Intrepid food travelers of the world have long been attracted to Mexico, the source of such earth changing foods as tomatoes, chiles, corn and cacao. Armed with Pepto-Bismol tablets, Imodium and bottles of iodine, they shunned the bland international menus of tourist restaurants and roamed the colorful markets and street stalls looking for authentic bites. In the past, few emerged with intestinal tracts unscathed.
But that was then — in my case, 12 years ago — and now is now. Agriculture is cleaner — no more raw manure in the fields, and now there are quality standards for animals sent to slaughter, according to Adrian Yerena, a San Francisco chef and professional cooking school graduate whose family owns farmland here and in Central Mexico.
Though Mexico remains a country with many poor people, 30 percent unemployment and the problems of rapid population growth and development, people in the rising middle class who tour their own country expect safe food. As Connie Green, wild-mushroom forager and an old Mexico hand told me, “No one gets sick anymore.”
Natives and visitors alike still only drink bottled water, and I only eat raw fruits and vegetables at stalls and restaurants with dependable reputations. Such information is passed down, as I am doing for you here.
If you go to the places described below, fear not and marvel. A trip to Mexico not only means immersion in diverse and ancient native cultures that collided with colonial Spain 500 years ago, but a fascinating food experience that literally allows you to take it all in.
I started my trip in Oaxaca, a charming small city with some of the best markets, textiles and local food in all of Mexico. Plan to be there on a Tuesday or Thursday morning at 11 a.m. for a guided tour in English of the new Ethno Botanical Garden in back of the breathtaking Santo Domingo church.
By learning about the native plants and how they were used, many of the mysteries of Oaxacan history and culture will be revealed. Then head to two wonderful, manageable markets, both walking distance from the zocalo or the Santo Domingo neighborhood where many of the nicest little hotels are located.
After cruising the stalls with chiles, moles (dried chile pastes in many colors), produce, clothing and dishware in the Juarez Mercado, find La Abuelita, a food stall in the center. There you can have a bowl of cinnamon-scented hot chocolate, and enfrijoladas, soft tortillas smothered in black-bean cooking liquid topped with red onion, cilantro and fresh white Oaxacan cheese, with spicy, vinegary chorizo on the side.
Alternatively, follow the smoke and your nose to the nearby meat taco hall, where women slap thin slices of beef or pork you've bought onto charcoal braziers, then pile the cooked meat into flat baskets lined with pink butcher paper and ferry them over to a table where you've staked out a seat.
Other vendors will bring characteristically thin Oaxacan-style hot tortillas, some of the best anywhere; still others will offer salsas (I recommend the avocado), and still others, beautiful white onions with long, green tops, and pointy yellow chiles which all go on the grill. You tear off pieces of salty meat and put them in the tortillas with all the other things. A roving guitarist with an operatic voice might sing to you as you tear into them.
The Merced Market is smaller, homier and sweeter. Go there for empanadas con flor de calabasas y huitlacoche at the tiny stall called La Guerita. Everyone knows it. A large super thin corn tortilla is thrown onto a round, concave metal comal positioned over a charcoal fire. Black-corn fungus with kernels of corn, Oaxacan string cheese and squash blossoms are piled on. The tortilla is folded to form a turnover and popped underneath the comal to bake in the coals. I’ve had this combination all over Mexico, but none comes close to this one. It may be the best piece of food in Oaxaca.
Fans of the stunning Los Danzantes (calle Macedonian Alcala 403-4, tel. 501-1184) a dramatically tented restaurant in a courtyard across the street from Santo Domingo church, might not agree, especially after a shot of rare, elegant, 7 Leguas tequila with a chaser of fresh lime juice.
This goes with a molcajete of made-to-order guacamole piled with chapulinas, deep-fried grasshoppers. (You won’t know what this tasty, tart, oniony, salsa-like stuff is unless someone tells you.) Scoop it all up with Oaxaca's clean, corn-y, toasted tortillas.
A cazuela of shredded duck in roasted red chile salsa, which comes with ethereal soft tortillas kept warm in banana leaves, is delicious with Mexican red wine.
Warm, oozing chocolate cake is well worth ordering in advance with icy vanilla sorbet-like ice cream. Entrées are in the $13 range. Unlike most other restaurants in Mexico, this one is open for dinner on Sunday.
For breakfast or lunch find Itanone (Belisario Dominquez 512, Colonia Reforma), a 15-minute walk from Santo Domingo, for little bites based on tortillas made from individual varieties of corn collected around the Oaxacan valley. Some have the sweetness of fresh corn. Others are smoky and purple. Some smell like toasted corn. All are cooked dry on a comal.
My favorite antojito here is a huge, spicy-hot, fried and battered chile de agua relleno stuffed with juicy shredded chicken scented with wild herbs, and plopped on red rice, all inside a thin tortilla. Itanone made the best drink of the trip, a gently sweetened bright-green lime and parsley agua fresca served in miniature glass milk bottles with a straw.
Almost every night we convened in the tony bar next to the best restaurant in town, Casa Oaxaca (Constitucion 104-A), also in an open-air courtyard where we sipped smooth aged mezcal, the local drink, with side shots of sangrita — a chile- and lime-spiked tomato juice. We snacked on luscious taquitos topped with octopus, porcini-like wild mushrooms and toasted red chile salsa.
At the dinner table, Mexican tempranillo from Baja California's Guadaloupe Valley went remarkably well with venison tacos paired with incendiary chile de aqua salad.
Deep-fried beignets of red snapper came with a mild red chile purée. A tender organic turkey breast was draped in a delectably balanced black mole sprinkled with sesame seeds. Dinner with drinks runs about $50 a person, including 18 percent service and 15 percent tax.
In the mornings we had perfect caffe latte at Nuevo Mundo (M. bravo 206), a small coffee roaster and cafe that blends beans from around the Oaxaca valley. Their huevos Mexicanos — lively moist scrambled eggs with tomatoes, green chiles, onions and cilantro — were the best I had in all of Mexico. Nuevo Mundo also bakes soft, grainy whole wheat bread which they serve toasted and naked on the side of the eggs.
Next week: Mexico City
Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers' Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at email@example.com.