Around the Zócalo
Oaxaca City visitors enjoy many good eateries right on or near the zócalo. Of the eight cafés, seven offer recommendable food and service. Moving counterclockwise from the northwest corner, they are Primavera, La Cafetería, Del Jardín, Importador, Terranova, Amarantos, and the zócalo-front café of the Hotel Marques del Valle.
First place overall goes to the pricier, upper-class Terranova at the southeast corner, and the Hotel Marques del Valle on the north side, for their professionally prepared and served lunch and dinner entrées. For good, economical breakfasts, however, go to Primavera, at the northeast (Hidalgo) corner. The adjacent west-side La Cafetería and Del Jardín (with loud marimba music most nights) rate generally good for food (notably Del Jardín’s tummy-warming apple strudel), but their service can be spotty.
While service at Amarantos is usually good, its food is only fair. Newcomer El Importador is trying harder with entertaining, not-too-loud live music and passably good food, at lower prices than neighboring Terranova. All are open long hours, about 8 a.m.–midnight, and serve very recognizable menus, with morning breakfasts ($2–5), soups, salads ($3–6), and pasta, meat, poultry, and fish ($5–$12).
The one drawback of zócalo-level eating is the persistent flow of vendors, which can be unnerving. If, however, you refuse (or bargain for) their offerings gently and with humor, you might begin to accept and enjoy them as part of the entire colorful scene. (If they really get to you, best take an inside table or retreat to the two restaurants that shoo them away: the Terranova and the Marques del Valle.)
Note: For the time being, it is best not to eat any of the French-fried chapulines (grasshoppers) that some vendors offer. Both the grasshoppers and certain kinds of locally made candy have been found to contain large amounts of lead, which is harmful, especially to children, even in amounts as small as a hundred-thousandth of a gram. Mexican health authorities are very aware of this problem, and are working to correct it quickly.
As for zócalo-front restaurants, serious- eating longtimers return to El Asador Vasco (Portal Flores 10A on the second-floor balcony above the Restaurant Jardín, tel. 951/514-4755, 1 p.m.–midnight daily, $25–35). The menu specializes in hearty Basque-style country cooking: salty, spicy, and served in the decor of a medieval Iberian manor house. Favorites include fondues (bean, sausage, and mushroom), garlic soup, salads, veal tongue, oysters in hot sauce, and the carnes asadas (roast meats) house specialties.
Longtimers also swear by the Oaxacan specialties at Casa de la Abuela (Grandmother’s House) (above the Primavera café, tel. 951/516-3544, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, $7–17) at the zócalo’s northwest corner. Here you can enjoy tasty, professionally prepared regional dishes and airy zócalo vistas from the balcony. Call for reservations and a table with a view.
For fine Oaxacan specialties in a graceful, old-world setting, try Andariega Restaurant (Independencia 503, tel./fax 951/514-9331, 7:30 a.m.–9 p.m. daily, $8–12) in the Parador San Miguel, two blocks west of the cathedral. Here’s one of your best chances to try some of Oaxaca’s moles, such as almendrado (almond), verde (green), amarillo (yellow), or negro (black), over chicken, beef, or pork. Other favorites are chiles rellenos, stuffed with cheese and picadillo (spiced meat), and red snapper in orange sauce. An excellent daily four-course comida (set lunch) runs about $8.
For many loyal local upper-class patrons, Restaurant Catedral (Garcia Vigil 105, tel. 951/516-3285, 8 a.m.–midnight Mon.–Fri., 8 a.m.–2 a.m. Sat. and Sun, $8–16), two blocks north of the zócalo, at the corner of Morelos, serves as a tranquil daytime refuge from the street hubbub. The refined ambience—music playing softly in the background, tables set around an airy, intimate fountain patio crowned by the blue Oaxaca sky above—is half the show. The finale is the very correct service and quality food for breakfast, lunch, or supper. The Aguilar family owners are especially proud of their moles that flavor their house specialties. These include fillets, both meat and fish ($9–16), and regional dishes, such as banana leaf–wrapped tamales Oaxaqueños ($8).
Back on Hidalgo, just past the zócalo’s northeast corner, the spotless little fonda El Mesón (Hidalgo 805, tel. 951/516-2729, 8 a.m.–11:30 p.m. daily) specializes in buffet food. For about $5, you can select your fill of fresh fruit, salads, frijoles charros (chili beans), and several entrées, including roast beef and pork, chicken, moles, tacos, tamales, and enchiladas.
More good eating, in a genteel, relaxed atmosphere, awaits you at the very popular Restaurant El Sagrario (120 Valdivieso, tel. 951/514-0303 or 951/514-3319, 8 a.m.– midnight daily, $7–12), around the corner behind the church. Mostly local, youngish upper-class customers enjoy a club/bar atmosphere (lower level), pizza parlor booths (middle level), or restaurant tables (upper level). At the restaurant level during the evening, you can best take in the whole scene around you—chattering, upbeat crowd; live guitar, flute, jazz, or salsa melodies; and elegantly restored colonial details. Then, finally, comes the food, beginning, perhaps, with an appetizer, continuing with a soup or salad ($4), then an international or regional specialty ($7–12), which you top off with a light dessert and a savory espresso. Music volume goes up later in the evening. Credit cards accepted.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition