Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Mezcal Day Trips Around Oaxaca

Trip date: October 2023 

Oaxaca isn't just a city in Mexico, it is also a state. And in this state 90% of the mezcal in Mexico is produced. Certified mezcal can only be from the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Zacatecas. Traditionally, and to be certified, all mezcal is made from 100% agave or maguey (maguey is a member of the agave family) and no other sugars may be added during fermentation.

There are plenty of places in town to taste mezcal, but I really wanted to go out into the growing regions and see some working palenques (mezcal distilleries). So Aaron reached out to his friend Dari Silva, who does private tours in the area, and Dari created a plan for a full day trip for us. 

He picked us up early one morning, stopped at his favorite coffee spot on the way out of Oaxaca so we could fuel up, and then we hit the road, driving for about 1 ½ hours south. Our first stop was for breakfast!

Dari stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere and pulled up to an outdoor kitchen set up near Zoritana. We started with tamales, one with beef and one with green chili, and then he ordered us birria tacos with a delicious consummé. Fantastic!

Back on the road, we reached our first palenque about 2 ½ hours south of Oaxaca in the area of Miahuatlán. This area is in the mountainous Sierra Sur region and is known for the large diversity of agave, both wild and cultivated, as well as the long tradition of distilling. 

Dari introduced us to 75-year old Felipe Cortés Venegas who has been a maestro since 1960. A maestro mezcalero, or master mezcal maker, is more than just a title for someone making the agave spirit. These men come from generations of traditional family mezcal production and continue to use artisanal processes today. Felipe learned the craft from his father, who learned it from his father before him, and his son Ageo is now the 4th generation to produce mezcal. Felipe's younger brother Margarito is also a maestro.
We sat down outside on the covered patio and Dari started pouring us tastes of mezcal from different plastic bottles while Felipe explained each. 

A little about mezcal for those of you who might not know what it is. Mezcal is made from the agave plant and can be made from many different varietals. Maguey is the name for about 30 different varieties of plants in the agave genus. The most well-known maguey is the blue weber agave, which is the only plant allowed in the making of tequila. So technically, all tequila is mezcal and all magueys are agaves, but not all agaves are magueys. Claro?

The writing on the bottles include the year the mezcal was made, who made it (Felipe or Ageo) and the varietals of maguey used; such as Tepextate, Espadín, Coyote, Tobalá, Bicuixe, Tobaziche, Arroqueño... 

Almost immediately I realized that this is very similar to wine making/grape varietals/terroir. Once I started thinking of it like that I found it much easier to follow along. I mean I don't see a bunch of grapes and immediately know if they are grenache or merlot, same for those maguays! 

Each taste was a bit different, and none had the overly smoky charistic that we so often think of with mezcal. It was really interesting! After a bit of tasting, Dari led us out on the property to the traditional outdoor distilling setup. 

Everything is done here on the property; Felipe has a very large field where he grows his maguey (as well as some corn and beans) and unlike other maestros, he rarely has the need to buy from others. 

Mezcal is made from the heart of the agave plant, called the piña, so when it's time to harvest the leaves are hacked off until just the piña remains. These are then roasted in huge pits dug into the ground, covered, and left for days.

Then they bring the roasted piña to the palenque and grind it using an ox and stone wheel. 

The pulp and juices are then put into open-air wooden vessels to ferment for anywhere from 3 to 8 days. Their palenque is 30 years old and as is traditional has a wood-fired oven that heats the 2 copper alambique stills during distillation. No electricity, no temperature gauges, just Felipe or Ageo deciding when things are ready. Truly artisan. 

We headed back for more tastings, we did almost 20! This time Felipe pulled out some older vintages and also a few pechuga mezcals. This is when fresh fruit (or raw chicken or turkey breast) are added with the agave in the distillation stage. I loved the one that he had done with pineapple! The flavor was so faint, it was just barely there and it was delicious. 

We decided what we wanted to buy (cash only) and Felipe went back into his storage area to siphon our spirits into plastic bottles labeled with painters tape. 

What a great first stop! Dari pointed out the different varietals of maguey as we drove past agave fields on our way to our next stop- Palenque de los Ramos.

