Oaxacan Food

Oaxaca is known for its food, so we made it a mission to seek out everything unique here and to try at least one version of it. Many of these are not exclusive to Oaxaca; Mexico City in particular has food from all parts of Mexico.


These are a tiny bit like a Mexican pizza: giant, thin tortillas cooked on a tomal, smeared with a thin layer of frijolitos, a thin, savory black bean spread. On top of that goes Oaxacan quesillo, the super stringy, salty cheese, then usually lettuce, tomatoes, and maybe some grilled meat.

We tried two; the first was at the Mercado de Noviembre 20 and was served flat like a pizza. The thin tortilla is very crispy when you get it, so it's a struggle to break off pieces and keep the toppings on it for a full bite.

Tlayuda from the Mercado de 20 Noviembre, with chorizo

Tlayuda from El Negro, so stretchy and easier to eat

The second we tried was at a place called Tlayuda "El Negro" that our hotel hosts recommended. These were folded in half like a quesadilla and griddled a bit, so they're like a giant quesadilla rather than tortilla pizza. I liked these the most; Melissa liked both places a lot. While the cheese was hot, I could have taken a bite and had Melissa walk half way across the restaurant with the tlayuda before the cheese broke; it's ridiculously stretchy.

Oddly, at "El Negro," when I ordered a tlayuda with ribs, I got a normal tlayuda with a couple of grilled pork ribs on the side rather than incorporated into the tlayuda fillings.

Street Hamburguesas

We struggled with this because we had an idea about Oaxacan street foods we wanted to try, but most nights could only find hamburgers, hot dogs, freshly fried potato chips, and elotes and esquites. Eventually we gave in and tried one of the hamburgers and learned why they're so popular.

I stood at a stall, watched and waited as the cook expertly made no more than two burgers at a time, to order. These burgers are loaded. From memory (which means I'll probably miss a few ingredients) each had:
  • A single beef patty, probably 3-4 oz
  • A hot dog cut lengthwise and once width-wise
  • Sauteed, almost caramelized onions
  • A piece of ham, browned a bit on the griddle
  • Pineapple
  • A scoop of pickled chiles and onions
  • Lettuce
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Ketchup, mustard, mayo
  • A lightly griddled bun
This little greaseball had a good mix of flavors and textures, with the pineapple and pickled chilis giving a bright bite to the otherwise soft mass of sauces, bread and meat. Overall it reminded me of a 5 Guys burger with almost everything on it, and I can see why these are popular in centro.

Melissa got a street hotdog too; these were served with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise and some onions.

This is not a great picture, but this hamburger was excellent


I've covered these elsewhere and won't go into much depth here. They weren't everywhere, but were pretty easy to find if you wanted them. I'm surprised the burger didn't get a scoop of these for umami.

Chapulines con guacamole


Oaxaca is known as "The Land of the Seven Moles," I think we got to five on our trip.
  • Negro - the "black" mole. Despite the special status this mole holds, it's not hard to find. We had some at Criollo and at the market during the cooking class tour. If you encounter mole in the US that's not guacamole, there's a decent chance that it's mole negro (poblano is also common stateside)
  • Rojo - the red mole, spicier and more focus on the chiles. I had this at lunch on the Mitla tour and really liked it
  • Coloradito - a less spicy red mole; I ate some at the food market in centro
  • Amarillo - the "yellow," this one is very adaptable and we had a version for lunch at the cooking class. We haven't been too impressed by this yet
  • Verde - we never got this, although it was available at the Mitla tour lunch. Apparently this is the easiest to make, and seems similar to a salsa verde with tomatillos, cilandro and green chiles
  • Chichilo - we didn't get this one and didn't learn much about it
  • Manchamantel - literally meaning "the tablecloth stainer," it was one of the featured moles at or Criollo dinner. I thought it was sweeter and kind of one note, and don't consider that dish a definitive version
Mole coloradito from Mercado de 20 Noviembre, with a chicken thigh

Mole negro from Criollo with a tamale

Mole manchamantel from Criollo with beef

Mole amarillo from our cooking class


Quesadillas of course are not exclusive to Oaxaca, but the city is known for a particularly pure version that can be found at street stalls.

What I hoped to find in Oaxaca, were the quesadillas made with just Oaxacan quesillo cheese and squash blossoms, or flor de cabeza. After failing to find any for a week, on a Saturday in centro we finally saw a dozen stands doing these quesadillas.

As expected they were simple and excellent, relying on the quality of the ingredients. The woman making them was a treat to watch; she didn't use any tools when working with the hot comal, instead using her fireproof hands and technique to flip and fold the quesadillas.

