A report from the "Riviera Maya" - Playa Del Carmen, Akumal, Tulum +
I returned yesterday from an 8-day trip to the Playa Del Carmen area. It was my first time back here in about 8 years. I had visited maybe 10 times before that. I researched on Chowhound before my visit. I got to a few but missed many.
The number 1 lesson I learned on this trip regarding food in this area is the best, freshest stuff comes from cheap, no A/C, outdoor seating or 2-3 wall restaurants. Also, PORK - they know what to do with it. And the homemade salsa and chips that started nearly every meal were always awesome.
...Playa del Camen...
-El Fogon - locals favorite for cheap, flavorful Mexican comfort food and snacks. The radish and cucumber plate we received after ordering was light and refreshing (a contrast to the food that followed) after covering with lime juice and sprinkling with salt. Order all things al pastor here. You’re going to need to know Spanish, at least at the location I visited (there are 3).
-Aguachiles - Our favorite meals of the trip. We ate here once for lunch and once for dinner. Extremely fresh seafood and very reasonably priced. Tuna tostadas, smoked tuna tostadas and tacos with cheese (though the receipt read smoked marlin for the tostada...), ceviches, shrimp all kinds of ways tacos and the most interesting thing I ate in Mexico, shrimp aguachile. It's kind of like a ceviche but the acid doesn't fully cook the meat, it it seems to be applied right before serving. I got a variation with soy/lime sauce, shaved cucumbers and onions with nearly raw shrimp. I didn't know what this dish was when I ordered it and I was apprehensive to take my first bite after seeing the nearly raw shrimp (how fresh were they I wondered) but I really liked it. The shrimp was very fresh. However, I prefer the texture of raw scallops more than shrimp so next time I will get the scallop version (can also order mixed with scallop and shrimp). Raw scallop tostadas were great also. Aguachiles featured simply prepared, very fresh seafood. Highly recommended. 2 locations. We went to the one at 34th St and 25th Ave if I remember correctly - the other is off 5th ave in the tourist section of Playa and was extremely busy with a wait outside when we walked by on a Thursday night. The location we patronized was about half full each time we went.
-La Parilla - sucked. Do not go here. In the heart of 5th ave so I knew better except it was late, my luggage didn't arrive at the airport and I wanted something easy. The blackened shrimp arrived in some kind of foul tasting black sauce, no blackening spices seemed to be applied, shrimp tasting of questionable freshness. Chicken wrapped in banana leaf and steamed was rubbery. The mariachi band only plays for 2 hours a night and we missed them. The staff encouraged us to order the most expensive item, the mixed grill, and kept suggesting we switch to premium tequilas for our margaritas. Some guy comes by and throws sombreros on your head and takes pics - after din he shows you photos or the picture on a tequila bottle to purchase. Skip it. Matter of fact, skip basically all food on 5th Ave except Ah Cacao for ice creams or ice pops.
-Como Como - trendy Italian in the new section of 5th ave. Maybe we ordered the wrong things but it was just OK. A meat sauce with rigatoni was good. Octopus, fried seafood and local sea bass were mediocre.
-DAC Market (smoothies) – fresh, well balanced mixtures but not mind blowing (a Rick Bayless suggestion from his web site)
-Ah Cacao - creamy smooth hard chocolates and the best coconut ice cream I've had in quite some time. The fruit ice pops looked great too. They have coffee too. This place is worth stopping at. If you go to the cafe on 5th ave you can sit and people watch.
I wanted to stop at Flor de Michoacan because I didn't go to the one in Tulum, but in the middle of a hot day nobody on the busy street was going in here, so neither did I. Not sure if it's the same owners as in Tulum or features the same product.
