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May 21, 2012 10:31 AM

Merida, Yucatan

What's chowish in Merida?

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  1. The central market. Though with a warning: if you pick up a 1/2 kilo of kastacan, just cooked and hot, and eat it right out of the staining brown paper bag, you may very well be scarred for life. It'll haunt you. You'll search for it, but will never quite recapture it.
    They say its better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.....

    1. Wayan'e is one of the best taco places in Mérida. Some argue it's The Best. A bit out of the way if you're in Centro but definitely worth the taxi ride. Just get there early for the best selection.

      And El Cangrejito in Centro. Excellent seafood (mostly) tacos, also a meaty, savory chicharrón option. It was definitely one of my favorites.

      I was also a regular at La Chaya Maya in Centro and took visitors there to great success.

      This was a couple of years ago.

      1. Oh yeah, casa familiares - bars serving free tapas (botanas) when you order drinks. Not earth shattering food, but interesting, cheap, and good places to people watch and maybe speak with locals. Ask around on where the best ones are.

        1. I don't know if the same chef is still there, but we had the meal of a lifetime in a restored hacienda about 15 minutes outside Merida. It is called the Hacienda Xcanatun. We were stunned by the meal; when we were finished we thought about starting all over again and we were nearly in tears. It was the only time I've ever asked to meet a chef. Never had a meal come close to that, before or since. You can stay there, too, but it was beyond our budget. We heard that the breakfasts are fantastic, too. If I ever hit the lottery, first thing I will do is get on a plane, fly to Merida, and eat at the Xcanatun.

          1. Any updates?

            Looking for places with real Yucatan food. Not food that's been watered down for tourists, and not fancy. Just genuine local food served in places frequented by locals.

            Love very hot food, bars that serve meals and/or botanas, and small, plain restaurants.

            Primarily interested in the area between Colon and Centro, 56 to 72.

            29 Replies
            1. re: DoctorChow

              HI Doc,
              Merida is an interesting city with lots of stuff going on. IMO, the food options are somewhat limited - to us it was not a chow destination.
              Don't get me wrong, there ARE some jewels, but you gotta look.
              Its been a few years since our last visit. As I mention above, ask locals (bartender, hotel receptionist, guy selling souvenirs, etc) about their favorite botanas bars.
              We've been to quite a few where we were the only non-locals. For the most part, the customers eyed us warily and the servers cautious. It soon became apparent that we were there to have fun, drink, and just hang out, and everyone relaxed.

              1. re: porker

                Thanks for the feedback, porker. Sounds like not much has changed.

                Most of things I've read on other CH threads and elsewhere about Merida's food scene pretty much echo what you said. I guess I was hoping to find a shortcut to one of the jewels you alluded to, though. I suppose you're right that the best thing to do is to just ask at the hotel, etc. for botanas bars and maybe local spots for meals, although sometimes people who work in hotels don't live in that area and aren't that familiar with the businesses there. We do love to go to restaurants and bars where we're the only non-locals. They tend to be more genuine.

                1. re: DoctorChow

                  DC, it's been a couple of years since I was in Merida (for Carnival, no less) and can echo Porker's sentiment. We didn't find too much to write home about.

                  We did find one place we really, really liked a lot and that was Local 3 out on the Prolongacion. Restaurants in Mexico can change wildly in a couple of years, or not at all. It may still be good...or not.

                  There is a crazy American ex-pat (married to a Frenchman) who runs a place called Monique's Bakery. They're doing a lot of organic, healthy/creative cooking. She does a brunch on Sunday complete with local musicians. This woman is truly a force of nature. Google her, or the bakery's Facebook page to see if this is something you might be interested in or not.

                  And finally, it never hurts to check out Yucatan Living - . Lots of interesting info on assorted topics

                  Enjoy your trip, just go before the humidity comes up ;-)

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    Thanks, DD! Do you have any recollection of the name of the place on Prolongacion Montejo?

                    Will for sure try to make it to Monique's, time permitting.

                    Also, many thanks for pointing it out, although we're already familiar with Yucatan Living's website.

                    Will definitely try to avoid the worst of the heat and humidity, although humidity seems to run above 80% almost every day of the year!

