Postcard From Tom: Oaxaca, Mexico

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's monthly report from the road.

One of the best places to eat in all of Mexico, Oaxaca is renowned for its complex sauces, or moles; the potent drink mescal; and chapulines (fried grasshoppers), a popular snack in markets and restaurants alike.

EL NARANJO (Valerio Trujano 203, 011-52-951-514-1878)

In a dining room made tranquil with flickering candles and a splashing fountain, chef Iliana de la Vega strolls from table to table to introduce herself and offer suggestions. Shrimp sauced with ground green pumpkin seeds, she says, is like "singing with the angels." Almost heaven, I have to agree. Competing for your attention on her lengthy menu are creamy pecan soup, a salad of brilliant red tomatoes and local oregano, and pork-stuffed chile rellenos. Entrees $9-$15.

EL TOPIL (Plazuela Labistida 104, 011-52-951-514-1617)

I stood at the entrance, inhaled the cooking aromas -- and instantly knew I was in the right place for dinner. El Topil is just two small white stucco rooms, and the woman taking your order is the same person making it in the tiny rear kitchen. Seek out the fragrant garlic soup, tortillas filled with string cheese and pork, and thin beef steak brightened with avocado sauce. No wonder the family-run restaurant has been feeding people for almost 30 years: This is as close as you're likely to get to a home-cooked meal in Oaxaca. Entrees $3.50-$9.

LA GUERITA (Corner of Nicholas del Puerto and Murguia)

Want to get away from the tourists? Head to the small but colorful Mercado Democracia, where purveyors sell everything from sugar-dusted churros to barbecued goat from a maze of small stalls -- and where you probably won't hear a word of English, German or French. One of the tastiest pit stops is La Guerita, just inside the market entrance. There's typically a crowd in front of the counter, behind which a lone cook shapes, stuffs and then griddles plate-size empanadas over a wood-burning drum. For a couple of dollars you get a meal, a show and a mouth-watering memory.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company