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:

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