Here is another multi-generational home, farm, and palenque with Victor Ramos learning the craft of mezcal production from his father and becoming a maestro 39 years ago and his son, Emanuel, becoming one in 2005. The two work together in the fields and in the distillery, but they have their own products which are noted on the labels similarly to Cortes and his son. 

Emanuel and Dari showed us around the outdoor distillery. This one is a tad newer, about 20 years old, before that they both worked at Victor's father's, Pablo Ramos Sanchez.

It was great to get to walk around in the fields here and look at the different maguey. The maguey belongs to the Agavaceae family of agave and most of the plants are "monocarpic", they only flower once and after flowering they die. On top of that it takes 8 to 10 years for most of these to reach maturity before they can be harvested! It's a long process!
We left the fields and entered the Ramos' storage area, filled with glass and plastic jugs and barrels, to do some more tasting. Again, various varietals, blends, vintages, etc. All delicious and much more delicate than I was expecting. Really lovely. 

We were a bit into tasting when Dari told Victor that we would be leaving soon as we hadn't had lunch yet. Victor offered his wife to make us a snack! So we headed into the kitchen and the generous Mrs. Ramos served us some delicious homemade beans (they grow them on their property), tortillas, fresh pico, and an absolutely delicious cucumber juice! So sweet!!

Back in the tasting/store room, when we made our decision on what we wanted to buy, the mezcal was again siphoned out of huge plastic barrels and into the bottles. 

Great mezcal, great family! 

Before driving the 2+ hours back to Oaxaca, Dari took us for a late lunch at Xhobe Humo y Sal.  The restaurant is down a set of dirt roads which doesn't seem to lead anywhere, but then you are there! The ladies in the open kitchen showed me the pots of mole they were cooking and how they blew on the fire to keep the stove top hot. All of the food was excellent and the accompanying sauces had a great depth of flavor from chilis and seasonings. This Oaxacan style chili relleno was particularly good!  

You don't have to head 2+ hours outside of Oaxaca to tour and taste mezcal, but Aaron had already been to some of the areas closer and I was happy to go for a day trip. I highly recommend Dari if you want a private guide who can create a plan on where to taste. He can take you to the maestros in many areas. He's been working with them and importers for years. He's on WhatsApp at +52 951 547 2645

Now if you already know where you want to go, you can hire Sami who is a private taxi driver and is on WhatsApp at +52 951 222 5426. We booked Sami to take us to the Matatlán area, which is just about 50 mins away.

Sami picked us up in the morning and we had him take us to the absolutely delicious Itanoni, a small restaurant and tortilla factory using locally grown corn. I had a quesadilla with squash blossoms, so good, and also a fried egg on a tortilla.

Santiago Matatlán is considered the "World Capital Of Mezcal". Our destination was the Dixeebe palenque which is owned by maestro mezcalero Valentin Cortes and his son Asis Cortes. The Cortes family has an almost 200 year tradition of making mezcal in the area and Asis is very well known both in Mexico and the US as a distiller and evangelist of the spirit. 

We were greeted by Asis' brother Giovani and his lovely fiancé Fernanda and shown around the distillery. They had recently roasted piñas and the vats were full and fermenting. Giovani gave us bits of roasted maguey, which was so good!

They then invited us into the cellar to taste; here the mezcal is stored in huge glass vessels which is quite a beautiful site in the dim cellar. 
Then we moved upstairs where they have a nice little tasting bar set up with views of the surrounding mountains and the town. Here we tasted from actual bottled product, ready to be sold and packed in suitcases- which is exactly what we did!

Before leaving Matatlán, Giovani and Fernanda took us into town to visit El Pulquito. Pulque is the fermented sap of the maguey plant, it's not distilled and has about the same alcohol level as a beer. They also serve aguamiel which is the sap that is not fermented. All great! I bought some sal de Chapulin here also (grasshopper salt) which goes great with mezcal!

Giovani told us about a roadside grilled chicken spot for lunch, so we had Sami take us there and invited him to lunch with us before heading back to Oaxaca. Another great day tasting and learning about mezcal!

I also booked Sami to take me to the airport on my way out of Oaxaca. Highly recommend him as a private taxi!

