Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Very Subjective Best of Oaxaca Guide, Part II

Best Market

The most unbelievable one in Oaxaca City proper is Mercado Abastos, which is literally labyrinthine.

Mercado 20 de noviembre and Mercado Juarez south of the zocalo are definitely worth visiting, as they are always bustling with a huge array of stuff, from leather sandals to mole pastes to nieves to piñatas. Ocotlan and Tlacolula are two exciting pueblo markets, held on Friday and Sunday, respectively, that sprawl with plenty of live animals, turkeys, rabbits, goats.

Rick Bayless raves about the tamales and empanadas at Mercado de la Merced, about 8 blocks east of the zocalo, but I’ve never been because I had my own neighborhood market: Mercado Sanchez Pascuas. It’s situated between Tinoco y Palacios and Porfirio Diaz just north of Quetzalcoatl. It can seem really dead in the afternoons, but if you go in the mornings, especially on Saturday or Sunday, it's bustling with people doing their daily marketing. This is not a country that shops once a week for groceries. In addition to the stands selling meat, fruit, cheese, and bread, there are vendors who just set up tarps outside the western entrance, selling whatever they brought in that day from their village, like roses, chiles de agua, and giant fava beans. There are two tamale sellers, the one in the middle of the meat section and another with a little table by the empanada/memela ladies near the western entrance. The one in the middle has the better tamal de mole, wrapped in banana leaf with mole negro and chicken, but the one on at the entrance has a great tamal de salsa verde, very fresh and bright.

The Mercado Organico at El Pochote on Fridays and Saturdays is also terrific, but I don’t think of it as a true market, as there’s very little fresh produce. There is, however, some of the best street food in Oaxaca, and safe for sensitive gringo stomachs. You can also buy good Real Minera brand mezcal, from a sweet man who will pour a very generous taster of anything you want to try. The Anejo and the Reserva, I think are particularly good, and the cremas, which are sweet versions flavored with everything from passionfruit to coffee, are good alternatives for people who don’t really want to be drinking mezcal. I almost always bought breads (especially the long, flat pizza-flatbreads) and Korean take-out food from Alegria de Angelis, and frequently bought the maracuya-coffee jam, the organic coffee, and pottery. The one man who consistently sells fresh produce has very beautiful lettuce and other greens, right inside the door, though it goes fast, and there are always people with unusual, striking native flowers outside the doors the same days. Don’t bother showing up before 9:30 or even 10, though—you’re in Mexico.

Mercado Hidalgo on Emilio Carranza, a block north of Belisario Dominguez, in Colonia Reforma has beautiful produce, but it’s a little out of the way for most tourists.

Best Supermarket

When you need toilet paper, dish detergent, peanut butter, and unsweetened, plain yogurt: Gigante. The one in Colonia Reforma is the spiffiest, but the one a couple of blocks west of the Basilica de la Soledad on Independencia is probably closer for most tourists.

If I just need a few things, I like going to Pitico, which is a small grocery chain scattered throughout the city, bigger than a bodega but smaller than Gigante, which is sort like Kmart. I’ve bought good chorizo there, decent produce, as well as things like paper towels, but I’ve only seen Alpura brand, unsweetened yogurt at Gigante.

Even though nearly all yogurt is sweetened (and watch out if it says “no sugar,” as it could be sweetened with Splenda), all the granola I’ve tried in Oaxaca, just bought at grocery stores, has been surprisingly unsweet and very good.

Best Bread

The vendor furthest north, or furthest to the right as you’re facing the Tinoco y Palacios entrance at Mercado Sanchez has good bread, chewy and flavorful, my favorites being the flat rolls with sesame seeds on top and the large cinnamon-raisin breads with brioche-like topknots, but only in the mornings. Pan & Co., on Constitucion at the corner of Garcia Vigil, has very good bread, including one of the best ciabattas I’ve ever had, but it’s “European artisanal style,” not Mexican. I am very fond of Fidel Integral on 20 de noviembre, south of Hidalgo, which makes whole-wheat breads that don’t taste like cardboard.

