Oaxaca Street Food You Must Try
Food of Oaxaca
Oaxaca, Mexico is one of the country’s culinary capitals, renowned both for its restaurant meals and street foods. Thanks to features on shows like Street Food: Latin America on Netflix, Oaxaca Street Food and the state itself is increasing in notoriety with each passing year.
While Mexico itself has a rich food culture that’s thousands of years old, many outside of the country seem to think it’s all just tacos and burritos. Traditional Oaxacan food is much more than that! While you will find these in Mexico City, neither of those foods even play a part in Oaxacan cuisine.
Each year, as more and more foodies flock to the state’s capital, Oaxaca City, they’re greeted by large, organic mercados (markets) and some of the lesser-known foods of Mexico — like tlayudas, tamales, chapulines (grasshoppers), and the ancient chocolate/corn beverage, tejate.
Though Mexico had been somewhat snubbed in the culinary respect department in the past, things have been changing for some time now. In fact, back in 2010, UNESCO declared traditional Mexican food an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind,” an honor shared with only one other country — France.
In plain English, that prestigious designation basically means Mexican food is one of mankind’s great cultural treasures worth preserving! Within Mexico, there are a few states and regions that get more culinary attention than others; and high at the top of that short list, you’ll find the food of Oaxaca.
Just what are the most famous Oaxaca street foods to try when visiting Oaxaca? Let’s take a look at five of the street foods/drinks that make Oaxaca so special… and one non-street food that couldn’t be left off the list.
Top 5 Oaxaca Street Foods
#1 Oaxaca Street Food: Tlayudas
The most famous of all Oaxaca street food... but just what is a tlayuda (pronounced tuh-lie-you-da)? Known as the Mexican pizza, because, well, they do look like one, the similarities definitely end there.
Tylaudas start out with a large, sometimes gigantic, tortilla. They are then smeared with asiento (pork lard), and placed on a charcoal grill or a cooking comal. This large, round, flat cooking surface is used to cook so many Oaxaca street foods.
After toasting the tortilla, beans, and onions, avocado and tomatoes are placed on top, along with quesillo. Oaxaca’s cheeses are beloved throughout Mexico and beyond, though none more so than quesillo, a string cheese. If you only try only one traditional Oaxaca food, it should be Tlayudas!
After cooking for a minute or so, the tlayuda is folded over and the cheese melts it closed. For those who want to add meat, it is placed on top after. Meat choices can vary, but most tlayuda shops offer both cecina, a kind of dried steak meat, and chorizo (sausage).
When & Where to Eat Tlayudas in Oaxaca
Yes, that does say “when” to eat them! Tlayudas are traditionally a nighttime Oaxaca food. While nowadays, as Oaxaca’s tourism popularity grows, shops do sell them day and night. For those who can hold out, wait to try tlayudas until after the sun goes down.
After dark, vendors start setting up small charcoal grills outdoors in the streets to make tlayudas. The best Tlayudas in Oaxaca are found in Centro Historico (downtown) Oaxaca City. There are numerous places to eat them as they are one of the city’s most beloved street foods.
Try tlayudas here:
-Tlayudas El Negro: Vicente Guerrero 1029, Zona Feb 10 2015, Oaxaca, Mexico 68115
-Tlayudas La Chinita: Calle Nuño del Mercado and Calle 20 de Noviembre, Centro Historico, Oaxaca 68000
#2 Oaxaca Street Food: Tamales Oaxaqueños
Tamales are eaten all over Mexico, though tamales oaxaqueños (Oaxacan tamales) are made a little different. In all of Mexicn cuisine, a tamal consists of a masa (corn) mixture, which is placed in a corn husk and steamed to cook. This part is the same in Oaxacan cuisine.
After preparing the masa, in Oaxaca, Mexico, cooks place the mixture in a plantain/banana leaf. The word for leaf in Spanish is hoja, and in Oaxaca, you’ll sometimes see them called tamales hojas (leaf tamales).
Oaxacan tamales are also stuffed and/or topped with things including mole con pollo (mole with chicken), frijoles (beans), rajas (roasted poblano peppers), and chipil (a local Oaxacan herb). There’s also a dessert version called tamales dulces (sweet tamales), made with things including raisins, pineapple, shredded coconut, and fruit marmalades.
You’ll find tamales all over Oaxaca, but head to the Mercado 20 de Noviembre (November 20th Market) so you can try all the different varieties. This bustling mercado (market) is part shopping market-part food hall, so you can go from stall to stall to try all the different kinds of tamales.
Try tamales here:
-Mercado 20 de Noviembre: 20 de Noviembre 512, Centro de Oaxaca, Oaxaca 68000
#3 Oaxaca Street Food: Memelas
Memelas (pronounced mem-ell-uhs) are definitely one of best foods to try in Oaxaca! Especially since they are unique to Oaxaca, and its neighboring state of Chiapas Mexico, but found in few other Mexico states. A common breakfast/lunch street food, memelas are essentially open face tacos, but in a thicker tortilla.