**Don't forget! If you are heading out to do tastings 1) the majority of these maestros do not speak English, so unless you are fluent, have an English speaking guide or friend with you. 2) be sure to have cash. There will likely not be cash machines anywhere unless you are at a big tourist spot**

All Oaxaca photos here.

Other post from this trip:

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

All Around Oaxaca

Trip date: October 2023 

Oaxaca had been on my wish list to visit for so many years! I was super excited to go with my friend Aaron who had been 4 or 5 times before and absolutely loves the town. When he created an itinerary for us, made restaurant recommendations, arranged for private drivers, and booked our hotel rooms I felt like it was my birthday! As someone who is pretty much always researching and planning a few trips, this was truly a gift. Aaron and I have traveled a lot together over the years, and we have similar interests, so I knew I could trust all his choices competeley. 

Our flight from Mexico City on Aeromexico was just over an hour. At the airport we signed up for a shared taxi into town (there are no ride shares options around the area) and were dropped off at our hotel, Las Golondrinas about 1 hour after we had landed. 

We had 4 days in town, and 2 of them would be spent out in the palenques, tasting mezcal! More on that later. So we dropped our bags at the hotel, the rooms would be ready later in the afternoon, and walked around town on our way to lunch. The town is absolutely adorable with lots of bright colored 1 and 2-story buildings.

Our first lunch was at Cocina de Humo, Chef Thalia Barrios Garcia's newest restaurant. Similarly to sitting at a kitchen pass, everyone sits on one side of a long wooden table. The other side is what they call a smoke kitchen with traditional wood stoves and a hot comal. It was already warm that afternoon, and sitting right in front of all the open fire made me really hot!

Our chef served us 7-courses along with some traditional drinks like horchata and hibiscus tea. She toasted spices, roasted tomatoes and peppers, made fresh tortillas, mixed up sauces, etc. Everything was very good, and it was a really cool experience, but I felt uncomfortably full from eating so many varieties of corn! That would be an ongoing challenge throughout town! ha! 

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking off lunch at the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures, which is inside the monastery buildings adjoining the Templo de Santo Domingo. This museum contains treasures from the pre-Hispanic era up to the present. There is a library with 30,000 books, contents of a found tomb at Monte Albán, jewelry, earthenware, religious relics, etc.
It's a fascinating look at the culture and timeline of the people of the Oaxaca area! There are also some great views of the botanical gardens from the upstairs balconies.

We were ready for a little sit down before going out for the night, so headed back to the hotel and got checked into our rooms. Mine was huge! I also had a little covered porch, and the grounds throughout the courtyards were filled with plants and flowers. It's a very relaxing property!

That evening we started at El Destilado for a tasting of 5 Sentidos mezcal. This is such a cute spot, with a great rooftop terrace and lots of delicious sounding things on the menu. Unfortunately we were still so stuffed from lunch so we stuck to the mezcal, which was delicious!

5 Sentidos works directly with a small group of mezcal producers, called maestro mezcaleros, who are making exceptional spirits around Oaxaca. The company bottles and markets these mezcals but does not blend or alter them. You can make an appointment to do a formal tasting at their mezcaleria or here at their restaurant. 

As we were walking the short distance to Casa Oaxaca, we came across a traditional wedding parade called a Calenda. There were giant dolls called “Monos de Calenda”, musicians, traditionally dressed folk dancers, and of course the entire wedding party and their guests dancing and singing through the streets. It was such a cool thing to run into!

We made our way to the rooftop at Casa Oaxaca, where Aaron had made reservations, and continued watching the parade as it continued on below us. 

This is a stunning rooftop for dinner, right next to the Tempo Santo Domingo. We had excellent cocktails and a couple of light dishes that did not have any corn in them! ha!

Nightcap mezcals were had at Mezcaleria In Situ where Aaron's friend/bar owner Sandra helped us choose a few to taste. This mezcaleria also has a collection of maestros that they work with who are making traditional style agave spirits. Sandra is super knowledgeable and is happy to explain the differences of the styles. 

One evening we ate at Chef Thalia Barrios Garcia's other restaurant Levadura de Olla. Again, the use of heirloom masa's and vegetables and traditional cooking styles is the theme here, but this restaurant is more modern with creative interpretations and gorgeous plating. 

