Drawing on Traditional Oaxacan Cuisine, These Two Restaurants Have Changed the Culinary Scene in the Mexican City
Chef Thalia Barrios García leads two of Oaxaca City’s most transcendent restaurants with grit and grace.
Oaxaca City, Mexico, wears its heart on its sleeve. Buildings are painted every optimistic color, cast-iron filigree frames traffic lights, and an entire glorious public square is devoted to ice cream and its cousins. Weddings at the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán conclude, spill outside, and become parties that gently roll downhill for hours. Late on a school night, odds are surprisingly good that you’ll encounter a band large and happy enough to employ a tuba player. And everywhere you go there’s the lifeblood of Oaxaca: its food.
Take the tamal I had a year ago at chef Thalia Barrios García’s rural-Oaxaca-meets-chef’s-counter experience, La Cocina de Humo. Peeling away the banana-leaf wrapper, its contents barely held together as it exhaled a breath of steam. Inside were tender bites of pork, ancho and costeño amarillo chiles, oregano, fruit vinegar, clove, onion, garlic, and honey. It tasted like something I’d remember for years and compelled me to return several months later.
This time, Barrios García set tomatillos, tomatoes, costeño chiles, and garlic on an oak-fired earthenware comal. As the vegetables sizzled, she formed blue and yellow masa into a ball like a kid might with Play-Doh, flattened it in a tortilla press, and set it on the heat. She mashed the ingredients in a molcajete (mortar), mashed the tortilla in as well, and sprinkled on queso fresco. Composed of ingredients from Barrios García’s remote hometown of San Mateo Yucutindoo, that dish, too, was a deeply personal study in simplicity. It stood in contrast to the fare at Barrios García’s second, more casual restaurant, Levadura de Olla. There, I devoured a beef-and-pork chilecaldo stew with a complex broth, made with chilhuacle chiles, támala pumpkin, and a squeeze of mandarin lime.
Between them, La Cocina de Humo and Levadura de Olla are two of Oaxaca’s most ambitious restaurants. If it seems improbable that they’re both run by a 27-year-old chef, it may help to know she’s been serving food for two decades. Barrios García, who spent her childhood in the Sierra Sur region, has always tacked between food and business, selling chocolates at age 6, her grandmother’s famous tamales from 7 to 11, then starting her still-extant birthday cake company, Naranja Dulce, at 12.
“If it was your birthday, you’d have tamales,” she explains. “Birthday cakes were something we only saw on TV. I started making them for friends and family, and it went nuts.” As the business took off, she barely slept, tending to her three loves: school, soccer, and cake.
While attending culinary school, she opened a taco and tlayuda stand in San Pablo Huixtepec, sold homemade ice cream, and kept Naranja Dulce rolling. She began to explore a restaurant career, interning at the now-closed Corazón de Tierra near Ensenada, a high-end restaurant that treated its employees well. “I told myself I’d work in this kind of restaurant until I was 30,” she says.
Instead, she struggled through a few demoralizing restaurant jobs before betting more than a decade of savings on herself to open Levadura de Olla in 2019 and Cocina de Humo in 2021. The bet is paying off: Both restaurants have enjoyed critical acclaim. (In 2021, F&W’s sister brand, F&W en Español, named Barrios García a Best New Chef.)
Through her cooking, Barrios García draws on traditional Oaxacan cuisine to create something entirely new. Each restaurant has a dedicated “tomato room” that features huge displays of hundreds of nightshades. At Levadura de Olla, multiple varieties of heirloom tomato are sliced, lightly dressed, and fanned out over beet puree. At La Cocina de Humo, Barrios García might pull lightly charred tomatoes and jalapeños from the comal, crush them with cilantro, then gently fold in scrambled egg, creating a dish that’s herbaceous, warm, and transcendent.
While Levadura de Olla is a more traditional restaurant, La Cocina de Humo is pure artistic expression: a portal to Barrios García’s remote hometown and, very possibly, her heart. Taken together, the two restaurants offer the truest representation of Oaxacan cuisine a visitor could hope to find.
“In school, people told me, ‘You’re a woman. Do desserts,’” she says. “Now, I don’t have these problems because I’m doing my thing in my own workspace.”
Barrios García is also committed to changing the standards of restaurant leadership. “If my employees see me get a new car and new shoes and they can’t, that’s not cool,” she says. “I’ll check to make sure they’re hitting their financial goals.” Her restaurants provide health benefits, paid holidays, overtime, and bonuses. Tip distribution is transparent. And women are never pigeonholed.
“There was an absence of strong male figures in my family. My great-great-grandmother, great-grandmother, and three of my aunts were all self-sufficient single moms. They all worked in their community,” she says, proudly noting her mother’s skills as an electrician. “Now, I want to lift up my community.”
Weekend in Oaxaca
Thalia Barrios García is the chef at two of the Oaxaca’s best restaurants. Her friend Omar Alonso runs food and mezcal tours through his website, oaxacking.com. They met when chef Jorge León from Alfonsina (a F&W World’s Best Restaurant) brought Alonso to Cocina de Humo and, as Alonso puts it, “never left.” Here, they share some of their favorite spots to eat and drink in a city custom-made for it.
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