More Than Mole: Why Oaxaca is Mexico's Hottest New Food Destination
I had barely landed in Oaxaca and already my senses were inundated. I wove past burlap sacks bursting with chiles, past meat stalls strung with garlands of chorizo, along dark passageways crowded with Zapotec women clutching screeching turkeys. I was with Alejandro Ruiz, the acclaimed chef of Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante and the man credited for the city’s food renaissance. He was whizzing me through the labyrinthine Mercado de Abastos, pausing only to proffer tips on how to use the various ingredients we came across—avocado leaf to add complexity to a pot of black beans, hierba de conejo for a burst of nutty flavor. To be a culinary authority in Oaxaca you must be part botanist, part anthropologist. Ruiz, who’s 45, big and burly and full of sunny energy, is also a great preservationist, having reached back over a thousand years to single-handedly revitalize Oaxacan cuisine.
The state of Oaxaca is home to about 500 edible herbs, nine microclimates, and over 60 agave varieties. With its complex moles, its encyclopedia of corn-based antojitos (street foods), and a baroque layering of Spanish and indigenous traditions, the region has a centuries-old legacy as a center of Mexican culinary culture. And yet, on my previous visits to Oaxaca de Juárez, the state’s colonial capital, I had felt a disconnect between this vibrant culinary history and the tourist spots all serving the same overcooked chicken in mole.
Ruiz felt it too, so after a stint honing his skills in kitchens across Europe, he returned to Oaxaca 15 years ago, hoping to invigorate the restaurant scene by highlighting traditional cuisine. His empire, which started with Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante, has since expanded to include three more places in town and one in Mexico City, all serving various takes on regional food.
These days, Mexico’s growing popularity in international haute-cuisine circles means he spends his downtime playing tour guide to a revolving door of visiting gastronomic heavy-weights, such as Noma’s René Redzepi and Mission Chinese chef Danny Bowien. He has also become something of a mentor to the next generation of Oaxacan chefs, who have in turn sparked a full-fledged culinary revival that spans everything from small-batch mezcals to single-origin corn, from liquid-nitrogenized desserts to near-extinct Zapotec recipes.
I kicked off the next morning with aromatic hand-patted memelas—doughy, masa-based tortillas—at Itanoní Flor del Maíz, in the Colonia Reforma district. With me was Rosio Sanchez, the Mexican-American former pastry chef of Noma, who was in the city to prepare for the launch of Hija de Sanchez, her new Copenhagen taqueria. Itanoní is Oaxaca’s high temple of maize, its casual tortillería exterior belying the restaurant’s true mission: to protect and promote corn biodiversity. While exploring remote parts of the region, agronomist Amado Ramírez Leyva learned that native corn from different parcels of a single farm had distinct flavor profiles. Inspired, he launched Itanoní to introduce diners to all that variety while ensuring the survival of heritage species.
Sanchez and I compared the brittle tostadas of highland corn with softer versions made from low-altitude kernels. Then we downed rollitos, meat-and-cheese-filled tortilla rolls, and mixtec tetela, bean-stuffed triangles of dough. Sanchez sampled the dishes with glee, enamored of both Ramírez Leyva’s corn and his mission. Upon Sanchez’s return to Copenhagen, Ramírez Leyva convinced her to use native Oaxacan maize at Hija de Sanchez, which opened last June.
Oaxaca’s culinary resurgence mirrors a global boom in creative Mexican cooking. In the past five years, ambitious restaurants have opened all over the world, from Albert Adrià’s Oaxacan-inspired pair, Hoja Santa and Niño Viejo, both in Barcelona, to Sean Brock’s two Mineros, in Atlanta and Charleston, South Carolina. As a result, Oaxaca is now a food destination. “It is for chefs what Paris once was for painters,” Ruiz said.
Budding and established chefs alike come here for inspiration, to spark their culinary creativity by sampling the regional staples now considered delicacies. Like the chapulines—fried grasshoppers—at Casa Oaxaca hotel, which I found pleasantly savory in spite of my initial hesitation. Or the 80-plus varieties of mezcal at Mezcaloteca, a tasting room run by agave geeks. After an hour of sniffing and sipping, I could finally distinguish the faintly floral cupreata mezcals from the resiny madrecuixe varietals.
After our corn tasting at Itanoní, I sat admiring a spaghetti-squash salad laced with flowering amaranth leaves at Origen, a handsome four-year-old restaurant downtown. Chef Rodolfo Castellanos explained that until Ruiz came along, being a chef in Oaxaca held no prestige. And so Castellanos left, eventually landing at San Francisco’s Jardinière. Ten years later, Oaxaca’s newly energized food culture drew him home. It’s a familiar trajectory, one echoed by Castellanos’s friend José Baños Rodriguez at Pitiona, a fine-dining spot down the road. He too left Oaxaca, winding up in Spain at Arzak and then at El Bulli. He came back with a repertoire of Adrià-influenced showstoppers and put his skills to work, opening Pitiona in 2010. And while the menu is full of Oaxacan flavors, Baños Rodriguez’s inventive presentation is more haute than humble: snapper is served under a cloche brimming with oaky, cinnamon-scented smoke, while rice pudding is flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen, then served as a cooling, churro-like counterpoint to mugs of rich hot chocolate.
My last day in town included a mole tutorial from a grande dame of Oaxacan cuisine, Celia Florián of Las Quince Letras. “You would need many lifetimes to master the endless nuances of mole,” she told Sanchez and me, offering us spoonfuls of her famous trilogía de moles. We began with the mole negro, sweet and chocolaty and totally black. The mole almendrado was nutty and fragrant, a blend of Iberian imports— almonds, capers, olives. Finally, I sampled the mole rojo. It tasted at first tomatoey and acidic, then fiery hot, then it blossomed into something rounded and complex. “They call Oaxaca the land of seven moles,” Florián scoffed. “But how can you reduce the richness of our cuisine to such a minuscule number?”
Casa Oaxaca: Relax in a hammock on the open-air terrace of this colonial guesthouse. en.casaoaxaca.com.mx; doubles from $136.
Quinta Real Oaxaca: A 16th-century convent with beautiful courtyards in the heart of Oaxaca. quintareal.com; doubles from $144.
Casa Oaxaca el Restaurante: The kitchen that launched the town’s culinary reinvention. casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com; entrées $11–$19.
Itanoní Flor del Maíz: A laid-back stop for traditional street foods (left). Sample a selection of tetelas, memelitas, and tostadas that are great for sharing. 513 Belisario Dominguez Avda.; 521-951-513-9233; all dishes under $3.
Las Quince Letras: A homey outpost best known for its wide selection of authentic moles. lasquinceletras.mx; entrées $7–$11.
Origen: Oaxacan flavors meet contemporary techniques. Save room for buñuelos—sweet fritters stuffed with molten, chile-spiked chocolate. origenoaxaca.com; entrées $10–$20.
Pitiona: Head here for a high-concept take on dishes like beef tongue and chicken in mole. pitiona.com; entrées $10–$16.