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Three weeks around the Yucatan:

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Three weeks around the Yucatan:
Getting through Cancun as quickly as possible, we began our vacation in Merida. Although a marvelous old city in many ways, the tourist traffic has, I feel, affected the food in many of the restaurants in the Centro Historico. At Portico el Peregrino, Caribe and Amaro the regional dishes were pleasant enough, but unassertive and the flavors muted rather than subtle. It wasn’t till we ate at La Casa de Frida on Calle 61 that we began to feel we were really eating in Mexico. Gabriela Praget, who owns and cooks, is from Mexico City and, I think combines her city’s creativity and sophistication with the Yucatecan tradition. Chiles in Nogada with a pumpkin seed sauce, Huitlacoche crepes, and crepes with mole poblano were dishes that were revelations, as was the longaniza sausage from Valladolid surrounded by a pool of unctuous, delectable if medically unwise creamy cheese.

One day we took the bus to Celestun – a fishing village a couple of hours from Merida. We had lunch at La Palapa – an attractive place on the beach. The first course was a dish of very tender octopus in a delectable ink-based sauce. The main courses had to be sent back and taken off the bill. A plain filet of fish, simply grilled – in a venue where you could see fresh fish going directly from boat to restaurant – was stale, dry, overcooked and tasteless. A ‘signature’ dish of shrimp bore all the signs of having been precooked, frozen, then reheated and overcooked in the microwave. The shrimp also tasted and smelt of ammonia. Both dishes also showed signs of having spent too long under the heat lamp in the kitchen.
We soon learned that if you want to have an appetizer and a main course, and do not wish to eat them simultaneously, or worse have your main course drying out under the heat lamps, it’s best to order the appetizer with the drinks then order the main course as you are finishing your appetizer

On to Campeche – the beautifully preserved 16th/17th century port. We arrived on the bus, at lunch time and almost immediately found Marganzo, which was superb, and subject to many visits in the course of the next week. Generous appetizers – fish, salsa and a garlic flavored cream, or mild yogurt always appeared gratis. The first thing I ate there was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had – a local chile – Xcatic – filled with a stuffing of baby shark and served with a light, creamy, tomato-ish sauce. Pompano stuffed with baby shrimp and bacon, covered with a different tomato sauce was almost as good. The beef and pork dishes were less spectacular but good too.
We made the longish walk from our hotel to La Pigua – a highly rated fish restaurant. It was somewhat lacking in atmosphere but made up for that in the quality of the fish, and the grilled Pompano that I had was as fresh as one could wish and perfectly cooked. We ate in some of the other restaurants in the Old Town and had food that was quite acceptable but fairly utilitarian in what was becoming clear was a fairly narrow range of regional dishes. A couple of the establishments recommended in Guide Books were defunct and the Cuban owned place overlooking the Zocalo served a dismal enough lunch to discourage any thought of returning for dinner.
On our last day, on a long walk outside the city walls town we stopped for a beer at Chac Pel - Av. Lazaro Cardenas No.8 The beer came with free plates of shrimp ceviche and shredded baby shark and salsa. These ‘appetizers’ were so good that we would have returned for dinner but the restaurant was closed that night. Next time!
A visit to the Campeche market was intriguing, demonstrating the wealth of ingredients that did not figure in restaurant dishes. Gorgeous fresh, fat chickens – but nothing ever on the menus but the dreaded skinless breast. Many varieties of fish and seafood – and a much wider variety of meat, fruit and vegetables than we ever encountered on a menu.

On to Palenque in Chiapas. Our hotel was in the atmospheric La Canada – semi-jungle part of town and we ate, on two successive nights in absurdly romantic settings. Unfortunately the kitchens had obviously taken on board the message “The Gringos wouldn’t like that.” Although still sticking to the ‘Regional and Yucatecan dishes’ we had nothing of note.
A high point was a lunch at a scenic destination in the Chiapas mountains – ‘Agua Azul’ The collectivo driver obviously had a strong belief in an enjoyable afterlife, given his propensity for passing on blind mountain curves and total disregard of solid yellow double line road markings. The lunch was a reward, therefore, for many moments of blind terror and the onset of a gritty fatalism. We had a grilled fish called Mojarra – ‘from the estuary’ we were told. A very strange looking creature sporting something approaching a suit of armour with a heavily reinforced jaw. It was perfectly, simply cooked and tasted utterly delicious.
All of our traveling was by bus (usually first or second class and reliable and very safe) and occasionally entailed a certain amount of back-tracking, which is why we made an unintended but ultimately enjoyable visit to Villahermosa. We ate at a restaurant called Villahermosa, high above the river, with stunning views but only passable food. Our back tracking to Valladolid meant spending another night in Merida, which gave us an opportunity to revisit Casa Frida and taste the delights of Gabriela’s Huitlacoche Crepe again.
At Valladolid we stayed at El Meson del Marques which had a delightful open air courtyard restaurant (remember mosquito repellent for your ankles). The food ranged from excellent – the Papadzules (pancakes stuffed with egg and pumpkin seed), to fair (the chicken and beef dishes), with one interesting sounding local dish never available. Once again there was nothing on the menu to scare the Gringo tourists or amaze us. The one time we had something out of the ordinary was on a visit to a small but appealing town called Tizimin, a couple of hours from Valladolid. We had lunch at Los Tres Reyes, in the main square and were treated royally. Delicious free appetizers with our drinks. Then I had the day’s special known as ‘Relleno Negro’ The dish was described to us in the waiter’s heavily Mayan Spanish and although I was expecting some kind of stuffed chile, what I got was a very large bowl containing pieces of beef and sausage in a thick black sauce. It looked challenging, but tasted fantastic and I ate every morsel. My wife had shrimp grilled with garlic which was very good, allowing for the indifferent quality of the shrimp – something we found wherever we went. At least on this occasion they were fresh.

