By Fenella from our Mexico team
Much of what you might consider Mexican cuisine is actually Tex-Mex — and, without meaning any disrespect to the Lone Star State, this doesn’t really give you the full picture. Choose to spend extended time exploring Mexico’s major culinary destinations of Mexico City and Oaxaca, and you can experience a much broader spectrum of tastes, dishes and drinks.
Here, I’ve highlighted some of the best food-themed experiences gathered from my own travels and research trips to the country, broadly in keeping with this food-themed, city-to-sea trip suggestion for Mexico.
Food experiences in Mexico City
Mexico City has a tendency to overwhelm. There’s its size (it’s bigger than New York City), its overlapping districts, its behemoth Spanish Baroque churches, palaces and governmental buildings that tower over you in the centro histórico, and the constant soundtrack of traffic, parades, peeling bells and alfresco revelry. It’s exactly the sort of place where it helps to take a couple of guided tours ― they’ll give you a more intimate sense of the city. Two of the absolute best, in my book, are (happily) food-related.
Cycling and tacos
Mexico City by bicycle? Unless you’re a confident cyclist, the thought of negotiating the city’s busy streets on two wheels might seem unappealing ― but, led by guide Diego, you have nothing to worry about. You’ll duck into backstreets and traverse the high-sheen quarters of Condesa, Roma and Polanco, threading your way between Art Deco buildings, leafy parks, small street markets and tortillerías. You stop at four of the area’s best taco stands to try variations of this much-loved Mexican staple.
Layered with generous slices of buttery avocado, a sprinkling of cilantro (coriander) and fried onions, you can tweak your tacos to your desired spice levels using various optional salsas. There’s a taco filling to suit most tastes on this tour, from Michoacán carnitas (pork confit) to duck to grilled vegetables to shrimp from Baja California.
Food aside, what I also enjoy about this tour is the informality and universality of taco-eating in Mexico City: you might pull up a stool at a simple chrome counter alongside besuited businesspeople on their lunchbreak, and other faithful regulars.
Touring in and around San Juan Market
The Mercado de San Juan is known as the city’s foremost gourmet market, and there’s no better way to navigate it than with a food-loving guide.
Covering two blocks, its stalls are crammed with everything from pyramids of fruit and vegetables, fresh fish and piles of oozy French cheeses to less everyday meats (iguana, anyone?) and dried scorpions.
The latter are a longstanding local delicacy, and they date back to pre-Columbian times when indigenous tribes would eat them as a sustainable and nutritious source of protein. However, nowadays, you’ll likely find them at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal.
The market also has a number of small, casual eateries which are often busy with lunching locals.
Your guide knows the market like the back of their hand, and will lead you on a tasting tour of its various offerings. You might move from fresh seafood tostadas to a rich, chocolatey mole sauce (pronounced mole-lay ― more on that shortly).
Then, there’s blue-corn tacloyos (griddled corn patties stuffed with refried beans, cheese or fava beans) and even chapulines (grasshoppers) seasoned with chillies. Fried and crispy, they have an appealing crunch to them, but they’re definitely not top of my list. That accolade goes to pulque ― a fermented alcoholic drink made from cactus sap.
You can try pulque if you wander out of the main market with your guide and start to explore some of the sidewalk grills and street-food stalls.
Tucked among them is a small drinking hole with kaleidoscopic ceiling murals. When you walk through its saloon-style swing doors, expect a few bemused looks from those propping up the bar: this is the kind of firmly locals-only place you’d be unlikely to find on your own. My guide, Sofía, ushered me in and ordered several glasses of pulque.
It looks like cows’ milk in its purest state and is bitter if drunk neat, so Mexicans sometimes add different tastes to it, creating drinks in a rainbow of shades. I tried a brilliant-green lime version, a crimson, berry-infused one, and one that tasted like a coconut and banana smoothie.
I slept well that night, needless to say.
For a more formal meal, Mexico City has a welter of fine dining restaurants. I recommend Pujol, in the middle of the upscale Polanco district, for its tasting menus and the chef’s signature mole.
Food experiences in Oaxaca
Private cooking class and market tour with chef Gerardo
The city of Oaxaca is Mexico’s culinary capital, and I’m not the first at Audley to sing its praises: fellow Mexico specialist Chris recommends taking a cooking class there in his guide to luxury travel in Mexico. I think part of what makes it such a good destination is its markets.
The tour I’m about to recommend begins with chef Gerardo taking you around Central de Abastos Market, dedicated entirely to food and full of bartering Oaxacans laden with huge bags as they go out about their grocery shopping. Fresh, citrusy smells hang in the air along with whiffs of ginger.
