At These Oaxaca City Restaurants, Japanese Flavors and Techniques Take Center Stage

Sitting at the oak sushi bar of chef Richard Arellano’s five-seat omakase-style Crudo restaurant, I find some clues that I’ve secured a spot on the hardest-to-get reservation in Oaxaca. His dishes – things like yuzu clam sashimi and ikura nigiri – don’t evoke typical Oaxacan dishes. The intimate space and wabi-sabi interiors are also unlike the leafy courtyards and cathedral views of other fine dining establishments in the city. Still, seats at the Arellano space are hard to come by, with coveted 7 p.m. restaurants booking up weeks in advance.

Known as the great gastronomic center of the south of the country, Oaxaca is famous for its seven moles and its corn and cocoa drinks dating back to the region’s pre-Hispanic era. Traditional Japanese staples like dashi, nigiri, or ramen are far from mind in this southern Mexican state. But recently, Oaxaca has been home to a slew of restaurants inspired by Japanese culinary techniques, thanks to a new generation of chefs eager to explore the intersection of regions.

The Labo Fermento team

Chaz Cruz

Labo Fermento’s marinated morsels, such as fermented tomatillo and eightlacoche kimchi

Chaz Cruz

At Labo Fermento, a fermentation lab, restaurant and bodega, chef-owner Joseph Gilbert and his team divide their time between the kitchen and the fermentation chambers. Handcrafted misos and shoyu begin in the custom-designed koji room, where team members ensure the precise blend of humidity and temperature needed to engender koji growth on corn, beans and wheat from Oaxaca. Though rooted in Japanese culinary craftsmanship, Labo Fermento’s provisions and food manage to feel deeply Oaxacan. There’s the heirloom maíz azul miso, or fermented black bean dashi with chepiche — a fragrant herb from Oaxaca — served as an otoshi, or first bite.

For the team behind the project, Labo Fermento was an opportunity to bring the kinds of foods they wanted to eat to Oaxaca. Business operations manager Arlet Siordia, originally from Oaxaca, aspired to make a contribution to the more vibrant city she has seen emerge. “I see how Oaxaca is changing and expanding, and it’s so exciting,” she says. “We wanted to offer something different to the people who live here.

At Crudo, Arellano turned to Japanese influences as a way to expand the flavors of Oaxaca while pushing himself to grow professionally. “Crudo has always been about improving, evolving and bringing something new to Oaxaca,” he says. He was attracted by Japanese culinary techniques but also by the style of service omakasea term meaning “I’ll leave it up to you.”

He opened Crudo in 2021 after years of hopscotch between the cuisines of the United States, Mexico City and Oaxaca. Stays at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol and Ticuchi exposed Arellano to global culinary techniques, prompting him to rethink typical Oaxacan flavors and food pairings. At Crudo, his dishes, such as lacquered eel roasted with maguey, are a direct nod to Japanese cuisine with a cien by ciento Take Oaxaca.

Despite the obvious inspiration behind Crudo, Arellano is unequivocal about one thing: “If you asked me what kind of food we serve at Crudo, I’d say Oaxaca.”

Imported Japanese ceramics sold at Labo Fermento

Chaz Cruz

Noodles being made at Labo Fermento

Chaz Cruz

The same cannot be said for Ramen-Ya Kintarō, a bustling izakaya run by Toyko native Natsumi Baba. With dishes like yakitori, tan tan men ramen, and line-caught suzuki sashimi from Baja, Ramen-Ya Kintarō is definitely bringing more traditional Japanese offerings to Oaxaca. The sister restaurant of Taro de Mexico, a Japanese reference in the city since the 80s, Ramen-Ya Kintarō is a direct line to the much-loved Japanese CDMX food scene.

The theme is also making its way into beverage offerings across the city, such as at El Destilado where customers can sip a sake cocktail or order rice wine by the glass, and at Suculenta, where Mexican sake brand Nami is installed on the shelves of the grocery store.

The wave of Japanese inspiration in Oaxaca does not seem to be drying up. “I think it’s only natural given the rise and importance of Japan’s influence in Mexico, and I think we’ll continue to see more coming to Oaxaca,” says Gilbert, where at Labo Fermento , he hopes to come up with a closer approach soon. – Three-course Japanese lunch offer.

Adding to the scene, Arellano is opening a new restaurant any day now – a larger space where it will retain a seafood menu but with a more relaxed style of service. He admits a Japanese focus but resists sharing more. “Getting away from the idea that Oaxaca is pigeonholed for moles and tortillas is very motivating for me,” says Arellano.

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