This Award-Winning Austin Chef Is Leading Culinary Trips to Mexico
Iliana de la Vega is guiding small groups through Mexico City, Oaxaca and other food-friendly destinations
Though Mexican cuisine is often viewed through a misguided lens of Taco Tuesday and Cinco de Mayo, the country’s culinary heritage is rich and expansive. Food traditions have been influenced by thousands of years of history, migration and geography, and dishes and cooking styles vary significantly from one region to the next. Texas diners are fortunate to get a wide representation of Mexican food across the state, from Baja seafood to Pueblan and Oaxacan moles. But nothing beats eating straight at the source via a Mexican food pilgrimage, and now you can do so alongside a top Austin chef.
Mexican Culinary Traditions is a new travel company founded by James Beard Award-winning chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo in Austin and her daughter, food writer and Mexican cultural anthropologist Isabel Torrealba. Together they’re hosting trips to Mexico, with itineraries in Mexico City, Oaxaca City, Mérida (the capital city of Yucatán state) and Morelia, Michoacán.
De la Vega was born in Mexico City and grew up during a time when local food was relegated to home kitchens and only European cuisines were viewed as elegant and worthy of being served at restaurants. But she found the flavors of Mexico complex, diverse and deserving of the same attention. So to share Mexican food with more people, and to show that it too can be fine dining, she moved to Oaxaca in 1997 to open her restaurant and cooking school, El Naranjo. De la Vega relocated to Austin in 2012, bringing the restaurant concept with her, and it’s there that she’s been serving some of the country’s best mole ever since. After numerous requests to field guided tours through Mexico, she heeded the calls and launched Mexican Culinary Traditions.
De la Vega says that each stop was chosen strategically. “These are all important culinary destinations with rich, vast, diverse and unique regional cuisines,” she tells InsideHook. “They also all have their own specific indigenous roots and history, which translates in interesting art and cultural traditions.” She and her daughter have personal connections and knowledge of each city, so they can confidently show groups the best that each destination has to offer.
The mother-daughter duo curates each tour and guides guests through an immersive experience that dives into the destination’s culinary traditions. Trips are limited to 14 attendees, so you’ll travel with a small group of likeminded hungry people. And you’ll score an in-depth look at local cultures, stay in luxe lodgings, eat, drink and generally enjoy yourself.
Each week-long trip includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, market visits and a cooking session with de la Vega, plus multiple activities to absorb the local culture and customs. In Mexico City, you’ll take a walking tour through the historic downtown and explore the floating gardens at Xochimilco, among other highlights. Oaxaca City brings a mezcal class and day trips to surrounding towns where you’ll meet with local artisans. In Morelia, you’ll stroll among the pink limestone buildings in the city center, which dates back to 1541, visit an indigenous Purépecha town and dine in the homes of local cooks. And when you’re in Mérida, top-notch meals and Mexican wines will be joined by visits to a couple Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns), which are designated by the Mexican government for their natural beauty, traditions, history and cuisine. All in, not a bad way to spend a week — or multiple weeks, if you want to book more than one itinerary.
For the time being, the company is only offering trips to the four destinations above, but they’re working to add new ones to the roster. “There are many wonderful culinary destinations in Mexico that we love,” says de la Vega, specifically mentioning Baja California, Puebla, Chiapas, Veracruz, Guadalajara and Sinaloa. “Hopefully one day we’ll cover all of them.”
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