Just back from a fantastic vacation at Playa del Carmen, dreading the icy sidewalks of Montreal and hating the necessity to wrap ourselves like some fat tamale. I'd like to share some of the experiences with my fellow chows, hoping that it will also help future travelers. I also included the prices of those places that I can recall.
La Cueva del Chango:
We had three breakfasts here (including our farewell meal) as well as one dinner. Ok, I admit one reason for this was that the place was just around the corner of our hotel, and on our way to the beach, but this wasn't all. Cueva's might not be "the best" breakfast I've had in my life if you just think food, but the totality of the experience puts it into the top list. The setting is some sort of calculated wilderness accessorized with fantastic art, light, water and air. Service is friendly, and efficient. Tortillas are freshly made, with an intoxicating waft of corn and griddle smoke. The dishes have a hippie-fusion thing going on, but seems true to their geography (at least fooling this gringo). One morning we enjoyed our fresh squeezed juices with scrambled eggs (nopales for me and Oaxacan cheese for the partner) and drank coffee that is surprisingly good for a place that is not specializing in coffee. Another morning we tried their ridiculously rich chilaquiles (topped with two fried eggs), and wished we had a hangover to cure with this dish. Great salsas accompany dishes, one of them very very hot. These breakfasts were the perfect way to start a day, except for that morning that we forgot to put on some bug spray. The day monsters bit us bad (actually just me, it looks like I am the sweet one), but it was kind of worth it. But you readers beware, put on some citronella.
Our dinner was decent too. A coconut soup with shrimp was unanimously promoted to the top soups list of our mental notebook. The nopales salad was decent, but got a little boring after a while. And even though I found their mole a little too abrasive, their fish that it coated was cooked textbook perfect (I don't need to mention that it is also perfectly fresh).
Bilingual staff is charming and friendly. Prices are reasonable for what you get. Breakfast for two was around 170 pesos before tip. Not dirt cheap; but you don't feel like you are cheated. Arrive early for breakfast, or expect to wait. I think they take reservations.
Another three in a row place, we couldn't get enough of it. The minute you arrive, a nopales dish (grilled perhaps, with onions) and a cucumber/radish/lime plate comes in. Then you order. We loved the tacos al pastor (7 pesos for two tortillas) and chorizo (14 pesos for three tortillas). The meat is always dotted with that perfect char, but is never burnt excessively. The juices are good. The arrachera that my partner ordered was so soft and flavorful, I wanted to steal it from him.
Dinner for two would cost you a little bit more than 100 pesos, depending on how greedy you get. Some staff speaks English well, some don't; but all try to help. I feel sad just thinking about how I won't be able to eat there for a while, perhaps forever.
Eating at this establishment made us feel like we were in a California institution rather than Mexico. It is hard to tell why, but it just felt like it. The prices are slightly higher than the other taco places around, but the tacos are bigger. My octopus was so tender, I almost cried. Get your seafood grilled, the batter fried ones are an overkill and IMHO is an insult to the freshness of the fish. Very very good salsas.
This small (almost) restaurant is right next door to Dr Taco. They sell nasty here, real nasty, and worse, in lots of fat. I tried the tongue, which was good; but the real hit was the buche. When I asked the lady what it is, she pointed to her lower abdomen, so I assumed this was intestines. There might be some stomach in it too, but anyhoo, whatever it is it was yummy, albeit a little bit fat-drippy. They didn't have cabezas when I wanted to order it, and this was a real d'oh! Cheap, friendly and bilingual.
This was a hit and miss. The much raved about empanadas left us cold (skimpy on the shrimp and somewhat un-inspired liquidy centers), but the fish items were very good. The menu described the el diablo sauce as very hot, and we smiled when it hit our mouth. Perhaps this was a warning for the average gringo, but the sauce was nothing like the devil (despite being pretty good). It was almost timid, well balanced and not terribly hot. The fish was fantastic; fresh and perfectly cooked. My biggest beef was that the dishes came with a mix of steamed cauliflower, broccoli and some other vegetable that I cannot even remember. Even though these vegetables were perfectly tender and buttery, they didn't cut it. I felt like I was eating at some sort of suburban American interpretation of a once really good fish restaurant. I felt that this was a little too un-thoughtful and perhaps un-respectful to the terroir. Prices are slightly higher, and portions are smaller compared to other ave 30 seafood places. The restaurant is slightly upscale looking despite the fact that the food is rather simple (not in a bad way, but hey it is not the most innovative, or genuinely authentic place to eat). Main dishes were 100 pesos and up.
La Bamba Jarocha:
This was our first dinner in town. We were still trying to figure things out, so we over-ordered. A medium ceviche "mixto" perhaps weighted 2 pounds. All seafood was fresh and flavorful. The octopus was tender, fish silky, and the shrimp was cooked to that perfect point of plump juiciness. Fish tacos were generous and well made. The biggest hit (at least for me, the partner is not the most seafood loving person) was the seafood soup. We first started smelling it during the cooking process: onions were being cooked in the open kitchen, peppers started aromatizing the air. After a while there came a giant cauldron of bubbling soup. It was scalding hot, and mysteriously dark. We had to wait to dive in; it took forever to cool on a hot evening, but it was worth it. Inside was a small crab cut in half, big and small shrimps, fish, calamari, other sea creatures, peppers, all swimming in a dark broth with a hint of some cumin in it. It was too big for two of us to finish it, especially after we had wiped down the other dishes. I tried so hard to eat it up, but the bottom of the giant vessel wouldn't show itself. I finally had to give up, and now I still regret leaving that portion behind (or not ordering this again on a different visit). Cheap for what you get (what we ordered could definitely feed 4-5 people and we paid about 280 pesos). Somewhat grumpy service with limited English.
