Restaurants — Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico, Oaxaca City, Oaxaca
No trip to the city is complete without a visit to one of the restaurants or sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo. The restaurants La Casa de la Abuela, master of the seven moles, and the El Asador Vasco, specializing in Basque cuisine, offer the only fine dining on the Zócalo, both perched, with great views, above the sidewalk cafés on the second stories of the colonial buildings lining the west side.
Of the five sidewalk cafés on the Zócalo, none stands out among the bunch, all offering pretty standard, if uninspired, Oaxacan fare, along with a few sandwiches, hamburgers, and other crowd pleasers, thrown in to appeal to the unadventurous culinary traveler, or, well, maybe just someone who's had his or her fill of Méxican food. That said, on the east side, the Terranova and Importador do seem to be aiming a little higher — the waiters more attentive, the presentation of the food more well thought out, and the prices slightly higher. Still, for the most part, the food isn't that much better.
But don't go to the Zócalo looking for fine dining or to sample the region’s unique cuisine — for that there are other, worthier restaurants nearby. No, go to the Zócalo to be in the thick of it — the diners crowding the sidewalk cafés, sipping hot coffee or ice-cold cervezas, meeting up with old friends, or maybe striking up conversations with new ones, students anxiously practicing newly learned Spanish on the waiters, the waiters responding with gentle patience, expats lazing away the afternoon with a good book, suddenly, a mob of people rushing for the cover of the portales, escaping an afternoon summer shower, orchestras performing classics, street musicians adroitly working their instruments, singers crooning, clowns beguiling with their antics, mimes silently telling tales, dancers reenacting ancient steps, all asking for only a few pesos for their skills and efforts, artisans displaying their creations, street vendors haggling with skeptical customers over the price of otherwise worthless trinkets, beggars desperate for a couple of pesos, their only foreseeable hope for something to eat that day, shoeshiners snapping their towels, workers relaxing, on break from their toils, toddlers, unsteady, chasing after pigeons, political protests erupting periodically, civil but often times disobedient...and the list goes on. Needless to say, the Zócalo is a place to linger or to drop by often. Something's always happening here or about to.
The Italian Coffee Company, Zócalo • Café • $ • (A)
The Italian Coffee Company is a national chain of Cafés trying way too hard to be México's version of Starbucks, mimicking everything from the friendly baristas and the many concoctions involving coffee to the mediocre gourmet coffee itself, which always tastes like it's trying to please as many palates as possible, and invariably comes up short. So, before passing on one of the many locally owned coffee shops in the city serving excellent gourmet coffee, a few of which roast their own beans on the premises, ask yourself, "Did I really travel a thousand miles or more to drink mediocre gourmet coffee at a Starbucks knockoff?" That said, with at least half a dozen Italian Coffee Company coffee shops scattered throughout the city, in a pinch, there is usually one close by, making it easy to pop in for a quick cup of café para llevar. And that is how it makes itself useful. There are three locations on or within half of a block of the Zócalo.
Amarantos • Oaxacan Restaurant • $$-$$$ • (B)
A seat beneath the portales on the east side of the Zócalo, decent service, and a menu full of uninspired, though adequate, Oaxacan dishes make this as worthy a choice as any of the half-dozen or so sidewalk cafés and restaurants fronting the plaza.
- East side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - 10 p.m.; MX$50 - 150; phone 951-516-8218.
Terranova • Oaxacan Restaurant • $$-$$$ • (C)
By offering more attentive waiters and better presentation of its food, Terranova has upped the ante on its street-level competitors on the Zócalo. Despite these positive moves, though, the mostly Oaxacan cooking coming out of its kitchen isn't that much better than the competition, not to mention the somewhat higher prices. That said, the all-you-can-eat Sunday breakfast buffet is a good deal at 100 pesos.
- East side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - midnight; MX$70 - 200; phone 951-514-0533; www.terranova-oaxaca.com.mx/terra.html; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Importador • Oaxacan Restaurant • $$-$$$ • (D)
Like its next-door neighbor Terranova, Importador strives for a finer dining experience than some of its street-level competitors on the Zócalo, offering better service and presentation of its food, and charging slightly more for it. For all its striving, though, the cooking, a mix of Oaxacan and imported favorites, comes up short, which pretty much sums up the culinary accomplishments of all the sidewalk cafés and restaurants on the plaza. Nevertheless, on the importado side of the menu, the large mound of Spanish paella is a nice break from Oaxacan food — if, indeed, a break is needed — and a real bargain at 80 pesos, available on Saturdays and Sundays only.
- Southeast corner of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - 1:30 a.m.; MX$50 - 160.