The do-not-miss dish is a huge platter of an assortment of Oaxacan tomatoes. It also has a beet puree, unfortunately for me who hates beets, but Aaron assured me that I could easily eat around the puree and he was right. It was a stunning dish with slightly different textures and tastes from each variety. 

I also had a tamale made with a local cheese and zucchini blossoms with 2 types of mole. I really liked this restaurant and if I were to choose just one of Chef's places to eat this is the one I would go to. 

Another restaurant where we had good dinner was at Origen. There was a little bit of the food being prettier than tastier, but not by a lot. the location is upstairs in one of the downtown buildings and the window balconies were open, letting in a lovely breeze and also faint sounds from the town below. Great ambience. 

The kitchen sent out an amuse to start, but it was either shellfish or pork, which Aaron doesn't eat and had mentioned when he made the reservation. So that was disappointing. But then we ordered a ceviche which was fresh and tasty and gorgeous to look at. 

My duck confit enchilada with mole was so dark it was basically a rich black puddle on my plate! It was delicious but the duck was a tad tough. 

I loved the cart of mezcals they brought around after dinner! We absolutely chose a couple!

Oaxaca isn't just a mezcal town though, there are also a few wonderful cocktail bars! 

Selva is absolutely my style of cocktail den. It's dim, with comfy leather furniture, funky artwork, and a beautiful bar. 

The creative cocktail menu pays homage to local ingredients, such as in my namesake Selva cocktail with mezcal, hoja santa, lemon, agave honey, chilli liquor, quesillo and basil, juniper bitters. It was gorgeous and tasty!

Another great spot for cocktails is Sabina Sabe. The bar has multiple rooms and feels slightly subterranean. The focus is on agave spirits but the talented staff can make off menu drinks with other spirits as well!

After my friend Aaron returned to LA, I had a couple of days on my own to explore the city. I set out to see some of the sights he and I hadn't had time for. First up was the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. 

Construction on this church started in 1535 and its had to be rebuilt a few times because of earthquakes. I wandered around inside for a bit before heading to the Zocalo which is the old main square. The buildings here are especially pretty and the park has multiple fountains and benches to relax on. 

While wandering around, I ended up in a very cool hat shop, Sombreros Alberly, which custom makes hats as well as custom fits hats they have in the shop for customers. I wasn't in the market for a hat but the selection was really impressive and the gentleman who was working was super nice.

I continued walking around, stopping in various galleries, shops selling spices, dried chilis, clothing, etc. There's also a fair amount of street art around which is fun.

For brunch, I headed to Boulenc which had been recommended to me. The space is really cool; it looks like it might have been an old warehouse at one time. It was a tad tough for me to spot as I didn't see signs from across the street but once I located the huge entrance door, I was seated upstairs after only about a 5 min wait.

I couldn't decide between the agua fresca of the day or the Mezcalita, so I got both. I also ordered their version of molletas, black beans and grilled cheese on their fresh baked Ciabatta bread instead of masa and with a trio of sauces; salsa, pico de gallo and crema.. delicious!  I had such a great meal here (& on a Monday!)
The restaurant is flanked by its bakery on one side and its cute little cafe/shop on the other. Great stuff, highly recommend checking them out! 

Back out to exploring, I headed to a new-to-me area of town and went to The Instituto de Artesanias Oaxaqueños or ARIPO. This is a government funded center with handicrafts from artisans all over the region. The building has different areas of ceramics, jewelry, clothing, art, etc. There's a courtyard in the center with some sculpture. It's really a great place to browse or shop!

This area is super cute and worth walking around even if your aren't checking out the galleries. But if you are gallery hopping, I'd suggest stopping in to CoOp 1050 also to take a look at some incredible pottery.

I loved just wandering around the city and exploring different shops and galleries. There is a lot of art in this town! I headed back towards the center and went up to the rooftop of the Hotel Los Amantes for a glass of wine with this view:

So gorgeous! Just a head's up that the prices up on this terrace were pretty high compared to the rest of the city, that view isn't free! But I enjoyed it. 

That evening I had dinner at Las Quince Letras, which also specializes in the region's chilis, mole, and corn. I started with some guacamole and chapulines (fried grasshoppers) which are a very traditional food of Oaxaca. 

