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Oaxaca’s street food scene has surprises for us every day of the week. From breakfast to lunch, we can find plenty of stalls with a plethora of options: eggs, tamales, tortas, tacos, hot drinks, juices and more. However, when sunset bathes the streets of the historic center, most of these stalls are disassembled into heaps of tarps, letting esquites, burger and hot dog stands take over the night shift. Fortunately, this is not the case for Empanadas del Carmen Alto, a classic among locals for serving up daytime dishes until midnight.

The menu at Empanadas del Carmen Alto is succinct: memelas (thick corn tortillas topped with various ingredients), the famous empanadas de amarillo (calzone-like corn tortillas filled with chicken and mole amarillo) and squash blossom or mushroom quesadillas. Sundays see a delicious addition to the regular menu: mole verde empanadas and pork rib tacos.

Out of the eight kinds of mole that are native to Oaxaca, the amarillo mole is the most versatile. There are hundreds of versions, and unlike other moles recipes, mole amarillo can be cooked with a considerable variety of aromatic herbs and proteins without losing its core flavors. Depending on the region of the state, amarillo can be seasoned with green herbs like epazote, pitiona or hoja santa. When it comes to protein, this mole can be paired with beef, chicken, turkey, pork, mushrooms, fish and even shrimp. The chile part is where things get specific: though chile costeño, chilhuacle amarillo and many others are optional, we cannot miss the guajillo.

The green mole, on the other hand, has a more herbal taste because of its chlorophyll-charged components: parsley, cilantro, hoja santa and fresh chile serrano. In this case, the hierba santa is mandatory, and pork or chicken are the best add-ins. While anyone can experiment with different interpretations of these classic recipes, not everyone can pull together moles verde and amarillo that will captivate locals and foreigners the way the Ortiz Pacheco Family has been doing for almost 60 years.

After 57 years, Empanadas del Carmen Alto has become a strategic stop for hungry workers heading for their evening shifts at hotels or bars, tourists wandering the Historic Center, locals with evening cravings and, of course, people looking for a hearty meal before getting the party started.

In 1965, Erminia Bautista founded the empanadas stall in the plaza outside of Iglesia del Carmen Alto, just across the street from where the four-generation family business is today. “When my great-grandmother started this business, she would grind everything by hand in her metate (mealing stone) – from the corn for the tortillas, to the seeds and spices for the mole – and then cook everything in with wood-burning fire. This is how she developed the recipes we still use to this day,” Sandra Ortiz explains. The 46-year-old is in charge of the stall, which has no official name and yet is still famous city-wide.

After 57 years, Empanadas del Carmen Alto has become a strategic stop for hungry workers heading for their evening shifts at hotels or bars, tourists wandering the Historic Center, locals with evening cravings and, of course, people looking for a hearty meal before getting the party started. The combination of the stall’s hours of operation and offerings is so unusual in the Oaxacan food scene, that we can’t help but think they are the pioneers of the “all-day brunch” concept. Though the stall is technically open till midnight, Sandra often runs out of food well before, and often closes up shop by 11pm. When we asked her why they chose to open at 5pm, her answer was not the “business strategy” explanation we expected.

“My great-aunt, Lucina Pacheco, took over the business after my great-grandmother retired. Lucina felt more comfortable opening late because she could take her time preparing all the food without rushing the cooking process, which takes hours – particularly in the case of the moles and the corn nixtamalization. She was very strict and meticulous. For her, cooking from scratch and with serenity was the secret to her amazing flavors,” Sandra explains behind her double mask, as she places some squash blossoms inside a quesadilla.

The tools and fuel might have modernized, but the recipes remain. “All the family comes together to taste the food, and we collectively decide if it’s up to the standards of the Doñas [Erminia and Lucina] or not,” Sandra says. “If an ingredient is missing or there is a mistake in the technique, we start all over again. That’s the way my great-grandma and great-aunt taught us.” After years of stopping by the stall and getting to know members of the Ortiz Pacheco family, we can safely say that the secret to their food, particularly the empanadas, is the respect the family has for the process and the original recipes.

No doubt, the group effort has proved to be successful. The mix of spices such as cumin, clove, hierba santa and guajillo, all cooked slowly, allows the ingredients to blend properly, creating a depth that awakens the palates of surprised dinners. The same holds true for the dough used for the tortillas and memelas. The corn is selected and then nixtamalized everyday with such care and experience that we are graced with moist, sweet tortillas. “It is hard to believe that all this explosion of flavors is contained in a dish that looks so simple,” says Adriana, a devoted stall diner for over 25 years who joins in our conversation.

Besides the beloved empanadas, we are charmed by the character of the memelas. “We only used to sell memelas in their original version, which is basically with pork lard, quesillo cheese and some spicy tomato salsa on top. That’s it,” Sandra says. “We added beans by popular demand – but I will happily fix you an original!” As much as we enjoy our memelas with meat and veggie toppings, we are tempted by the look in her eyes. “My father used to say this was the only place where he could still find the memelas and empanadas of his childhood. Imagine that,” Adriana retorts, as she and her daughter finish eating their own memelas and quesadillas.

Adriana’s words clearly reflect the values and mission of this business: to be guardians of a taste and style of Oaxacan food in its most raw and ancient form. As we sit on our stools under the light of the stall, caressed by the cool night air, we are reminded of a lighthouse – a landmark guiding hungry dwellers of the night. Perhaps they have come for the convenience of a quick evening meal, but they end up auditing a masterclass: The Fundamentals of Oaxacan Gastronomy. The Ortiz Pacheco family knows, when it comes to food, old school is the only institution worth attending.

María ÍtakaJalil Olmedo

Published on September 29, 2021

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