North of the Zócalo
Devotees of light, vegetarian-style cuisine get what they’re hungering for at La Manantial Vegetariana, with two locations. The original branch is just above Matamoros (at west-side Calle Tinoco y Palacios 303, tel. 951/514-5602, 8 a.m.–11 p.m. daily except Sun.), two blocks west and three blocks north of the zócalo; the new branch occupies the center of the busy Santo Domingo shopping plaza (diagonally across Alcalá from the Iglesia de Santo Domingo, 8 a.m.–9 p.m. daily, $2–5) and is consequently not very relaxing. At the east-side branch, tranquil patio ambience sets the tone for the house specialty, a set lunch comida. Typically they might offer soup (onion or cream of zucchini), salad (mixed greens or tomato cucumber), stew (mushroom or soya steak), bread, fruit drink, dessert, and coffee or tea for about $6 until 7 p.m., $8 after that.
If you’re in the mood for a little bit of Italy in Oaxaca, go to Restaurant la Rústica (upstairs, above the northeast corner of Alcalá and Murguia, tel. 951/501-1318 or 951/516-7696, 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m. daily, $5–12), a few blocks uphill from the zócalo. This is a place that has customers when everywhere else is empty. It’s like a picture out of old Sicily, with arched ceilings, old-world religious wall paintings, Pavarotti in the background, and a tasty menu of most everything Italian: antipasti, ($3–6), 185 spaghetti options ($5–9), lasagna, and delicious pizza in a dozen variations ($7–12).
If you’re unfamiliar with (or unconvinced about) Oaxaca’s mole sauces, walk two blocks east of the front of Iglesia de Santo Domingo to Restaurant los Pacos (Abasolo 121, tel. 951/516-1704, noon–about 10 p.m. Mon.–Sat.). Your meal automatically comes with a mole appetizer sampler, which treats you to six—coloradito, verde, negro, estofado, Amarillo, and chichilo—of Oaxaca’s moles right off the bat. It only gets better after that, especially if you continue with one of the good salads, from Caesar to tomato ($4–7), then follow up with a traditional Oaxaca specialty, such as enchiladas coloradito con picadillo ($9), espinazazo de puerco con mole verde ($10), or entomatadas either solas or with beef ($9).
Also behind Santo Domingo, half a block north of Abasolo, Café La Olla (Reforma 402, in front of Casa de las Bugambilias bed-and-breakfast, tel. 951/516-6668, 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat.) enjoys a loyal following of longtime North American expatriates. Here, the dark-beamed ceiling, subdued spotlighting of the art-decorated walls, quiet music, and candlelight set the refined, romantic tone. Select from a long but light menu of skillfully prepared and presented soups (Aztec soup is nearly a meal in itself, $5), salads, Oaxacan specialties, and meats ($6–14). La Olla’s main drawback is street noise, which you can minimize by taking an upstairs table.
Right across the street is Café La Antigua (Reforma 401, tel. 951/516-5761, 9 a.m.–11 p.m. Mon.–Sat.), enjoyed by a long list of loyal patrons for entirely different reasons. Here, the main course is conversation and fine on-site roasted “Pluma” (from the mountains above Puerto Escondido) Oaxaca coffee. Along with their savory lattes, cold cappuccinos, and mocha frappés, patrons can enjoy fresh baked goods, crepes, sandwiches, eggs, and juices ($2–7). The prime mover behind all this is friendly coffee grower and owner Diego Woolrich Ramírez.
Continue east two blocks and north two more to the relaxing garden of Mariscos Jorge (on Pino Suárez, across from El Llano park, tel. 951/513-4308, 8 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Wed.–Mon., $8–14), standout standby of local middle- and upper-class patrons. Choose from a long menu of seafood (14 cocktail selections, including, shrimp, squid, and clams, $4–6), salads and soups ($4), and entrées, including fish fillets, from breaded and baked to a la diabla, octopus, and much more ($8–14). Also pleasant for breakfast.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition