A cultural exploration of Oaxaca shouldn’t end with its historic attractions and sights connected with the area’s indigenous peoples. It should also include the cuisine of the region, which ranges from Michelin-starred tacos to traditional foodstuffs such as grasshoppers. But you don’t have to have deep pockets to enjoy extraordinary meals here. Not convinced? Take a look at our choices for the best street food in Oaxaca!
Although not limited to consumption in Oaxaca, it would be remiss of a list of the best street food in Oaxaca without mentioning tamales. Dating back centuries, tamales are made of masa, a type of dough created using corn. This dough is then steamed within the husk that protects the corn as it grows. Plain tasting on their own, the steamed tamales are either stuffed or filled with ingredients including chicken with mole sauce or chipil, a locally-growing herb. There’s even a sweet version, the tamales dulces, which can include anything from raisins to pineapple and shaved coconut.
A form of filled tortilla, memelas are also easy to find when seeking out the best street food in Oaxaca. Heated on the traditional comal tortilla pan, their most authentic version is probably the sencillo, which has a filling or lard, beans and salsa alongside cheeses such as queso fresco, a soft tangy cheese common to many street food dishes. Other versions include everything from sliced mushrooms to spicy chicken.
There’s a good chance you’ve had a taco before, so what makes them one of the best street foods in Oaxaca? The answer is a mix of culinary pride, super fresh ingredients bought from the marketplace that morning and the fact there are versions you don’t see very often outside this part of Mexico. Take tacos de chile relleno as an example. Instead of the common folded taco, these flavor-filled parcels are rolled up since they contain a whole stuffed and fried pepper inside them. Often stuffed with ground beef, they are both meaty and seriously hot, so be warned if you normally steer clear of spice!
What is better than melted cheese? Melted cheese inside a freshly made tortilla cooked on a hot comal and stuffed with chiles and huitlacoche (corn fungus). Quesadillas in Oaxaca can be filled with a variety of ingredients but the cheese that makes it best is quesillo. This cheese from Oaxaca resembles rope rolled into a ball and it is pulled apart much like string cheese.
Their name can be a little confusing to English speakers, with tortas not being a sweet torte or tart but rather a type of sandwich. Their closest culinary cousin is perhaps the panini, although the bread used as the base for tortas is altogether fluffier and airier in texture, resulting in a much thicker sandwich. Like paninis, they can be filled with a whole range of items, with beef and chicken cutlets being perennial favorites at the food vans and stalls across the city.
Platanos y Camote
An excellent snack food, platanos at their simplest are cooked plantains and camote is a sweet potato which can be the familiar bright orange or rich beet color. They are cooked and transported in wheeled carts with wood fires. The vendor opens a drawer and reveals neat rows of steaming delicacies. Sliced onto a small paper plate they are drizzled with thick cream and sweetened condensed milk. Delicious during the cool of the Oaxaca evenings.
Elotes & Esquites
Another vegetarian-friendly dish to make our pick of the best street food in Oaxaca is grilled corn on the cob, elote. Sold from carts pushed up and down the city streets, served on a stick, slathered in mayonnaise, a squeeze of lime, and a sprinkle of ground chile. If you prefer your corn cut off of the cob, choose esquites and you’ll receive a cup of hot corn with all the fixings.
Tlayudas belong to Oaxaca. Similar to a quesadilla but much more substantial they begin with a very large tortilla. This gets a thin layer of pork lard and smashed black beans to which a choice of meats, sliced cooked onions, and a variety of local vegetables are added. Then the tlayuda is folded in half between a wire mesh and cooked over the hot coals until the tortilla is charred to perfection. It’s a big portion for street food so consider sharing!
Like other corn based delights, tejate has been consumed in Oaxaca since before the arrival of the Spanish. A drink concocted out of toasted corn and fermented cocoa beans which are ground and added to water. Made by hand in large clay dishes, each family has their own special way of preparing it. A foam forms on the surface of each glass. Try it au natural before trying the modern syrups sweetened versions. Served cold, it makes a refreshing addition to any day in the state of Oaxaca. Easiest to find in rural areas with strong Mixtec and Zapotec populations.
One strictly for the meat lovers among us, carne asada is a way of barbecuing which runs deeply through Mexican culture and is a common way of celebrating in the country. Usually comprising steaks of beef that are flame grilled, the meat remains rich and tender thanks to the marination it undergoes before being cooked. Lime juice with chili, cinnamon and fried onions is one of the most common, which then blends with the natural smokiness of this method of cooking. To eat it, the meat is sliced and served on a corn tortilla with delicious spicy salsas and other fresh toppings.
The best street food in Oaxaca
Oaxaca has one of the widest culinary traditions of anywhere in Mexico. It means that across the state the street food scene is not to be missed. Food and drink that has been enjoyed for centuries is one highlight, alongside modern twists on old favorites. So why not check out exactly what you can find in the form of street food as part of your upcoming trip to Oaxaca? Your taste buds will love you for it!