We had the pleasure of catching up with Sam to learn about his recent trip to Mexico’s thriving gastronomic hub: Oaxaca City. Sam discusses his favourite experiences, top restaurants, best bars, local markets and must-eats for foodies in this insightful and inspiring Q&A interview below.
What inspired you to travel to Oaxaca City, Mexico?
After graduating from university (Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts) with a degree in environmental science and Spanish language, I decided to go to culinary school. I did a two-year degree program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
I have loved Mexican food for a very long time, but I had never been to Mexico before my trip there in December 2018/January 2019. Mexican food is loved by chefs worldwide for the complexity of flavours, textures, and spices, and Oaxaca is considered by many to be the ultimate gastronomic destination in the country.
They have very old and rich culinary traditions, and for someone who likes to get to know new cultures through their food, it’s the perfect place to visit. I had also heard a lot about how nice it was to visit Oaxaca (affordable, great food, history and art, safe, and culturally distinct) from friends, so it was an easy choice.
How long did you visit Oaxaca and how did you spend your days?
We spent 5 nights in Oaxaca City. We didn’t have enough time to visit the coastal areas of Oaxaca, but I hope to in the future. We stayed at a cozy bed and breakfast in the city center and spent our days wandering around, visiting shops, eating in restaurants, and checking out a couple of museums (the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños was my favourite).
One of the days (Sunday) we took a bus to the Tlacolula Sunday Market, which I highly recommend as a unique and delicious experience. There are tons of food vendors and the indigenous peoples from the surrounding area all come to the town on Sundays to sell and trade their wares.
Another one of the days we went out of the city to do a hike in the mountains south of Oaxaca. We booked through Expediciones Sierra Norte and went on the “Coyote Canyon” hike in the town of Cuajimoloyas with a local guide.
What were 3 of your best experiences in Oaxaca City?
I loved the food markets! Eating the traditional Oaxacan dishes like the Tlayuda Oaxaqueña with crickets and the grilled meats in the market, with fresh tortillas, was a dream, especially because it’s so cheap and delicious.
If you’re in Oaxaca city on a Sunday, you should take the time to visit the market in the town of Tlacolula. We took a public bus there and a “collective” (shared) taxi back. The taxi back, with 4 people, cost around €7/each.
The tour of the Cactus garden (see below) was definitely a highlight. We also did a traditional Oaxacan cooking class, which was something completely new to me! We found Vicky on Airbnb Experiences (note, the class is only in Spanish).
And finally, I think that just wandering through the city in the early morning and taking photos before the tourists filled the streets was one of my favorite moments of the trip. Oaxaca is beautiful but gets crowded with locals, Mexican tourists, and international tourists.
What were your favourite foods, restaurants and bars in Oaxaca?
For a truly authentic experience, I would recommend eating in the “20 de Noviembre” market. It’s in the city center. There is an area with open grills and people selling meat to be cooked – they call it the “Pasillo de Los Humos”.
We also loved the vegetarian food at “Hierba Dulce”. I loved the food at “El Destilado”. There is a famous taco stand called “Tacos De Comal Plaza Del Carmen” that is very popular. I think it’s only open until 15:30. Our meal at “Origen” was very nice. More upscale but still cheap compared to Barcelona!
We didn’t get a chance to eat at Criollo (from the famous chef Enrique Olvera) but I will try on my next visit. Boulenc has great coffee and pastries/brunch. It’s like a French style bakery/gourmet shop with a Mexican soul.
What were your first impressions of this city? Did anything take you by surprise?
I think I expected it to feel more rural. Even though it’s a small city, Oaxaca still felt very busy, with a lot of traffic. We were there in the Christmas season (December 30 – Jan 6 I believe). New Year’s Eve was fun! We wandered around downtown, stopping in a few bars for Mezcal and music.
Mezcalogia was a favourite of ours. Sabina Sabe has great cocktails but was always so crowded it was hard to get in. “Colectivo la Tostadita” was a fun sort of dive bar with a young energy and live music where we rang in the New Year.
Oaxaca City is said to have beautiful architecture, what was your favourite place to visit here?
How would you describe the people and culture of Oaxaca?
We met a bunch of local people. My wife and I both speak fluent Spanish, so perhaps our experience was different than that of a typical tourist that doesn’t speak the local language. Everyone was very friendly and helpful.
The people in Mexico in general are very proud of their culture, music, history, and food…and everything else Mexican!