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Culinarily speaking, 2023 was irreverent and loud. It tasted like salty melted cheese, fried beef, hot sauces, sour lime-flavored water, tropical fruits, and beer – lots of hoppy beer. While Oaxaca’s top restaurants kept it classy and stylish, the groovy craft beer bars, as well as the buzzing market and street food stalls told a frantic story of crowded seats, euphoric clients and scrumptious food and drinks.

This year’s Best Bites include recipes, dishes or drinks that proved to us there are no limits or assigned spaces for gastronomic evolution. In the realm of food, true culinary art knows no distinction and no matter where they come from, flavors will be flavors. – María Ítaka

Those of us living in Oaxaca have witnessed this always-bustling city bustle even more over the course of 2023: daily, the downtown’s thoroughfares spill over with locals and visitors alike, in search of adventure, fine arts, potent mezcal and, of course, delicious food. There’s no shortage of any of these things in Oaxaca, but the city is known all over Mexico and abroad for its abundance of the latter: everything from informal street food snacks to some of the finest white-tablecloth dining in this part of the world. So while it’s a formidable challenge to single out just a few dishes that have pleased our taste buds over the past year, we’re up to the task. Here are our favorite Oaxacan bites and sips of 2023.  – Lauren Rothman

Late-Night Burgers at The Original Cangreburger

In the last five years, the original Cangreburgers, located in the Historic Center, has been building a reputation as one of the best street stalls for late night food. However, thanks to its renewed recipe, affordable prices and extended serving hours, 2023 became the year in which Cangreburgers’s popularity skyrocketed. What used to be a couple small groups of people on January nights quickly transformed to huge lines of customers disrupting the traffic between Murguia and 5 de Mayo Streets on what’s now known as “Kangreburger corner” as the year comes to a close.

Caleb, the owner, is in charge of preparing the burgers and hot dogs – but not just any burgers or hotdogs. They have a unique touch that combines gooey quesillo and juicy meat with generous toppings such as crispy bacon, caramelized onions, and grilled pineapple, as well as a big array of spicy sauces to pour at will. Oaxaca’s historic center is the busiest area in town, so the huge number of people working late, tourists and partygoers have found in the original Cangreburgers a reliable source of comforting food that can be as deliciously layered as any dish inside a restaurant. Except for its cost, there is nothing moderate about Cangreburgers, and that’s precisely their charm. Caleb knows he must feed a very hungry crowd, and he certainly delivers. – María Ítaka

Aguas Frescas: Lime-Chia and Horchata Water at Casilda

Spring of 2023 was overwhelmingly hot, and plain water was not enough. Nothing seemed to quench our thirst except for aguas frescas, especially the hyperfresh, sweet-and-sour lime-chia water and the velvety, restorative horchata (rice water) with pieces of chopped walnut and cantaloupe. These are two of the most popular fruit-flavored waters for pairing lunch both in Oaxacan households and in the fondas, casual restaurants serving comida corrida. Preparing either one of these waters will only take around five ingredients – easily found in every pantry – and a maximum of 20 minutes.

However, in those moments when heat, exhaustion or the lack of our own kitchen didn’t allow us to prepare a hydrating remedy ourselves, Aguas Casilda was always there, providing us with all sorts of flavored aguas frescas: lime-chia and horchata, of course, but also pineapple, orange, cucumber, mango, and many more. All year long, the two stalls occupied by Aguas Casilda inside Benito Juarez Market bustle with people taking a break to hydrate, chat or relax after shopping. The fruit-flavored water menu is extensive and adapts to the different seasons. Whether we are looking for a refreshment on hot spring day or a vitamin-charged elixir as the hot-cold-hot-cold Oaxacan winter approaches, Casilda stands glowing, like an oasis in the desert. – María Ítaka

