Best All-Around Restaurant
La Biznaga is perfection. Casa Oaxaca has wonderful food, but La Biznaga is even better and in a classy, yet casual setting. It’s nueva cocina, traditional Mexican food with smart, interesting modern touches, but without ever losing respect for the traditional. Don’t be deterred by the “nice restaurant” prices—the portions are big, and no one will care, including you, if you just order an appetizer for dinner. You’ll be particularly happy if you order the Trilogia Mixteca, an unbelievable appetizer sampler that includes quesillo wrapped in a hoja santa leaf, a memelita with beans and queso fresco, a fried little cone stuffed with jamaica in refreshingly picante guacamole, and even a little blob of simple yet delicious beans. But if you are hungry for more, other dishes I’ve loved are the mushroom soup, the chicken stuffed with peppers and squash blossoms in a chile poblano sauce and the chicken stuffed with plaintains in a guava mole sauce. I almost never order chocolate dessert, but their chocolate mousse I would happily eat over and over.
And if La Biznaga is closed, I would go to Zandunga for istmeno food. A plate of garnachas and a beer is good eating! But if you want more, we also tried and liked the estofada, chicken stewed with fruits and vegetables, all sort of mixed together. Don’t be turned off by the fact that it looks like a pile of turd, it’s good.
Best Comida Corrida
I went several times to La Olla on Reforma between Abasolo and Constitucion for their comida corrida and was disappointed only once. It’s a pleasant, brightly lit restaurant, and everything comes prepared and plated with finesse, but it’s only 70 pesos for a 4-course meal, plus an agua of fruit. Nothing will blow your mind, but almost everything is tasty and comforting, starting with the excellent tortilla chips, bread and salsa. My favorites off the menu are the pasilla chile stuffed with cheese and beans and the tlayuda azteca, a big thick, almost tough but very Oaxacan tortilla which you can ask to have spread with half red mole and half black mole, and then the chicken, avocado, and tomatoes.
I tried various set lunch deals at other places, but nowhere else was particularly noteworthy, other than El Escapulario on Garcia Vigil north of Carranza. It’s more of a hole-in-the-wall, and not something to make space in your schedule for, but if you're here for awhile and want to get a good meal for 35 pesos, El Escapulario is a good place to go.
If you go to Puerto Escondido, definitely the old man selling shellfish out of his bucket on Playa Carrizalillo. But if you want to eat someplace a little more regulated, Marco Polo on El Llano was one of the few places I went more than once. A long-time American resident in Oaxaca told me that Sushi Itto in the zocalo isn’t bad, but when I said I would go try it, she hastened to add that I shouldn’t bother, it’s only acceptable for people who are truly stuck in Oaxaca.
Best Place for Bar Snacks
La Biche Pobre closes before dinner time, but if you need an excuse to drink in the afternoon—I don’t—their fried pork is an excellent excuse. There are other snacks that are tasty, but the fried pork is sublime.
I, sadly, did not get to try very many cantinas, places where they bring you free food with your booze. El Paseo’s food was so-so. I wish I had tried La Farola, advertised as the oldest cantina in Oaxaca, complete with swinging doors, but I never got around to it. La Farola is reputed to serve El Rey Zapoteco, my favorite brand of mezcal.
Best Place to Eat on a Cold and Rainy Night
I thought Patty’s pozole was the best, though it might have been the heady thrill of trying it for the first time, but if you’re not staying with her and her family, you can find warming pozole at La Gran Torta, open from 7 pm to 2 am, on Porfirio Diaz between Morelos and Independencia (closed on Tuesdays). They serve three kinds, Jalisco (white), Guerrero (green), and Michoacan (red). The Guerrero comes with chicharrones and avocado, as well as your choice of meat, but the Michoacan is more warming and spicy.