Best Coffee

Mexico produces some of the best coffee in the world, but the highest-quality tends to get exported to the U.S. and Europe, as Mexico doesn’t have the coffee culture of Italy, France, or even Starbucks-America. If you are a coffee-lover, your ordinary cup in Oaxaca will probably taste a little feeble, though if you get a chance, the traditional café de olla, flavored with piloncillo or unrefined sugar and cinnamon, can be good and strong. A lot of the little fondas in the markets will just use instant Nescafe. It is possible, though, to find places in Oaxaca that serve Mexico’s best, called Pluma Hidalgo. These two are my favorites:

1) El Pochote Mercado Organico, the woman with the stand farthest north, selling also whole-bean and ground coffee called “Maravilla de Araguz”

2) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala.

I’ve heard Coffee Beans on Garcia Vigil, next to Café Brujula, also serves Pluma Hidalgo, and Café Antigua on Reforma north of Constitucion is also popular.

Best Street Food

So good you feel like you’re going to faint, and so hot they made my nose run: empanadas de mole amarillo and tacos de chile relleno next to Iglesia Carmen de Arriba on Garcia Vigil. But almost everything at Mercado Organico is also fantastic, especially the tostadas, the mole enchiladas, and the mole tlayuda, made with what the vendors say is a Zapotecan-style of mole. I love the tamales at Mercado Sanchez, especially the ones sold from the center of the room with the meat vendors. And I will always feel a special fondness for Sra Angelita’s esquites and elotes on the western side of El Llano (Parque Juarez), as that was where I had my first street food.

Best nieves, aguas, and paletas

If the woman selling yogurt and fruit tarts at Mercado Organico is selling strawberry-flavored nieve, get it! Otherwise, they are good but not like you’re going to die. In general, I’ve never had bad nieve, from Chonita in Mercado Juarez to El Niagara near the Basilica de Soledad to the beaches in Puerto Escondido.

The best paletas are at Popeye’s. You’ll see the orange carts all over town and there’s a proper outlet on the southside of El Llano. I tried a paleta at Michoacan once, and there was something sort of metallic-tasting, though it may not be fair to judge it based on one paleta. My favorite flavors are cajeta, nuez, sandia, fresa, y chocolate.

And of course, Aguas de Casilda.

Best Chocolate

Everyone I respect agrees that Chocolate Mayordomo has the best chocolate, even if it is the most commercial and widely marketed. I always took visitors to the one on Mina, between 20 de noviembre and Miguel Cabrera, south of Mercado 20 de noviembre, because it’s bright and spacious with samplers in easy reach. It smells really good, too.

I didn’t taste much prepared mole while I was there, but I am planning to take some home from Chocolates de Guelaguetza and Chocolates de Soledad, based on Patty’s and Soledad’s recommendations. It's easy to end up with mole that's too sweet so be sure to taste a sample before buying, it's normal.

Desserts in Oaxacan restaurants, especially for the set-lunch, can be disappointing, but I had addictively delicious chocolate desserts at La Biznaga and Casa Oaxaca, and I am the kind of person who sneers at molten chocolate cake.

Best Wireless Café

All of these have good, strong signals with plenty of seats. Where I went depended on what I wanted to eat. I would probably give a slight edge to Café los Cuiles for having the broadest menu, as well as alcohol. I like having a beer while I write, don’t you?

1) Café Los Cuiles on Abasolo between Alcala and 5 de mayo, across from the handicrafts plaza. Nothing to write home about, but dependable, decent food and excellent Oaxacan hot chocolate.
2) Café Brujula on Garcia Vigil just north of Allende. The nicest, smiliest staff ever and my favorite drink in Oaxaca, pepe y limonada con agua mineral, cucumber-lime juice with carbonated water.
3) Nuevo Mundo on M. Bravo between Porfirio Diaz and Alcala. Uncomfortable chairs, sort of metal-café style, but very laid-back, nice staff, and excellent coffee.

Best Cooking Class

Sra Soledad Ramirez, who teaches at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca and will teach private classes upon request, is a Oaxacan grandmother to all who know her.

Seasons of My Heart, with Susana Trilling in Etla, is a completely different experience. Not quite like being in a Oaxacan abuela’s home, but also a lot of fun. Susana is not a Oaxacan grandmother, but knowledgeable nonetheless, and just tasting the hand-harvested salt from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and tasting the excellent El Rey Zapoteco mezcal is exhilarating.

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