The Glorious Hacienda Days

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Two publications lay side by side on a battered wooden table among vintage postcards, old election campaign buttons and various odds and ends; all covered by a layer of dust that hadn’t stirred since 1967.

“The haciendas,” proclaimed the gaudy tourism brochure breathlessly “are a living example of our glorious past!”

The history book; serious, dark and its pages turned far too infrequently, looked over, skeptical.

“You’re kidding, right?” it asked.

“The pseudo-French classic and baroque architecture; the grand arches!!” insisted the brochure. “The elegant soirees that the distinguished Yucatecan landowners had in gardens perfumed by citric  limonaria shrubs and gingerbread allspice trees.”

“You’re delusional,” muttered the history book, returning it’s gaze tiredly to the spiderweb-infested ceiling of the tienda de antiguedades in Merida’s overcooked and overcrowded centro.

“Ever hear of ’12 Years a Slave’ – the movie?” The history book seriously doubted that the tourism brochure had done much of anything that wasn’t of a superficial nature.

“The furniture was brought from Europe and was the epitome of refined culture and taste!” replied the tourism brochure, giddy with excitement. “You too can experience this marvellous lifestyle in many newly restored former henequen haciendas that have been turned into five-star hotels!!”

The history book declined to comment further as it would have been a fruitless undertaking to try and convince the tourism brochure that it’s spiel was not only ridiculous but also myopic as it completely glossed over all the human misery that hacienda life entailed. But, it couldn’t resist one last remark. “Glorious, indeed,” the history book snorted derisively, “unless you were brown.”

“Oh shush,” the tourism brochure whispered, “why are you always so negative?”

“Not sure,” answered the history book, “perhaps I’ve got a lot on my mind.”

“The immaculately restored-to-its-former-magnificence machine room with its high ceilings is now a culinary destination worthy of Adriá!” the tourism brochure continued.

The history book sighed a tired sigh.

 

 

Chichen Itza Sound and Light Show for Extranjeros

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Yep, there’s a pyramid under that projection!

Perhaps you have been reading about Uxmal on this blog, where the sugar coating comes off and the tourism rhetoric is saved for another day.

Perhaps not. If not, then you need to get with the program.:

http://www.lawsonsyucatan.com/2014/04/01/uxmal-what-if/

http://www.lawsonsyucatan.com/2014/05/14/6-reasons-why-uxmal-is-better-than-chichen-itza/

Now it’s time for an update on the situation for foreigners trying to see the new ‘sound and light’ show at Chichen Itza. Why anyone would want to see the further Disney-fication of the Mayan culture let alone pay for the privilege is beyond me, but apparently there are some that do like to see colored lights on the altars and temples there, so here you go.

This article is for people (foreigners) who are coming to Chichen Itza on their own, not from a hotel or a travel agency. Those situations require their own dexterities which are not covered today.

The good news is that the entry to the ‘show’ is free, monetarily speaking. Not free of effort however. Here are the steps to follow, designed by someone in an air conditioned office, unfamiliar with the idea of tourism promotion and how to treat our visiting guests once they arrive:

1) You must visit the office of Cultur (the Yucatan state agency in charge of Mayan ruins and administrator of the enormous cash flow that these sites provide) in person where you will be handed a ticket that contains a folio number. A website address is also provided for the next step. Be sure to take along ID in case you don’t look foreign enough.

2) You must then take the folio number and enter it on a web page on the aforementioned website. A confirmation screen comes up and you must print this page. Hopefully the website will be up and hopefully you will have access to the internet AND A PRINTER.

3) You then take the printed page (save our forests!) to the ticket counter at Chichen Itza where it is checked against a list for that day, to see if you are on it. If you are, hooray, you get a ticket and can go to the lineup where the ticketholders are waiting to get in to see the show. If not, well, all that previous work was for nothing.

4) Enjoy your walk to the area where you will witness this technological wonder, where you will be amazed by lighting effects splashed on the buildings. The show itself will last a whopping 25 minutes.

