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At the bottom of a quiet street in Colonia Reforma, a neighborhood located in the northern-central area of Oaxaca City which hides many of the city’s best-kept food secrets, we find Garnachas La Güera. While the area is characterized by its quiet, residential streets, this restaurant is a small paradise where joy, music and good food transport you to the tropics.

Garnachas La Güera specializes in food from Juchitán, a village in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, close to Oaxaca’s southeastern coast and the border with the neighboring state of Chiapas. If Oaxaca is a state, Juchitán is like its own country within it. There, among wild rainforest landscapes, time has a different pace and people love to celebrate afternoons together, enjoying a tropical lifestyle, where hammocks, freshly cooked food and cold beers are a must in every juchitecan household. For many more reasons than just food, Juchitán is one of the most authentic symbols of Oaxaca’s diversity: women oversee most economic and familiar matters, the indigenous Zapotec culture is embraced and its language (Isthmus Zapotec) is spoken everywhere. If this wasn’t enough, muxes, (a Zapotec word for people, males by birth who dress, behave or identify as women) have been playing an active role in society for at least 40 years. Although small in surface, this village is a huge example and pioneer when it comes to sexual diversity activism in Mexico.

While Juchitán and the Isthmus play a key role in Oaxacan culture, its food is quite underrepresented among the long list of Oaxacan restaurants in the city, which focus mainly on food from the Central Valleys region. Gloria Escudero Jiménez, age 58, aims to share a bit of Juchitán at Garnachas La Güera, which she has been running for the last 29 years. “I think God left something special in Juchitán, and I brought with me here, to this little corner,” affirms Gloria. Her energetic nature and generosity reflect the character of juchitecan women. All dressed up in the Isthmus traditional attire, she sits with us to share some of her life stories, without neglecting other tables and her staff. “When I got married, my husband told me my duty was to stay at home. I refused, and my mother encouraged me to stay active. I decided to start a food business,” she explains. “I wanted to sell garnachas, one of the most representative foods of Juchitán. But 30 years ago, most vallistas [as people born in the city and surrounding area are called] didn’t know what they were, so I started giving them away to attract customers.”

In Mexico City, as well as in other parts of the country, garnacha is the term used for all sorts of deep-fried snacks, which are often unidimensional. Juchitán’s garnachas are a whole different story. They are cookie-sized deep-fried tortillas topped with tender, seasoned beef, covered with chipotle salsa and the Isthmus’s celebrated aged cheese, which is made with cow’s milk and later air-dried, a traditional Oaxacan method of preservation. The result is a dry cheese that crumbles easily, with a higher concentration of salt and flavors. Finally, the garnachas are served with a pickled cabbage relish on the side, which helps balance the strong umami flavors in each bite.

Gloria’s generous giveaway strategy proved to be successful. Her garnachas attracted Juchitán expats and vallistas alike. She faced a setback when her now ex-husband decided to change the concept of the business, selling grilled meats instead of garnachas. When these changes proved unsuccessful, Gloria retook the reigns, eventually opening in a new location with her same original concept. She came back stronger than ever. “I have been cooking since I was eight years old,” she shares. “I remember I was so tiny that I would pile up some bricks in front of the stove and cook standing on them. I love to work, and nothing and no one is going to stop me. Today I am here, stronger, truer to myself and to my roots.” To revive the restaurant, she expanded the menu to include other typical dishes from her hometown with a slight twist of her own, like pollo garnachero (chipotle bathed fried chicken), deep-fried cream cheese balls, camarones con aderezo (seasoned shrimp with Gloria’s secret sauce), slow oven cooked fish, and dried shrimp dishes. She also offers a small but powerful list of desserts, with corn bread, plantain patties covered with sour cream and fresh cheese, the traditional eatorreja (a traditional dish similar to French toast, bathed with a wild honey based syrup) and, of course, the famous curado, a dessert of green mango and prunes curated in sugarcane liqueur – the sweetest drunkenness ever.

Garnachas La Güera’s team, led by Gloria, is like a well-oiled machine made up of a group of fearless women, all relatives: Gloria’s sisters and daughters help in the kitchen, while her son oversees administrative and social media operations. Everything is made in-house or brought from a specific vendor in Juchitán. All the ingredients are meticulously selected, and all the recipes are from all the women in their family that came before them. Nothing leaves the kitchen without Gloria’s unparalleled sazón (“seasoning”; her personal mark): flavors are tempered, well balanced. The sauces are not heavy, instead they are rich but still light and tangy. Gloria is not a fan of overly spiced and spicy flavors “Food is meant to be enjoyed by everyone, children and adults alike,” she explains. “I cook in the same old style my grandma and her friends did in Juchitán. I’ve realized: the simpler, the better. Of course, there is always room for a little innovation or addition.” Gloria’s standards are shared by her daughter, who is a trained professional cook. Together, mother and daughter are taking La Güera to new heights, improving the presentation of the dishes and adding fresh salads with edible flowers and bold dressings to contrast the more complex dishes.

In the city, La Güera is indeed a little corner of the tropical Isthmus. The food is a mirror of that region spreading behind the valley mountains: scrumptious and exuberant, wild and juicy, sweet and sour. People from all over the Isthmus of Tehuantepec living in the capital agree that La Güera is the most authentic eatery serving food from the Isthmus, both in terms of food and ambience – the always present cumbias and traditional live music are the perfect match for great food, cold beers and strong mezcal. “My fellow country-people love coming here. We do things like we do in Juchitán. We don’t waste music and let it play dully while we sit and chat, we dance and laugh!” says Gloria, her gold earrings aglow against her dark hair. After years of hard work, Gloria – now divorced – and her children have managed to build an idyllic space where the weather feels gentle, the food is comforting, and the women are happy.

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María ÍtakaJalil Olmedo

Published on October 27, 2022

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