Dona Mary Loncheria:
We arrived a tad late, so they were out of a lot of the dishes. I tried a tamal, satisfying but nothing close to a revelation. My partner's tostadas were unfortunately boring. Judging on the crowds and rave reviews, I can guess that you can do much much better here, provided that you arrive early. For example, the soups at the next table looked fantastic. Almost purely Spanish service, almost no gringos in sight, but also patient with non-Spanish speakers. Cheap.
I know, pizza in Mexico? But hey, there is a large Italian population at Playa, and sometimes a slice is the best option when you want a quick lunch before returning to your beach palapa. Besides, we live in this pizza deprived town that is called Montreal (unless you count one high end place) and after trying a few slices here, we were hooked. Quick and cheap. The crust is very flavorful, thin and yielding, the toppings are generous and of decent quality. The whole thing is dripping with grease, but well that is the charm. Slice prices are between 20 and 28 pesos and taste great compared to the bloated Montreal style pizzas.
We also tried a couple of slices of pizza from their takeout joint. A restaurant that specializes in both pizza and Champagne sounded a little too "resorty", but the slices from their "express" place looked decent. The toppings of my mushroom pizza was fantastic, but the crust tasted and felt exactly like my homemade pizza made in my crappy oven. You know, it wasn't bad, but very cardboardy. 25 pesos for a slice. I might eat there again, but then again why (?) if there are a million other places to try.
We were surprised by the number of gelato places in town, and decided to try some one night. This place advertised itself as artisanal, so we took the chance. I tried the Pignoli cream version, which was a little too sweet. The sugar somewhat killed the delicate flavor of the pine nut and custard, and I wish there were more nuts in it. Still, it was a rewarding experience, since it was my first time with a pine nut dessert. Now I am in the lookout for the perfect version of this gelato. My partner's hazelnut gelato was great, and this was proven by "someone" stealing half of it.
We tried the Mayan hot chocolate, a brownie and a little bar of dark chocolate. The Mayan hot chocolate was very good, and brownie was decent (but wouldn't call the best brownie in the world, despite what they say in the menu). The chocolate itself was a little odd. The 72 percent chocolate has an amazing flavor (deep, complex and lingering), but the texture of the chocolate was somewhat odd. Perhaps I am more used to the European tempering techniques, but I found its texture too crumbly, almost airy. For comparison, I looked for other artisanal local chocolate around town, but all I came across was Hersheys and Milka. Oy!
Food carts on Juarez:
For less than fifty pesos, you can feed yourself like royalty here. We ate a lot of fresh fruit from the vendors. Following a local ordering her coconut slices with lime and chili, I jumped in, and experienced this hallucinogenic combination. There were tacos and tortas everywhere, and it was really hard to choose one, especially since all had some sort of lineup. In the end, our favorite was the morning cart located at the very Southeast end of the street, tended by an older man and another younger apprentice. They have a red Coca Cola umbrella, if that is at all an identifier. They only have two dishes, cochinita pibil and relleno negro, and both are equally excellent. We even did a side by side comparison with another pibil vendor, this one beat its derriere off. Pair a torta with some fresh squeezed orange or jamaica (hibiscus methinks?) juice from the vendor three carts up, and you have a fine breakfast.
We weren't the type of tourists with umbrella drinks in hand and acting ridiculous just because we are on vacation (frankly we were really annoyed by the way some of the American "dudes" were acting around town, thinking that they can be jackasses, just because they won't be seen by their regular social circle), but we decided to drink a little. This was a nice, not so packed spot that served 20 different mezcals. We tried a couple: a deep, almost caramely anejo and a smoky briny one from Del Maguey. I wish I had more capacity to try them all, but had previously decided not to drink too much. The tiny bar looked quiet and pleasant each time we passed by.
This was another bar we picked just because it looked so quiet and beautiful on an early evening. It is an upscale bar, and prices are slightly higher than some other establishments, but they do mix well and the peeps are friendly. Technically, this could be a great bar if you go in the earlier times when the music is interesting and the volume is low enough for good conversation. However, after dinner time, your peace might be destroyed by loud and obnoxious yuppies-in-training, cigars in mouth, swagging like they are the next Donald Trump. The music gets louder as the night progresses, and it becomes too harsh for decent conversation. People get louder too. But the cocktails were rock solid, and we also heard that the restaurant upstairs is not bad either.
We stopped by coffee one morning. Kind of generic coffee, and has an expat haven vibe. Could be great if you stay there long and long for some American culture, English conversation and expat gossip (customers seemed to know each other), but for us it wasn't an interesting experience.