More than 3,000 miles away, deep in southern Mexico, Elena asked me, "Do you know Juan?" I just smiled and shook my head.
But she was right to wonder. Outside the beautiful city of Oaxaca is the tiny Zapotec village of Etla San Lorenzo de Cacaotepec. Most of the men who call this village home work at a Phoenix nursery. No, they don't commute daily. Instead, they temporarily move to Phoenix in order to work and send money home to provide for their families. Most stay a year or two and return to their homeland; others stay indefinitely.
I have no idea how many Oaxacans live here in the Valley. What I do know is that there must be quite a percentage of the male population of San Lorenzo de Cacaotepec. Proof is in the awesome little store and restaurant called Mini Mercado Oaxaca, located at 9407 North Central. Forget the fake Oaxacan cheeses you find at your local grocery stores -- this is the real stuff.
The mercado is filled with everything from Oaxacan black pottery to grasshoppers. Delicious quesillo cheese is brought in weekly from Mexico, flavorful and greaseless chorizo is sold by the pound, and tlayuda tortillas and the refreshing tejate drink made of mamey also are available.
Friday is a good day to shop at Mini Mercado Oaxaca, when the exquisite bread pan de yema de huevo is made. This egg bread with a hint of anise is deliciously served in the traditional fashion with a mug of hot Oaxacan chocolate. Also found are the rare hoja santa, chepil (for Oaxacan-style tamales) and poleo for making a tea that is famous for helping to cure the infamous hangover.
The restaurante serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The regional botana Oaxaqueña is a delicious combination of black beans, quesadillas made with imported quesillo, and an assortment of meats all for only $8.95. This is a great way to sample some of Oaxaca's best. The mole negro and mole rojo are authentic and complex, served with black beans and rice for only $7. Rarely do you find a local Mexican restaurant that serves the ground corn flour drink called atole; here the atole blanco is only $2 a mug.
No matter what your Oaxacan needs are, you are likely to find them here. The owner, Jorge Lopéz, makes weekly trips to Tijuana to obtain the imported goods sold at his store.
The drive will be well worth your time and effort. Mini Mercado Oaxaca is a rare jewel.
By the way, if you know Juan from San Lorenzo de Cacaotepec, Oaxaca, tell him his wife said hello.
Silvana Salcido Esparza is a local chef and restaurant owner.
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