September 2019 A Culinary Tour of Oaxaca, Mexico with Chef Enrique Olvera

A Culinary Tour of Oaxaca, Mexico with Chef Enrique Olvera

Oaxaca’s colorful historic core.
Oaxaca’s colorful historic core.
Photo by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock
A market-to-mezcalería exploration of the city that’s captured the imagination of Mexico’s most celebrated chef. 
Enrique Olvera, who introduced much of the world to fine-dining Mexican at destination restaurants Pujol in Mexico City and Manhattan’s Cosme, among others, grew up and resides in Mexico’s capital. But his heart belongs to Oaxaca, the UNESCO World Heritage city and surrounding state of the same name that he has visited since childhood. There, the chef is building a house behind Criollo, his restaurant in the peaceful colonial town of 250,000, where he fantasizes about retiring someday and where, he insists, the sun itself shines differently.

“As soon as I step off the plane, the colors seem strangely brighter,” he says. “The green is greener, the yellow is yellower, and, for reasons that resist scientific explanation, the days seem to last longer.”

Oaxaca bends the rules like that. It’s among Mexico’s poorest states, yet is perhaps its richest in tradition and diversity, with 16 officially recognized indigenous groups whose roots stretch back to pre-Columbian days. The weather is pleasant and mild, but the city is increasingly cool: In recent years, a mix of artists, expats, and standouts like Olvera has elevated the southern city’s profile on the bohemian-chic radar. Though there are almost no international chain hotels, boutique accommodations in restored centuries-old mansions abound, as do contemporary art galleries, and the coffee and drinking chocolate are exceptional.
Chef Enrique Olvera. 
Chef Enrique Olvera. 
Photo by Maureen M. Evans 
“I love Oaxaca because the traditional culture is still so alive,” says Stephanie Dosch of tour operator Artisans of Leisure, which tailored an itinerary that allowed me to explore Olvera’s favorite parts of the region. “It’s one of the best places in Mexico for traditional crafts, colorful indigenous markets, and, of course, delicious eating and drinking.”

Food, in fact, is Oaxaca’s primary draw: Assortments of more than 500 local herbs help flavor the region’s famous moles, and 60 agave varieties infuse all that mezcal. Seemingly every strain of succulent and spice is on display at the Eden-like Ethnobotanical Garden, set in a courtyard of the Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church that’s the city’s central landmark. So who better to provide a last-word guide to the city of a million flavors than Olvera himself?
"Oaxaca," Olvera says, “grabs you by the senses and touches you deeply at your soul.” It’s clear what he means the moment I arrive at Mercado de Tlacolula – pronounced “clock-o-lula” – a sprawling, open-air Sunday bazaar 40 minutes from central Oaxaca that Olvera describes as “the most enjoyable way to access the dynamic Oaxacan traditions, crafts, and rhythms in one beautiful experience.” Heeding his instructions to “locate the smoke and flames” in the middle of the crowded marketplace, I follow the scent of grilled chorizo until I’m in a smoldering meat gallery. On both sides of a skinny corridor, rugged-looking men in cowboy hats and women in hand-embroidered aprons wave me toward racks of beef, pork, and game – all available for the grilling at one of several communal fires. The scene is primeval (goat heads and live turkeys), festive (mariachis!), and endlessly fascinating, but the smoke keeps you moving. Through the charcoal haze, I see a rainbow lineup of fresh juices, paper cones of fried churros, and burlap bags filled with chapulines – the snack food of crisped grasshoppers seasoned with salt, lime, and chili that Olvera insists travelers must try (the little buggers do have a pleasant crunch, I admit). Glazed clay pots sit alongside delicate wood carvings next to handmade leather motorcycle boots, and I suddenly want to buy it all. If only I could bargain in Zapotec.
The plaza at Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church, a popular city-center gathering spot.
The plaza at Santo Domingo de Guzmán Church, a popular city-center gathering spot.
Photo by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock  
With three handsome new guayabera shirts and a woven basket in hand, I head to the village of Santa María del Tule to see El Árbol del Tule. The massive Mexican cypress is said to be the stoutest in the world. It’s a symbol of Oaxaca, and, as Olvera suggests, an excellent place to enjoy a cold glass of horchata in the shade. Farther along, in the textile village of Teotitlán del Valle, expert weavers employ crushed insects and forest plants as dyes to make rugs and wall hangings that are prized by collectors worldwide. The town is home to one of Olvera’s favorite regional restaurants as well: Tlamanalli, run by the Mendoza sisters, serves Zapotecan food, including nopal cactus soup that Olvera claims is the best he’s ever had – as “bright as the morning sky and rich as a Japanese dashi.” Even without much to compare it to, I can’t imagine a more delectable version.

