Street Food in Oaxaca: What to Eat and When
By Amber Dunlap
As one of Mexico’s culinary capitals, Oaxaca’s gastronomy prowess is usually tied to the ancestral recipes and photo-worthy platings you find at restaurants like Casa Oaxaca, Criollo and Ancestral. But street food in Oaxaca, too, has received quite the spotlight of late thanks to the generous feature in Netflix’s Street Food: Latin America series.
While we wouldn’t say Oaxaca is known for its street food, it’s certainly present and follows a very precise schedule that, if timed well, could have you dining on breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the snacks in between, all on the cobble-stoned streets and plastic stools of Oaxaca’s finest street food purveyors.
Al pastor shaved straight from the trompo, esquites slathered with mayonnaise and dusted with chili, tlayudas fresh off the charcoal grill or comal…these countrywide Mexican street food staples also have a place on Oaxaca’s streets, but so do a few street food delicacies that are truly Oaxaca originals.
Consider this your handy street food guide to Oaxaca, broken down by time of day and what you can expect to find cooking at the nearest corner cart at that time. Scroll all the way down to the bottom for specific recommendations as to which street food stands do Oaxacan street food best.
Consome: Served by the cup-full, consome (or consommé) is essentially a brothy soup that contains the most tender, melt-in-your-mouth strips of often beef or goat. It’s usually topped with onions, cilantro, and of course chili or salsa.
Memelas: This Oaxaca-born breakfast staple is an open-faced maize tortilla that gets cooked on the comal and is traditionally layered with asiento (pork lard), then refried beans, crumbled cheese, and salsa. You can add other ingredients too, like meat, huitlacoche (corn mushroom), eggs, potatoes with chorizo, nopales (prickly pear), and more.
Tamales: Oaxacans have perfected this beloved breakfast food. Made with mashed maize and stuffed with any number of fillings, in Oaxaca, tamales are uniquely wrapped with banana leaves instead of the usual corn husk you’ll find elsewhere in Mexico, though you’ll still find corn husk-wrapped tamales in Oaxaca too. The traditional tamal Oaxaqueño comes with a mole and chicken filling, but you’ll also find tamales stuffed with local herbs, beans, pickled chiles, or even sweet fruits like pineapple, raisins, or fruit marmalades. Also, be on the lookout for a hot local beverage called atole and the option to order your tamale on a bun, called a guajolota.
Tejate: Though technically not street food, and more street drink, this hearty beverage served during the morning hours curbside and in markets all over town, deserves a special mention. Served cold in the halfshell of a gourd, this prehispanic beverage is made with maize, toasted mamey seed, cacao beans, and flor de cacao (cacao flower). These ingredients are first worked into a paste and then mixed with water until a nice foam from the flor de cacao appears on the surface.
Lunch and Late Afternoon Pick-Me-Ups
Tacos: Tacos are that quintessential Mexican street food item we all dream of sinking our teeth into pre-trip to Mexico. In Oaxaca, you’ll find street food vendors dishing up all sorts of taco options, from tacos al pastor shaved right off the trompo to the delicious chili relleno-stuffed and rolled tacos of Tacos del Carmen (a must-visit taco stand in Oaxaca!). You’ll also spot a few stands folding their tortillas with more “out there” (to the foreigners’ palate at least) fillings like brain, tongue, intestines, and more.
Tortas: A torta in Mexico is a sandwich served on a perfectly crisp bun with, most typically, a schmear of refried beans, mayonnaise, cheese, protein of your choice, and vegetables like grilled onions and peppers, tomato, and verduras en vinagre (spicy peppers with vegetables in vinegar). While this loaded sandwich may sound like a proper lunchtime meal by your standards, it’s just a snack or light lunch for local Oaxaqueños.
Empanadas de Amarillo: Distinctly Oaxacan, the empanada de amarillo is a classic Oaxacan street food dish. Unlike empanadas from other parts of Latin America, Oaxaca’s version looks more like a quesadilla. Shredded chicken and mole amarillo get folded inside of a corn tortilla, cooked on the comal, and served piping hot.
Nieves and Paletas: There’s nothing more refreshing than a scoop or stick of Oaxaca’s favorite icy treat. Nieves (a cool and refreshing sorbet) and paletas (popsicles) are sold all over town and there’s often a vendor wheeling a cooler full through Parque Llano or Jardin Conzatti every afternoon with various flavors made with either milk or water. The Plaza de Nieves at the Basilica de Soledad has an entire terrace of nieve vendors or visit Nieves Chagüita in the Benito Juarez Market. Go for the most popular local flavors of leche quemada con tuna (burnt milk with prickly pear) or maracuya con mezcal (passion fruit with mezcal) if they have it.
Raspa: Raspas, or raspados as they’re also known, are Mexico’s version of the snow cone or slushie and are sometimes topped with fruit or condensed milk. They’re typically served out of bike carts in the plazas, around the markets, and in the parks when afternoon rolls around. The raspador shaves the ice directly off the block and then pumps in a flavored syrup, ranging in flavor from tamarind and rompope (eggnog) to chocolate, cappuccino, and strawberry.
Post-Dinner and Late Night Street Food Staples
Tlayudas: If you only try one street food item on this list, let it be the tlayuda. Oaxacan through and through, this massive late night snack consists of a large tortilla grilled over the coals until crisp and charred and the cheese is all melted inside. Then it’s stuffed with your choice of meat and all of the classic Mexican fillings like pork lard, refried beans, cabbage or lettuce, and tomato. It’s also typically served with the local herb chepiche or huaje and some radishes on the side or on top.
Hamburgers and Hot Dogs: Where there is a bar, there is sure to be a hamburger and hot dog stand not far away. This popular late night street food option may not seem like it’s worth the stomach space, but we’d beg to differ. Loaded with toppings like ham, onion, lettuce, cheese, and pineapple, there’s also usually an array of sauces to squirt on as well. And in Oaxaca, you can guarantee at least one of those sauces is made with chapulines (grasshoppers).
Esquites and Elote: Be prepared to join the lines for this early evening street food delicacy. You’ll find it on street corners all over town and often in the parks and plazas too. Go for the steaming cups of Oaxacan creamed corn, known as esquites, or the grilled and dressed in cheese, chili, and mayo corn on the cob, called elote. You can also order your elote on a corn leaf and topped with a heavy sprinkling of chapulines. It’s the perfect appetizer before digging into something more substantial later.
Marquesitas: Enter the late night desserts. You’ll smell the marquesitas before you see them. Though technically from the Yucatan, these crunchy, crepe-like, but rolled like a taco, sweets are prepared on street cart griddles all over Oaxaca. They’re stuffed with any combination of cheese, nutella, chocolate, fruit, and jam. The most popular way to order it is with strawberry jam and cream cheese or nutella inside, a favorite combination of locals.
Roasted Bananas: While you’ll smell the marquesitas, you’ll hear the roasted bananas. Listen for a piercing whistle and you’ll know they’re nearby. Just keep your eye out for what looks like a rusty oven on wheels with a smokestack attached on top. Order your smoky and sweet roasted banana with a drizzle of condensed milk and enjoy.
Oaxaca Street Food Map
Here’s where to find the best street food in Oaxaca according to the Oaxaca Eats team.
About the Author
Amber Dunlap is a freelance travel writer originally from the United States. Since early 2016, she’s been moving from country to country all over Latin America, but it’s Oaxaca that has ultimately captured her curiosity these days. You can follow her street-by-street Oaxaca explorations on her personal travel blog or over on Instagram at @nomapsamber.