Last week I made my first pilgrimage to Oaxaca, home of Mexico’s most complex and legendary regional cuisine. The proper, sit-down restaurants we tried were average to awful, but the street food–sweet Holy Virgin, that’s good eating.

It being the tail end of low tourist season I hesitate to pick on those sad, empty (relatively) high-end restaurants in Oaxaca City’s center. They’re still recovering from social unrest last spring, during which some 20 people were killed in clashes between police and antigovernment protesters, scaring away all the tourists and sending the economy into the toilet. My uneducated guess is that many of the street vendors and operators of the tiny fondas and comedores (market stalls and small restaurants) suffered relatively little from the tourist exodus, since much of their business comes from actual Oaxaquenos who couldn’t or wouldn’t flee when things got hairy.

I was much aided in my questing by some very smart and intrepid food adventurers who had gone before me and written up many edible treasures not be found in any guidebook. I was very pleased that many of these were still relatively easy to find. In the riotous market in Tlacolula there was the home-distilled mezcal (more on that later), chocolate hand-ground on the stone metate, and tejate, a chalky cold drink made from corn, cacao and mamey seeds, and cacao flowers.

Every night in the shadow of the magnificent Basilica de la Soledad in Oaxaca City the ice cream stands were hand-churning nieves in innumerable flavors, from tequila to queso to corn to cactus pear.

At the corner of Alcala and Matamoros I located the legendary Socorro Vega, who sells preserved fruits in vinegar or alcohol (thanks RST). One of the first things I put in my mouth was a fig from her cart. Steeped in alcohol, it was so sweet and delicious I felt wings burst from my back. I returned to her corner again and again, sampling pickled mangoes, plantains, garbanzos mixed with arroz con leche, and piedrazo, a piece of hard, biscotti-dry bread soaked in pineapple vinegar and topped with pickled onions and carrots, chile sauce, and cheese. It’ll bring you to your knees.

Oaxaca’s dense, intense, sensorily overloaded markets are filled with good and strange things to eat: quesadillas, tacos, enfrijoladas filled with all sort of goodies (chorizo, mushrooms, squash blossoms); moles negro, rojo, or coloradito; the incomparable Oaxacan string cheese; the tough stringy and characterful Mexican chicken. And of course chapulines–the infamous dark red grasshoppers fried with chile and lime were everywhere. 

The classic nighttime Oaxacan street food is a tlayuda–a large tortilla griddled on a stone comal and smeared with beans, queso Oaxaqueno, and cabbage, perhaps stuffed with dried beef (tasajo), or pork (cecina), or maybe chorizo, then folded over and served on a styrofoam plate less than half its size. The variations on these are impressive, sometimes changing radically from stand to stand.

One week isn’t nearly long enough to to get a grip on this food culture, and I discovered little to eat that I hadn’t heard about already. But there was one old woman who plants herself in the doorway of a hotel every night between 7 and 9 (Labastida 115 if you make it) selling homemade corn-husk-wrapped tamales (not the traditional Oaxacan banana leaf ones). She was recommend to me by the owner of the B&B where I was staying, and seconded by the young professional Oaxaquena waiting in line ahead of me. In preparation for a long bus ride to the beach the following day we ordered a dozen in various types (dulce, frijole, mole negro, mole rojo con pollo), but couldn’t resist grabbing a bench and digging into the bag in the dark. The first bite was one of those unforgettable, doors-of-perception busting tastes that changed the way I’ll think about tamales forever. Dense, hot, yet unbelievably fluffy like a summer storm cloud shot through with lightning bolts of sweet pineapple. Henceforth whenever I spot Mr. Tamales I’ll be unable to do anything more than shake my head sadly.

Check out Elizabeth Gomez’s pics below.