For rising-star chef and Noma alum Rosio Sánchez, no place inspires her like this vibrant region in southern Mexico. Here she introduces us to the mole masters, mezcal distillers and tortilla artisans putting Oaxaca on the food-lover’s map.
Juana Hernandez was not happy with the way I was making her tortillas. A bunch of cooks from Noma were crowded into the courtyard of her restaurant, Mi Tierra Linda, surrounded by steaming-hot clay comal griddles and tables piled high with chiles and herbs. We were on a five-week research trip before opening our pop-up in Tulum, and we’d been told we should get a lesson in Oaxacan cooking from Juana. I have my own taqueria in Copenhagen, Hija de Sanchez, and have been making tortillas the same way my entire life, massaging the masa and rolling balls in the palm of my hand. “No, no,” Juana said, correcting me and firmly turning my hand over so that my palm pressed out a larger, flatter disk. I wanted to explain that I make smaller tortillas, but why justify? Hers were amazing—supersoft and fluffy—so I held my tongue and watched the master at work.
That’s the moment I knew I’d have to come back to cook with this incredible woman again. This is what always happens: One trip to Oaxaca necessitates the next, a deeper and more delicious dive into the culture and the cuisine. As a chef, particularly a Mexican-American chef, no place inspires me quite like this rugged region to the south, dotted with small towns and anchored around Oaxaca City, with its gorgeous colonial architecture and meandering cobblestone streets. Because of the region’s landscape, crisscrossed with steep mountains and sprawling plains, Oaxaca is home to some of the country’s best preserved indigenous Zapotec foodways and native ingredients. It’s here that I first understood the roots of the foods that are so important to my culinary heritage—corn, chiles, chocolate and, of course, mezcal.
Growing up first generation in Little Village, Chicago, I thought I knew Mexican cooking. Living in an immigrant community like that, with tons of taquerias and vendors selling chile-lime-doused fruit on every corner, it feels like you’re in Mexico. When I went to cooking school to study pastry, I was completely separated from that part of my culture because everything was based in French technique. As I was learning the science behind soufflés and sauces, I felt like I should have been studying the complexity of moles and the process of nixtamalization that allows us to turn maize into masa. My dad, who usually supports everything I do, was totally against my wanting to go back to Mexico to research the food. I get it—my parents left for a reason, wanting a better life for my brother and me. But as I worked in restaurants, and moved from New York City to Europe, I started taking trips on my own. Seven years ago, when I visited Oaxaca for the first time, with Pujol’s chef Enrique Olvera, it was mind-blowing. I’d traveled around the country before and visited my parents’ hometowns (my mother is from Guanajuato; my dad, from San Luis Potosí), but everything in Oaxaca tasted brighter and more intense.
And so I come back every chance I get, to cook and to eat. My ideal first meal is always breakfast at Casa Oaxaca Café. The chef, Alejandro Ruiz, grew up here and has opened several restaurants, from this casual spot to the more formal Casa Oaxaca Restaurante. I love his enfrijolada, just-cooked tortillas topped with avocado-leaf-infused beans and fresh local cheese. This is also a great place to see how insects are elevated into comfort food: Dried and salted, seasoned with lime and garlic, chapulines (grasshoppers) and hormigas (ants) are not only delicious sprinkled into dishes, they’re also smart, sustainable sources of protein.
There are new spots, too, and on this past trip, I was excited to get to Olvera’s Criollo: The name refers to native, or heirloom, ingredients, and the kitchen—run by Oaxaca-born former Pujol chef Luis Arellano—serves interpretations of classic dishes. Their guacamole is one of the best I’ve ever tried, with creamy local avocado that has an almost licorice-like flavor and a slew of aromatic herbs.
