Outside of the capital, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better city for foodies in Mexico than Oaxaca (pronounced wah-HAH-kah), which is known for its mole, mezcal, and chocolate.
The best restaurants in Oaxaca showcase these regional delights with elegance and aplomb.
My first foray into Oaxacan food came during a brief visit, part of a two-week tour of Mexico to promote G Adventures.
As time was short, I prioritized meals at the first two restaurants on this list, Casa Oaxaca and Catedral.
Years later, I returned for a two-month stay, along with a group of friends and fellow bloggers.
During that second visit to Oaxaca, I gained a greater appreciation for the street food and markets, which I'll cover in a separate story. Here, we'll look at the best fine dining options.
Oaxaca's Best Fine Dining
Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante
Arriving just as it opened, I had the spacious rooftop of Casa Oaxaca ("Oaxaca house") to myself.
The restaurant, which ranked #38 on the inaugural list of Latin America's Best Restaurants in 2013, faces the southeast facade of Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán, a grand Catholic church in the heart of Oaxaca City's historic district.
Taking a seat under a shaded area, I ordered a feast from Alejandro Ruiz's kitchen, starting with salsa prepared table-side and ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms with honey and epazote (an aromatic herb).
I chose the green mole with suckling pig and fresh vegetables from the restaurant's farm for the main course. Tender, succulent, and oh-so-filling, it was heavenly.
Dessert was a generous portion of velvety Oaxacan chocolate mousse with hibiscus and agave worm salt, garnished with a blackberry.
The entire meal was incredible, setting a high bar for all that would follow.
Besides moles and other meat-based dishes, Casa Oaxaca's menu also offers seafood and vegetarian options. Casa Oaxaca is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
Founded in 1977, Restaurante Catedral is named after the nearby 16th-century Metropolitan Cathedral of Oaxaca.
Their historic building on the main road through the old town is full of color and charm, like the plant-filled, sunlit courtyard (pictured above) where I enjoyed lunch.
I couldn't resist ordering the dish that inspired my excitement for Oaxaca, mole negro ("black mole") smothering white chicken breast, served with a side of white rice, plantains, and refried beans.
Their rendition (pictured above) is the best mole negro I've ever had, although to be fair, my prior experiences with the dish were limited to Mexican restaurants in the United States.
Not surprisingly, it's the top mole recommendation on the menu. Other options include yellow mole with beef, green mole with pork, and mole with braised short rib.
If you're looking for flavorful moles in a fine dining atmosphere, head for Catedral.
Like Casa Oaxaca, Catedral's menu also offers vegetarian-friendly options, including soups, salads, and pasta, as well as seafood.
Catedral's dessert menu can't be missed, either. I devoured their signature chocolate pastry with chilhuacle chili and chocolate ice cream.
Other desserts incorporating local ingredients include a Oaxacan cheese pastry with hibiscus flower jelly and pinole (pine nut) cookie and Tejate foam with mamey sorbet.
Tejate is a pre-Hispanic, non-alcoholic beverage made from corn and cacao. Mamey is a tropical fruit.
Catedral is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week.
A block west of Casa Oaxaca, just off the plaza in front of Santo Domingo church is Los Danzantes ("The Dancers").
At Los Danzantes, the dining room is an open-air, vine-filled interior courtyard. Whether you're there for lunch or a romantic dinner, you'll get a feeling of seclusion in the middle of the city.
The restaurant embraces sustainable practices. Ingredients are sourced from local providers around the state of Oaxaca (of which Oaxaca City is the capital).
In March 2018, they stopped using Coca-Cola products in favor of Zegacola, a Oaxacan artisanal drink. And your drinks will arrive without straws.
Meatless Mondays introduce diners to alternative protein sources.
I dined at Los Danzantes several times during my two-month stay. The first time, I ordered the fish filet from Puerto Angel with chichilo ash crust, yellow mole, and vegetables.
Seared tuna, shrimp tlayuda, chicken with red mole, and candied pork ribs are some of the other appetizing main courses on the menu today.
For dessert, a marvelous goat cheese flan with figs, honey, and chocolate.
Other unique offerings include a turnover pastry with quince, cream cheese, and red wine sauce, and a financier (almond cake) with pink pepper ice cream.
A commitment to sustainable practices, high-quality ingredients, and creative dishes are why I believe Los Danzantes is one of the best restaurants in Oaxaca.
Los Danzantes is open daily for lunch and dinner. Reservations are recommended.
Four blocks south of Los Danzantes and a half-block east of the Zocalo (town square) is Restaurante Origen.
Opened in 2011 by Rodolfo Castellanos, winner of Top Chef Mexico's first season, Origen makes full use of indigenous ingredients in its contemporary dishes.
When I stopped by for lunch one day, I opted for something a little different--lettuce tacos with duck.
At the time it seemed novel, however since moving to Austin and cooking at home more, I've used lettuce in this manner many times.
My dessert choice, on the other hand, was a feast for the eyes. Three chocolate truffles with fresh fruit and ice cream were plated with precision.
On the menu today, there are many new and appealing options, including:
- Guacamole with grasshoppers and agave worms
- Duck enchiladas with mole sauce
- Poblano pepper risotto with shrimp
- Beef tongue with chichilo mole sauce
Origin also offers a six-course tasting menu for 1,1000 Mexican pesos ($55). Pairings are an additional 450 pesos ($22).
Groups of 8-10 people can book the Chef's Table experience, where chef Castellanos will cook for you personally.
As you can see, the best restaurants in Oaxaca, Mexico each showcase local ingredients and a rich culinary tradition in modern recipes.