta purveyors in town once you get over the association of Popeye with fried chicken. They had quite a number of flavors available, but in typical Oaxacan fashion none were listed anywhere. You have to ask or know what you want. Fruit is probably more popular but I liked the goat’s milk caramel.
Mercado de la Merced * Corner of Insurgentes and Murguía, Oaxaca, Mexico
Mercado Benito Juárez * Corner of Flores Magon and Las Casas, Oaxaca, Mexico
Paletas Popeye * Calzada Porfirio Diaz 239, Oaxaca, Mexico