I spent the past 10 days happily eating my way around the Yucatan peninsula. The food was generally exceptional; better even than on past trips to Mexico, when I have not suffered. Prices were on the high side because of the crowd I was traveling with and the holidays in resort towns, although predictably some of the best meals were snacks in the street or at cafes next to bus stations.
Highlights: habenero salsa and being back in México. Plus all those weird flavors of Doritos and potato chips.
Café La Habana, good chilequiles at 2 a.m. but not the chile verde with pollo ones I crave from the place in Mexico City in the northwest corner of the Alameda Central. Open 24 hours, which is a boon. Juicy tacos al pastor for 7 or 8 pesos from a place with a spit on the corner of the zocalo in the plaza mayor (has an upstairs with balconies and an internet cafe that's never open). Enjoyed a mariquesita for 10 pesos--waffle cone with freshly grated edam cheese, both sweet and salty--and freshly fried plantains. The elote was too chewy and made me yearn for a tenderer earn in the Fruitvale district of Oakland.
Late afternoon drinks and snacks at Portico del Peregrino. I had an excellent ceviche de pescado. My friends shared a cochinita pollo, which was juicy and delicious. The patio is a great place for cocktails.
Loved La Trova (now on calle 60 and around the corner from its original location on the Santa Lucia plaza) and was surprised the food was delicious and cheap while the drinks were generally not great. 90 peso minimum per person, which is a bargain for the quality of the singing. We were the only tourists. Romantic and cozy. Excellent panuchos and salbutes; I didn't like the huaraches much. The piña colada made up for the other mediocre drinks.
We had drinks and a great fried mango dessert (butter and sugar and oj and liquor) at a place on the second floor above the internet cafe on the zocalo. Also got tasty shish kabob and labna from the Lebanese place near calle 58 and assembled them in the bus station.
We got a delicious and too spicy meal in the food court above the mercado del artisanias; the highlight was when my companion asked our waitress about something she was eating and she offered him a bite of hers and then gave me the rest to finish. (It was a brown cone-shaped marzipan-like treat--zapote?). Honey-sweet murcott tangerines and jicama sliced with limes and chile made us happy (and thirsty) on the bus.
Valladolid & Tizimin:
Ate an exceptional dinner at the Hosteria del Marques in the courtyard at the Meson del Marques. I got the menu of the day, which included pavo en relleno negro, the best I've had by far. The sauce was thick and complex; I devoured every spoonful. Guacamole was incredible, and tomatoes were noticeably flavorful after a season of tasteless tomatoes at home. My dessert was dulce de calabaza, with a gelatinous texture and wondrous flavor imparted by the squash/pumpkin and caramelized sugar. Papaya aqua fresca. Service is leisurely, to say the least. Hard to dine in less than two hours. We had a bottle of wine, but they wanted an outrageous price for corkage so we drank it in the room. Stick to beer. Drinks, even non-alcoholic ones, often cost as much as our meals.
Hired a taxi and went up to see the incredible jaguar ruins of Ek Balam and then onto the Tres Reyes fair in Tizimin, which had carnival rides, a lot of t-shirts and religious trinkeet for sale, and some really delicious barbecue. We shared two plates of exceptional barbacoa (borrego, grilled with onions, just fatty enough, marinated), fresh tortillas, half a chicken, and a plateful of unimpressive carne asada tacos.
Unexciting breakfast across the way at Maria de la Luz, although their French toast is decent. On our way out of town, we had a sensational torta (I only had a bite--I think it was a Cubana) at Squirmoz next to the ADO station. Too bad I wasn't hungrier. They have a patio in the back that's surprisingly quiet.
Playa del Carmen:
Yaxche on calle 8: upscale Mayan cuisine. We were there to celebrate a birthday, and sat outside in the garden with the fake ruins and the waterfall. I was prepared to hate it, but I loved most of the food especially the shrimp fajitas and my soup, a roasted chile with cream and potatoes that the waiter recommended. The fish fillet with chaya and cream sauce rolled around julienned carrots was incredible. Prices aren't cheap, but we were pleasantly surprised when the bill for 5 came to 1000 pesos (about US$90) including warm and attentive service. They comped us a couple of glasses of wine. I had a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc that went well with my creamy soup.
3 Carboncitos on calle 4: the tacos al pastor was a bargain and juicy but not crispy or flavorful enough for my taste. However everything you order comes with six salsas (a chowhound's dream), and the pumpkin seed and chile verde is a winner, as is the black Oaxacan salsa. Really they were all very good--one is roasted, another is a salsa fresca. Excellent horchata, and the American owner (who also owns the hotel upstairs, the Santa Barbara, where we stayed) couldn't be nicer. He's planning on opening a rooftop bar eventually, but then he'll have to stop sleeping up there on warm nights. We arrived in Playa on Jan 6, and I was offered a hefty slice of rosca del reyes and a glass of chocolate milk to celebrate the epiphanies of the new year.
Librelula cafe, on calle 6, near Mambocafe. Three tiny tables, run by a woman with a baby. Not much business except from the nearby Buenos Aires restaurant (they make cafe for them). Lovely tortilla Española with spinach and a little salad for 35 pesos. Delicious liquado. I didn't get to try the coffee.
Hot on calle 10?: wonderful eggs and pan integrale. Such a relief to find a little whole wheat in our travels. A very warm peach muffin was enjoyed by all.
100% natural on avenida 5: excellent whole wheat bread. My Italiano (grilled vegetables sandwich) was disappointing, but what lovely surroundings, in a jungle with waterfalls. Fine prices on fresh squeezed juices. My favorite thing was the spicy pickled peppers and onions served with the bread.
Cafe Canela on calle 2: great hip spot for breakfast, with zebra patterned chairs. My Americano was about 32 pesos. Pathetic attempt at a baguette, fine scrambled eggs and bacon with a freshly made (warm) green salsa picante, fresh oj. But a woman at the next table ordered the hot cakes with fresh fruit, and I immediately lusted after them. Next time.
Xel Ha: as expected, this was like being on a cruise, with all the mediocre food and drinks you can eat. I tried two of the restaurants and two separate bars plus the neveria and left most of my food over.
Lots more I can't remember, including a few spots where we sat on the beach lulled by the crashing waves. Had planned on trying one of the complete dinners at the Alhambra hotel on the sand, but they were closed Sunday. Picked up a bunch of rarer tequilas and enjoyed tasting Xtabentum, the honey and anise-flavored liquor poured for us while shopping in the market places.
The food options in terminal A are vastly improved from the last time I flew through. Got a disappointing gyro from Pegasus in the main food court, but wished I had waited for the Tuscan place. Their rice pudding was comforting, after too many hours of travel.
A more travel-oriented report with notes on where we stayed and shopping is on the Lonely Planet Thorntree, linked below.