Gerardo will steer you through the maze of stalls, helping you pick fresh produce and meat that you’ll then take back to his home kitchen to cook. It’s a lovely place to don an apron: the space is high-ceilinged, airy, and decorated with typical Oaxacan flair in blue and yellow tiles.
His menu changes seasonally, but likely includes tortilla-making. Gerardo shows you how to shape the dough before squeezing it flat in a traditional cast-iron tortilladora (tortilla press) out in the courtyard.
You might also make guacamole using a temolote and molcajete (a Mexican pestle and mortar). I was pleasantly surprised to learn that in Gerardo’s kitchen, guacamole involved only avocados, onions, lime juice and cilantro (coriander) plus a dash of salt and some chopped green chilli. I’ve made a mental note to exclude tomatoes when I next make the dish at home.
The most challenging dish was mole, which Oaxaca claims as its own. I had no idea of the number of ingredients which went into it, only some of which we purchased at the market that morning.
You might find yourself chopping chillies, nuts, seeds, onions, garlic, fruits, herbs, and, most famously, chocolate. Gerado lends a hand here, as the dish requires delicate blending and slow cooking ― but the result was the most gloriously gloopy, complex mole I’d ever tasted. A sweet sauce, it’s used to accompany meat (usually chicken, turkey or pork) and rice.
A street-food tour of Oaxaca and mezcal tasting
Even if you’ve already sampled Mexico City’s street food, it’s still worth delving into Oaxaca’s: it has several delicious regional cuisine.
The tour revolves around Oaxaca’s Benito Juárez Market. Here your nostrils aren’t just assaulted by food smells: in parts of the market, there’s the tang of leather, the perfume of fresh flowers and the aroma of freshly ground coffee.
If nothing else, do this tour for the company of guide, Monse Torres, who’s incredibly passionate and articulate about her city’s food scene. Nor did she insist I eat the market’s signature dish of grasshopper tacos (I’d had my fill of grasshoppers by then, but by all means give them a go if they’re new to you).
Along with the ubiquitous mole (there are seven types in Oaxaca), you might try quesillo, a white cheese that’s got all the creamy gooeyness of mozzarella. It’s at its best, I think, smothered on top of the traditional Oaxacan breakfast dish of memelas: thick corn tortillas spread with refried beans, pork lard and choripapa (potatoes and chorizo).
My biggest find from this tour was an authentically Oaxacan, pre-Hispanic drink called tejate, and I urge you to try a bowl of it. Non-alcoholic, it looks questionable at first glance: it seems like you’re about to dunk your face in a bowl of quinoa, while the maize used to make it gives it a thick, oatmeal-like texture and taste. It’s mixed with cacao and water, and you drink it straight out of a painted gourd-like bowl. It’s surprisingly thirst-quenching.
If non-alcoholic drinks are more your thing, you might also like Oaxaca’s variation on horchata, Mexico’s sweet milk-like drink of ground brown rice, cinnamon, water, sugar and vanilla and nuts. In Oaxaca, they complement its nutty taste with the luscious, puce-pink fruit of the prickly pear.
Monse’s tour finishes with a mezcal tasting. Like its more famous cousin tequila, mezcal is distilled from the juices of the agave (maguey) plant. Mezcal, however, is given a more subtle, smoky taste through underground roasting.
Monse lined up a row of mezcal shots for me, complemented by various snacks ― nuts, pastries, the traditional sal de gusano (worm salt ― salt mixed with very finely ground larvae and chilli, and more pleasantly piquant than it sounds), and slices of oranges and lemons. The tasting is fun if you’re used to drinking spirits, although you’ll most often find Mexicans drinking mezcal as an apéritif or palate cleanser.
Isla Holbox: a relaxed seafood finale to your trip
Although this food-themed tour of Mexico culminates with some time relaxing on the beach (and in the seafood places) of Huatulco, I’d suggest heading to a sleepy island just off the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Isla Holbox, as our guide to the best beaches of Central America and Mexico explains, is a low-key, bohemian and uncommercial enclave that’s ideal for kicking back. Its sunsets are particularly noteworthy, but so is its seafood. I recommend trying its lobster pizzas (you’ll find them everywhere), Mayan fish tacos, spicy octopus and ceviche.
Many of the best restaurants look unassuming from the outside, but have faith. Plus, many also enjoy beachfront settings. If you stay in boutique Casa Sandra (by far the best place to bed down on the island), they’ll happily share their up-to-date recommendations.