The first time I traveled to Mexico roughly one year ago, I was still eating meat. It’s a fantastic place to be a carnivore, to be sure.
Pork tacos are practically a food group of their own and animal products make their way into many of the most popular dishes.
So it was with some apprehension that I made my return to Mexico at the start of this year, this time traveling as a newbie vegetarian.
I was headed for Oaxaca, a city I had long awaited visiting. Would I be able to enjoy the local fare with my new dietary restrictions, or was I in for a rude (and flavorless) awakening?
Food and food culture is an integral part of any travel experience, after all.
Understanding food traditions (and partaking of them whenever possible) is very important to me, and my main concern was that I’d miss out on something special this time around by not eating meat.
Much to my pleasant surprise, however, I found the opposite to be true in Oaxaca.
Traveling as a vegetarian in Oaxaca was not only easy, it was quite delicious and afforded me a wide range of dishes to try, meaning I never felt as though I was missing out.
The one small concession I made prior to arrival was that I would allow myself to eat cheese during this trip.
Though I’m far from being a vegan, I had stopped eating dairy in the US but decided to reintroduce it to my diet in Mexico–for one because I knew it would be difficult to avoid, and also because I’d heard rumor that Oaxacan cheese was pretty much the yummiest thing out there.
A small sacrifice I was willing to make…poor me!
I should also mention that I still eat eggs, too. I’m what you’d call a Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian, or at least I was during this particular trip.
Should you find yourself in a similar position traveling to Oaxaca as a vegetarian (or simply looking for some lighter choices than the standard deep-fried fare), here are some useful tips to make things easier.
A Few Meat-Free Dishes to Try in Oaxaca
Elotes – Grilled corn on the cob on a stick, and basically the most delicious street food around. If you want all the toppings, ask for it “con todo.” What you’ll get on top is lime juice, mayonnaise, crumbled cheese and chili powder.
Esquites – Same as above, but served in a cup rather than on a stick.
Platanos Asados – Grilled plantains. May be topped with sweetened condensed milk. Another delightful street food item not to miss! If you hear a train whistle, look out for the guy pedaling his oven around on a three-wheeled bicycle. Sounds weird? It is.
Calabacitas – Calabacitas (see photo below) are small green Mexican squash, and they come served in a variety of ways that are usually meat-free. It is common to find calabacitas served with cheese, corn, onion, and herbs.
Chilaquiles – This is a breakfast staple available all over Mexico. It’s made from tortilla strips, red or green salsa, crumbled cheese, cream, and eggs. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
Chiles Rellenos – Poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and other delicious things, fried in egg batter, and bathed in salsa.
Cooking at Home
There are plenty of local and organic markets around Oaxaca where you can stock up on fresh produce for at-home cooking.
This is the easiest way to ensure you’re not eating anything you don’t want to eat, and will save you loads of money at the same time.
Because sanitation and transportation practices can be sketchy in this region, it’s important to soak your produce in a colloidal silver solution to disinfect it (Microdyn is available in any supermarket), even if you plan to cook it.
Tummy troubles may result if you don’t, and take it from someone who learned the hard way–that’s not what you want!
It’s also important to keep in mind that tap water in Oaxaca is not safe to drink–as such, when cooking things like rice, pasta, lentils, etc. you should use purified drinking water and NOT water from the tap.
Where to Buy Produce
Mercado Sanchez Pascuas (Callejón Hidalgo 719) was my favorite and also the nearest to my apartment.
Mercado 20 de Noviembre is a larger and more centrally located market (20 de Noviembre is also the address) not more than 5 blocks from the Zócalo.
Alternatively, you can try El Pochote Rayñón Mercado Orgánico (Calle Rayon 411) or the smaller organic market located on Calle Macedonia Alcalá (cross street: Valentín Gómez Farias).
Oaxacan Restaurants with Vegetarian Options
This list is incomplete, naturally, as I found most restaurants I went to offered one or more vegetarian options; these are simply a few of my favorite places that I know to have meat-free menu options.
A.M. Siempre Cafe – Great place for breakfast and coffee and (a decent place to spend an afternoon working).
Calabacitas Tiernas – This was far and away my favorite restaurant in Oaxaca. They serve vegetarian, vegan, and paleo menus and have the most charming courtyard seating.
El Tendajón – A small bar with limited seating and a similarly limited menu, but they do have some incredible veg options like their papas enchiladas (and plenty of local craft beer).
Mezquite – A swanky restaurant with a gorgeous rooftop that overlooks Templo de Santo Domingo. I had the best calabacitas dish here and some fancy mezcal cocktails to wash it all down.
Praga Oaxaca – Come here for the tapas and enjoy another gorgeous view of Santo Domingo while listening to live music.
Restaurante Casa Oaxaca – Another swanky place with a gorgeous rooftop and plenty of solid vegetarian dishes, traditional Oaxacan-style. Make a reservation for this one.
Los Pacos – Another restaurant with rooftop seating (I like dining with an ambiance, okay?) and an extensive menu.
Expendio Tradición – Gorgeous inside and out. Let them know you are vegetarian upon arrival and they’ll happily point you to the vegetarian menu options.
See this list for even more vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Oaxaca.
Beware the Asiento
One thing to be aware of in Oaxaca (and most of Mexico) is that asiento (unrefined pork lard, also sometimes known as manteca) is used in many dishes, sometimes where you may not expect it.
You should assume tamales are made with this animal fat unless otherwise specified (the alternative might be olive oil or another vegetable oil).
The tlayudas Oaxaca is known for (huge tortillas with toppings, almost like a Mexican pizza) are typically smeared with a layer of asiento before the other ingredients are added. The same goes for memelas. These two dishes can easily be prepared without–all you have to do is ask (“Sin asiento, por favor“).
If you’re ever unsure whether a dish contains animal products, knowing what to ask for specifically will be very useful to you as definitions of “vegetarian” can vary depending on whom you speak to.
What about mole?
Mole is a delectable sauce that’s a staple of Oaxacan cuisine. Enjoying it in restaurants can be tricky for vegetarians, as it is sometimes prepared with beef broth (caldo de res) or chicken broth (caldo de pollo).
The easiest workaround here is to make your own mole sauce at home using water instead of broth.
Mole paste on its own is made entirely from plant-based ingredients like seeds, spices, nuts, and chocolate, and you can buy this product at just about any market.
I found my mole paste at an organic market; to prepare it, you simply heat it on the stove and add water to achieve your desired consistency.
It has a long shelf life when stored in the freezer so you can enjoy it over many months (but really, who has that kind of willpower?).
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can try making vegetarian mole from scratch.
If you really want to experience mole in a restaurant, ask a lot of questions to make sure it contains no offending ingredients.
The same advice applies to soups–it may say “vegetarian” on the menu, but I’d still recommend asking if it’s made with chicken or beef broth before ordering.
Useful Spanish for Vegetarians
I’m vegetarian – Soy vegetariano/a
I don’t eat… – No como…
- meat – carne
- chicken – pollo
- ham – jamón
- bacon – tocino
- fish – pescado
- seafood – mariscos
- milk – leche
- yogurt – yogur
- cream – crema
- butter – mantequilla
- dairy products – productos lácteos
- animal products – productos de origen animal
- cheese – queso
- eggs – huevos
Does it contain… ? – Contiene… ?
Is it prepared with… ? – Se prepara con… ?
Without – Sin
Pork lard – Asiento/manteca
Beef broth – Caldo de res
Chicken broth – Caldo de pollo
Follow this link for even more useful Spanish phrases for ordering food in a restaurant.
Have you ever traveled Mexico as a vegetarian? Did you find it easy or difficult to navigate?