-La Cueva del Pescador - tied for best meal. The freshest lobster I've had since I used to dive for them myself in the Florida Keys. It was supposedly local from the Sian Kaan reserve south of Tulum and drizzled with garlic butter. Also, the off the menu conch in garlic butter sauce was tender and fresh. Thanks VEGGO for this rec. 60 feet away is a Mexican crafts store called MexicArte with some really unique and culturally significant finds from all across Mexico which you are not going to find in the markets of Tulum or Playa with all their mass produced (and some made in China) items. Supposedly, sea turtles are often seen during snorkels off the (barely existent) beach at Akumal. These 3 treats could make for a very fun afternoon in this town.
We tried to eat at the Hartwood but it was closed for the Mexican presidential election, probably because they weren't able to serve liquor (by law) that day. The staff was sitting around and I could pick out the NY chef transplant immediately. Neat haircut, big homeless looking beard, strategically placed tattoos. It seems to be the most expensive restaurant in Tulum, rivaling resort prices in the Playa area I am sure. If I wanted the staff of Prime Meats to wait on me I can do it now that I’m back home. Still, it’s much hyped and I would like to try it one of the next times I come back.
El Tabano was also closed. One hounder and several resources said this was their favorite meal in Tulum.
We randomly ended up eating at a pizza bar connected to the Om Hotel. Being from New Jersey, we are inclined to try pizza wherever we go but were forced into it this time as it was one of the only places open from what we could tell. It was actually good pizza and very fresh tuna tostadas. How a place like this gets excellent seafood in a town off the electrical grid, running on generators, etc etc and my hotel couldn't do it I do not know. More on this later.
-Los Pelicanos - we ate here before going snorkeling at the reef on a boat operated by the restaurant. It was nothing special. The reef, however, was beautiful, and very easy for kids or first time snorkelers (shallow, little current).
Berryhill - I just saw by Googling this place that it's a chain also in Texas. But the house roasted pork leg sandwich was excellent. Flavorful juicy pork with tomatoes, onions, mayo and avocado on a soft but crusty sub roll that would be perfect for a cheesesteak back home. I ditched the tomatoes and it should've been spread with either mayo OR avocado, but it was still great (not just for the airport but anywhere). Eat here before you go through security. You do not want to be standing in line at Dominos in the food court by your gate to put a cap on your culinary adventure in Mexico.
I stayed at the Fairmont Mayakoba. The Mexican food for casual lunches near the beach (La Tarraya) and on the beach (assuming from the same kitchen though the menu was different) was good. Dinner at Laguna was not - fishy "grouper" ceviche and barely edible mains. El Puerto, their more formal restaurant, featured top quality meats for mains - the local korobuta pork was perfectly cooked to medium with a nice ring of fat around it and so much flavor (one of the top pork chops I've ever had). The filet mignon was also very good though I can get that at home. Lobster empanadas were fishy and a very gourmet sounding scallops with a pureed cauliflower and white chocolate sauce and pistachio (if I remember correctly) foam was underwhelming. Seafood at this hotel generally needs improvement (mostly in freshness)
On my hit list for next time...
Playa Del Carmen: Luna Maya for a nice dinner if need be (the only food that impressed me came from ultra casual eateries), HC De Monterrey (grilled flank steak with grilled onions), La Bomba Jarocha (seafoods), La Floresta (tacos, esp. shrimp), Pastorcito or Carboncito (al pastor tacos)
Tulum: "Tulum chicken" (roast chicken with achiote spice) at El Pollo Bronco or El Pollo Regio, Hartwood, El Tabano.
More feedback... I remembered that El Puerto at the Fairmont Mayakoba will prepare a Mayan dinner with a day's notice. I am not sure what ingredients/preparations this includes. I would have reserved this but I didn't realize it was offered until just before my dinner reservation on my final night. Yaxche is the only other place I considered with traditional Mayan preps but it has seriously mixed reviews so I avoided it. Also, Laguna at the Fairmont features Mexican microbrews. The beer selections at all the restaurants I visited in Playa were your typical big Mexican brewery suds, and I don't have much appreciation for them (Corona, Dos Equis, Sol, Pacifico - no thanks).
