It is a cool, crisp autumn’s eve. Midnight is approaching and the streets are popping — literally, as fireworks careen overhead. The streets are a dense melee of frolicking faces, most of them obscured in carefully painted calaveras. Live brass music echoes through the air. This is Día De Los Muertos in the city of Oaxaca. There is perhaps no place in the world that observes the holiday with such widespread fervor. But you needn’t arrive during the first two days of November to settle into a sense of celebration here.
The vibrant capital of its eponymous state, Oaxaca has long been a cherished domestic destination. Over the past decade, however, it has courted increased status as a global stopping point — driven by the appeal of its local cuisine and the soaring popularity of mezcal, its native spirit. To meet demand its small 10-gate airport is now receiving direct flights from the US, daily. Ready to explore? Drink it all in with help from a few experts.
“Every time I'm there, I must stop into Bar La Giralda for my favorite michelada on the planet,” says author Javier Cabral, who recently co-wrote “Oaxaca: Home Cooking From The Heart Of Mexico.” “They use pasilla chiles in the base. The more you drink the more botanas [snacks] arrive.”
The flavors of Oaxacan cuisine own a distinctive intensity. According to Cabral, its owed to fresh, local ingredients that frequently find their way into the dishes, ones you don’t often find outside of this specific region — a part of Mexico which he contends hasn’t globalized as quickly as others. “The food is either so herbaceous thanks to avocado leaves or other wild herbs used here — or deeply fruity-spicy, because the chiles are so good. Or toasty thanks to all the spices and heirloom corn that is still the norm everywhere you go,” he observes. “The flavors just pop.”
In Los Angeles, Oaxacan expat Ivan Vasquez has brought much of that magic to Southern California at Madre, a concept inspired by the cooking of his mother, with two locations across the city. Traditional favorites such as moles, posole and tlayudas are all paired alongside a selection of more than 300 mezcals. Vasquez makes monthly visits to his homeland to mine these authentic flavors — and spirits — importing them back to his restaurants. While on the road he often dines at El Destilado, where a robust nine course tasting menu is matched with creative cocktails infused with regional herbs.
Another favorite spot is Origen, where 2016 Top Chef winner Rodolfo Castellanos renders artful expressions with seasonal ingredients. His grilled octopus and chicharron are must-haves. For lunch, Vasquez recommends La Popular — an eatery with an easy vibe, recognizable by its bright yellow facade. “It’s one of the best casual spots in downtown Oaxaca to enjoy tlayudas, ceviche, or a seasonal soup,” he says. “Their Mexican artisanal beer selection is second to none and it’s only a few minutes away from my favorite mezcalerias in the city.”
For late night grub do not miss out on El Lechoncito de Oro — a street stand specializing in seared pork tacos, which have been known to bring grown adults to tears. Vasquez also steers first-timers to Las Tludas de Mina y Bustamante for crushable tlayudas prepared on a charcoal grill, and chocolate atole: a traditional heated dessert beverage.
“Street food and small hole-in-the-wall cantinas are among some of my favorite bites in Oaxaca,” says Elliott Coon, who moved to the city ten years ago to co-found Gem & Bolt — a popular mezcal, distilled with damiana. “These are the authentic spots where you really feel the true texture, flavor, and color of what is Oaxaca.” When she’s craving a more formal affair, Coon hits up dependable classics including La Teca, where mole and tamales reign supreme; Itanoni — a tortilleria and antojeria that chef Alice Waters once called her favorite restaurant in the city; and Los Danzantes, an artsy space featuring rustic fare and extensive pours of mezcal. At Criollo she enjoys tasting menus that are equal parts pre-Hispanic cuisine and modern fusion.
Of course, to find the best flavors you can always go directly to the source. Mercado de Abastos is Oaxaca’s largest market, a colorful showcase of all the area has to offer. Book a tour through the bustling hub with noted guide — and Instagram celebrity — Omar Alonso (@Oaxacking). “This is where locals go to buy everything,” he explains. “During holidays it’s particularly packed as we gather the ingredients we’ll need to offer to our guests that come during the festivities.”
Arrive during Día De Los Muertes and Alonso will take you to the marigold fields at Zimatlan de Alvarez, to buy the celebratory flower from the locals who grow it. “People wait the whole year for this occasion to dress up and dance on the streets at night,” he explains of the ritual.
Coon commemorates the holiday with an annual soiree at her home in centro (downtown). The ticketed, invite only event culminates in a comparsa (parade) through the city and raises money for local charities. Over nine years, Gem&Bolt has contributed more than $50,000 to the community. “There are a number of Mexican states that also embrace Day of the Dead in incredibly rich ways,” she observes, “But without question, Oaxaca is amongst the most festive and colorful.”
No matter what time of year you land, the mezcal will surely be flowing. Vasquez advises stops at the Insitu Mezcaleria to learn at the feet of industry legend Ulises Torrentera. Cuish Mezcaleria and Sabina Sabe are obligatory pit stops on any evening crawl. During the day you can sample rare expressions, by appointment, at the Mezcaloteca.
“But the best way to experience mezcal is to get outside of the city and explore the small communities that make it,” says Alonso, who takes guests on daylong adventures into the rural palenques (farm distilleries) that have been producing the liquid in the same way for generations. Starting at $125 per person, he includes transportation, tastings and lunch. “Still, if you want to visit a distillery [on your own] I’m sure they will receive you with some mole, bread and chocolate.”
When you venture back to town, book your stay at the recently launched Hotel Sin Nombre — a boutiquey bohemian lair that eschews in-room WiFi to foster a communal vibe built around a two-story central atrium. For more traditional luxury — and amenities — you’ll want to lay your head at the Quinta Real.
Wherever you stay and whatever experiences await, this city extends a warm welcome, year round. "There is always a reason to go to Oaxaca,” maintains Vasquez. “If there isn’t, we come up with one.”