La Güera’s Bite-sized Garnachas

The most accessible kind of food that can be found in Oaxaca City is the food from the Central Valley Region, which is characterized by its smoky flavors, black bean paste, and pungent herbs like hoja santa, chepiche or avocado leaf. The options, however, are much wider. We started this year with the intention of expanding our food panorama beyond the Central Valley. We succeeded by answering the call to explore the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region with garnachas as our ticket. These bite-sized deep-fried tortillas topped with beef, aged cheese, chipotle sauce and served with a relish of fermented carrot and cabbage can only be found in Isthmus specialty restaurants and eateries. Not everyone can make a proper mouthwatering garnacha, but we found our happy place: La Güera.  Located north of the city, in Colonia Reforma, La Güera is a portal to enter another dimension, without leaving the city. Its lively vibe, tropical music and garnachas – among other dishes – are the perfect reminder that a whole world awaits somewhere over the mountains. – María Ítaka

Outstanding Oaxacan Craft Beers

Throughout 2023, Oaxaca’s craft beer producers helped us to demystify the idea that pairing menus are exclusive to fine dining restaurants or expensive drinks. Their delicious creations, either bottled and sold in restaurants or served directly from the tap in their own tasting rooms, were particularly outstanding this year. On one hand, local brewers actively promoted a pairing culture where beer takes a leading role. Oaxaca Brewing Co. offers a meticulously designed food menu meant to complement or enhance their beers, like their signature hoppy and memorable West Coast IPA, while Don Guanabana – and their refreshing session IPA – and Consejo Cervecero – with their solid Stout and APA – expanded their presence in Oaxaca’s restaurants and bars, issuing menu-pairing recommendations. These brands offered an extensive selection, and beers were consistent in flavor and texture: Stouts, IPAs, session IPAs, West Coast IPAs, lagers, brown and sour ales. Other craft beer projects have popped up as well, like Flor de Lupulo or Tumba 7, that are constantly experimenting with exciting concoctions, like black IPAs, porter bourbons and mead. Together, they are changing the conceptions around beer drinking, shifting from an activity done in autopilot to a more thoughtfully paced tasting experience – one that can be enjoyed in big restaurants, but more importantly in unassuming warmly lit bars with pop music and lots of energy. After all, beer is the most democratic alcoholic drink of all. – María Ítaka


La Flamita Mixe’s Stuffed Baked Potato

While fans of Oaxaca’s often-complex gastronomy abound, many of those admirers would readily admit that this is not really the land of the taco. The city surely does not lack in the delicious corn masa-based snacks known as antojitos – literally, “little cravings” – but tlayudas, the oversized tortillas stuffed with melty quesillo cheese and memelas, the thick, griddled tortillas served open-faced with a ladling of a variety of stews known as guisos happen to shine brighter than the selection of tacos available here.

One exception to that rule is the taco joint La Flamita Mixe, located in Oaxaca’s refined Reforma neighborhood. Known and loved by many a local taco eater, the taquería’s specialty is al pastor: marinated, heavily spiced slices of pork leg and loin that are stacked up on a spit—much like a gyro—and rotated around a gas flame until perfectly tender on the inside yet nice and charred on the outside.

You can’t go wrong with an order of tacos at La Flamita Mixe, but just as many diners flock to the restaurant for its outrageously delicious stuffed baked potato. A medium-sized russet potato that’s baked until tender, split open and loaded with mozzarella-like quesillo, the tater is then heaped with a generous mountain of juicy al pastor meat all browned and crispy at its edges. Finished off at the table with a spoonful of the taquería’s fiery housemade salsa roja and its creamy, cooling guacamole, this loaded potato is fatty, spicy, and oh-so-satisfying. Served with a generous side of small, warm tortillas, the potato can be enjoyed as tacos if you want to split the difference at dinnertime. – Lauren Rothman

Ricardi’s Soft, Smoky and Spreadable Chintextle Goat Cheese

When thinking of Mexican cheeses, the ones that first come to mind might be queso fresco—the mild, salty, crumbly cow’s milk variety that’s often crumbled over dishes such as chilaquiles—or perhaps panela, the squeaky, halloumi-like iteration that’s often served warm and griddled. But here in Oaxaca, cheese lovers are just as apt to stock their fridges with any one of the artisanal Ricardi brand’s goat cheeses, which are found in gourmet and specialty food stores across the city.

