1) At La Pez, my newly discovered favorite hole in the wall, there are three (OK maybe five) things on this menu which is devoted to fish plus a great condiment bar. The fish tacos are the simplest of fresh fish, perfectly cooked for something less than $3. Plus I had this unbelievably thirst quenching basil, lime, cucumber drink. I think they're using finely ground lime zest to give it such sublime flavor. Find it east of Santa Domingo on Pino Suarez.
2) La Jicara is Oaxaca's leftist,feminist, revolutionary bookstore. You know the kind. Every left leaning town has one. Luckily for us, La Jicara (referring to the ubiquitous gourd bowls made from the calabash tree and seen everywhere in Oaxaca), also has a coffeehouse and a tiny restaurant. I had a mashed/whipped sweet potato dish there that I've never been able to stop thinking about it was that delicious. Their comida coridas (lunch special) can be a bargain.
3) Itanoni is a restaurant with a mission and that is to save and serve heritage corn varieties. Another hole in the wall with plastic chairs and tables up in Colonia Reforma. You can watch women with their hospital masks on grind, press, and cook tortillas over open flames. Alice Waters said she had the best tortilla of her life here. And, aside from being offered a place at the table in someone's village home, this is probably one of the few places you can taste a true freshly ground corn homemade tortilla. Delicious. Plus try the green drink made from hierba santa.
4) The Las Nieves stands just outside the walls of La Basilica de la Soledad, serve up some mighty fine flavors of homemade iced sherberts. Originally started by Oaxaquenos from the north who brought snow wrapped in palm leaves to town, you'll find about nine or ten stalls serving well known flavors like chocolate and strawberry but then they veer off into chile and tamarind and a fruit or two you've never even heard of. Plus, don't worry, the tuna isn't a fish ice cream (yuck), it's a lovely raspberry colored sherbert made from cactus fruits. There's dozens of flavors and they're happy to offer samples. A great way to relax and soak up some Oaxaqueno street flavor. The music school is close by so sometimes you'll be lucky enough to catch a serenade or two.
5) La Popular - no list would be complete without mention of a local coffeshop/hangout/bar and La Popular seems to be the hipster coffeeshop of the hour. Plus lots more than coffee including craft beers, house mezcal, and a decent menu. And what's not to love when the restaurant's logo could be mistaken for street art?
6) Caldo de Piedra (Stone Soup in Spanish) is about 20 minutes out of town in the town of El Tule and worth the drive for this only in Oaxaca experience. A family run operation, the Chinanteco owners serve this traditional fish broth soup cooked by placing hot rocks into a gourd bowl. It's a little bit like cooking as theatre, watching the grandmother cook the tortillas and her tattoo covered grandson maneuver the hot rocks and the flames while another one lines up the gourd bowls. I would imagine it's filled with tourists but whenever I have been there it seems to always be locals. Pro tip - it's a strictly BYOB operation.
7) La Hacienda Marta is probably the most gimmicky place on my list but it's almost exclusively geared towards Mexicans. Near El Mogote, on the road to Etla, Hacienda Marta is Oaxaca's biggest buffet. It's the King's Table of Oaxaca which is to say the food may not be super memorable but the sheer quantity makes a huge impression - from gelatin deserts to pig's feet stew it's a real overview of Mexicana cooking. Plus a Oaxaca style amusement park for kids with some ancient airplane to climb adds to the vaguely surreal feeling. Come for Sunday brunch and see why food and family go together in Mexico.
8) La Biznaga is my favorite place for a casual but hip lunch or dinner with a refreshing, urban kind of feel. The open courtyard is filled with locals and tourists. Names of pulques mezcals, and wines from Chile, and a music playlist dominate the chalkboard on one side of the room. The menu feels a little familiar. The blue cheese soup is rich and delicious. The service is good. My fall back, go to place.
9) Switching gears to more formal fine dining, I can't say enough good things about La Catedral just a block or two north of the Zocalo. This is where a local might go for a business lunch or their spouse's birthday. Sophisticated, understated, and very, very tasty, the menu focuses on traditional Oaxacan ingredients with a contemporary cooking twist. They always start with a delightful amuse bouche and take it from there. Plus cloth napkins and live guitar melodies complete the ambiance. Sunday brunch starts at two and is well worth the price and the people watching is always excellent.
10) And finally El Criollo, technically should not be on the list as I've never eaten there but it seems worth mentioning as it's the latest brainchild of Mexican chef Enrique Olvera, considered one of the finest chefs in all of Mexico. You can eat at his Mexico City restaurant Pujol for four times the price or find his recently opened El Criollo ( in this case meaning heirloom or native) west of Soledad and past the Soriana grocery store. It's on a large, minimally restored piece of property where a state of the art kitchen cohabits with an open air/wood burning comal. Can't wait to try their five course tasting menu which, I believe is the entire sum of their menu which means that everyone eats the same thing. Can not wait.
(El Criollo at night)
11) I get to add an extra favorite because it would be wrong to leave such a singular restaurant as La Teca off the list. Way off the beaten track, up in Reforma, it's a place where the lines between the owners home and her restaurant seem blurred. Are we in her living room full of family photos and lined with artwork traded for food? Or is this where we sit? Actually I choose dining out in the plant filled patio/garden. And I recommend the tasting menu. Oh big yummy. They serve up all traditional dishes from the Tehunatepec region and one is more delicious than the next. Over and over people say it's the best meal they had in Oaxaca. Plus the chef is a woman, :)
(The proprietress of La Teca)
So that's it for this years top 10 (well actually 11). Remember I left off many of the better known places like Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes, Origen, Pitanoni, & La Olla in favor of places you might have a harder time hearing about. And still there's no street food stalls,market fondas or mezcal bars on the list either. So much food, so little time.
(All photos from Google images)