Then I had one of the restaurant's specials, a Tlayuda which is also another Oaxacan specialty. Usually they are an open faced or folded, crunchy, toasted tortilla but this one was rolled up. It was filled with refried beans, cabbage, beef, and Oaxaca cheese.  

I decided to have a nightcap back at Sabina Sabe and as I walked down the streets, under the papel picado (traditional Mexican paper flags) gently swaying in the breeze, I thought how I had never felt unsafe by myself, not even at night, in Oaxaca. It really seems like a very safe town.
The next morning I had a bit of time before my hired taxi driver would pick me up and take me to the airport. I decided on street food for breakfast. But not just any street food... I made my way to Tacos del Carmen for a chorizo taco which cost me all of $1.20! Tacos here are rolled and hot off the comal. They have a handful of flavors, but I was told the chorizo is super and it was! When I was there the stand was busy with both locals and tourists, including a food tour.
Don't be fooled though, you'll see various "Carmen" stands around the block by Santo Domingo Church, so watch for the right banner! 

All photos from Oaxaca here.

Other post from this trip:

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

36 Hours in Mexico City

Trip date: October 2023

This trip was all about finally getting to Oaxaca with my friend Aaron, but as I had to fly through Mexico City to do that I decided to spend a quick 2 nights there. The first night I'd be on my own, and then Aaron would meet me the next. It had been 8 years since I had been last!

Currently there is only one direct flight a day from Seattle, available thru the Delta website and on Aeromexico metal. The direct flight was not offered on points so I just bought an Economy Comfort seat. 

I got lucky and no one was in the middle seat. I hadn't flown Aeromexico before and was impressed with the hot breakfast served. But what I was very surprised by was when I asked for a glass of wine and they let me know that there wasn't any beer or wine, just tequila, vodka, & rum served from large liter bottles on the 5 ½ hr flight! 

It was late afternoon when I landed and it was very easy to request an Uber to pick me up and take me to my hotel. I was staying at The Red Tree House in the Condesa neighborhood. This 21-room boutique hotel had been recommended to me by multiple people. It books up extremely quickly as almost everyone I met there was a repeat customer. 

I absolutely loved this hotel! My room was good, I was in the Frida room, but it's more about the interior courtyard garden where Happy Hour is served from 6-8pm nightly and breakfasts are served in the morning, the multiple communal spaces in the main house, and the incredibly nice employees. I highly recommend, but book far in advance. 

The Condesa neighborhood is very safe, but being solo for my first night I took Ubers to my destinations. Almost all my rides were about $5! Amazing!

My first stop that night was in the nearby Colonia Juarez neighborhood at Handshake Speakeasy, currently #3 on the 50 World's Best Bars list. It's important to make a reservation here as it's small and you will only be given a 90 minute time slot. I don't want to give anything away about the speakeasy, so I'll just say that I loved it, loved my cocktails, and would absolutely recommend it.

For dinner I headed to #49 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants, Rosetta. It's a beautiful space with tables set up in an open courtyard and soft lighting. And the menu reads deliciously. 

I was very excited for my elote tamales, but when they arrived (about 3 minutes after I ordered) they were barely lukewarm. My fresh fish baked in a salt crust arrived right as my partially eaten tamales were taken away. This was cooked well but the fish was very plain and only served on a bed of watercress. I had 1 glass of wine and a bottle of water and was presented with the check having been there for just 55 minutes. To say I felt rushed is an understatement. 

Recently a friend of mine also ate solo and had a horrible experience, while others in a party of 2 had a wonderful meal. Personally I think you can do much better in this culinary city and I'm not sure how the restaurant scored a coveted spot on the 50 Best list. YMMV

I left to have a nightcap at Fifty Mils, in the Four Seasons Hotel. This property is absolutely gorgeous!! As is the bar. 

The team behind the bar was just ok, they didn't know much about the brands on their shelves when I inquired. They were definitely more interested in chatting with each other than in the customers. I'd say it's a fine place if you are in the area and have a thing for hotel bars, like I do, but otherwise it's an expensive place for just an ok experience. 

The next morning I had a delicious breakfast in the garden area of my hotel. I helped myself to a buffet set in the dining room with fresh fruit, breads, yogurt, juice, and coffee while the women in the kitchen made me the morning's dish of chicken "enchilada". The manager Victor delivered it to me with a bowl of salsa and instructed me to eat it like a taco, with my hands.

