How to make Oaxaca-style grilled cactus and grilled salsa roja

Luis Martinez
Special to Southern Kitchen
Nopales cooking over live fire in Oaxaca.

A Oaxacan barbecue requires more than just meat. There are the tortillas and the myriad salsas, and then there are the nopales, or edible paddles of the prickly pear. These recipes come from chef Luis Martinez, who was born in Santa Catarina Loxicha, Oaxaca, Mexico, in a small Zapotec pueblo. Now, Martinez makes regular trips back to Mexico in support of his import food company, Tequio Foods. There, he strolls the markets and eats the traditional food of his youth. Here are two classic barbecue recipes straight from Oaxaca.

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Salsa roja tatemada at a market in Mexico.

Salsa roja tatemada 

Salsa is one of the items that can never be missing in any barbecue in Oaxaca. Even the little kids want some for their tacos. The following recipe is simple, and anybody can make this salsa. 


1 large white onion, cut into 5-7 wedges

1 red jalapeno chile, sliced in half (deseeded if you'd like a mild salsa)

6 Roma tomatoes

2 garlic cloves, peels left on

Juice of 2-3 limes

Salt to taste


Preheat the grill to 350. Char the tomatoes, onions and jalapenos on all sides until very soft and the skins are blackened. Toast the garlic in its skin until well-browned and fragrant. This could take up to 15 minutes. Once done, remove ingredients and allow to cool for a few minutes.

Peel the garlic. Add all roasted ingredients to a food processor or a blender. You can also use a molcajete to be more traditional. Add lime juice and salt. Pulse the ingredients so as to not overprocess them. We don’t want a smooth puree, but rather a salsa with a coarse texture. Serve immediately, accompanied by tortillas, beans, etc.

Oaxaca-style nopales

Women grill nopales at a market in Mexico

Another item that can never be missing in any barbecue in Oaxaca is grilled nopales. After grilling them, it's traditional to finish them with lime juice and salt. 

Nopales are easy to find in any Latin-American market. They taste somewhat like more acidic green beans. Serve these sliced in tacos or as a simple vegetable side.


10 nopales, or cactus leaves

Olive oil

2 limes

Salt to taste


Using a small knife, firmly scrape the surface of the cactus, scraping away from you, to remove spines. Cut all around the perimeter of the cactus leaf. This will get rid of any spines that are around the edge.

Preheat the grill to 350. Arrange the nopales on the grill and cook them for 2-4 minutes per side. Keep an eye on them.

Once they are cooked, remove them from the grill and put them in a bowl, and add the juice of two limes and salt to taste.

Serve immediately with your favorite taco, salsa or tortillas.