After a week of bouncing around the Yucatecan countryside, I have come back with an increased respect for the Mexican eateries we have right here in the Twin Cities. We ate all over the place – from thatched beachfront seafood joints in a quiet fishing village and market stalls in a small colonial town to the kinds of upscale restaurants where white-jacketed waiters prepare guacamole at tableside.
At the upscale restaurants, service and presentation were certainly more refined than at, for example, Pancho Villa on Eat Street, or El Paraiso at 35th and Nicollet, or at the little food stalls inside the Mercado Central or the Midtown Global Market, but the preparations were often very similar. And the little panaderias (bakeries) we visited in the Yucatan offered a much smaller selection than you can find locally at Panaderia Marissa on Eat Street, or the other Mexican bakeries you can find around the Twin Cities.
(Our local Chinese restaurants wouldn’t stack up nearly as well in a similar comparison with typical Hong Kong eateries, and I know the local Thai eateries aren’t in the same league with what Bangkok’s dining scene has to offer.)
It isn’t quite a fair comparison, because the Yucatan has its own distinctive regional cuisine, while most of the Twin Cities’ Mexican restaurants, like our immigrant population, are rooted in areas closer to the US border.
We headed straight from the Cancun airport – where the dining options include Bubba Gump’s, Johnny Rockets, pizza and food-court Chinese – to the downtown Cancun bus station, and boarded a first-class ADO bus to Merida, the state capital. First class bus travel in Mexico means action movies on the tv monitors – we got to see Once Upon A Time in Mexico with Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek twice! – and air conditioning, both cranked all the way up. When the locals pay extra for a.c., they get their money’s worth – our driver kept the cabin temp right around 60 degrees for much of our trip.
Our first dinner in Mexico was at the Portico del Peregrino, in a stately old colonial building not far from Merida’s main square, where I sampled a couple of Yucatecan specialties – a lively sopa de lima (lime soup) of shredded chicken, chopped tomatoes and tortilla strips in a savory lime-flavored chicken stock; and pollo pibil, chicken marinated in sour orange juice and baked in banana leaves. Other highlights of our two days in Merida included a lunchtime visit to Los Almendros, which offers an extensive menu of Yucatecan specialties in elegant surroundings. I opted for a combination plate, which let me try four different local specialties – cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork, baked in a banana leaf), poc chuc (a grilled pork steak marinated in sour orange juice), turkey en escabeche, cooked in a sour and spicy sauce, and longaniza, a dark and spicy dry sausage. Unlike most Yucatecan restaurants we visited, Los Almendros offers no fish or seafood entrees, so Carol opted for the papadzul, corn tortillas stuffed and topped with hard-boiled eggs, and bathed in a savory pumpkin seed sauce.
Two more tips if you ever make it to Merida – a little hotel with courtyard and fountain called Luz en Yucatan, run by a very friendly Irish expat named Donard, and a breakfast café and bakery called Flor de Santiago, that looks like the Mexican version of a 40s-era diner, frozen in time.
The fishing village of Celestun is a couple of hours away from Merida on a second class bus – no loud movies, no air-conditioning, and lots of stops in Mayan towns and villages along the way. It’s a sleepy and charming little town that is just starting to welcome an influx of tourists who are looking for a sleepy little fishing village that doesn’t get a lot of tourists. (More are on the way: at the poolside bar at our hotel, a real estate investor from Merida handed me a Cuban Cohiba and boasted of his plans to buy up miles of unspoiled beachfront nearby, and carve it up into luxury properties.)
In the morning you can walk along the beach and watch the fishing boats come in with their catch, and then in the afternoon you can dine on fresh fish – or shrimp, blue crab or octopus –at any of half-a-dozen restaurants that line the shore. Our favorite was the Restaurante Chirivico, which offered all the usual fish and shrimp dishes, plus a lively seafood cocktail, a pounded steak of caracol (conch) prepared like a breaded pork tenderloin; and a tender and garlicky octopus al mojo de ajo.
On the way back, we stopped in the beautiful little town of Valladolid, built by the Spanish conquistadors where an older Mayan settlement once stood. The finest hotel and restaurant in town are at the Meson del Marques, right on the main square, with the usual Yucatecan repertoire of pollo pibil, cochinita, and pok chuk, plus steaks, pasta and seafood. For the more adventuresome, though, the Bazar Municipal next door is a covered marketplace with tables and chairs in the middle, and tiny stalls along the side, where vendors sell tacos, tortas, pozole soup, and the Yucatecan versions of the tostada – the panucho and the salbute, fried tortillas topped with shredded chicken and pickled onions.