This post originally appeared in the November 13, 2022, edition of Eater Travel, a biweekly dispatch from Eater’s staff about navigating places where food is the main attraction. Subscribe now.
In my normal, everyday life as a restaurant-going Brooklynite, I have little interest in seeking out a tasting menu, or even a set menu of four or five courses. Typically, I’d prefer to go to a restaurant with less fanfare, minimal server interaction, and a touch more freedom when it comes to how long I might be there. But when I was perusing Eater’s guide to Oaxaca in advance of a trip to Oaxaca City in September, I was inspired to book a couple of reservations at fine dining restaurants that promised food on par with art, exhibited in, yes, a lavishly coursed-out, slightly fussy set of dishes. Now weeks later, after visiting this city renowned for its street food, I am remembering the tejate I drank at Mercado Benito Juárez and the memelas I ate at Mercado de Abastos, but I’m also thinking about the meals that unfurled on their predestined path, and how I was unexpectedly charmed by the accompanying fanfare, the enthusiastic descriptions of ingredients and techniques.
On vacation, booking a multicourse menu makes sense: You not only have the time to sit through a leisurely dinner, but the trip is occasion enough for a special meal. Traveling is a time when many of us are at our most receptive, which can make even the expected pageantry of a fancy set menu feel fun and novel. Most excitingly, though, these restaurants allowed me to experience the highlights of the region’s cuisine in one place, introducing me to dishes I could later seek out in their more traditional incarnations. They were a launching pad not for the fanciful ideas of chefs, though there was some of that, but for my own culinary exploration in a new city.
At Alfonsina, for example, a restaurant 20 minutes outside the city center, the first course arrived with a tiny cup of pulque, a drink made from the fermented sap of agave plants. It hadn’t been on my list of things to try — and it might not have been something I would have ordered had I been presented with a menu of options — but once in front of me, I was rethinking that omission. Later, at Enrique Olvera’s Criollo, the cup of chocolate that arrived at the end of the meal showed me that I had been making the wrong choice ordering it with milk — the water, you see, really allows the more nuanced flavors to shine. (I guess I’m also saying go to Oaxaca for the drinks.)
In Oaxaca City, the chefs at fine dining restaurants took pride in their role as stewards of the state’s cuisine: After we had eaten all five courses at Alfonsina, our server presented us with a plate full of ingredients and explained how each one factored into our meal, a delightful lesson that may have landed differently at home. Later, when I saw those ingredients pop up in other meals, at more casual restaurants or on the street, I thought back to that earlier dinner at Alfonsina. And although I ultimately didn’t have more pulque in Oaxaca, I doubt it would have been as good as it was in that initial moment of discovery as a part of a full, beautiful meal.