IMO, the best macrobrew beer in Mexico is Bohemia. It is usually priced a couple pesos higher than the usual suspects, and is not available everywhere. I would call it the Heineken of Mexico.
The 2 giant Mexican beer conglomerates, Grupo Modelo and FEMSA, are very effective at persuading accounts not to carry other brands, including microbrews, and certainly no American brands.
Additional note regarding Como Como: We received an amuse bouche of Permit as either a ceviche or in olive oil with some veggies like celery. I don't recall exactly because I was shocked I was being offered permit, a fish I have always greatly admired as a fisherman and have been very curious to try ever since a few years ago when I heard, to my surprise, how excellent their meat is. And it truly was wonderful. Reconsidering, this plus a salad and the meat sauce with rigatoni would have made for quite a good meal at Como Como. I may return.
You can be sure the permit was caught that morning from one of the remaining panga fishing boats in Playa. I have yet to try Xulam near Playacar Phase I, but I will with hopes it's not tawdry and over the top like Yaxche. Glad you enjoyed Cueva del Pescador in Akumal.
Los Pelicanos in Puerto Morelos is special to me for one reason - they are open early for breakfast, and is the only place I know of anywhere in the Caribbean where one can enjoy conch and eggs for breakfast, as the sun rises over the sea.
I was invited to Mayakoba for the first 2 years of the golf tournament and they spoiled me rotten and I couldn't spend a peso except for tips. Great memory, tough golf course.
When you are next cruising 307, stop at Paamul for boquinette and ceviche. A nice quaint shallow bay surrounded by ex-pats living in RV's and campers. Fun place, lots of history. Lots.
Unfortunately, there are now too many hotel rooms and too few fishermen to provide fresh local catch along the Mexican Riviera. Much of the additional supply comes from Isla Holbox and other more distant areas. As to grouper (mero) in Playa, a lot of it being served is counterfeit and has been for years. Mojarra (tilapia) and even bull shark are the common switcheroos. Once a fish has been fileted, you are at the mercy of the restaurant. It is not impolite to ask to see the actual fish you will be dining on; they will proudly bring it to you to examine if they have the genuine article. The larger nassau grouper have been largely fished out and are practically tasteless. Boquinette (hogfish, my favorite eating reef fish) are more difficult to counterfeit because they are traditionally served whole and have a distinctive shape and upper teeth. They also are becoming more scarce on menus, as are huachinango (red or mangrove snapper). Larger redfish which we used to bake in banana leaves pibil style in the 80's-90's have all but disappeared.
Your safest bet for fresh authentic fish in Playa are the restaurants that are owned by the old fishing families: La Mission (from Cozumel), La Tarraya, La Pesca, Oceana, are a few; there are a few others. El Oasis has changed ownership and I don't know the present owners.
Nice report, 411. You got around quite a bit, which is a lot of work in the sultry summers. I especially like it that you seek out almost exclusively authentic mexican restaurants, owned mostly by locals. Good for you. You gave me some good tips and updates for when I return in September.
Thanks. It's been over 100 and humid in NJ all week so the weather in Mexico was surprisingly comfortable and almost a respite believe it or not.
I also wanted to visit the suckling pig operation at 30th and 30th that you recommended but the mornings just keep drifting away at Mayakoba with the golf cart rides required to get anywhere in the resort. The storms sure have done a number on the beaches in this area. In front of the Omni at Puerto Aventuras the waves are hitting the beach bar! Cafe Ole there was busy and an old favorite but I didn't stop this time. The same owner from 10 years ago still playing his guitar at dinner was a real flashback. Next time.
Aguachiles had a large menu but my basic spanish was being crushed by it. They did have an english version menu but it basically only listed the main seafood ingredient with little other information - I got more out of the spanish menu even though I understood about 1/8 of it.
To get the most out of El Fogon one should also be somewhat proficient in spanish or have decent knowledge of traditional Mexican dishes. Or you could just order the al pastor tacos and all its variations and be thrilled.