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Dining Update for Merida and Surrounding Areas in Yucatan

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Every trip we make, we depend on other people's food reviews. I always pledge I will come back and leave extensive feedback on Chowhound. But those good intentions get buried quickly under work waiting on my desk....

As a start, the best meal on our March 2010 trip to the Yucatan was not in Merida but in little Valladolid. While the patio courtyard of El Meson del Marques offers an extremely pleasurable dining experience - enough so that we ate dinner and breakfast there - we stumbled across a new restaurant that opened in November 2009. I say stumbled because we kept wandering around in the mid-day sun trying to find Restaurante San Bernardino de Siena that the Rough Guide said is "locally known as Don Juanito's and frequented mostly by vallisoletanos." We did finally locate Don Juanito's, but there was the type of hand-scrawled sign posted in the window that you never want to spot before a meal: "Cook Wanted." Although, presumably, one is now hired, that day, not one table was occupied by a turista or a vallisoletano.

So we returned to try the one too new to be in the guidebooks that we had passed by several times already, Taberna de los Frailes, next to the Monastery and Church of San Bernardino de Siena. The contemporary restaurant steps beyond the traditional recipes of the Yucatan. Dining under a shady palapa in the back, our group sampled filete de pescado fresco en salsa verde mexicana (in this case an oregano-based salsa); salmon zarandeado; and mero maya. The mero, fresh grouper, had been marinated in the region's sour orange juice and was presented in four coiled spirals, perfectly cooked. What kept everyone's forks hovering above my plate, though, was a mound of black risotto with complex layers of flavor popping out in every bite. The dish sent us scouring the market the next day to purchase some of the rich relleno negro seemingly at its base.

At 160 pesos (about $13), the fish dishes were not the least expensive in Mexico, but they were more than worth the tab. The service was professional, except our server neglected to inform us when we ordered that the restaurant has a chocolate souffle that needs 25 minutes to prepare. We would have eaten at La Taberna de los Frailes daily, had Merida not been our base.

On the other hand, we did not feel satisfied with a 350 peso tab at the Hacienda Temozon on our way to Uxmal. Fortunately, it was early in the day; so margaritas and mero (There it would have been fresh grouper with mango sauce and black sesame and couscous.) were not yet on our minds. We simply ordered four mineral waters and an order of guacamole. 350 pesos, tip not included. Although beautiful, the hacienda is definitely not a place to drop in for dinner, unless money is no object.

As we left Uxmal in search of a late lunch, we opted to go the opposite direction of the Hacienda for a more reasonably priced meal and landed at The Pickled Onion, just south of Santa Elena. Instead of stopping at the village museum that Cadogan describes as displaying "the rather ghoulish remains of colonial-era burials found beneath the church floor," we sat outside on The Pickled Onion's deck with margaritas, which were among the most acceptable we had in the Yucatan. The name is drawn doubly from the marinated onion accompaniment offered alongside extremely hot salsa verde (Warning: Habanero Alert. Always test the heat of salsa in the Yucatan before ladeling on your food, even if you are from Texas.) at most restaurants in the area and the fact that the British ex-pat owner's last name is Pickles. Although British, her kitchen successfully has absorbed the flavor of traditional Yucatecan dishes, including flavorful pork and venison options.

Back to Merida. Conveniently, we were renting a house near the market at Parque Santiago, known for its restaurant stalls with outdoor tables staffed by efficient waiters. The menus of Yucatan specialities were more extensive than one would think possible to offer out of the tiny kitchens, but the food was quite good and a bargain. Before selecting a location, we watched where most the locals headed and ended up trusting La Reina Itzalana for both a breakfast and a light dinner. Merida is my kind of town in that people do not feel bound to restrict breakfast to eggs. At a table next to us, people were eating an assortment of everything - sopa de lima, panuchos, tacos and sandwiches on fresh bolillos - first thing in the morning.

