A Tour Through Mercado Benito Juarez & Mercado 20 De Noviembre
Markets are a crossroad of life. It is where the stale, persistent drive of blue-collar work meets the overwhelming, kinetic energy of bright colors, sounds, smells, and touches that lure us in to the inescapable labyrinth of stalls and stands.
One guy is picking through playful souvenirs to take home, while the other is sitting down on an all-too-short plastic stool to grab a quick, but delicious, bite to eat between shifts.
Here, we all belong.
We start our journey outside of the zócalo, or main square, in Oaxaca City. I am on a mission to find a new shirt, embroidered with fun colors along the trim. Emblematic of the traditional clothing, or ropa, it would be different than most of what I already owned. I even purposely left room in my luggage for my findings.
From the square, we head south a few blocks and, at first, its not super clear where the market begins when you’re on the corners of the street. Follow the herd of pedestrians until you see dark, jungle green awnings. This is Mercado Benito Juarez, named after the first indigenous Mexican president who helped define Mexican nationalism and fight off French intervention.
There are several entrances, none more right or wrong than the next. Our plan was to work our way vertically, up-and-down each path of the market and take in everything we saw.
The first goal was to find a place to sit down, grab some food, and take in the surroundings before trying to tackle the market. Benito Juarez is more set up as a place to buy things rather than food, so we hurried through to the adjacent block where you can find Mercado 20 de Noviembre. Towards the middle, we found a few stalls selling different versions of the same foods – enfrijoladas, enmoladas, and entomatadas, among others. Essentially, these are all corn tortillas filled with a meat of choice, then topped with their corresponding sauce (black bean puree, mole, or tomato sauce,) onions and crumbly queso fresco or melted quesillo, or Oaxacan cheese. A stretchy, young, semi-hard cheese, the quesillo is similar to mozzarella, but it’s been brined giving it an ever so slightly salty taste. This is what you dream of when you leave Oaxaca.
I was served a plate of entomatadas and a Coke Light along with a bowl of sauce for garnishment. Most of the sauces in Oaxaca aren’t too spicy. A few are made with hotter peppers like habaneros, but for the most part, they are made with the dried version of more mild peppers like chipotles, anchos, and guajillos. These lend a lingering, smoky warmness in the back of your mouth, rather than the punch-you-in-the-face heat of the more dangerously hot peppers.
We enjoyed our meals among a sea of locals. Despite the constant murmur of conversations around us, the background noise was eerily calming. The colloquial Spanish, which we couldn’t keep up with, wasn’t as distracting as a conversation we could unintentionally eavesdrop in on.
Bellies full and reenergized, we passed by a bunch of clothing shops, not sure where one vendor ended and the next began. There were a lot more options for women, with offers of vestidos (dresses) and faldas (skirts) to purchase for the lovely ladies of your life.
I kept my eye open for the perfect shirt, one that I had built an image of in my mind. There were a lot of ‘almosts’. Some of them had embroideries that were much too thick, or the design wasn’t quite right.
I had originally been looking for a white or slightly off-white version of this shirt, but Rachel quickly talked me out of that. With an abundance of moles, sauces, and other stain-creating foods to be consumed in the coming weeks, she cited my history of feeding my lap just as much as mouth as a reason to look for a darker color.
Useful Phrases For Shopping
Cuanto cuesta – How much does it cost?
Puedo probarlo – Can I try it?
Solo estoy mirando – I’m just looking
We passed a few stalls and saw a green version with the exact print that I had wanted. Was it a winner? The gentleman running the stall stood and welcomed us. We noticed it was slightly too small, and he did to, looking for one that was slightly larger.
“Mas colores,” he offered.
” ¿Tienes verde?” I asked, confirming my desire to get the green shirt.
He pulled out a slightly larger, green shirt. I asked to try it on and it felt like a great fit. I like slim-fitting shirts that don’t over-accentuate my stracotto noodle frame. It also seemed to be made of a good cotton, a factor that is always up to chance at a market like this. I asked how much it cost. 300 pesos? Sounds good to me. I had found my shirt.
The next day, we ventured to the neighboring, slightly more famous Mercado de 20 de Noviembre. Just one block south of the Benito Juarez market, this market is immensely popular for finding a delicious lunch.
Navigating your way around the perimeter takes you past stand after stand of delicious looking food, the smell and atmosphere enticing you to at least peek at the menu.
No, we’re on a mission.
Our goal was to find the famous “meat alley” (I much prefer “meat street,”) to try our hand at a lunch that is just as much experience as it is tasty treats.
The smoke gets you first, attaching to your nose first, then your clothes. You’re going to smell like delicious, flame-roasted carnes asadas for the rest of the evening.
First, walk up to one of the plethora of meat stands, where you’ll have menus flung in your face, all inviting you to try their mixtos of meats. They’ll ask you how many people you’re trying to feed. Dos personas, I respond, before being suggested to order the 2nd option which included 1/4kg each of tasajo, chorizo, and cecina.
You’re given a laminated sign to take with you to a collection of tables that you share with others. The sign serves two purposes – to let them know where to take the preordered meat, and to give you permission to sit at one of the coveted tables. Another gentlemen approached and offered us a selection of drinks. A bottle of water for now.
$150 + 20
A couple ladies that run a nearby vegetable stand give you a menu to select your toppings next. Served in abundant portions, each order would suffice for a table of 4, so it was more than enough for us. We got some avocado salad, cactus, limes, and salsa verde.
$150 + 20 + 60
With our drink and toppings at the table, an elderly lady approached with our platter of meat. She organized our table to most efficiently fit our small plates of various foods before removing a towel from a basket she was carrying. She asked us how many tortillas we would like. We took four. Ten pesos.
$150 + 20 + 60 + 10
For $240MXN, roughly $6USD a person, we were able to bounce through a very organized mess of an ordering process to get the exact tacos that we wanted. The mouth-watering barbecued beef was complimented by the tangy squeeze of lime and fatty mouthfeel of avocado. Our clothes still smell like the smoke from the alley, but I consider it a badge of honor now.
Sated by delicious food, there was only one thing left to do – find something to wash it all down with. Sure, you can grab a cerveza or hydrate with a bottle of water, but how does the saying go? When in Oaxaca? We need some local refreshments.
Look for the women, adorned with a colorful apron, standing behind a large, clay bowl. Watch as they lift a cup full out and let a stream of chocolate-colored goodness fall back into the bigger vessel, mixing up the frothy top. Congrats, you’ve found tejate, a pre-Hispanic drink made from corn, fermented cacao beans, and flor de cacao. Ground into a paste then mixed with water until the flor de cacao floats to the top and presents a frothy top, this drink is served cold and is extremely refreshing. It reminds me of an earthy chocolate milk with the sweetness coming from corn rather than processed sugar.
That’s not what we’re after, however.
No… Nieve. That’s what we’re looking for.
Meaning “snow,” nieve is little different from shaved ice, though is more often flavored with fruit juice rather than sweetened sugar syrups. In Oaxaca, it is common to get a base made from mezcal or leche quemada (burned milk); we opted for this with a scoop of tuna-flavored ice on top.
Before you rush to report me to the authorities for trying fish-flavored ice cream, it’s not that kind of tuna. That’s the name of the peppered, red fruit that sits on top of the cactus. Try it and thank me later.
You could get lost in the maze of the mercados seven different days of the week and come out with seven different impressions of how it went and how you feel. If you have a few days in Oaxaca, don’t miss out on this experience. Go hungry and go often.
3 thoughts on “Shopping The Markets Of Oaxaca”
shirt collar up
I like the color on the neck trim too, gracias!