Every summer, Liliana Palma Santos’s parents would take the family from Los Angeles, where Palma Santos was born and raised, back to their homeland: the small rural town of Tlacolula, Oaxaca. There, she roamed the family milpas, where corn, beans, and squash grew alongside other native vegetables, ate her grandmother’s food, and sampled maize of all shapes and colors at the Sunday market.
Now, at her restaurant, Criollito, her childhood memories inform the menu and ethos. Which is, in her words, to rescue her ancestors’ foods.
As Palma Santos grew up, she noticed GMO flour replacing native corn in tortillas. Others noticed too, and rescuing native and heirloom corn varieties became a cause for many Mexican chefs. In Oaxaca, chefs have opened restaurants celebrating native corn.
But the craze has unintentionally harmed locals, says Palma Santos. “Native corns have been elevated to this kind of gourmet place. And while that is great, I also think that native people, poor people, aren’t able to access their own goods anymore.”
At Criollito, Palma Santos celebrates local corn varieties with the goal of still serving at least 50 percent customers from the community. The name means native or heirloom, referring to the colorful corn cobs sold by Indigenous Zapotec women at the markets Palma Santos visited as a child. (She is Zapotec herself.)
All of the ingredients are locally sourced and purchased from other Indigenous families in the region, and everything from the tortillas to the moles and salsas is made from scratch. The small restaurant serves a variety of traditional Zapotec dishes at reasonable prices, some of them using recipes from Palma Santos’s grandmother, who’s been selling street food for more than 40 years.
The star dish is her grandmother’s memelas: thick oval tortillas coated with lard and slow-roasted, topped with refried beans, green or red salsa and quesillo or queso fresco. Last year, her cousin Florina, who is the restaurant’s chef alongside Palma Santos’s husband, experimented with adding spinach, beet, chapulines, and other ingredients to the tortillas, turning them into “rainbow tortillas” that people can not only eat but learn how to make at in-house cooking classes.
Know Before You Go
Check the restaurant's Instagram for their hours, which can be limited.
The easiest way to get to Tlacolula is by taking a bus or a shared taxi (you’ll recognize them because they’re burgundy) at Oaxaca City’s baseball stadium. The ride is about 45 minutes. You can find Criollito using Google Maps, or you can ask to go to the rural hospital next to the restaurant.
Palma Santos strongly recommends making a reservation for big groups either by leaving the restaurant a message on Google maps or messaging directly through Criollito's Instagram page. You can also ask about joining a cooking class or learning about the art of tortilla-making (from harvesting the corn to grilling the finished product).
Palma Santos is also a travel agent who centers the knowledge and businesses of Zapotec peoples. She manages an airbnb in Tlacolula, and you can DM her on her personal Instagram page if you want to join her Oaxaca tours.