By Anna Von Frances
Mario Rubén Ramírez López, better known as the cultural guide Mario Come Oaxaca (“Mario Eats Oaxaca), is already waiting for me at a corner table in the back of a blink-and-you’d-miss-it Middle Eastern restaurant tucked away on a cobblestone side street in Xochimilco. I don’t have to look for him, even though the restaurant is relatively full, because his presence, although subtle, commands attention wherever he goes. There is a sort of fairy dust that Mario emits, that it-factor prerequisite of 70s rockstars – people are naturally drawn in. Mario somehow manages to be understated and over the top in the same exact breath. He’s wearing a traditional Oaxacan dress and giant faux fur sandals – he does not blend, and yet, you feel at home with him. In fact, he’s so at home, he’s like a ballerina gliding her body through the space around her.
Mario also seems to glide though markets, past street vendors and around restaurants, comfortably working any room in front of him. His love of Oaxacan food, art, culture, and the people who create it is so infectious you can’t help but get excited yourself. I mean the excitement is palpable.
He doesn’t care that I am late. In fact, he doesn’t even mention it. In some ways we are meeting for the first time but have been in contact for years. I have been taking note of all his recommendations and writing to him about tours and restaurants since I found him three years ago in the midst of the pandemic.
I hesitate to describe “Mario Come Oaxaca” as a food tour, or even an “experience,” because both would come off as trite. Mario is more of a culinary concierge to the city than a tour guide, and it shows. As both a chef and artist in his own right, he has a very carefully curated selection of food and art vendors, built up over decades of working in Oaxaca. Going out with him is an intimate experience – he’s simply inviting you into his culture, and sharing his best recommendations. Eschewing Airbnb and all other mass marketing strategies, he simply books through his social media channels. Want more information? Click the link and you will be directed to his personal What’sApp – which is exactly how we met three years ago and have stayed in touch ever since. It feels as if we are friends and I imagine that is how all his guests feel. It is effortless how he navigates these relationships (which are really his work), always inviting you in and making time for you, always offering you a menu suggestion or a great mezcal.
There is no equal to Oaxaca in terms of its culinary prowess. Mexico, as a nation, enjoys a UNESCO designation on its cuisine, but Oaxaca is the jewel in that crown. It’s where the tortilla, tomato and cacao were born, the cuisine is literally and figuratively endless. In a world of culinary kings, Oaxaca is a king maker. For generations, it’s been a tourism beacon to international chefs, foodies and Mexicans looking to get caught up in an infectious cultural cornucopia of mezcal, cacao, corn, and mushrooms.
Since COVID, however, Oaxaca has been flooded with a new kind of mass market tourism that has made it harder to get straight to its authentic heart. People have always flocked to Oaxaca to eat, but now they are driven more by price point and Instagram selfies, which has somewhat muddied the waters.
Looking for a tour online can be overwhelming. The commodification of Oaxaca is ever present online and in the streets. Lineups have formed. The hot sauce is not spicing like it once was. Day of the Dead is sponsored by international vodka brands now, bringing in electronic music DJs from Europe. Mario calls this the “Coco effect,” after the Pixar movie, which may have had a heavy hand in it. But for me it’s more of a global trend – vaguely reminiscent of a homogenized Starbucks lineup.
We need hosts like Mario more than ever. His story starts in an all too familiar place: three years ago, he was working as a chef in the kitchen of a mezcaleria and lost his job because of COVID and had to move back to his home town of La Mixteca, which is almost at the border of Puebla to the north. Mario was already known around town for his impeccable taste, regularly invited to share a mezcal and his recommendations at the tables of guests in restaurants he worked in. From his family home, he put out some feelers on his Instagram page and booked his first tour within an hour. And things have only grown since that first timid post.
What drew me to him was his taste. Bar none. So many guides who were once locals-in-the-know have been swallowed up by the Starbucks line up and now work with big brands for cash, shedding the small local artisans that made them so popular in favor of branded content and paid-in-full vacations. Mario is a staunch foodie – as a chef, he’s always on the hunt for quality, and there is no shortage of it to showcase in Oaxaca either. You come to Mario when you want to discover something new, when you really want to learn how to eat. And the best part is, whether it’s your first time and you want a proper intimate introduction to Oaxaca cuisine, or you have been a hundred times and you’re looking to up your game, he has both covered with style.
In recent years, Mario has added tours out of the capital city to towns in the Isthmus, as well as the north; most notably his tour to Huautla, home of the mushroom majesty herself, María Sabina. Each of Mario’s tours is off the beaten path and works with locals who are featured directly. On these tours you will still get salsas that pica and mezcal served in unmarked bottles.
To get the best out of his experiences, Mario suggests, “that you come with an open mind, ready to integrate into the culture.”
Here are his top favourite haunts to take visitors to:
- Mercado de Abastos: “My number one, because it’s the largest market in Oaxaca, where you will find anything and everything.”
- Tianguis de Tlacolula: “It’s the oldest market in the state, where corn and cacao were previously exchanged for goods.”
- A tie between the markets of Ocotitlan and Zaachila: “They may not be as well known, but they have retained their essence and authenticity.”
For more info or to book a tour, please visit his Instagram page directly @mario.come.oaxaca.
Photo by Guillermina Foto @ stamatti_foto