Restaurants & Bars 4

Playa del Carmen report, from fancy to pork taco stands

Mike G | Apr 28, 200310:21 PM

There have been several good recent reports on this popular spot south of Cancun, which I took with me on my recent week there, so I thought I would add my two cents and also offer some orientation info which might help the person who hasn't been there before get a better sense for the layout of the town-- which would have helped me, I know, before I got there. (Those who know about all that can just jump down a graf.)

Playa del Carmen is a fast-growing but human-scaled and cosmopolitan town about 30 minutes south of Cancun. Resorts are popping up all over but it still has the feel of a two-story village and not a strip of monster hotels like Cancun (indeed, there must be height restrictions in effect); and while it's certainly got its share of bars, and of shopkeepers and package tour folks loudly hustling newcomers off the Cozumel ferry, it doesn't feel like it exists simply for partying (like Cancun) or shopping (like Cozumel).

Basically Playa proper has three sections (not counting the Playacar gated community south of the town), each of which ends very abruptly along the side streets between it and the next one. The strip along the beach is all about sitting on the beach under the palapas sunning in the day and drinking at night; nobody suggested there was a good meal to be had along it, and we never chanced the food, though obviously we spent most of our days there.

Just beyond that is Avenida 5, which is the main tourist area, stretching from the square around the Cozumel ferry (which is the most commercialized and least appealing part to my mind). The best comparison for this to me is something like Santa Monica, a strip where old hippie bars and restaurants co-exist with very chic bars (the Asian-minimalist Deseo hotel surely has appeared in interior decor magazines). If the soundtrack of the beach is Jimmy Buffett, on 5 it's increasingly electronica, particularly as you get further from the more obnoxiously commercial square at Juarez (which marks the south end) and toward the north end below Constitutiones, which is nicer and quieter and generally the part that is responsible for all the guidebooks saying Playa has a "European" feel.

Most of the restaurants you here about are on 5 or just off it on one of the side streets. My feeling after a week is, I don't know that I was particularly blown away by anything I had along there, but all the atmosphere is certainly along 5 and so you're going to end up there for dinner no matter what. Here are some individual reviews:

Don Emilione: fairly ordinary Mexican and not terribly special, this taught us to keep going north away from the square and not just settle for the first place you hit, even while hauling kids around (when the temptation is strong).

Karen's: picked up pizza one night here, it was okay, but we found better later. Ingredients weren't bad, but the supposed authentic wood-burning oven pizza had a crust consistency that strongly suggested it was authentic in the style of the village of Boboli.

Media Luna: actually ate here twice, even though we try not to do that when you're somewhere new with lots of choices, a brighly colored hippie-heading-upscale place with pretty good salads, pastas, breakfasts, and the like.

La Parilla: Another old school Mexican place, waiters in stereotypical costumes and all that, fairly satisfying in a slightly cheesy way (but the kids enjoyed the waiters' show when they delivered my flaming kebab).

Da Gabi: The Access guide actually gave this Italian place four stars, which is insane-- it's a very pleasant place on a side street with pretty good pastas and and wood-burning-oven pizza, but there's no way it compares to four star Italian in major cities like Spiaggia here in Chicago or Valentino in LA or whatever, it's not that ambitious or cooking at that high a level of creativity. It's a nice Italian place, quiet and intimate. (I also passed another one, Bruno's, just around the corner, which SMELLED really good.)

The third part of town-- which is most of the town, and yet probably the least visited part by tourists-- is everything west of about Avenida 10 (the next street west of 5). I only got to explore the southern end of this but if you're willing to wander and poke around ordering little bites of food here there and everywhere, exploring this "real Playa" is a lot of fun. I don't know that I had anything so fantastic that I had a Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless revelatory experience, but even when the ingredients were pretty basic a lot of times a freshly made salsa loaded with lime would lift it far above its humble bunch-of-meat-in-fried-dough nature. So while I hope you enjoy one of my places, that doesn't mean your random explorations might not turn up somewhere significantly better yet. Anyway, I don't remember the names (if they even had them) of all the places, but here's some guidance for your own exploring:

- I resisted the wagons parked right at Juarez and the square at first, just because everything in that area seemed commercialized, but when I finally tried them they offered really good pork tacos with a sprinkling of cabbage or something and pinkish onion that seemed more Guatemalan than Mexican to me. It's too bad that this prime spot seems to be entirely occupied by carts selling the exact same thing, no variety, however.

- Calle 2 just beyond 10 or 15 offers a lot of places; I walked around with a plate near there, just refilling it at different stops with different things. A taco al pastor at a big open air market kind of place was just okay (but again, salsa was much better than what it went on). I had better luck at a little storefront (probably on 15 near 2) advertising Panucho and Salbute (but out of panucho). I had a salbute and an empanada, and some green chile salsa which was so hot my lips swelled up. Down the street from there I saw a guy making coffins. Cool.

- I bought rotisserie chicken twice, once along Juarez which was just okay, another time along Calle 2 at a place called Pollo Rojo which was really, really good.

- A restaurant called Las Brisas (or Restaurante-Cocteleria Las Brisas or something like that) was pretty good for seafood tacos, although when I ordered my son a "sandwich con jamon y queso," expecting something vaguely Cuban or torta-like, I got what would have passed perfectly well for a club sandwich at the Days Inn in Cedar Rapids.

- I wasn't wild about anything besides the basic baguettes at the only baked goods shop I spotted, on Juarez near 5; there might be better, somewhere. (Actually even the big fancy Chedraui grocery store on the highway looked to have better stuff, but I'd already bought plenty.)

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