This was our first visit to the Yucatan peninsula and our explorations were somewhat limited by our decision to take buses, coupled by the actual distance one feels like walking in 100 F. heat, in search of an elusive restaurant which has probably gone out of business since the guide book was published. Renting a car would certainly enable access to more obscure parts in the future. We ate, as often as possible where local people were eating, and had no gastric problems whatsoever. However I think I would probably want to acclimatize my digestive system before chancing some of the delicious looking goodies that were offered for sale by local people who hopped on board the bus when it stopped in small towns.

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    Susan in Toronto

    Interesting to read, thanks. We're thinking of a trip to that area next winter, so I'll keep your post.

    1. m
      mary shaposhnik

      Thanks for the notes. I wholeheartedly agree about Amaro in Merida--in my post of 6/7/05 (I don't know how to link), I noted it was the worst meal of my trip.

      And relleno negro really is an excellent dish, glad you found a good source for it.

      1. thank you so much for this recap. We will be in Merida during Christmas and New Years and really appreciate what you wrote!

        1. We were in the Yucatan in 2003... and my biggest regret is that we got stuck at too many touristy places. Here is my report:

          > I thought Las Piguas was the best restaurant we encountered, the Pompano grilled over Hoja Santa was truly excellent

          > El Portico was dissappointing... but the Sopa de Lima was outstanding...and the beer just as good as anywhere else.

          > I liked Amaro's... specially if you feel like having vegetarian food. The Carrot Cocktail (Shredded Carrot & Olives in a Mexican "Shrimp Cocktail" Sauce). The Chaya Quiche was good... not many places served up the prolific, "jungle spinach"... if you like Quiche.. you will like their version. Didn't think much of their papadzules.

          > It may sound strange... but we had the trip's best Cochinita Pibil at Sanborn's (when all else fails...Sanborn's always delivers).

          > In Valladolid, we stopped at a seafood place near the Zocalo, and I ordered the Coconut Shrimp... much to my surprise they tasted like something from an Asian restaurant. After inquiring about it... the secret ingredient was a Fish sauce that is apparently a millenary tradition in Mayan cuisine.

          > The other memorable meal we had was at an Open Air mid-scale place called Don Cafeto on Tulum's main drag... the Chaya Smoothie (yes, Jungle Spinach with the local Limas) was absolutely addicting. Kabob's (Alambres) of Sirloin, Shrimp & Roasted Vegetables were succulent & juicy... the Shark in Cilantro... was a baked in a tightly sealed pouch of Hoja Santa and covered in Cilantro-Olive Oil emulsion... very nice, tender & flavorful (in a subtle way)...but not as good as the Pompano at Las Piguas.

          1. I enjoyed your post so much.

            > Getting through Cancun as quickly as possible,

            My understanding is that in the old city of Cancun, there is a vibrant culture and cuisine.
            The beach, though, is as Disnified as Florida, or it least it was when I stayed there ten years ago.

            >The main courses had to be sent back and taken off the bill. A plain filet of fish, simply grilled – in a venue where you could see fresh fish going directly from boat to restaurant – was stale, dry, overcooked and tasteless. A ‘signature’ dish of shrimp bore all the signs of having been precooked, frozen, then reheated and overcooked in the microwave. The shrimp also tasted and smelt of ammonia. Both dishes also showed signs of having spent too long under the heat lamp in the kitchen.

            Wow. This was not the case in Playa. I didn’t eat any fish, but I ate a lot of shellfish. It was always very fresh, deftly handled and flawlessly executed, and I ate at a lot of hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop places. I think that the issue of overcooking might be a tourist-related one. So many tourists are terrified that anything that is not cooked to death is going to kill you. I could not get a steak served to me rare.

            > On our last day, on a long walk outside the city walls town we stopped for a beer at Chac Pel - Av. Lazaro Cardenas No.8 The beer came with free plates of shrimp ceviche and shredded baby shark and salsa. These ‘appetizers’ were so good that we would have returned for dinner but the restaurant was closed that night. Next time!

            This is what we experienced in Spain. You couldn’t sit down and have a beer without being served a small plate of something.