                    1. re: DoctorChow

                      The place on Prolongacion is Local 3

                      1. re: DiningDiva

                        OK, for whatever reasons (maybe too much vino?) I didn't get that that was the name of the place. Duh. Thought it was just an named general area along Prolongacion.

                        We'll find it. Thanks!

                        Is there a particular dish you'd recommend -- if you can recall?

                        1. re: DoctorChow

                          I'm guessing the menu has probably long since been changed. There was an exquisite fish dish with grouper. The sangria was probably the best version I've ever had in Mexico.

              2. re: DoctorChow

                Thanks to all for your feedback. Here's our impressions and favorites after the fact. (We were in Mérida 21-28 Jan.)

                We enjoyed the food in Merida greatly, but to our surprise, found that much of it is very mild. The flavorful sauces (moles) were mostly pretty soupy and not hot at all. In order to get real Mayan flavor, we found, you have to add hot sauce, or far better, ask the server to have the kitchen prepare some fresh habanero kut (spelled gu’t in Mayan, I think, and pronounced “koot”). Then you have the real thing. The food just isn't the same without it.

                One of our Mayan servers told us that habanero kut is made by crushing fresh chilies in a small hand cranked machine to extract the juice, and then adding lime, salt, and maybe a little cilantro. The pulp is also left in.

                The habaneros of preference in Merida are green (not fully ripened), and many dishes are served with a single fresh green habanero. We cut the fresh ones up to eat with the food, but it still needed the kut.

                The only habaneros we saw in the market were green as well. Personally, I prefer habaneros when they’ve ripened to orange, but green seems to be what the local people like, and that was fine with us.

                We ate at numerous places and had many of the local favorites, from cochinito tacos at the Zocalo on Sunday, to seafood at the ruins (we went to Uxmal and Chitzen-Itza), to local classics served at places like Chaya Maya, and several off-the-beaten-path places.

                Of all of these, our favorite restaurants were Canatmayec on Calle 21 near the Plaza Fiesta, which was just outstanding, and Katun on 60 a little north of Colon. Both places made delicious fresh habanero kut for us and the food was wonderful. And at both places, the soft-spoken Mayan staff were so very genuine and friendly, so very interested in helping us to understand and appreciate their food and culture. That contributed a lot to our dining pleasure.

                Another place we enjoyed greatly was Super Cocina, a very plain, simple restaurant on Reforma near Colon, where a full comida was only 60 pesos, including desert!

                1. re: DoctorChow

                  Mole is not especially typical of the Yucatan

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    By "mole", I meant "sauce". My companion referred to all of these soupy sauces as "moles". No, there weren't any moles de Puebla or the like, not that we saw.

                    For instance, the sauces with relleno negro or quezo relleno are "moles", in the broader sense of the term. At least that's how I understand it.

                    The poc chuc I had at Katun came with a simple thin bean sauce served in a bowl; a "mole". Along with some pickled onions, pico de gallo, and some sliced avacado.

                    The cochinita pibil at the three places we had it came in a kind of thin sauce -- a mole.

                    My companion is from Mexico City and like me, had never before been to Yucatan. Maybe in Yucatan the word "mole" isn't used in the same way as it is in other parts of Mexico? Very possible.

                      1. re: DoctorChow

                        I'm not sure of the Yucatec equivalent name for mole, but many of the sauces begin with a "recado" or paste. You'll see tens of types of recados in the markets - mounds of various colored pastes, sold by weight.
                        Depending on the dish, you'll choose the proper recado to start. I found this quite interesting.

                        1. re: porker

                          Hi porker. Yes, very interesting. I didn't know that, but we did see lots of pastes in the main market on Sunday. Also, browsing around out of interest in the Chedrui on Prolongacion Montejo (I wanted to fill my suitcase with the bottled hot sauces!), there was an island that had maybe 20 self-service bins of pastes. All were labled "mole", although neither of us could tell the differences bin-to-bin from the labeling.

                          1. re: DoctorChow

                            I'm going back a few years, but we spent an afternoon at the Los Dos "cooking school" in Merida. David Sterling explained a bit about recados which I found fascinating.

