Yucatan and Caribbean in Cancun - Labna and La Habichuela sister restaurants
These are two restaurants in downtown Cancun at Margaritas 29 (Labna) and Margaritas 25 (La Habichuela) (map: http://www.cancunmenus.com/centro.html ). Take an R-1 bus and get off after it turns N on Avenida Tulum, then walk W - these sister restaurants are just NW of the park, right N of City Hall (you are likely to see some weddings - we saw 2 in our three visits). (It's easy as pie to catch a southbound R-1 bus back to the hotel zone on Tulum when you're done eating - no need to get a cab unless you're "fancy". ;-))
Labna is a very nice place, comfortable and well-decorated, but is less "upscale" than La Habichuela (which is the Spanish name for what we would call " the green bean"). They have a Mex$990 (just under US$10 when we went) buffet that includes several Yucatan entree dishes, side dishes, and desserts. We got that the first time we went (we weren't that hungry, and only wanted a nosh), and enjoyed it. (Rare to see duck on a buffet!) The food was very well done and MUCH more interesting than what one would find at a Mexican place on the hotel strip, but the buffet did suffer from the lack of freshness that marks good food. They had three interesting salsas, one more of a black bean dip and one made with habañero, that made the introductory chips fun. I'm afraid that I can't remember all the entrees I had: pollo pibil, poc chuc, cochinita pibil, some sort of duck thing, loma de puerco - you can see I was able to do the low carb thing quite well. The sopa de lima was good, but not really as good as what my wife had later off the menu. There were a couple of different rice and bean things, as well as empenadas de cazon (baby shark turnovers) - not on my diet, though.
It was enough to get us back for lunch the next day, though. The menu is definitely Yucatan food - a lot of things I'd never heard of before. My wife Gina got the sopa de lima (loaded with shredded chicken) and was flat out blown away by the wonderful tastes of the broth. The tastes I stole were really quite spectacular. She got some sort of fish done up some sort of special Yucatan way (sorry - I don't like seafood and was paying too much attention to my own plate) for her entree, and loved it (still carries on about it). Myself, I had the papadzules - rolled corn tortillas stuffed with hardboiled eggs and smothered in a pumpkin seed sauce. Holy smokes, this would have been enough for a meal for most people. Fortunately, I'm a big eater, so I segued to the queso relleno entree. "Stuffed cheese"? What could that be?, I wondered Well, it's GOOD! Imagine a noodle-less lasagna in a bowl. I almost called up a cheese-loving friend in the states to tell him to get his rear down to Labna and have one - what a neat dish. There were two Yucatan cheeses in the bowl, a softer-ricotta cousin and a chewier mozzarella cousin, mixed with a local pork sausage (that was quite delicious). THere was a delicate tomato sauce (with perhaps a teensy bit of chile) overlaying the whole thing. A Yucatan reminder was provided by the giant raisins and almond slivers in the bowl. I just about staggered after I finished it - wonderful.
The service at Labna was terrific. Our appetizers were about $4-5 each (I'll drop the Mexican pricing), and the entrees were $9-15. Micheladas (lime juice, Worchestershire sauce, a splash of Tabasco, soy sauce, salt, black pepper, ice and a light Mexican beer - either a Sol or Bohemia) were about $2.50, and Gina's high-class martinis were about $5. Mineral waters (I'm sure the water in these joints is fine, but - what the hey) were about $2 each.
Labna's sister restaurant, La Habichuela, is right next door - just N. Again, the service was great - but this time it was pretty spectacular. Lots of upscale locals there, and not too many gringos. Gina and I went there a couple of days later on the Thursday night before Christmas, and we were really amazed. They do not have the same sort of Yucatan dishes that Labna features - Habichela has more of an "upscale" Caribbean feel with a heavier seafood menu. Gina had the "cocobichuela" which is a green coconut hollowed out (cheesy, I know, but fun) and filled with a lobster/shrimp coconut curry stew. The quality and quantity of the seafood were pretty impressive. She started with a lobster bisque, by the way, and was very happy with it. I had a (boring, right?) tampiqueña steak that was actually a much better piece of meat than I'd expected. Best tampiqueña steak I've ever had, and that's out of hundreds of them. The chiles en rajas (roased pasilla chile strips) on the side were very tasty, and the guacamole and salsa fresca that were served alongside the steak were interesting to me in that they had very much more lime juice than I've ever experienced in those dishes. Gina makes a superb guacamole, and she was interested to note this variant. The salsa fresca managed to be somehow "brighter" than the usual ones I run across - I wonder whether they might have used habañero peppers in them . . . . My appetizer was a crepe made with that fungus that grows on corn ("Cuitlacoche" is the Nahuatl word for it) - as a kid growing up in Indiana, I was always horrified by this stuff (we called it "corn smut"), and I was shocked as an adult to learn that people actually ATE it as a delicacy. Having tried it, I now understand - it was like a very subtle and rich mushroom flavor. Absolutely worth a try.
Anyway, Habichuela was pretty darn good. The desserts were wonderful and the drinks were nice (even the cheesy-but-fun flaming coffee!) and the little bread pastries that the served with homemade garlic butter were amazing (one roll, the pan de cebolla ("onion bread") managed to combine the flavors and texture of an onion roll, a corn muffin, and a croissant).
Oh, the free coupon book that you get shoved at you when arriving in the airport has coupons for a free Maya "stele" at both of these places. Turns out it's a cheesy tile souvenir - they're a hoot!
We'll be back to both Labna and La Habichuela. If you're headed to Cancun, they're well worth the trip downtown.