            > A visit to the Campeche market was intriguing, demonstrating the wealth of ingredients that did not figure in restaurant dishes. Gorgeous fresh, fat chickens – but nothing ever on the menus but the dreaded skinless breast. Many varieties of fish and seafood – and a much wider variety of meat, fruit and vegetables than we ever encountered on a menu.

            In my experience, a lot of things are available that are not listed on the menu. I got sick in Playa del Carmen, with the worst cold that I can remember that put me down for the better part of four days. I went one day to a restaurant that I had been to two or three times before and I commented to the proprietor that I had been sick, and she said. “Oh, I just made chicken soup.” I noted that it wasn’t on the menu, and she replied that they are always making some things on certain days of the week that aren’t on the printed menu. Unlike here in the US, they don’t all have a PC and a printer in the office where they can crank out a menu for the day.

            It was sopa de limon, chickeny and limey, hot (in the oven hot blast of summer) and fresh, with sliced avacado, chopped onion and sliced lime on the side to add to my taste. Cos was about $5 US. For me, sick, feverish and weak and far from home, it was heavenly.

            They will also tell you about things if you ask them about something that is atypical for a tourist to ask for. It tells them that you are not Mr. IfItsNotWhatTheyServeAtTacoBell It’sNotAUTHENTICMexicanFood.

            If you ask in Spanish, no matter how bad it is, it’s even better. Ask them <<¿Tiene jamaica?>> Jamaica (almost pronounced as ham-ike-a) is the tangy tea made from hibiscus flowers. It is brilliant red and will stain anything that you drip it on. It’s also pretty tasty.

            > On to Palenque in Chiapas. Our hotel was in the atmospheric La Canada – semi-jungle part of town and we ate, on two successive nights in absurdly romantic settings. Unfortunately the kitchens had obviously taken on board the message “The Gringos wouldn’t like that.”

            What I said above applies. It may just have been a place that caters to tourists, in which case you aren’t going to get anything outstanding. I wouldn’t expect local fare in a place called <<La Canada>> in Chiapas. BTW, the Méxicans don’t call gringos <<gringos.>> Gringos call gringos <<gringos.>> Méxicans call gringos <<gabachos.>>

            > The collectivo driver obviously had a strong belief in an enjoyable afterlife, given his propensity for passing on blind mountain curves and total disregard of solid yellow double line road markings. The lunch was a reward, therefore, for many moments of blind terror and the onset of a gritty fatalism.

            Hehehehehe. The driving in México is VERY aggressive, and for that reason I wouldn’t rent a car. I’ll rely on the bus system and the collectivo vans and the occasional taxi. And walking. On some days I logged six miles on foot. That's probably one of the reasons why I lost six pounds in two weeks; it was blisteringly hot and I walked everywhere.

            > All of our traveling was by bus (usually first or second class and reliable and very safe)

            And cheap. From the airport in Cancún to Playa del Carmen is about $4 US by bus, and about $40 US via shuttle/private driver.

            > which is why we made an unintended but ultimately enjoyable visit to Villahermosa. We ate at a restaurant called Villahermosa, high above the river, with stunning views but only passable food.

            This is typical of my two trips to Yucatan. Stunning locale = mediocre food. I attribute it to the tourist factor again. The beautiful location draws tourists, who mostly are not Chowhounds. The food is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. The locals can’t afford the view. They are compensated with better food.

            >there was nothing on the menu to scare the Gringo tourists or amaze us.

            Most gringo tourists aren’t amazed, just scared. We want to travel abroad, because travel abroad means sophistication, but we want *abroad* to be identical to what we find at home. Therefore, you and I will only be offered what the average norteamericano expects Méxican food to be. Again, distinguish yourself from the average tourist by asking knowledgeable questions about the cuisine. Ask in Spanish; your server will probably not have specialized English vocabulary to recognize that your question is about a point of preparation. But if you ask if they have something that he would like to eat, even if you don’t order it, you will distinguish yourself from every other sunburned, obnoxious tourist that he attends to every day. Don’t be surprised if he brings you something to sample. If you don’t tip him generously for that sample that you didn’t have to pay for, I’ll curse you and your progeny.

            > allowing for the indifferent quality of the shrimp – something we found wherever we went. At least on this occasion they were fresh.

            I don’t think that I would order shellfish inland. The places that I enjoyed in Playa del Carmen were tiny, with very modest refrigeration capacity. Everything had to come in fresh every day. But Playa is on the water. I’d go with local freshwater fish or choose something else.

            > This was our first visit to the Yucatan peninsula and our explorations were somewhat limited by our decision to take buses, coupled by the actual distance one feels like walking in 100 F. Heat

            I live in mid-peninsular Florida, and I still found the heat in Yucatan amazing. I was in Yucatan (Playa del Carmen) the last week of July and the first week of August staying in a place without air conditioning. It was my first trip abroad alone. It was unbelievably hot. It was still fabulous.