As I transitioned from living in Colombia to the United States again, I took a two-month trip to Oaxaca in Southern Mexico to spend time with friends. Oaxaca food, running the gamut from tacos and grasshoppers to moles and more, was a big attraction.
I'd visited the city of Oaxaca three years earlier as part of a big swing through Mexico, from Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast to Playa del Carmen on the Gulf coast.
However, two nights was not nearly enough for one of the top food cities in Latin America.
If that trip was the appetizer, returning for several relaxing months to explore Oaxacan cuisine further was the main course.
Once I'd settled into a spacious two-bedroom Airbnb near the Zocalo (town square), where I was joined by my friend Brock, it was time to explore the best foods Oaxaca had to offer.
While I didn't set out to write a story on Oaxacan street food at the time, I have enough food photos to illustrate some of what you'll encounter around town.
Let's start with Oaxacan cheese quesadillas.
Street Food in Oaxaca
I have a special place in my stomach for Oaxacan cheese, a semi-hard cow milk cheese that originated in the region. Think of it as Mexican string cheese.
Spending time with her balanced my experience and gave me opportunities to try some of the best street food.
We often got together with friends for dinner at one particular quesadilla cart in the historic city center (pictured above).
I routinely ordered the squash blossom quesadilla with Oaxacan cheese.
I preferred to let the cheese be the star, though chicken and meat are typical in Oaxacan food like quesadillas.
Sitting on those little plastic stools, chatting, and waiting for the cheese to melt and meld with the fresh corn tortillas was a peaceful end to any day.
It should go without saying that tacos are a typical Oaxaca street food, as we're in Mexico.
When I think of a typical Mexican taco, it's what you see pictured above, with small soft tortillas holding a few spoonfuls of meat (pork, in this case), onions, cilantro, and sauce, garnished with a lime wedge.
Due to their diminutive nature and inexpensive cost, it's wise to order three or more street tacos at a time.
In Austin, Texas, where I now live, tacos are beloved, yet some of the best chains to come out of this city (Torchy's and Tacodeli) don't remind me much of the tacos I get in Mexico.
And that's okay; it's akin to Tex-Mex, a fusion of cultures and flavor preferences.
Jodi wrote an entertaining article, The Cow Head Taco Philosopher King of Oaxaca, about one local vendor.
Elote is Mexican street corn, either sold on the cob or off in a cup.
The corn on the cob is grilled over an open flame and then covered in chili powder, salt, butter, cotija cheese, lime juice, and mayonnaise.
It sounds like a lot, but it's a delicious food. Healthy? Not so much. But as an occasional treat, it's fun. I prefer to eat it out of a cup to minimize making a mess.
Related: Best Restaurants in Mexico City
I encountered Dorilocos at a small shop and was reminded of the US version, Frito Pie, which as it turns out, was likely brought over from Mexico.
The concept behind this walking taco is that you slice open a bag of Doritos or Fritos and add toppings.
My Dorilocos were topped with jicama, carrot, lime, peanuts, sauces, and chili powder. Food in Oaxaca can be odd and fascinating!
Dorilocos is like a portable, junk food version of chilaquiles, a Mexican breakfast dish.
The main ingredients in chilaquiles are fried corn tortilla chips smothered in a green or red salsa, white cheese, and crema (a white sauce).
A fried egg, onions, and shredded chicken are also standard toppings.
Two blocks south of the Zocalo in Oaxaca's old town are two of the city's biggest traditional markets, Mercado Benito Juarez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre.
I often met with friends for lunch at Sarita, our favorite spot for traditional Mexican food at Mercado 20 de Noviembre.
(Another five blocks west of these two markets is the even larger Mercado Central de Abastos, however I didn't make it that far.)
Specifically, Jodi introduced me to the tlayuda, which looks like a Mexican pizza.
As you can see above, a large, thin, crispy tortilla is topped with refried beans, unrefined pork lard, lettuce or cabbage, tomatoes, avocado, Oaxacan cheese, and optionally, meat (in this case, beef, I believe).
Unlike an Italian pizza, there's no obvious or easy way to eat these things. Just dig in and accept that you'll make a mess as you munch through it.
Some Oaxaca food vendors serve them folded over, akin to a quesadilla, but I've only tried the open-faced variety.
Related: Exploring Pike Place Market
My favorite traditional Oaxacan food is mole. When I came to Oaxaca, mole sauce was on my mind, as the city is known as "the land of seven moles."
Of the seven mole sauces, mole negro ("black mole") is the most complex. It's made with chocolate, chili peppers, onions, and spices.
It's also the one you're most likely to encounter in a Mexican restaurant outside of Mexico.
I ate my fair share of mole negro in Oaxaca but also gave some of the other options a try, including colorado (red mole), amarillo (yellow mole), verde (green mole), and almendrado (almond mole).
When ordering mole dishes, you'll typically have a choice of meat. My preference is mole with chicken.
Oaxacan Hot Chocolate
Hot chocolate with bread is a combo I first encountered in Bogotá, Colombia, and I've been a fan ever since.
Made with Oaxacan chocolate and water, it's thinner and less sweet than the instant hot chocolates made with milk that I grew up with in the U.S.
Related: Pujol Restaurant in Mexico City
We're going to end on a crunchy note. Chapulines (grasshoppers) are a cheap Oaxaca street food high in protein.
It's hard to miss the mile-high piles of them on display along the periphery of the markets.
On my first visit to Oaxaca, I took it upon myself to try these crispy critters dusted with various chili powders to jazz them up.
I paid for a small sandwich bag's worth and walked back to the Zocalo, one of the best places I could think of, to pop a few in public.
Their texture is similar to popcorn but not as soft and buttery. I wasn't a fan and tried to give the remainder to passers-by, to no avail.
I'd previously tried grasshoppers in Battambang, Cambodia; however, those had peanuts stuffed in their abdomens, making them more palatable.
Since I moved to Austin, grasshopper-based protein bars have gained traction.
These insects have lept from Latin American markets into the awareness of health-food fans in the U.S. They are coming soon to a Whole Foods near you!
When it comes to Oaxacan food, you can eat well in the streets and markets for very little money.
The rich and varied foods in this central Mexican state are one of the many reasons Oaxaca City has become a favorite amongst tourists and expats alike.