                            Most, if not all, recados begin with basic ingredients. Some people will make (or buy) their own "mother" recado which is a basic paste. They will then add other ingredients to suit their purpose; racado rojo, recado negro, recado bistek, etc.
                            I think the pastes you saw are the rojo, negra, bistek, etc etc.

                            I get the feeling that Yucatecs are kinda like Italians and are bound by tradition to make certain dishes certain ways. Variance would seem preposterous. You'd never think of making bistek in a recado rojo and anyone who did was just plain crazy.
                            (I say this with warmth and respect as my Italian friend (since passed) showed me how to make sausage. If I added anything different than his recipe, he'd shake his head and think there was something seriously wrong with me, hehe).

                            We just got back from the Yucatan Monday. Alas we were travelling with my mother and two sisters (YIKES) and could not visit grocery stores with abandon as we usually do.
                            I get light headed at the bulk, dried peppers, the abundance of fresh sausage, the ridiculous amount of cooking oil in one aisle, the choices of snack foods like chicharron (including fresh and hot), and yes, the hot sauces!

                            1. re: porker

                              Thanks, porker. Again, very interesting. Yes, we did recognize negro and rojo -- and I might have seen bistek as well -- in the bins at Chedrui. It was obvious from the amount in the bins late in the day that these pastes are in heavy demand by Chedrui's customers. That probably explains why there were multiple bins of what seemed to be the same thing.

                              1. re: DoctorChow

                                It could also have been bins of the same recado but from different sources/manufacturers or vendors.

                        2. re: DoctorChow

                          Mole is a nahuatl word meaning sauce but in modern day, it refers to a specific set of sauces such as mole poblano. Salsa is traditionally based on tomato while moles are complex mixtures of many spices based on various chili peppers, typically not very hot but very flavorful (ancho, chipotle) for instance.

                          1. re: Just Visiting

                            Actually mole means mixture as in guaca-mole, chil-mole...a mixture with avocado or a mixture with chiles.

                            Moles can be simple (i.e. amarillo) with a few ingredients or complex (mole chichilo, negro, poblano) with a laundry list of ingredients. Typcially, however, they consist of chiles, nuts, seeds, fresh or dried fruit and vegetable. The hallmark of a good mole is that the flavors blend seamless together to create a single flavor rather than 1 or 2 ingredients dominating.They can be as spicy as the cook wants to make them or as the chiles turn out to be.

                            Salsas do not necessarily have to be tomato based, it's simply a sauce...after all, salsa inglesia is nothing more than worchestershire sauce, which is hardly tomato based :-)

                            1. re: DiningDiva

                              My own personal experience with the spiciness of moles is consistent with what you said. In fact the hottest prepared dish I've ever had in Mexico was a mole negro in Mexico City. I asked for it to be extra hot, and I guess the kitchen decided to show this gringo a thing or two.

                              By the way, I'm a little surprised you didn't include chocolate in your examples of mole ingredients. :)

                              Also, interesting that you should mention "guacca mole", by the way, because I've been trying to convince my companion of this likely origin for the word guacamole for quite some time! I've even looked it up (without luck), but thought I was onto something, at least, since "guacca" is part of the word for an avacado.

                              1. re: DoctorChow

                                The word etymology I learned for guacamole goes something like this (working backwards)

                                avocado in English = aguacate in spanish = ahuacatl in Nahuatl

                                mole in English = mole in Spanish = molli or mulli in Nahuatl (and I think there is an accent on the "i")

                                So ahuacamolli (or ahuacamulli) in Nahuatl became guacamole in Spanish. Not only was there a mash-up of avocados and cuisine, there was also a mash-up of languages as Spanish replaced Nahuatl during the conquest.

                                I'm sure others will probably have their version of how guacamole became guacamole, but this is the one I learned a long time ago in a past life in a past century.