Bar del Jardín • Oaxacan Restaurant • $$-$$$ • (C)
By far the most popular of the half-dozen or so sidewalk cafés and restaurants fronting the Zócalo, the Bar del Jardín, with two locations on the west side of the plaza, serves mostly Oaxacan classics, along with an assortment of traveler favorites, such as club sandwiches, burgers, and pizza. Despite its popularity, the cooking, though adequate, is otherwise uninspired, a shortcoming shared by all of its street-level competitors on the plaza. Still, it is hard to beat the views from either of its locations.
- Two locations on the west side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - midnight; MX$50 - 150; phone 951-516-2092.
El Asador Vasco • Basque Restaurant, Wine • $$$-$$$$ • (F)
Basque-style grilled meats the house specialty, the seafood as good as any in the city, a nice wine list, live mariachi music, dining on the second-story balcony with views of the Zócalo, the interior stone archways giving the place an old-world ambiance, El Asador Vasco has by far the finest dining on the plaza. Look for the entrance beneath the portales in the Bar del Jardín. And be sure to arrive early to secure a table on the balcony with views of the plaza, or call ahead for a reservation.
- West side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 1 p.m. to midnight; MX$100 -250; Most major credit cards; phone 951-514-4755; www.asadorvasco.com; email@example.com; Reservations recommended during high season.
Primavera • Oaxacan Restaurant • $$-$$$ • (G)
After luring its customers in with unobstructed views of the cathedral and the goings-on on the Zócalo, Primavera subjects them to mediocre renditions of classic Oaxacan dishes — which, come to think of it, more or less describes all the street-level cafés and restaurants fronting the plaza.
- West side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - midnight; MX$50 - 150; phone 951-516-2595.
La Casa de la Abuela • Oaxacan Restaurant, Wine • $$-$$$ • (A)
With unbeatable views of the cathedral from its second-story perch, this upscale bistro creates faithful renditions of Oaxacan classics, including molotes, empanadas, tlayudas, traditional soups, and several of the seven moles, among many other delectables. Adorning the walls, antique black and white photographs and a yellowing 19th-century map of the city evoke the México of old. The decent wine list and excellent dessert menu seal the deal. Look for the entrance on Hidalgo Avenue, across the street from the Alameda de León plaza. And be sure to arrive early or call ahead to reserve a table with a view.
- Hidalgo 616, northwest corner of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Mon - Sat 1:30 - 11 p.m., Sun 1:30 - 10:30 p.m.; MX$75 - 200; Most major credit cards; phone 951-516-3544.
El Portal del Marqués • Oaxacan Restaurant • $$-$$$$ • (J)
Located on the north side of the Zócalo, the restaurant of the stately Marqués del Valle hotel, El Portal del Marqués, serves from a menu of familiar regional classics. Aiming a little higher than some of its street-level competitors on the plaza, it offers better service and a more upscale ambiance, albeit with slightly higher prices. The higher aim, unfortunately, does not include the cooking, which is mediocre at best, making this place about as good as any of its street-level competitors on the plaza.
Nonetheless, some long-time visitors and expats gravitate here because the open-air dining room is slightly elevated above the street and fronted by a thin railing, buffering its customers somewhat from the goings-on on the Zócalo, which can, over time, become a bit much, the goings-on, especially the constant interruptions by street vendors hawking their wares.
- North side of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - midnight; MX$75 - 250; Most major credit cards; phone 951-514-0688, 951-516-3474; www.hotelmarquesdelvalle.mx; firstname.lastname@example.org.
El Mesón • Oaxacan Restaurant • $$-$$$ • (B)
Every day from early in the morning until late in the evening, this Centro Histórico Oaxacan, only a stone's throw from the Zócalo, lays out an extensive, all-you-can-eat buffet of hearty, traditional favorites. It all gets started just before 8 o'clock in the morning, when the cooks begin to roll out the breakfast buffet, leaning heavily on scrambled eggs, which they keep replenishing until noon. Shortly after noon, they switch over to comida, which continues through dinner and right up until midnight. The comida buffet always includes a couple of large bowls of carnes drowning in moles, along with another large bowl of frijoles entero, usually black or pinto, making this one of the few places in the Centro serving their beans whole, a real treat for anyone needing a break from the region's ubiquitous refried beans. Regardless of the hour, be sure to ask for a stack of the excellent corn tortillas, which the waitresses hand press and grill to order, and which are included in the price of the buffet. Not up for the buffet? There is a large selection of reasonably priced entrées and à la carte items on the menu to choose from as well.
- Hidalgo 805, northeast corner of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - midnight; MX$50 - 125; Most major credit cards; phone 951-516-2729.
- 120 Valdivieso, one block north of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Daily 8 a.m. - 2:30 am; MX$50 - 150; Most major credit cards; phone 951-514-0303; www.sagrario.com.mx; email@example.com.
- Trujano 203, west of the Zócalo; Around the Zócalo, Centro Histórico; Mon - Sat 7:30 am - 8:30 pm, Sun 8:30 am - 6:30 pm; Mex$10 - 50.