Hearty Memelas, a Breakfast Staple, in Oaxaca - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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In Oaxaca, having a proper, hearty breakfast and also being on the go are not necessarily contradictory things. Memelas de San Agustín, an easy-going spot that has been feeding hungry Oaxacans for at least 15 years, is living proof.

This small stall doesn’t have an official name – people just started referring to it this way since it’s located right behind the Iglesia de San Agustín on Fiallo Street. But it’s become a beloved destination for delicious versions of its namesake dish – essentially thick corn tortillas that are pinched around the edges and in the middle, making the texture slightly uneven so that their toppings (and their juices) stay in place – as well as surprising number of other items coming out of what is a streetside kitchen, among them Oaxacan-style empanadas filled with moles and chicken, champurrado (a thick hot chocolate-corn drink) and aguas frescas flavored with hibiscus and horchata.

Owner Audelia Melgar Cruz started out with a simple stall in November 1984. She only had a small table, a little wooden portable stove (anafre), a comal (a large round griddle, often made of clay), and all the recipes she had learned from her great-grandmother, which included tinga de pollo (shredded chicken cooked with tomato and guajillo), papa con chorizo (potato and chorizo) and, the crown jewel, salpicón.

Although salpicón used to be quite popular years ago, it’s less so nowadays. We can’t quite figure out the reason behind its fall from grace, as it’s a very versatile dish: A cold salad made of cooked shredded beef, onion, cilantro, tomato and lots of avocado, it manages to be both hearty and fresh. But Doña Audelia understands the beauty of salpicón, which is why her place is one of the very few in the city where you can find it.

She only had a small table, a little wooden portable stove (anafre), a comal, and all the recipes she had learned from her great-grandmother

Every single dish at Memelas de San Agustín, salpicón included, is made daily from scratch. For many years, Doña Audelia did it all herself: She bought the ingredients in Oaxaca’s wholesale Mercado de Abastos, worked her magic in the makeshift kitchen, and pampered her clients. These days she’s only at her stand every other Sunday; the rest of the time her children run the stall, taking care to continue their mother’s legacy and style. Of course, it should go without saying that Audelia thoroughly trained each one of them.

From Monday to Saturday, Memelas de San Agustín is a non-stop parade of people from all walks of life – tourists, neighbors, students, office workers, lawyers and others. Breakfast time (8 a.m. to noon) is the busiest, but we have always found food up until 5 p.m. (on Sundays they close at 3 p.m.). But the chances of finding tinga or salpicón that late are very low, so we recommend getting there early. Two other dishes that also run out quickly are Memelas San Agustín’s vegetarian and vegan offerings: string cheese and squash blossom empanadas (the Oaxacan version looks more like a giant quesadilla), as well as mushroom and cactus memelas.

Memelas and empanadas are incredibly common fare in Oaxaca, but the ones from Memelas San Agustín are outstanding for reasons that are hard to put in words. It all comes down to the flavor, so going there and eating the whole menu is perhaps the only way to understand why this place has been up and running for over three decades. Other Oaxacan specialties like black mole may be more complex, but the freshness of the ingredients and the depth of the flavors found in the specialties at Agustín belie their simplicity.

Just like Mercedes Sosa sings, “We always go back to the old places where we loved life,” Memelas San Agustín’s clients, both old and new, have many reasons to keep coming back to enjoy Doña Audelia’s creations. There is a special touch in her recipes and cooking style that makes people feel like they are having breakfast at home – a kind of comfort that helps ease them into the day.

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María ÍtakaJalil Olmedo

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