One of the things that makes me feel like a local while travelling is to find a nearby neighbourhood restaurant and visit it more than once so that it becomes, in your mind, “your place.” There are certainly virtues to trying new restaurants and leaving the beaten path, but there’s also a benefit to establishing a familiarity with a couple nearby places. You can give good recommendations to fellow travelers, you know what to expect (particularly helpful as a vegetarian), and you can grab a bite nearby without having to spend too much time debating, arguing, and finding a place to eat.
Thankfully, right around the corner from our hotel was La Olla, a place beloved by expats and recommended by many. We started our trip with a breakfast there, enjoyed mid-week coffees and a dinner there, and ended our time together with a cooking class run by its chef and owner, Pilar Cabrera (which warrants its own post!).
And so, I present to you, a restaurant review by yours truly.
THE WANDERLUSTKIND (MINUS WANDERBOY) RESTAURANT REVIEW METHOD: LA OLLA
Who: Wandergirl and B
What: Mexican and Oaxacan breakfast and dinner
When: October 19 for breakfast; October 22 for dinner; October 25 for breakfast and cooking class
Where: Oaxaca city, Mexico
Why: B had enjoyed La Olla on her previous travels to Oaxaca
Ambience: La Olla is two levels, and it’s always buzzing with activity. The bottom floor is a bit noisy with on-street traffic, but it’s a bright and welcoming place to have breakfast. We had dinner on the upper level, which has a really snazzy DIY kind of style with lots of glitter and cut-outs of superheroes, a funky bar, multicoloured skull masks, and chalkboard menus. I did spot locals, but it is largely an expat-friendly establishment, and when we ate dinner there, there were several Americans watching baseball. I think if you were travelling solo it’d be a great place to meet fellow gringos.
Service: Service was friendly. It’s hard to guage good service in a different country when there is the language barrier as well as cultural differences. Both meals arrived quickly but when finished there was a bit of sitting and waiting for the bill. This, however, seems to be the general expectation in Mexico. It’s nice that they aren’t rushing you out, but it can be kind of hard to attract servers’ attention to get la cuenta. And in La Olla this was definitely less so than a lot of other places in Oaxaca. Also, at dinner the waiter was great about answering our questions about wine and what was cooked with pig fat.
Coffee and wine: There were lots of options for both, and it was nice to try some Mexican wine with dinner. Our breakfast café con leches were rich and strong. That’s what I love about Mexican coffee: it is strong. If you aren’t a huge coffee drinker café con leche is definitely mellower. If you like strong coffee, La Olla’s café de olla - black coffee sweetened with cane sugar and flavoured with cinnamon – is really delicious and packs a punch.
Food: The food was simple, straightforward, and though I’m no expert in Mexican food, the menu seemed to have authentic Oaxacan food, food from other regions of Mexico, and some of the fare more familiar to American and Canadian tourists. Their breakfast was enormous – loaf, buns, salsas, coffee, juice, and our main courses of egg tortilla with squash blossoms for B, and fried eggs with beans and cactus for me. A lot of Oaxacan food seems to be actually mild, and you add spice with the hot salsas served with everything.
For dinner, B had the quesillo a la plancha, fried cheese (think fresh mozzarella meets halloumi), served in a pool of salsa verde. I had a bite and it was very delicious – probably my favourite thing I ate at La Olla. But, I mean, it’s a plate of fried cheese. You can’t go wrong. I had more cactus – tacos con nopales served with salsa verde, dried chile, avocado and queso fresco so I could add toppings to my taste. I actually really love cactus as a vegetable – it’s sweet and mild but goes well with the hot flavours of chile and salsa.
At another time for breakfast we had yogurt, granola and fruit which was a nice break from eggs and salsa.
In conclusion, the food was good. Simple, but good. And their menu was very clear about vegetarian options, so that’s good.
Favourite dish: As I said, I think fried cheese has an unfair advantage in this. It’d be hard to make that not delicious (though actually WB and I had pretty not delicious fried cheese in Prague once. So sad). I also really liked their coffee if that counts as a dish.
Least favourite dish: I can’t really pick a least favourite – everything was pretty good! I guess the white bread they serve with everything is pretty unextraordinary. But they did serve a lovely pineapple jam type thing with their white buns at breakfast. I actually usually hate pineapple, but I kind of liked this!
Price: It’s something to wrap your brain around seeing $60 beside a plate of eggs. I didn’t realise the peso sign was the same as the dollar sign. Anyway, eggs weren’t actually 60 dollars – everything was fairly reasonable, though not the cheapest in the city.
Worth it? Yes – they have solidly good and filling food with a nice atmosphere. It’s a good regular hangout for anyone in Oaxaca longer than a few days.
Tips: Don’t get the breakfast loaf (unless you want it). They come by to offer it out of a basket, but it isn’t actually included in the price of the breakfast. You’re not going to go broke, but if you’re having a plate of eggs on top of it, it’s really not necessary and not a “must have.”
Overall: Definitely recommend and would pop in again next time I’m in Oaxaca. They also have free wireless so it’s great for coffee and e-mails.
Summarized in three words: Laid-back. Funky. Straight-forward.
Out of five stars: ****
Where it lost stars: See my explanation here. It’s not going to change your life, but it’s a really great casual eatery and fun place to chill.
LA OLLA website
Reforma No. 402-1
Col. Centro Oaxaca, Oax. Mexico, 68000
011 52 (951) 516 6668
$40-90 for breakfast plates (including coffee, juice, bread); $50-150 for dinner mains