Mexico is a joy of gastronomy. It can present its own challenges, just like most travel, if your regular diet doesn’t line up well with the local default. These days we eat just about anything you can put in front of us, but in a previous iteration of my life I was a vegetarian for about 10 years, so I’m still sympathetic to the challenges. While we are not seeking out vegetarian or other special diet needs ourselves, here are some tips and suggestions we have from our time here. If others who have visited have more advice, please do share!
Vegetarian and Vegan
There are several restaurants in Oaxaca that specifically call out vegetarian and vegan dishes or have whole menus. You can certainly find vegetarian and vegan food all over the place, but there are a few caveats we want to point out regarding animal products in food you might not suspect.
Pork fat in particular is used a lot in Mexican cooking. Oftentimes mashed beans or bean spreads will have fat mixed in. You will also find a number of dishes that have a thin layer of fat on whatever corn base is being used. The classic example in Oaxaca would be the tlayuda. It is very common to spread a thin layer of fat on the tlayuda base before adding the beans (which also might have fat) and then the toppings. Garnachas are another one where it wouldn’t be uncommon. It would be best to ask unless you can watch them making it.
Chicken stock is used in many non-meat dishes to add flavor. If you are getting Mexican rice (arroz de mexicana), or something like it, chances are good that chicken stock was used to cook the rice.
Bugs and worms
Bugs and worms are a regular part of Oaxacan cuisine. The most commonly found are grasshoppers (chapulines) and agave worms (gusano), though there are also, less commonly, ants (chicitana). I mention these because they can be added to dishes to give them a little extra flavor. You can most often find them added to chili salt or salsas. As a rule, you’re only going to find these mixed in to “fancy” things at fancy places. Your average street or market vendor isn’t going to give you nice chili salt with chapulines with your cut pineapple. Chili salt with gusano (worms) is very common with mezcal, so if you go out for mezcal and they serve chili salt and oranges (the classic way of serving it), you should either ask if it is gusano (worm) salt or just avoid it.
If you are eating paleo the Calabacitas Tiernas restaurant, mentioned above for vegetarians, also has a paleo menu. Aside from that, your biggest struggle will of course be the fact that just about everything is eaten with some kind of bread. So no tacos, tlayudas, garnachas, tortas, etc. There are definitely restaurants that serve grilled meat and seafood, though you may need to make sure they don’t add a sauce or marinade, depending on how strict you’re being. A great place to grab a pure meat and veggie meal is to go to the mercado 20 de noviembre to the grill area. You just walk up to a vendor point out the meat you want, pick your veggies, and it will all get grilled directly and served to you on a big platter.
Celiac or Gluten-free
Oaxacan food is largely corn-based, which certainly makes it a little more friendly than other regions of the world. That said, there is still a lot of wheat and gluten to be found. Legal Nomads’ Essential Gluten Free Guide to Mexico is a great resource to start with. In addition to giving you a rundown of what to watch out for, she also has handy Mexican Spanish gluten-free restaurant card to present to servers to make sure they understand your restrictions, which you can buy for $9 from her site.
Here are places we happen to be familiar with. You should also definitely check out Happy Cow as well for vegetarian and vegan places.
- Calabacitas Tiernas (Mexican): Serves vegetarian, vegan, and paleo. There is also a good selection of artisanal beer and mezcal. (Even though we don’t restrict oursleves to any of these diets, we still enjoy the food there.)
- Hierba Dulce (Mexican): All vegan menu and gluten-free except for the breads.
- Le Campane (Mediterranean): Full range menu, but they have a good selection of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
- Sakura Shokudou (Japanese): They highlight vegetarian options.
These are stores that have organic products and are a good bet for finding food to buy and/or get tips and advice about eating around town.