                                I've heard a number of indigenous languages spoken in Mexico...Nahuatl, Zapotec, Purepecha, Mayan and at least 2 languages from the Chinantla region of eastern Oaxaca. Some are easier to understand than others, the 2 from La Chinantla were almost nothing more than a series of sounds. tones and intonations, more than words. It was really fascinating to listen to but totally incomprehensible :-). I can really understand how the Spanish conquistadors may have had difficulty understanding what things were when they first arrived in Mexico. Remember, the avocado is a New World food, they had never seen something like it before, and not speaking the native language, they had to figure out how to identify it in Spanish. Did you know that ahuacatl is also the Nahuatl word for testicle since avocados on the tree bear a striking resemblance to the that part of the male anatomy ;-)

                                1. re: DiningDiva

                                  Now I finally have the full version of the etymology of guacamole! Yes, I suppose there may be other versions, as with the etymology of most words, but this is close enough (and logical enough) for me! Thanks, DD!

                                  And yes, we learned while in Yucatan about the alternate meaning of the Maya word for avacado, from our guide while at Uxmal... :D

                                  1. re: DoctorChow

                                    Yeah, I'm not going to say my version is the be-all and end-all of how-guacamole-got-it's-name. I think it's reasonably close to whatever the real truth might be :-)

                        3. re: DiningDiva

                          @DD: By the way, we looked for but didn't find Local 3 on Prolongacion Montejo. If it's still there, it's hiding pretty well.

                          I did see Monique's on a map, but we didn't make it there. Looks like it's a few blocks east of Pr. Montejo, and on the day we were in the vicinity it didn't work out go go there. (We were on foot almost all of the time except to go to Restaurant Cantamayec -- and, of course, Uxmal and Chitzen-Itza. It was just the wrong time of day for eating when we were near Monique's.)

                          We did find a good bakery called Pan Montejo, right across from the Monumento a la Bandera, though, that had delicious fresh pastries that we took back to our hotel to munch on. It's just a bakery, though, no tables and no food or drink served (or eaten) on site.

                          Many thanks for your recommendations.

                        4. re: DoctorChow

                          Spicy is not characteristic of Yucataneca. Nor is mole. The food far more resembles traditional Mayan rather than the spicy dishes found elsewhere in Mexico. Yucatan is a world apart.

                          Sorry for not realizing that this was an old thread that I'd already answered but honestly, I am sad for you that you didn't try Xcanatun.

                          1. re: Just Visiting

                            That the food in Yucatan isn't spicy was one of the fun things we discovered while there! I had expected to find all of the food blazing hot, but it was quite the opposite!

                            One of the first places we went to was Chaya Maya (the older one) and ordered a four dish meal which we split. Each was tasty and all were unique, but all were extremely mild, at most a 1 or 2 on my personal heat scale. We were disappointed and decided that the place was "not so hot", so to speak (although it was packed with locals). On later reflection, after eating in a number of other places, we realized it was actually pretty good; the food just isn't spicy by itself.

                            We weren't expecting to find things like mole poblano in Merida (nor did we want to), although I think "modern" mole may have been on the menus in a few places. I don't recall. That's why I was surprised to see the word "mole" on the labels of the majority of recado bins at the Chedrui supermarket.

                            We were on foot (with some bus use). Probably could have made it to Xcanatun anyway, I suppose. Excuses, excuses. Well, maybe next time...

                            1. re: DoctorChow

                              Its true that Yucatec cuisine in general is not spicy, but they do have some whamies, the habanero in particular.

                              The ubiquitous condiment seems to be xnipec which varies slightly from place to place: chopped (or ground) habanero with a splash of lime with maybe tomato, maybe onion.
                              I heard it said that xnipec is Mayan for "dog breath" - after eating some, you breath in and out with your mouth open, like a dog's breath on a hot day.

                              1. re: porker

                                Yes, happily we discovered early on how to ask for xnipec with our food (when a fresh habanero sauce wasn't already on the table) -- see my Jan. 28 post above. I was then in chili heaven!

                                When we first heard of it we were told it was called habanero gu't (which I thought was spelled kut, as in El Yucateca Maya Kut) but later heard the other name -- which I couldn't remember (and definitely didn't know how to spell until now). Our server at Katun, a Maya, took a very sincere interest in my pronounciation of gu't ("koot"), proceeding to write it in Maya on a napkin (gu't), and explaining that the "apostrophe" is actually a Maya letter, making the pronounciation more like "kha-oot".

                                So many interesting things to learn! :)