OAXACA, Mexico — Travelers know there is something special about the state of Oaxaca. A longtime destination for explorers of all kinds, the laid-back colonial capital of Oaxaca de Juarez, known simply as Oaxaca, is justly well known for being the “land of seven moles.” Those prized, saucy dishes range from the jet black mole negro to the golden-red mole amarillo.
But in an area where complexity in cuisine is celebrated, it’s worth knowing that one of Oaxaca’s culinary marvels is simply grilled meat wrapped in a tortilla. Eating carne asada at the Mercado 20 Noviembre is an experience that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Located just a few blocks past the zocalo, or main square, the Mercado 20 Noviembre (named for the day on which Mexicans commemorate the Mexican revolution) is full of good things. The Mexican dining schedule resembles that of Spain. The main meal of the day, called comida, is in the afternoon. Therefore, the time to hit the market is between 2 and 6 p.m, when you’ll find many small comedors (modest food stalls with a counter and stools) selling solid, cheap food prepared by seasoned Oaxaquenas who also know their way around a good mole.
Better comedors will be serving a couple of selections each day, and it’s helpful to check out several of them first to see what’s on offer before making a decision. Smoke drifts into this area from an adjacent alleyway of primal pleasures, and it is wise to follow that smoke to the alley of carne asada vendors, located right next to the main market building.
Hawkers, bright lights, and displays of unrefrigerated raw meats prove to be a perfect storm of tourist deterrents. Mainly local families crowd the handful of communal tables toward the end of the alley. Each stall down the roughly city-block-long alleyway sells a few different kinds of meat, to be grilled “al carbon,” or over coals. There is tasajo, a type of thinly pounded, air-dried, salted beef; cecina enchilada, a thin pork cutlet covered in chili powder; fat little links of fragrant pork chorizo; thin slices of steak; and the occasional ropelike pieces of beef tripe blowing in the smoky wind. All are delicious, and are possible to enjoy together, as part of a “mixta,” or mixed platter.
The meat is accompanied by grilled onions and charred chiles de agua (a mild, medium-size green chili pepper native to the region) from another stall in the alley. When you order meat from the meat vendors, they coordinate with the vegetable cooks, and at the end somebody brings you everything at once. This might include slices of fresh radishes, strips of nopales (cactus pad), and whole avocados criollos, the smaller, deeper green-fleshed forefather to the modern varieties. There is also, of course, guacamole, but don’t expect the chunky stuff you get in the States. Here, guacamole is more of a sauce than a dip; thin but with a little body.
The stage is set for everything to be stuffed into blandas, which are large, soft, Oaxacan tortillas made of pure corn. Diners create their handheld feasts and meals are shared over paper place mats without implements or the slightest hint of pretension. The end result is not unlike the Tex-Mex fajita, without the sizzle.
Pilar Cabrera, chef of the popular La Olla restaurant in Oaxaca and its cooking school, La Casa de Los Sabores, understands the appeal of the carne asada alley. “It’s a way to eat quickly and not too expensively,” she says. “It’s an example of how simple food can be as good as the most delicious mole you can make at home.”
Perhaps most people are not making a mole as good as the chef’s. But the reality is, even the locals aren’t eating moles every day. When in Oaxaca de Juarez, after you sample the moles, satisfy your appetite with smoky, grilled meat, pillowy tortillas, and indigenous avocados.
Mercado 20 Noviembre Between Calles 20 de Noviembre and Miguel Cabrera (the alley is impossible to miss) at Calle Aldama, Oaxaca.Luke Pyenson can be reached at email@example.com.