By Antonio Recamier, Guide at Traditions Mexico
I don’t consider myself a food expert, but living in Oaxaca for over six years definitely has made me a food lover. Every market we visit, every restaurant we try out; it is always a culinary treat. Some of the capital’s most popular restaurants stand out for their unbelievable dishes, created by some of Mexico’s (sometimes the World’s) best chefs. These top chef restaurants aren’t the only ones standing out; there are great Italian and Japanese restaurants too! All thanks to the region’s culinary heritage and the vast diversity of natural ingredients available, from delicious vegetables and fruits to a large number of species of corn; and all of superb quality at a very reasonable price.
Definitely one of my favorite areas to visit as a Traditions Mexico guide is the Mixteca Alta. Surrounded by lush pine mountains and breathtaking landscapes, the region’s flora and fauna is uniquely diverse. One can easily distinguish the large amount of exotic produce available, particularly when diving into the Saturday market in the region’s capital of Tlaxiaco. The city’s rich history and mix of Indigenous and Spanish heritage is present across its streets, stalls and eateries. There is also a great variety of peoples and cultures: this can be seen not just in visits to homes in the different villages, but also in the area’s cuisine.
One of the perks of taking Tlaxiaco as our home base when exploring this region is the hotel restaurant. As a visitor one expects to have a good service, but what always surprises me is the creativity and flavour of most of their choices on the menu. The “salsas” prepared for breakfast dishes are exquisite. Their confitted pork dish accompanied with local fruits is superb. And the first time I tried their chocolate with pasilla pepper cake I melted completely from the moisture and warmth of the dessert, let alone the magnificent taste. Along with the food, the restaurant’s staff is also wonderful. Very attentive and eager to ask if we need anything else, the ladies that wait our table and team in the kitchen run a tight ship. I had always wondered who was behind this great operation, assuming that it was the hotel owners who ran the restaurant as well.
Nevertheless, there was always one staff member who appeared familiar to me, as if I’d gotten to know her somehow just by watching her stand behind the counter by the kitchen. After a couple of extended visits in Tlaxiaco, I started to say hello whilst passing by, and sometimes engaged in a light conversation while taking care of the check. She seemed too familiar – I had to clear the doubt, so I sent a picture of the restaurant’s patio (in which she appeared) to my wife, whose memory is as reliable as a Swiss wristwatch.
“What is Ixchel Ornelas doing there?”, her text message read. I replied, clueless: “Who? I don’t know who you mean. I just know that the lady in the back works for the hotel restaurant. Who is Ixchel Ornelas?”
“ARE YOU AT EL PATIO?” I had seen a sign a couple of times outside of the hotel that read: Restaurante El Patio. I had always figured it was a fancy way of referencing the location of the hotel eating space. “Ixchel was in Top Chef Mexico! She almost won!” my wife exclaimed through digital words. “Ooooh…”
Now it hit me! This was Chef Ornelas’ restaurant in Tlaxiaco! No wonder she looked familiar! Of course we had seen her on TV during the Top Chef show; I had finally discovered why having a meal there felt so special. It was a refreshing realization, and felt very blessed to have this opportunity to try her creations while on guide duty. Quite the tour treat!
Originally from Oaxaca, Ixchel is one of the most recognized cooks of the Mixteca region and the state of Oaxaca. Owner of El Patio restaurant and interested in culinary anthropology, she has experimented in its kitchen as a gastronomic researcher for 15 years. During this time she has dedicated herself to documenting and disseminating recipes and traditional preparation techniques of Oaxacan cuisine. She has participated in the Festival “Saber del Sabor” (Knowledge of Flavour), and is a Delegate of the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture. She has also been working with a group of local cooks for a long time in the documentation of the “mole de mayordomía” (a minced beef mole dish, traditional to the city of Tlaxiaco), to be declared a municipal heritage. Moreover her impressive career, she has become a friendly face and true friend, always greeting us with a big smile when we visit the Mixteca.
Chef Ornelas’ dishes truly reflect the wonderful uniqueness of the region’s cuisine. Each day of the tour, we visit different villages hidden between the Mixtec mountains and valleys to explore rare customs and crafts, and a vital part is to indulge in the local cuisine. Our lunches during these day-long journeys are prepared by the artisan families themselves, and you can’t imagine the sensations when trying out their very simple meals. It is then we appreciate Ixchel’s intense passion for local food and the exuberant ingredients it is composed of.
I feel very fortunate to be meeting and interacting with such wonderful people during my travels with Traditions Mexico. I can’t wait for my next adventure! You will probably read about it here, or who knows; maybe you will join us for it!