Budget places - low on atmosphere - we would definitely recommend include El Trapiche, on Calle 62 near the plaza mayor, for traditional dishes and, just across the street, El Marlin Azul, for ceviche and fresh seafood. Aside from the deep blue awnings, signage is lacking at the Marlin, but the locals know where to find it. Upon a peek into the main door of the bustling spot, you might be deterred by the thought of having to eat too quickly at the counter or small table for two. But back back out onto the sidewalk, enter the unmarked door on the left and you will find a room with two rows of booths. We lucked out and grabbed a booth just as the 1 p.m. lunch rush hit; there was a waiting line by 1:05. A second wave of customers poured in at 2 p.m. Like most seafood houses in Merida, El Marlin Azul is only open at lunch. Perhaps this custom dates to pre-refrigeration days when seafood would only be fresh in the morning?

The budget place we would not particularly recommend will not suffer from my review; there are always waiting lines and delivery bikes zooming in and out as fast as the suffering tender of the extremely hot wood-burning oven can shovel the pizzas in and out. If you are fortunate, you can grab an upstairs table in the loft of the tiny Pizzeria de Vito Corleone on Calle 59. We split an inexpensive pizza - half vegetarian and half vegetarian with sausage. The main vegetables represented were canned mushrooms, and the sausage was a sort of hot-doggy, Vienna-sausagy thing (fortunately, I was eating part of the other half). But, if you are on an extremely tight budget, the pizza crust itself is quite good, and, at 17 pesos a bottle, it offered the cheapest beer we found in any restaurant the whole trip.

Across the street, one can encounter the opposite - a soothing patio shaded by a large orchid tree with live music at night - Amaro. Although dominated by ex-pats and tourists, Amaro presents a pleasant dining experience. In addition to traditional Yucatan foods, the restaurant has numerous vegetarian choices - ideal for someone like me who would never attempt to wade through the large quantity of pork placed on one's plate in the Yucatan. Amaro is know for crepes de chaya, similar to spinach, but I opted for a wonderful roasted eggplant dish.

For lunch one day, we meant to head to Cafe Alameda but ended up at Los Almendros on Parque de la Mejorada by mistake. I would not have tried Los Almendros, as it is often dismissed as a chain, which I tend to avoid like the plague. Perhaps it is more touristy at night, but, at lunchtime, the locals - no other gringos - poured in from the adjacent parking garage, unfortunately highly visible through a plate glass window. The waiters had that old-fashioned formality that reminded me of the days when Texans flocked to the traditionally great restaurants of the border towns. The waiters with senority watched the doors to make sure they caught their regulars; a "junior" one, probably only in his late forties, got us. The legend perpetuated by the restaurant is that this kitchen originated poc-chuc, pork marinated in bitter oranges. I am unsure whether bitter represents a type of orange or that the oranges used are harvested before they are ripe. My husband thought this was the best poc-chuc of the trip - better even than the highly regarded Kinich in Izamal. I decided to finally find out what queso relleno was and was surprised that it truly is stuffed cheese: A huge wedge of Edam filled with picadillo and swimming in a white sauce. I ordered queso relleno at Kinich as well, and the flavors of the picadillo at Los Almendros were more complex and rewarding.

Our last evening in Merida, we joined a dining room full of other Americans at Casa de Frida on Calle 61. As I had indulged in chiles en nogada - a chile poblano filled with picadillo with a walnut sauce spiked with fresh pomegranite seeds - at my favorite place to have it, Restaurante Bugumbilla in San Miguel de Allende, two weeks earlier, I skipped this specialty of the house. One of our foursome judged Casa de Frida's version of chiles en nogada as good but a little sweet. Despite having made a ton of roasted vegetables at our house the night before, I was "meated out" and had a very respectable upscale salad. We had no serious complaints about the food; although my husband described his as lackluster. Something in the restaurant seemed off that night. Perhaps it was a tension in the room created by the fact that there appeared to be only one waiter. But, amazingly, he was experienced enough to come close to keeping all dozen tables well-served. Maybe it was that the clientele was so all-American; or maybe that we knew we had a 7 a.m. flight to catch in the morning. Rely on some other chowhound for additional evaluation of Casa de Frida.

Sorry, almost this entire post is priceless, meaning I am not sharing peso amounts with you. Unfortunately, I made few notes along the way. But, by American standards, all the restaurants mentioned were reasonably priced. Having traveled through much of Mexico and living in Texas, we still found Merida offered plenty of opportunity to experience dishes foreign to us. Buen provecho.

 
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