"Every time I took a bite, I thought, so this is what a tortilla is supposed to taste like!"
The city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico is developing a global reputation as a culinary center. With cooking schools and markets filled with beautiful local ingredients in most neighborhoods and good restaurants on almost every block, this makes perfect sense. The place is a glorious mishmash of fine dining, cheap street corner taquerias, and market stall snack bars.
No place combines all these different aspects at once like Itanoní Antojeria y Tortilleria, a small (and open to the stree) snack bar/restaurant that uses heirloom corn varieties to make extraordinary versions of very ordinary antojitos, those corn tortilla-based small dishes that are the heart of the Mexican menu.
In a recent issue of Travel+Leisure, Alice Waters called it her favorite restaurant in Oaxaca, which makes sense—it's owned by Amado Ramírez Leyva, part of the Slow Food movement, and they use four kinds of organic corn flour that the cooks have to stone-grind.
At Itanoní, you'll find foods of almost primal simplicity and true excellence served to high school kids on lunch break, businessmen pouring over their laptops, and visiting food fanatics. What other Alice Waters favorite offers a solid, wholesome meal for less than $5?
Sit down on the same plastic chairs that every other sidewalk restaurant in town uses, watch the staff (many of whom are wearing surgical masks), and note that compared to the others, this place is the same but with a few twists. Check out the traditional Mexican grills called "comales" decorating the ceiling, the clay pots—you thought were just for tourists—in actual use, and the way the food cooks on those white-hot grills.
Let's start with the most basic dish imaginable: a fried egg on a tortilla. All they do to make this is crack an egg on their comal, put the cooked egg on a tortilla, and serve it to you on a plate. You spoon some of the red or green salsa sitting on every table onto your egg, roll it up in the tortilla, and eat it.
On the first chew, the taste explodes in your mouth—it's corn. That flat disc that looks like cardboard turns out to be the most delicious, corn-flavored thing you ever ate and that egg just enhances the flavor.
Now that is Mexican food. Corn, chilies and a bit of protein.
Try something with pork too—the combination of corn and pork is so perfect that even those kids talking on their phones three feet away from you can't ruin it.
That wasn't all we had though. There were tacos classicos, a tamal de rajas filled with that great cornmeal and what looked like stir-fried vegetables, quesadillas and tetelas (triangular and burrito-like). Whatever you ordered it was a tour-de-force of corn. Corn. Corn. Every time I took a bite, I thought "so this is what a tortilla is supposed to taste like!"