They are cooked on a comal, and topped with all kinds of things including cheese, beans, meat, salsas and more. Unlike some of Oaxaca’s other famous street foods, memelas are essentially the easiest to eat as grab and go snacks. And they’re some of the tastiest food Oaxaca has to offer!
You can try them all over the city, but thanks to the Oaxaca episode of Netflix’s Street Food: Latin America show, there’s one place more popular than the rest. Memelas Doña Vale, located in the Mercado Central de Abastos, is a must-try on any Oaxaca City foodie tour.
The chef, Doña Vale (Ms. Vale) is well known for two specialty Oaxacan foods: memelas and salsa morita. This unique, hand-made salsa is made with chile morita, a smoked jalapeño pepper similar to a chipotle.
Try memelas here:
-Memelas Doña Vale: Mercado Central de Abastos, Juárez Maza S/N, Central de Abasto, Oaxaca, Mexico 68090
#4 Oaxaca Street Food: Tetelas
These stuffed, triangular-shaped snacks are a popular Oaxaca breakfast food, and a lunchtime appetizer or snack. They are less commonly eaten as a street food than memelas, but are just as delicious, and traditionally, vegetarian.
Tetelas (pronounced tet-tell-uhs) are stuffed with a black bean paste and quesillo string cheese, though you can sometimes find them stuffed with chicken and other veggies. Many tetelas also contain hoja de santa (holy leaf/Mexican pepperleaf), a pepper plant leaf used in many Oaxacan dishes.
Cooked on a comal, they are served hot so the quesillo (AKA queso oaxaca) is nicely melted within this triangular pocket food. Tetelas are basically hand pies, so they are easy to eat on the go.
Try tetelas here:
-Itanoni: Avenida Belisario Domínguez 513, Reforma, Oaxaca, Mexico 68050
#5 Oaxaca Street Food: Tejate
Tejate (pronounced tay-ha-tay) is a prehispanic chocolate/corn drink. While, admittedly, that combo doesn’t sound appetizing, this centuries-old drink has stood the taste test of time. In fact, Oaxacans love it so much, they lovingly call it the bebida de los dioses (drink of the gods).
Tejate is made by hand in large clay bowls, by liquifying a mixture of toasted maize (corn), fermented cacao (chocolate) beans, the toasted pits of mamey (tropical fruit), and flor de cacao (cacao flower). It is served cold, so it’s super refreshing on a hot Oaxaca City day.
Since it has been made for so long, each region, city, family and even person, can have their own unique way to combine the ingredients. However, even with these variations, tejate tastes like a more complex chocolate milk — though that’s a gross oversimplification — so you’ll just have to sample it for yourself.
Try tejate here:
-Flor de Huayapam: Mercado Benito Juarez, Las Casa S/N, Centro, Oaxaca, Mexico 68090
Mole in Oaxaca
While not a Oaxaca street food, per se, there’s really no way to talk about Oaxacan food without mentioning mole (pronounced moe-lay). This is the food most associated with the state of Oaxaca, though it’s eaten in restaurants as a sit-down meal.
Mole is both a marinade and a sauce, and there are seven distinct types with differing combinations of spices, nuts, fruits, chiles and more. The most popular type is mole negro (black mole), which gets its color from chocolate, but those lucky enough will try some of the others as well.
One other type, mole amarillo (yellow mole), is commonly served in street food form. While in Oaxaca, be on the lookout for empanada vendors offering empanadas de mole amarillo.
For those unfamiliar, empanadas are a type of baked or fried turnover filled with any number of meats, veggies and cheeses. Empanadas de mole amarillo (yellow mole empanadas) are stuffed with chicken in a yellow mole sauce, which gets its color from the yellow chilhuacle chile pepper.
Try mole here:
-Empanadas del Carmen: Jesus Carranza 102, Centro Historico, Oaxaca, Mexico 68000
-Las 15 Letras: Calle de Mariano Abasolo 300, Centro Historico, Oaxaca, Mexico 68000
-Casa Oaxaca: Calle de Manuel García Vigil 407, Centro Historico, Oaxaca, Mexico 68000
Final Thoughts on Oaxaca Street Food
Though this list just scratches the surface of all the delicious food in Oaxaca, Mexico, it definitely highlights there’s more to Mexico than just tacos — though of course, Mexico City’s tacos are undoubtedly the best on Earth!
However, Oaxaca cuisine, including Oaxaca street food, is in a class all its own.
It’s a charming state, also quite well known for its Day of the Dead celebration and Mazunte turtles, but also as an off-the-beaten path foodie destination fast becoming one of the country’s culinary meccas.
We’d love to hear what you think of our list! Have you visited Oaxaca? What did you think of Oaxaca cuisine? What Oaxacan food are you looking forward to trying? Let us know in the comments!
About the Author
Shelley is a former Miami travel magazine editor who ditched the office for the world! She created the Travel Mexico Solo blog and Dream To Destination podcast to help women cross Solo Travel and Mexico Travel off their bucket list. She has been living and traveling Mexico solo since 2018. All photos in this article are courtesy of Shelley.
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