Street quesadillas, muy autentico

Hot hands folding the quesadillas


Ice cream has been pervasive in Mexico, and is present in Oaxaca, but takes a backseat to the street carts serving nieves, or flavored ices. We tried popular flavors on the market tour, and later bought a very refreshing lima, or lime leaf nieve in centro on one afternoon when we underestimated how hot the day would get. The great thing about the lime leaf nieves was that they have a ton of limey, fragrant flavor without much acidity.


Roasted, salted nuts are sold all over Mexico as snacks. In Oaxaca and Mexico City though, they often include whole cloves of fried garlic, which is a really nice touch I wish other cities would adopt.

Sal de Gusano

As everyone remembers from college days, there is a ritual for drinking tequila and mezcal. You may not like salt and chase with lime every time you shoot tequila anymore, but you should keep the tradition with mezcal. Between sips (good mezcal shouldn't be shot), or especially between different kinds of mezcal, as this is a palate cleanser, you can eat a slice of sour orange with a bit of sal de gusano.

If you've been paying attention, you should see that this is "worm salt". It's actually roasted, ground up moth larva, the same that are put in a mezcal bottle, with roasted chiles and a smokey salt.

Big old bowl of of sal de gusano

The best way to consume this that I've seen is to dip the orange wedge into the pile of reddish sal de gusano and eat the wedge. It's not gamey or gross; really it's not different than a chile salt with a bit of savoriness.

Many mezcals come with a tiny pouch of sal de gusano tied to the lid so you can keep the tradition on the go.

Mezcal and Gusano Popsicles

Knowing that all of these flavors were popular, I was still surprised when the major ice cream chain La Michoacana was advertising mezcal-flavored popsicles (paletas) with a sal de gusano dip. Sadly we didn't get to try these.

Gusano and mezcal popsicles


We didn't see this much on the street or in restaurants, and I don't think it's totally unique to Oaxaca but it can be found there. Actually, the most interesting atole we had was at an incredible, under the radar quesadilla place in San Cristobal, literally called "No Name Quesadillas," that opened at 9 PM (or whenever the chef felt like it) and sold huge quesadillas and hot atole until they run out.

The place was a bit of a scene, in a good way, and we ordered the only atole available that night, which was a hot corn and pineapple drink. Interesting, but not something that's going to appear in my regular drink rotation.


For my birthday in 2016, we went to Cosme in New York, mainly because of this picture that I saw in a magazine:

Corn husk meringue with corn mousse, stolen from Food and Wine

Cosme had a great menu, was well reviewed and very hard to get into, but I'm not going to lie: it wouldn't have been in my sights if not for that dessert.

Cosme is the first New York and US restaurant by chef Enrique Olvera, whose other restaurants are in Mexico City and Oaxaca. While it wasn't the best high-end meal we've had, it was pretty good and notable, so when we considered going out for a really nice meal in Mexico we chose his Oaxaca restaurant Criollo over his more expensive Mexico City places.

Sadly, it wasn't that great of a meal for the price and acclaim. We did the tasting menu with a couple of drinks mixed in (no pairing). I can't remember every dish we had, and the table we sat at was very awkward (it was LONG, and we were seated at opposite ends), especially since we ended up getting just one plate to share for every course.

Some of the highlights were
  • Manchamantel mole, the only time I ever saw the tablecloth stainer available
  • Mole negro tamale, that tasted too much like chocolate. If any one flavor stands out in a mole it's not correctly balanced, so this was flawed
  • The blue corn chips - I'd read that these are a special heirloom breed of corn and made fresh daily, but they weren't particularly tasty. In fact, they weren't even the tastiest thing in the chip basket; we enjoyed the yellow corn ones more
Honestly I can't remember much more. There was a dish where we could not tell if the protein was beef or pork. I argued beef because of the flavor of the fat but couldn't say for sure. We later confirmed that it was beef, but the ambiguous nature of this didn't endear it to us. I remember one course had a pear or pineapple puree that neither of us ate more than a bite of because it didn't fit with the dish at all.

I hadn't intended to write a negative review of this place, especially because it wasn't bad, but we did have to ask for salt in one course and it just wasn't anywhere near the expectations we had. Fortunately it wasn't too expensive and is a fraction of his Mexico City restaurant's tasting menu so we feel like we got through our "nice meal in Mexico" checklist item cheaply.


Food in Oaxaca was great and a bit different, but did not exceed my expectations from reading years of food journalism. Food in Mexican cities is pretty good in general, but if I could only eat in one of those cities again it would definitely be Mexico City due to the variety and quality. Still, a great experience to visit one of these food capitals of the world and be able to try almost everything.

One dish we missed is memelas, solely because they are primarily a breakfast dish and our hostel offered a great, free breakfast everyday. At least we'll have something new to try if we ever return!

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