Made in the French style and renowned for their creaminess and tanginess, Ricardi goat cheeses are crafted by Carmina Ricardi de la Cruz, 60, who tends to her flock of goats at her ranch in San Juan Chilateca, located about an hour’s drive south of the city center. Wildly popular here, the cheeses might be included on a plate of botanas, or little snacks, alongside other Oaxacan favorites such as fried peanuts and crunchy chicharrón pig skin. Available in an array of pleasing flavors, the standout goat cheese is surely the chintextle variety, shot through with the treasured Oaxacan chile paste based primarily on the dried, smoked chile pasilla grown in the area’s mountainous Mixe region. Featuring other flavorful ingredients that might include dried shrimp, toasted avocado leaves, and pumpkin seeds, this rich, delectable paste is most commonly spread across a warm tortilla before enjoying it with the rest of the meal. Ricardi mixes the paste right into the tangy, creamy cheese, resulting in a smoky, mildly spicy cheese that’s absolutely delicious spread over a crunchy tostada or a thick slice of sourdough toast. – Lauren Rothman

Lavender Ice Cream at Sherbet

While there is no shortage of ice cream to be found along Oaxaca’s streets – the city’s nieves are actually quite a longstanding part of the gastronomy here – the dense, creamy ice creams beloved by many dessert lovers can be a challenge to locate. Oaxaca-style ice creams are sugary-sweet and quite icy; nieves de agua, which have a water base, can be likened to sorbet, while nieves de leche, which include a bit of milk, can be likened to a sherbet – but neither really hit the spot when what you’re craving is creamy goodness.

That’s why the small, bright ice cream spot Sherbet has generated quite a bit of buzz since it opened its first brick-and-mortar location inside downtown’s upscale food court Casa de Barro earlier this summer. Offering an intriguing selection of floral and herbal accents in both its water- and milk-based ice creams, Sherbet’s bright, fresh flavors truly shine.

For those seeking creamy, gelato-style ice cream, you simply can’t go wrong with the store’s Lavender scoop. Featuring a smooth, tangy cream cheese base that’s infused with a potent hit of fresh lavender, the lush ice cream is shot through with a ribbon of tangy blueberry sauce as well as crisp slivered almonds. Served inside a little reusable cup made from the hollow dried gourd known as a jícara, this superb scoop always hits the spot. – Lauren Rothman

Virginia Rita López’s Storied Prehispanic Cooler, Tejate

Falling under the category of “you’ve gotta try it to understand it” is tejate, one of Oaxaca’s most popular quotidian beverages. Looking a bit like chocolate milk with some curdled cream floating on top, this unique local sipper has been enjoyed in the region since long before the Spanish conquest of the area. Incorporating the native ingredients of cooked corn kernels; the pit of a sweet, orange-fleshed fruit called mamey; cacao; and the dried flowers of the rosita de cacao tree, these five items are ground by hand into a paste and then placed at the bottom of a wide, deep clay bowl. Gradually, the tejate-maker – traditionally a woman – will knead in purified water bit by bit, allowing the fatty paste to release its ethereal clouds of nata, or cream, which will rise to the surface of the healthful, energy-rich beverage. The resulting tejate can be enjoyed as-is or, more commonly nowadays, with a glug of simple syrup stirred in.

Tejate can be found all across the city, whether served up from a street cart or at a market stall. But for one of Oaxaca’s most exemplary versions of tejate, you’d do best to head straight to the Reforma neighborhood’s tranquil Pochote farmers market, where Virginia Rita López, 84, serves up her time-honed version. A resident of the Huayapam village that’s known for its tejate, López started mixing up tejate with her mother when she was just 12 years old. Early in the morning, the pair would walk the eight miles to the town of Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán to hawk the homemade drink, walking the eight miles back in the afternoon when they had sold out.

Those seven decades of experience are evident in López’s wonderfully creamy tejate, which boasts just the right blend of ingredients, including the flowers plucked right from the López’s own rosita de cacao tree. Smooth, mild, and just a little fruity, boasting the richness of cacao and lushness of the drink’s unique nata, this tejate is not to be missed. – Lauren Rothman

 

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María Ítaka and Lauren RothmanLauren Rothman and Jalil Olmedo

Published on December 26, 2023

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