Saturday, January 13, 2018

Places to Eat in the Riviera Maya

Tulum Beach, Riviera Maya

I haven’t travelled as much I would have liked to recently because life happened. However, things are changing - and last year I did get to spend a week on holiday in the Riviera Maya, Mexico. The Riviera Maya is a long stretch of Caribbean coastline on the eastern side of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, known for its beaches, blue seas and archaeological sites. In short, I’ve always wanted to visit. To see Mayan ruins, yes, but also - and unsurprisingly for me - because of the food I would get to eat! However, while planning my trip I struggled to find (English language) blogs with recommendations for places to try. Hence now that I’m back, I’m putting together this post listing places to eat by area. 

I have no expertise whatsoever on Mexican food, so these are just my favourites from the establishments I managed to visit. One of my cooking teachers sent me a great cartoon infographic illustrating the different terms used to describe Mexican dishes. Do check it out as a starting point if you're not exactly sure what a fajita is (I wasn't before I went!!). Be aware that everything below is "post-Hispanic" cuisine, and I didn't make it to restaurants like Axiote which serve grasshoppers and ant eggs. Also don't worry if insects don't appeal to you, as there'll be plenty of meat, cheese and tortillas abound instead. The list is also by no means exhaustive, but hopefully I'll remedy that by traveling back over the years and adding more to it! On this trip I was mostly in Playa Del Carmen, with a couple of days in Cancun and a day in Tulum, and my picks are based on these areas.  

The parts of Mexico I managed to see, downtown Cancun in particular, really reminded me of Bangladesh. The local buses with their loosely defined stops, the rain-worn buildings that could use a lick of paint and the chillies in my food - all this felt a little like home. Of course, a lot of this in my imagination, and Mexico is far more economically developed. The local buses may look rickety, but many of the drivers speak English. Gleaming new buildings are the norm if you head to the hotel zone, and not everything is still under construction like it seems to be in Dhaka these days. For now, I live in hope that one day Dhaka will catch up! 

1. Playa del Carmen

El Fogon

Lots and lots of meat! 

I'll be honest and say I picked this place right off Lonely Plant. El Fogon became a favourite of ours while in town, because everything they served was reliably good. Expect a focus on meat, served various ways. It's also where I learned Mexicans also love tamarind water, and I ordered great big glass of it with my meal. Expect their versions to be sweet and sour, without the spices we'd normally use in Bangladesh. The first page of El Fogon's menu is dedicated to quesadillas, tortas, nachos etc, and these cost from 40 pesos to 100 pesos. The serving sizes vary, but I'd suggest ordering a couple per person. The next page is dedicated to fuller meals, costing from 120 pesos to over 200 pesos. These are the items I'd really recommend, and their beef steak fajita with all the trimmings (photo above) was one of my favourite meals of the trip. El Fogon is the only place on this list where you'll have to queue for your food, but as it's a very casual eatery expect the queue to move fast. There will be no real pattern to the queuing since it's so tourist driven - we've walked past here with no at 7pm some nights, whereas there will be huge queues on other nights at the same time. 

Los Aguachiles

Bright and beautiful platefuls of seafood

I found this small local chain via Instagram, where there's always a danger of being ensnared by style over substance. Thankfully Los Aguachiles does both in spades, with a focus on seafood. We had excellent fish and seafood tacos and tostadas here. The tacos, served on a soft shell, are priced around 30 pesos each and the tostadas, on a hard shell, are around 45 pesos each. Bigger servings of ceviche can be had for around 200 pesos, though we ordered multiples of the tacos and tostadas so that we could try a larger range of the menu. I would recommend 3 per person, or more if you're feeling hungry. My favourites were the smoked tuna and the shrimp ceviche. This is also where I had Mexican chilli oil and a coriander infused mayo. I'm definitely going to be on the hunt for the latter in the UK, or if can't find it I'll try and make my own!  

Ah Cacao

Coffee in the shade

A local chain serving hot and cold drinks, along with cakes and sandwiches. Unsurprisingly, they have a strong focus on chocolate but their coffee is pretty good too. Apart from ready-to-eat food, they also sell packaged chocolate and coffee products. A regular latte costs 38 pesos, so this place is a cheaper alternative to Starbucks. A smattering of indoor seating, extensive outdoor seating in the shade, with reliable WiFi and some charging points at most branches. This is where I sat and did a little bit of writing on my solo day, while my friend was off cavorting in underground rivers at Xcaret Eco Park. 

El Sazon de la Abuelita

Freshly squeezed lemon, lime and grapefruit

A cooking class rather than a restaurant for my last Playa del Carmen entry. El Sazon de la Abuelita is run by a pair of Mexican ladies out of a home kitchen. Each of their classes last about 3 to 4 hours, and take place is small groups of up to 4 people. They start with a stint of ingredient shopping at a local market, before heading home to do the cooking.  While I was there, I made guacamole, sopas, a couple of salsas, chicken fajitas and rice pudding. I'm now planning to give their cream cheese salsa verde a permanent place in my cooking repertoire. Menus can be personalised to dietary requirements and the teachers are happy to impart their knowledge of Mexican food history while you cook. Check out their website for the latest information.  

2. Tulum

La Palapa Maya

My first ever fish tacos :')

This is one of the smaller eateries located in the Archeological Zone near the Tulum Ruins. I can't seem to find it on Google Maps, but it's just past the tourist information point as you arrive. We went in here as it was quieter and felt less touristy (read: less rowdy and not full of people drinking). I had my first introduction to fish tacos and horchata - both together costing around 150 pesos. Horchata, by the way, is a milk based drink with ground rice and spices. Different restaurants do their own versions, with varying flavours and consistencies. I'd definitely recommend trying a few, especially if you're a fan of spiced lassis.   

3. Isla Mujeres

El Poc Chuc

Barest hint of heat in the fish

We almost didn't go to Isla Mujeres because we thought we wouldn't have the time. However, I'm glad we did because the food on the island was amazing, especially after our bad run in Cancun itself (notice I have no recommendations for the city itself). El Poc Chuc is a loncheria that does excellent food at great prices - think small plates for around 50 pesos and large plates for 100 pesos. My "Yucatan" style fish was really good, and I had my favourite guacamole of the trip here. 


This has forever changed how I'll approach spicy pineapple

Wrapping up with a something a little unusual - I would highly recommend trying the paletos from the little store and paleteria opposite Hotel Marcianito. A paleto is essentially an ice lolly, but served and eaten much more interestingly than we do in Bangladesh. The photo above is of a pineapple paleto topped with chilli salt. It was like having ice with jhal morich, and I'll definitely be trying this again at home! I was also offered a sugar syrup, though I skipped this. The lady who owned the place told me she makes them at home with fresh fruit pulp (believe her if you will), and charged 10 to 25 pesos for each. She had many other flavours in stock, including Milo! Of course, paleterias exist everywhere in Mexico, so you can try one even if you don't make it to Isla Mujeres.

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