10 Essential Things To Eat And Drink In Oaxaca

Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca is sometimes called a capital of world cuisine, and for good reason. The region's abundance of fresh produce, outdoor markets and dizzying array of unique dishes basically sends any food loving visitor into a state of tamale induced bliss. The bounty of options can also be overwhelming since most of us, no matter how much we love to turn our vacations into food-cations, are not capable of sampling all that Oaxaca and its feast for the nose, eyes and stomach has to offer.

Related: Get To Know The 7 Moles Of Oaxaca

One of the best ways to explore the culinary landscape, and distill it into a list of ten food items to seek out, is to travel to Oaxaca with a chef who has been there many times before. And that's exactly what we did a couple weeks back during our visit with Alex Stupak and his wife Lauren Resler, co-owners of the Empellon restaurants in New York City. The couple has their clear favorites when it comes to food and beverage essentials in Oaxaca. Here's their list of can't miss items. Photos By Evan Sung.

1. Barbacoa 

This is the original Mexican barbecue and no trip to Oaxaca for Alex and Lauren would be complete without it. The traditional way to prepare barbacoa is to slow-roast goat or lamb wrapped in maguey leaves in the ground until the meat is fall-from-the-bone tender. The meat simmers lethargically in its own juices until succulent and deeply flavorful. The meat is then shredded or chopped, garnished with onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime and served in a corn tortilla. It's usually accompanied by a consomme made from the animal's organ meat stewed until a rich broth forms. Barbacoa stands are ubiquitous features at nearly every local market throughout Oaxaca and sitting down on a wooden bench with locals to indulge is an unforgettable experience. 

2. Champurrado 

The Mexican version of hot chocolate is what many Oaxacans drink to kickstart their day. Traditionally served with churros, champurrado is a maize-based drink that is sometimes laced with spices like vanilla, anise and cinnamon and always includes a heady dose of Oaxacan chocolate. The thick drink is traditionally blended using a molinillo, a wooden whisk that aerates it just enough to make it drinkable. Champurrado is beloved throughout Oaxaca to both begin and close the day and also takes center stage at the Day of the Dead festival in the fall and during the Christmas season. Champurrado vendors are found on street corners everywhere in Oaxaca.

3. Chapulines 

You might assume that roasted grasshoppers are merely a novelty snack in Oaxaca. In reality, these crunchy, protein-packed goodies are an important staple in the Oaxacan diet. Baskets overflow with chapulines at every local market and a handful of these addictive insects, which are typically roasted on a clay surface with salt, lime juice, garlic and occasionally chiles can be had for pennies. They're sold everywhere and once you're brave enough to try the first one, it's a virtual guarantee that you'll be popping them into your mouth all day long. One of the best places to find chapulines is the main market in Oaxaca City, Central de Abastos.

4. Garnachas 

Garnachas are addictive appetizers with just the right amount of spice, crunch and tenderness. Bite-size corn tortillas are fried and typically topped with slow-stewed shredded meat, a spoonful of salsa, the creamy cow's milk cheese queso fresco and a garnish of shredded vegetables such as lettuce, cabbage and carrots. Of course, these are vehicles begging for experimentation and creativity and each restaurant and vendor stall offers their own unique garnacha spin. One of the best places to try them is at one of Alex and Lauren's favorite restaurants in Oaxaca, La Teca. Violetas Street, no. 200-A, Colonia Reforma

5. Tasajo 

Tasajo is defined as meat that has been air, smoked or sun-dried and sometimes salted and the Oaxacans are experts at it. To call meat beautiful might seem like a stretch but the way vendors display their long, pounded, dried strips of pork and beef in wide rows of glistening reds and pinks in their market stalls is a magnificent sight to behold. Chorizo is another Oaxacan meat specialty that shouldn't be missed. 

6. Mezcal

Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from fermenting roasted maguey, a variety of agave, to smokey clear perfection. Alex and Lauren spent time in Oaxaca learning about mezcal production from one of its pioneering producers, the legendary Ron Cooper of Del Maguay; a mezcal company that sells only single village mezcal. Mezcal is typically consumed straight and neat in Oaxaca and packs some serious punch. Los Amantes is a good place to go for a mezcal tasting in Oaxaca City but for an unforgettable mezcal experience, Del Maguay just outside of town, is a connoisseur's dream.

7. Oaxacan String Cheese 

Oaxacan string cheese is as much fun to play with as it is to eat. The tradition of this semi-hard cow's milk cheese was introduced to Oaxaca centuries ago by Dominican monks form Italy which explains why it is similar in flavor and texture to mozzarella. Oaxacans have added their own twist on this mild tasting, slightly salty cheese by rolling impossibly long ribbons of it into spheres that sometimes grow as big as basketballs. It's available everywhere and shouldn't be missed. 

8. Tamales 

Oaxacan cuisine might fall apart if the tamale was removed from the equation. Every household puts their own stamp on their tamale recipe but the essential foundation is masa and lard spread over either a banana leaf or corn husk. The base is then slathered with everything from one of Oaxaca's seven different mole varieties to shredded pork, chicken, or beef to almonds, folded up into a neat package and steamed. The stuffing possibilities are endless and an inexpensive tamale enjoyed at one of the local markets is a belly filling must during any visit to Oaxaca.

9. Tlayuda 

Alex Stupak and Lauren Resler are one of the happiest couples on the planet. Their affection and admiration for each other is palpable and they disagree on very little...except when it comes to how to properly eat a tlayuda. This is where their blissful union ends. The debate has apparently been raging for years and showed no sign of stopping during their most recent visit to Oaxaca. Lauren insists that the thin, crispy corn tortilla typically slathered in refried or pureed beans, topped with strips of tasajo, asiento (unrefined pork lard), shredded lettuce or cabbage, salsa and quesillo (Oaxacan cheese) should be eaten in the same way you would a pizza. Alex asserts that it should be folded and eaten like a sandwich. Whatever way you choose to eat your tlayuda in Oaxaca, it's certain to leave an indelible memory.

10. Tejate 

Alex Stupak made a beeline for the first tejate vendor he saw and planted himself in front of her as she prepared one of his favorite Oaxacan beverages. The surprisingly refreshing drink is comprised of fermented cacao beans, maize flower, ground mamey pits (a fruit from the evergreen family) and flor de cacao, an indigenous plant of Oaxaca. Tejate is sold in large clay pots throughout Oaxaca by vendors who combine tejate's ingredients (that are sometimes sweetened with sugar, honey or agave syrup) with water and aerate it by squeezing the mixture with their hands until it becomes light and frothy. The flor de cacao rises to the surface to form a thick layer of foam. Tejate is the perfect way to begin a day of market exploration and for its number one fan Alex Stupak, it's the ideal way to end it too.