It and the setting were excellent! 

Aaron would be arriving later in the morning so I went on a little stroll around Condesa to see more of the area in the daylight. The streets here are lined with trees and sidewalks cut through a series of small parks. It was cool and quiet and I could hardly believe I was in a city of over 22 million people! Mexico City is the 6th largest in the world!

On the main street, I passed by lots of street vendors selling all sorts of food and drinks. It was almost lunch time and the neighborhood was starting to smell delicious!

I headed back to the hotel and met up with Aaron and then we walked the short distance to our own lunch destination, the very busy Contramar. Reservations are absolutely essential here unless you are ok with an hour + wait. 

This is one of Mexico City's most famous restaurants to lunch at. The entire menu consists of seafood that has been caught and flown in the same day. Everything on the menu sounded so good! We started with ceviche of sole, celery & chile manzano and an order of their well-known tuna tostadas with chipotle mayonnaise, crispy leeks & avocado. Outstanding!

Our main was their famous pescado a la talla, a whole grilled fish, half with red adobo rub & half with parsley rub. It comes with tortillas so you can make a fish taco or just enjoy it on its own. It was absolutely fantastic, even though we couldn't finish it all!

Somehow we managed to share a piece of gorgeous meringue pie with fresh strawberries after! We also asked our waiter about assorted mini brandy glasses we saw on a lot of nearby tables. He explained it was a "Mexican Flag". One glass has fresh-squeezed lime juice (green), one has tequila (white), and the 3rd has Sangrita (red). You take sips from each of the glasses, combining the flavors in your mouth. It was a very fun and boozy way to end our 2 1/2 hour lunch. This place is fantastic, I highly recommend! 

Back at the hotel we joined the other guests for glasses of happy hour wine, everyone comparing their days/trips/etc. It was a really nice group of people. Then we were off to check out another cocktail bar!

Hanky Panky Speakeasy, currently #22 on the World's 50 Best Bars list, is not easy to find! Luckily a passerby on the street pointed us in the right direction after we exited our Uber and started looking on the wrong side of the street. Again, I don't want to spoil anything so I will not comment on how to enter. 

We had a great time here, and really good drinks! Another one I'd recommend!

It seemed impossible but after a couple of rounds we both were feeling a bit hungry. So we headed to El Califa where you can order your tacos costras, cheese that has been griddled and is crispy. YUM!
The salsas here are also particularly good! This is a big, bright restaurant that stays open until 4am. But the food is really good and I'm a sucker for crispy cheese. I ate here the last time I was in town also!

The next morning we were up early for our flight to Oaxaca after a quick breakfast of fresh fruit and churros at the hotel. It was very quiet at the airport so we had an hour to hang out in the Priority Pass Lounge where I had some chilaquiles and a mimosa. 

Unbeknownst to me, I would be back in CDMX 5 days later for an extra night, thanks to Aeromexico delaying my flight out of Oaxaca causing me to miss my connection in MEX. They put me up in a really not-so-great hotel BUT it was right across the street from Handshake Speakeasy! 

I quickly made a reservation on OpenTable and spent the evening enjoying a few more of their lovely cocktails!

When I did fly home the next day, I checked out the Amex Centurion Lounge at MEX. There was a line to get in and it was very busy inside. I sat at the bar and had some really bad food. If you are in MEX I'd choose the Priority Pass Lounge over the Centurion!

I had purchased my return flight home by transferring Amex points to Aeromexico for a First Class seat. Even though they were able to put me on a flight the next day, it was only in Economy which was frustrating since I burned those miles. I reached out to Aeromexico when I was home, asking for reimbursement of the miles I spent and also compensation for the loss of a work day. They ended up giving me $300 but no miles. I will not willingly choose to fly with them again. I mean the fact that they don't offer wine on a flight alone is enough for me to feel that way!

All photos of Mexico City here

Other post from this trip:


Mezcal Day Trips Around Oaxaca

Trip date: October 2023  Oaxaca isn't just a city in Mexico, it is also a state. And in this state 90% of the mezcal in Mexico is produc...

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