Follow Me Foodie to Mexico!
Mexico City & Oaxaca
“Don’t go by yourself. Make sure you stay in a group.”
“Did you hear a couple Canadian tourists died in Mexico?”
“Don’t drink the water or eat the street food. Brush your teeth with bottled water.”
“Mexico is dangerous. The gangs. The violence. The murders. Be careful.”
It’s no doubt Mexico has a negative rep. Most of the media coverage for it is depressing and there were many reasons people warned me not to go. Anything could have happened, but luckily nothing did. If I didn’t go, I would have missed out on one of the most incredible Follow Me Foodie adventures since starting this blog. It was educational as much as it was inspiring and their culinary scene doesn’t get enough credit. Along with Follow Me Foodie to Japan, it was one of the most rewarding trips last year and it opened my eyes and palate to something I wish I knew earlier.
My knowledge of Mexican cuisine was limited, but I didn’t know how limited until my visit to Mexico City and Oaxaca. Mexico City and Oax… what? Oaxaca – pronounced “wa-ha-ka“.
I was invited on a culinary tour to both cities with Food Network Canada’s Iron Chef Rob Feenie of Cactus Club Cafe restaurants. Both cities are located in interior Mexico, which is unfortunately less frequented by tourists. For me, this was refreshing and exactly what I wanted.
I don’t necessarily have anything against touristy destinations, and Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas certainly have their appeal, but if you’re passionate about food, arts, and culture, then all inclusive resorts and cruise stop ports won’t necessarily show you “real Mexico”.
The idea of “real Mexico” might sound intimidating especially after all the ongoing negative press. We hear about the violence, gangs, drugs and murders, on top of all the contaminated water and food poisoning, and it all comes from somewhere. The danger does exist and I was well aware, but it’s not stepping into a war zone. Yes, I was accompanied by Visit Mexico, guides and other media, and at times I felt insecure as a single Asian female, but for the most part I felt safe. I still recommend traveling with multiples, and of course be smart and aware of your surroundings, but don’t let the negative media scare you away from experiencing the more or less undiscovered or underrated parts of Mexico.
It wasn’t my first time in Mexico, but it was my first time in the non-touristy places. It sounds silly, but I felt like I was visiting “legit” Mexico. I felt like if I told someone of Mexican heritage I had visited Mexico City and Oaxaca I would get a nod of “approval”. Visiting these cities felt like validation, especially for a “foodie” too. Mind you, I didn’t go to impress anyone, I went for culinary growth and Oaxaca was an ideal place to start.
Mexico City is the capital of Mexico and it wasn’t on my radar until this trip. I associated it with government buildings and I assumed it was more of a business hub. As much as it is those things, little did I know it was a historical centre housing some of Mexico’s top restaurants including Pujol (#17 on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013), Nicos Restaurant (a local favourite in the most honest sense), and Sud 777 (#36 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013). I tried about six sit-down restaurants in Mexico City and those three were my favourites.
It is also home to Claustro de Sor Juana, a private university known for humanities, but also for their dedication in preserving Mexican gastronomic traditions through their intense 4 year culinary program. I was fortunate to tour the school and although I didn’t try their student operated restaurant offering price fixe menus at an incredible price, I would put it on the itinerary for next time.
I knew of Mexico City, but was not introduced to even the name Oaxaca (besides hearing the name from the cheese) until last summer. I know, embarrassing. It was during Follow Me Foodie to Seattle when I visited La Carta de Oaxaca for their “must try” mole negro. Then, fast forward a few months later and I’m at the birthplace of mole.
Oaxaca (located 300 miles south of Mexico City – an hour flight) is one of the most important food cities to visit in Mexico. It’s culturally rich in arts and prides itself on traditional cooking techniques. However it would be wrong to assume that everything in interior Mexico is dated and traditional because there is still a progressive culinary scene that is moving fast. They know who they are, don’t want to lose sight of traditions, but are inspired by new ideas.
Traditional cook Abigail Mendoza at Tlamanalli Restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico. She is one of the few remaining cooks making tortillas from scratch (meaning she still grinds the corn kernels). She has mastered the art and is world renowned for her skills.
Owner and executive chef Jose Manuel Baños making liquid nitrogen churros at La Pitiona Restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico. (#43 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013)
One of my favorite dishes of the whole trip was this shrimp ceviche with corn nuts, pumpkin seeds, chili, shrimp and garlic oil, watermelon, and Serrano gel at La Pitiona Restaurant. It was one of my top 5 favourite dining experiences last year and this dish was in my Top 50 Most Memorable/BEST Dishes Internationally/Globally.
Chef Alejandro Ruiz (culinary godfather in Oaxaca), Rob Feenie, and Mijune (me) at Ruiz’s rooftop restaurant, Casa Oaxaca in Oaxaca, Mexico.
It’s not a wealthy city and rather rural in a charming sort of way, but some of Mexico’s most respected traditional cooks and pioneers in modern Mexican cuisine are here. In fact, Anthony Bourdain was making a return visit to Oaxaca and dining at the same places I was a week later.
Give it a few more years, it might even take 10, but Oaxaca is certainly an upcoming culinary destination.
Read more about Mexico’s “culinary Mecca” and see my restaurant recommendations for Oaxaca here.
Shamefully, I never gave Mexican food the credit it deserved until after this trip. I liked Mexican food, but the Mexican food I was exposed to was mostly Tex-Mex, Baja-style (Californian), or West Coast style Mexican food. It is not any better or any worse, but it is not traditional Mexican food, and to understand a cuisine it’s important to start at the roots.
Being in Vancouver there are limited resources for Mexican ingredients and the Mexican/Latin population isn’t high, so Mexican influences and excellent traditional cuisine is rare to come by. I haven’t tried every Mexican restaurant in Metro Vancouver yet, but the city is not known for Mexican food albeit I’m sure there are some decent Mexican dishes and restaurants, however we have a long ways to go. While Mexican food has been a “come and go food trend” for many American states, it hasn’t even become a trend in much of Canada.
It really depends on what kind of traveller you are and interior Mexico might not be for everyone, but if you’re on this blog, than likely it will appeal because you are a “foodie”.
Mexico City and Oaxaca go by unnoticed because crystal blue beaches and white soft sand isn’t what they offer, but what they do offer is unique and can’t be found anywhere else. The rich culture of these cities, especially Oaxaca, is something worth experiencing at least once and I would revisit in a heartbeat.
Making authentic guacamole (no garlic) with Chef Rob Feenie at Nico’s Restaurant in Mexico City. Vine credit: Axelle d’Anglemont
Follow Me Foodie to Mexico: 10 Facts & Myths about Mexican Cuisine