Eating Out

Witless in Oaxaca

Good food, but terrible tinny wine and robotic service at a modish Mexican destination

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

So I went to an immersive theatre experience in Oaxaca City, as you do. The show was called Microenormous and claimed to be an exploration of the cellular affinities between the human body and the universe as envisioned by a charming group of Gen Z performers in eyeliner and directional mullets.


Participants were invited to wear amusing sunglasses with distorting lenses whilst progressing through a series of five rooms in which they could commune at will with the ancient gods of the Zapotecs, with a cup of mezcal served at every stage.

Thee ticket price also included another two drinks at the end, so that’s seven terracotta cups of mezcal, at 50 per cent proof, with not so much as a peanut to mop it up. No wonder everyone had a great time.

Had the organisers been in earnest, the show would have been no more horrific than the average contemporary art installation, a banal concept inadequately realised. As it was, I reckoned it was a fantastic grift. Charge the tourists the equivalent of the average Mexican weekly wage, fill ’em up with distilled agave juice and they can’t get enough of your ecstatic interpretative dance numbers.

Mezcal is to Oaxaca what sangria was to the package trippers of the Costa Blanca in the 1970s, an invented local “tradition” emerging from nothing more than a dubious local water supply. Unlike sangria, mezcal is a serious business, estimated to top $900 million annually. It has been produced in Oaxaca state for centuries and the city’s rooftop bars are filled with glassy-eyed afficionados twatting on about smoky flavours and umami finishes. Which would be dandy aside from the fact that hardly any restaurants serve wine — if the gringos want to drink spirits with dinner, the proprietors are happy to oblige.

Oaxaca is internationally celebrated for the complexity of its cuisine and Criollo, a collaboration between architect Javier Sanchez and chefs Enrique Olvera and Luis Arelleno, is reckoned one of its finest restaurants, not least because it boasts a wine list. The space centres round the garden of a remodelled UNESCO-listed building on the edge of the colonial centre. Pretty without being spectacular, and not enhanced by a huge brigade of black-clad waiters wearing headsets (note to Mr Olivero, equipping your staff like bodyguards in a country which is the murder capital of the world doesn’t necessarily put your guests at ease).

Pretty without being spectacular, and not enhanced by a huge brigade of black-clad waiters wearing headsets

The courtyard was full of Americans in horrible shoes drinking mezcal. My guest, a Mexican diplomat, started to express her bewilderment but was interrupted by our waiter chanting a robotic welcome:

Hello my name is Juan and I am your server this evening welcome to Criollo you will be served a six-course set tasting menu do you have any dietary requirements here is your appetizer.

We asked, in Spanish and English, if we could see the wine list. Juan mumbled into his mike and reported a choice of three red wines, all of which were very nice. While he fetched one, we set about the appetizer, a corn puff pastry roll of shredded beef with a rice ball, airy, tangy and thrillingly dense with unfamiliar flavours which my friend began to explain before she was interrupted by Juan attempting to pour the wine into our water glasses.

Mexican wine can be fabulous, but this unknown bottle had obviously been corked before Cortes got here. We tried to tell Juan it was not actually very nice but he was too busy explaining our next course, a floating salad of delicate herb broth with pickled vegetables.

Again, delicious, but there was no time to savour it as Juan was off with the next two courses, a soft taco and a grilled tostada, both prepared on the garden’s open grill, before a sprint into a woolly lump of white fish with one of Oaxaca’s famous seven mole sauces — possibly the amarillo, notable for its combination of strong, liquorice hoja santa leaves with cumin, cinnamon and yellow tomatillo — any dissection of which was precluded by the swift appearance of a mouth-puckeringly astringent tamarind sorbet pre-dessert, a goat milk flan with preserved mango and a school-dinnerish raspberry sponge pudding with dried coconut and cacao nibs. The brown, tinny wine remained miserably in our glasses as Juan intoned the succession of courses like a harassed parish priest eking out the reliquary blood of a forgotten saint.

Most of the food was surprising, complex and thoughtfully presented

Criollo could be a lovely restaurant, were it not so graceless and grasping. Most of the food was surprising, complex and thoughtfully presented, more than a challenge to the prejudices which still beset Mexican cooking, but the production-line service, the lack of any sense of pace or choreography, rendered it chilly and joyless.

“Criollo” was originally the term used to describe the second rank of Spanish colonial society, those of European ancestry who were born in the country, but the owners have redefined the word as meaning friendly or familial. Yet it’s painfully obvious that dinner there really comes down to the mark-up on raw alcohol, as the bill was £250 for two: pricey by any standards, taking the absolute piss in Mexico.

The Velcro-sandal crowd was growing ever more more gleeful and raucous as we wine-drinking throwbacks were hustled out into the night.

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