As for Olvera’s impact on Oaxaca, walking into his Criollo a few nights later feels more like entering a secret dinner party than the city’s hottest restaurant. The gritty neighborhood began to shine only after Olvera opened the spot, located in a courtyard on an out-of-the-way street, three years ago with chef Luis Arellano and architect Javier Sánchez. You won’t find their names on the walls or menu, however – partly because you just sit and servers bring you the day’s set menu of five or more courses. But also because that’s the Oaxacan way.

“Oaxaca isn’t someplace to show off or make a fuss of yourself,” Olvera says, pointing to other low-key restaurants in town that he admires, including Itanoni, a mostly outdoor tortillería in the quiet Colonia Reforma neighborhood. Nearby, in an unadorned dining room attached to the owner’s home, hard-to-find La Teca specializes in tiny tortilla rounds topped with slowly stewed shredded meat, queso fresco, and salsa. You’ll want to devour 100 of them. “There’s an extreme simplicity and strength of purpose to what people do and make in Oaxaca,” Olvera says, “and that ends up being extremely complex.”
Lobster tacos at one of OIvera’s favorite local cafés, Casa Oaxaca.
Lobster tacos at one of OIvera’s favorite local cafés, Casa Oaxaca.
Photo by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock
The same can be said of his dishes, such as Criollo’s tamales filled with huitlacoche, a blue-black fungus known as Mexican corn truffle. The presentation isn’t over the top, but its pungent pop is a minor revelation. The kitchen is known for several delicious types of mole – some served alone as a chocolate-colored swirl on an earthenware plate. This particular evening, Arellano, who runs the Oaxaca operation, is just back from a 14-hour round-trip drive to Puerto Escondido for the freshest roosterfish, yellowtail, and grouper he could find. The resulting ceviche makes you want to weep with joy. As do nearly all Oaxacan kitchens, Criollo employs a wood-fired clay comal griddle, where a woman minds tortillas that puff and breathe until they reach crinkled perfection.

With mezcal, the idea is similar: Wait patiently, then enjoy. Olvera is partial to two local purveyors, Koch and Lalocura – “heaven in tiny glasses,” he calls them. Both small-batch labels are available around Oaxaca city, but the chef encourages visiting the distilleries, or palenques, on the outskirts to witness the process and “taste the way the scenery and distinct microclimates go into each bottle.” I’m happy enough with the pours at Archivo Maguey, Olvera’s go-to mezcalería in Oaxaca’s centro. The little hidden bar in the back has the city’s best lineup of top-shelf mezcals – and the tastiest fried-grasshopper guacamole you’ll ever post on social media, guaranteed.
Not that I’ve seen my phone in a while. Oaxaca is a place to shut it all off, and for days, I meander the city and its environs with only the tattered list of Olvera’s recommendations as my guide. That keeps things uncomplicated. One morning, it’s breakfast at Boulenc, a cozy bakery with bubbling shakshuka and tortas spread with avocado. On another, it’s casually elegant Casa Oaxaca Café & Restaurante for drinking chocolate de agua, a bittersweet refreshment of ground Mexican cacao with cinnamon and vanilla in cold water. Downstairs, adjacent Galería Quetzalli showcases the work of established Mexican artists, including Francisco Toledo, Oaxaca’s most notable painter, sculptor, and graphic artist, and a close friend of Olvera’s. Toledo’s influence is all over town, although his name, too, is mostly invisible. In a fabulously converted textile factory just outside the city, the Arts Center of San Agustín that he founded exhibits works by an ever-changing array of contemporary Latin American artists.
Boulenc’s lineup of freshly baked pastries and desserts.
Boulenc’s lineup of freshly baked pastries and desserts.
Photo by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock
On my last afternoon, I follow one final Olvera recommendation and visit the Centro Cultural San Pablo, a restored sixteenth-century convent that’s now a sleek arts venue, and take in a colorful exhibit of wooden alebrije sculptures – fantastical jaguars and roosters intricately painted with Aztec and Zapotec symbols. Outside, in a grassy, café-lined courtyard, a Oaxacan folk trio sings and strums guitars, even as rain begins to fall – though only on one side. Half the courtyard gets wet, while the other half remains dry under strange and brilliant afternoon light. As Olvera predicted, the sun does what it pleases in Oaxaca.

Chef's Choice: Enrique Olvera’s Favorite Tastes of Oaxaca

Sip Archivo Maguey’s treasure trove of mezcals with a side of fried grasshoppers. 

Boulenc’s molletes (beans, menonita cheese, and pico de gallo on house sourdough) make for a delicious start to the day.

Head to Casa Oaxaca Café & Restaurante for refined takes on simple Oaxacan comfort foods. 

Olvera’s Criollo serves whatever’s fresh from farm and market with tortillas hot off the comal.

Corn gets the utmost respect at open-air tortilla maker Itanoni. 

La Teca draws crowds for traditional bites in a cozy space attached to the owner’s home. 

Restaurante Coronita’s claim to fame: its seven-mole tasting menu. 

On a visit to the textile village of Teotitlán del Valle, don’t miss Tlamanalli’s sensational pre-Hispanic soups and moles. 

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