How to Tour Oaxaca Like a Chef
T.J. Steele has spent a lot of time thinking about Oaxacan food.
The chef, who splits his time between Mexico and the U.S., has become an integral piece of New York City's ascendancy in the realm of Oaxacan cuisine stateside. His year-old restaurant, Claro, in Gowanus, Brooklyn, has been praised as an innovative newcomer, an instant-classic purveyor of "riveting" molés, mezcals "treated like wine," and tostadas that are "perfect in every way." Last week, the restaurant earned its first Michelin star. [Side note: This writer had a near-religious experience with Claro's warm chocolate molé cake, the best dessert I have eaten in 2018.]
But Steele, an alum of the talent-incubator kitchen at New York's Union Square Café, knows that food critics have not always been so forthcoming with gushing reviews of Mexican restaurants — and that Oaxacan food, along with his own interest in it, far predates think pieces about Mexican regional cooking. “Ten or twelve years ago, I was traveling in Mexico with a business plan for a farm-to-table Mexican restaurant," he explains. "But that was ten or twelve years ago, and people weren’t prepared to pay as much for that back then.”
Still, he was enamored with the region and its foodways. His stalled restaurant plan transitioned into a mezcal company, El Buho, a collaboration with local mezcaleros making spirits with traditional Zapotec methods. "I started El Buho twelve years ago now, and I’ve been traveling back and forth to Oaxaca ever since," says the chef. "The brand has a house in the city center, and land in the surrounding region."
Mezcal is a high point of the dining experience at Claro, and El Buho is the house pour — but there are plenty of other Oaxacan masterpieces to show off. Try one of the flights, served in irregular, one-of-a-kind ceramic vessels made by an artisan friend in Huayapam and Atzompa.
But it's the food that packs the tables at Steele's restaurant, and it's the food that made him fall in love with Oaxaca in the first place. At Claro, he mixes lessons learned cooking and doing business in southwestern Mexico — some mole recipes, for example, were passed down by family friends — and the "cheffy," occasionally cerebral touch that helps a restaurant like this stand out in Brooklyn.
"We take some ingredients that are true to Oaxaca and use them differently," says Steele, "like the chapulines [toasted grasshoppers] that people eat as a bar snack." At Claro, they find their way into aiolis and tartares as a crunchy, nutty garnish. Steele and his team make a lot of staple elements in house that might not travel well, nixtamalizing their own corn and making fresh queso Oaxaca.
The menu is a testament to the nuances and subcategories of Oaxacan cuisine, riffing on the foundational dishes that most would associate with the region and highlighting specialties like memelas, soft masa griddlecakes served warm, topped with chorizo or pork ribs. For Steele, and for food-loving travelers, Oaxaca itself offers that same depth and breadth.
"There are so many different microclimates," the chef says, reflecting on his most recent trip just a few weeks ago. "You can go to the mountains, three hours from the city, to rent a cabin and cook over a wood fire. In the other direction, there's the beach."
Here's how chef T.J. Steele's plans the perfect food-focused trip:
First things first: when you're in Oaxaca, you need to do a lot of eating.
Oaxaca is justifiably famous for its food, and especially the emblematic dish: mole, a chile-based sauce built by layering flavors of fruits, spices, nuts, and sometimes chocolate. For Steele, "the moles are definitely something else. And you’ll see a lot of chocolate — a lot of places will melt the chocolate and make your cocoa in front of you."
Another quintessential Oaxacan ingredient is corn, a foundational crop that finds its way into every corner of the cuisine. "I think of Oaxaca when I think of corn," Steele says. "There are so many corn products: tlayudas, or giant tostadas, are something you see a lot. And memelas, which are like a cross between a tortilla and a sope."
Be sure to sample some of the stringy, mild queso Oaxaca, as well as plenty of mezcal, for which Oaxaca is ground zero. And, according to Steele, one of the region's hallmark ingredients is actually best identified by scent. "Avocado leaves are used everywhere as a seasoning in consommés and food people cook on the street. You'll smell them as you walk around."
Of course, the cuisine can't be boiled down to just a few ingredients. "Oaxaca is so big," says Steele, "and there are so many pockets of regional food" — a continuing inspiration for his work at Claro.
Most people visiting the state will make a home base in the capital. You'll want to dedicate a few days to exploring its ancient and colonial architecture, bustling Mercado de Abastos, and Monte Albán, a UNESCO World Heritage site on a mountain just outside the city center.
Food, of course, is a main attraction. "There are a lot of old school fine dining places that people should check out," Steele tells T+L. "Casa Oaxaca and Origen are really good. There's also Criollo, a new restaurant [from chef Enrique Olvera] doing classic Oaxacan stuff, but a little upscale."
It's easy to go beyond the traditional sit down meal, though. "If you're into beer," says Steele, "there's a nanobrewery called Santísima Flor de Lúpulo. They brew all their own beer there and they usually have at least five different kinds. Plus, they're super friendly." For tacos, his favorite place is El Lechoncito de Oro. "It's open only at night, and they just do carnitas. They're my favorite ever." And for bread and pastries, he says, head to Boulenc.
Steele recommends sleeping it all off at boutique hotel Casa Antonieta. "When there’s a lot of people at the El Buho house, and we need to send people somewhere else — or if I want to get out of the house and stay somewhere else — we send them there. They just opened a little coffee shop.”
Mezcal Country and Beyond
After exploring the capital, head further afield into the surrounding small towns and farmland. "There are so many villages that specialize in different crafts," Steele explains, "and everything feels like it's about an hour away."
The artisan towns just outside the city are great for a day trip, "whether they are known for their clay, or textiles, or woodworking." In San Andrés Huayapam, visit the workshop of Cuarto Suspiro, where Steele sources ceramics for his restaurant. In Teotitlán del Valle, shops all along the road sell the fabrics and rugs for which the village is famous. "There’s also Tlamanalli, a restaurant there run by Abigail Mendoza Ruiz. She’s a Zapotec chef who does a pre-Hispanic mole of cracked corn, tomato, and some herbs with a chicken leg cooked in it. One of the soups you get when you go is a squash blossom soup thickened with a little bit of masa."
Any Oaxaca itinerary should include a stop in Santiago Matatlán, the heart of mezcal country. "When you pull into town, there's a big sign above it that says 'The Mezcal Capital of the World' with a still on top," says Steele. "Matatlán has plenty of tasting rooms along the sides of the highway, and pretty much anyone who's making mezcal will let you into their house or have something they're willing to sell you." El Buho is produced in nearby Tlacolula de Matamoros, where Steele also recommends visiting the weekend market. At the end of your trip, take a day to visit Hierve el Agua, "a really beautiful area with mineral-rich springs and waterfalls."
There's much more of Oaxaca to see, of course, from the Sierra Madre mountains to the beach regions of Costa and Istmo de Tehuantepec. But spend some time eating around the state's alluring capital, and you'll see why chefs like Steele keep coming back.