I also come to Oaxaca to shop for the Hija de Sanchez pantry. Because of the region’s climate, the variety and quality of the ingredients is like nowhere else. For Noma Mexico, we sourced avocado leaves, tomatoes, fresh herbs like hoja santa, chapulines—and don’t even get me started on the chiles, from shiny brown to deep red, all with the most concentrated flavor. The corn varieties are heirloom—I ship them to Copenhagen by the ton to make our daily nixtamal to grind into masa. Every color has different properties depending on the season and growing conditions: Blue is usually sturdier and best for tlayudas, the ingredient-heavy flatbreads that are like large Oaxacan tostadas, and yellow is often more pliable and easier to work with, so I use it for tortillas.
I like to explore different markets, and I always discover something new. This time I was mesmerized by Doña Vale at the Central de Abastos market; there’s a corner named after this woman, where she cooks on a huge comal treated with lye, which adds a pleasant alkaline flavor to food. To me, this is the flavor of Mexico. My good friend Rafael Villalobos calls her the mother of the market because she cooks for everyone, vendors and shoppers alike, who take her food to the shaded tables to eat. It’s there that I had one of the best meals on this last trip: corn patties, called memelas, topped with pork lard, black bean paste and queso fresco. Other market snacks I seek out are quesadillas filled with squash blossoms and quesillo Oaxaca, which tastes like the best mozzarella you can imagine, and, at a stand called Vero’s, eggs cracked into slit-opened tortillas with torn hoja santa leaves. I get lost in the rows of meat vendors and vegetable stalls and beautiful arrangements of fruit. Weaving through the crowds and carrying baskets on their heads are home cooks selling the large tortillas for which this region is famed.
These hard-working women of Oaxaca are my teachers and my inspirations—women like the mezcal master Graciela Ángeles Carreño, who recently took over from her father in this male-dominated industry. As she led me around Mezcal Real Minero distillery, through acres of spiky agave plants whose piñas (hearts) she harvests to roast, mash and ferment, it became clear why this is one of the finest mezcals I’ve tasted.
And then there’s Juana, my tortilla instructor, with whom I was excited to cook again. This time, I wanted to learn how she makes mole negro, Oaxaca’s most complex dish, one that each cook prepares in her own way. Juana pulled out ingredients and started toasting some on the comal, charring others over an open flame: onions, tomatoes, garlic, pieces of bread, tortilla, bananas for sweetness, chocolate for depth, sesame seeds, you name it. After grinding and putting it all in a pot over a flame, she stirred the mole to the right consistency, then stepped away and told me to take over, to taste and to season. I asked her how long the sauce should simmer. With a sip of mezcal and a wise smile, she answered: “Until you think it’s ready.”
WHERE TO STAY
The sister hotel to the café and restaurant of the same name has simple accommodations and a relaxing garden where you can lounge by the pool. From $167 per night; casaoaxaca.com.mx.
Quinta Real Oaxaca
Housed in a former convent, this luxurious hotel features a large pool, a lovely courtyard and plush rooms. From $219 per night; quintareal.com.
WHERE TO EAT
Casa Oaxaca Café
Come for the amazing breakfast in the leafy garden, stay for conversation with Alejandro Ruiz, the amiable chef. casaoaxacacafe.com.
Central de Abastos Market
This sprawling food market is a great place for lunch, with dozens of vendors preparing meals on the spot. Between Juárez Maza and Calle de Victoria.
Enrique Olvera’s new restaurant serves creative riffs on classic Oaxacan dishes in a mod space with an outdoor dining room. criollo.mx.
Off the beaten path, Deyanira Aquino serves traditional Istmeño regional cuisine out of her home. Calle Violetas 200.
Mi Tierra Linda
A 45- minute drive south of the city, Juana Hernandez’s casual restaurant is home to some of the best moles in the region. Calle Ignacio López Rayón 7.
WHERE TO DRINK
For an education in Oaxaca’s signature spirit, book a tasting at this bar/classroom in the city center: There are nearly 100 varieties on offer. mezcaloteca.com.
Mezcal Real Minero
Graciela Ángeles Carreño’s distillery is a farm-to-glass operation: Tour the agave crops before settling into the tasting room. realminero.com.mx.
As told to Dana Bowen