5) Enjoy the walk out, and back to your car. And the drive back to wherever you came from.

I hope this post has been helpful to you, dear reader. Personally I could think of easier ways to grant access to a free show, most of which involve lining up and then letting people in, but I am hardly an expert in such matters.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Eureka!

Some finicky Lawson guests as well as many friends and acquaintances have all raved about Eureka and so, it is more than appropriate that the Critic take note and see what all the fuss is about.

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Once again accompanied by the ever-present and charming Better Half, the Critic visited on a Sunday and experienced this latest Italian entry into the Merida restaurant scene first-hand. And what a great experience it was!

The Critic and BH we welcomed at the door by smiling faces that seemed genuinely pleased to receive new lunch guests. This is remarkable when you consider how many times your welcome at a restaurant seems less than cordial, or perhaps at some of these places they already know it’s the cranky Critic and are preparing for the worst.

Chef Fabrizio stopped by the table and said hello and told the Critic a little about where he had worked before and so on. Friendly chit chat that just seemed natural.

The menu is interesting in that all of the appetizers aka aperitivi, all priced the same, making it easy both for customers and wait staff to figure out the bill. Salads and soups too.

But you readers want to know what the Critic thought of the food, right? Well let’s just say it was/is sublime. Absolutely lip-smacking, finger-licking and palate-pleasing-ly scrumptious.

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Mixed olive appetizer. And those garlic pieces.

To start, an appetizer of mixed olives with cured garlic (above) that sent Better Half to the moon and back, followed by an amazing mixed salad of the day and an asparagus/prosciutto/mozzarella appetizer that featured a fresh and creamy mozzarella cheese with a texture that straddled the line between fresh cream and soft cheese. You could have eaten it with a spoon and it was delicious!

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Mozzarella, Prosciutto e Asparagi

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Mesticanza del Giorno

Then, the main courses of salmon and pasta. The pasta is not the most photogenic of plates, but the Critic can assure you that this house specialty is an absolutely mouthwatering combination of flavors and textures. The pasta was a tiny bit inconsistent in texture, as in a few pieces a bit more al dente than others, but nothing to lose sleep over. The ragu sauce was so good!

The perfectly grilled salmon was dressed up with a fresh pea and leek puree sauce, and also outstanding. Even better, if that is possible, were the roasted potatoes served alongside the fish. These would be fantastic for breakfast with a little bacon a la German bratkartoffeln.

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Riccioli Eureka

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Salmone alla Flavia

And dessert? Well it had to be tried, although there was really no room whatsoever left at this point. The tiramisu is amazing.

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Eureka is on Facebook and their address is there, as well as on the sign in the photo below.

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If you are a fan of Oliva, Bella Roma or even Due Torri, you will definitely enjoy this new Italian restaurant that pushes the envelope yet again and raises the bar for anyone contemplating opening another Italian eatery in Merida. Grazie, Fabrizio e Vero!

 

The Story of Gonzalo Guerrero

For those of you who enjoy a good yarn, and think like me that there is much in the history of the Yucatan that deserves a Coppola or better yet, Christopher Nolan treatment on the big screen, I would like to suggest a look at Gonzalo Guerrero.

Here’s a guy who is all old-school Spanish in the 1500’s and comes over to the so-called new world and, on a boat trip along the coast in a big old sailing ship and boom – the boat hits a reef and capsizes – leaving Guerrero and about 12 or 13 of his pals in a life boat, or perhaps clinging to a piece of timber, on which they reach the shore. Maybe they land photogenically on a sandy beach, or perhaps have to claw their way through twisted, mosquito and croc infested mangroves to land. I’ll leave that scene up to Christopher. Perhaps Emmanuel Lubezki can make it appropriately stunning, as this is the lead-up to the first interaction between the Mayans and the Europeans.

The Mayans meet them and, having somewhat of an appetite, promptly eat most of the survivors, keeping two of them alive for later. Dessert, perhaps? In any case, imagine the culture shock of these catholic Spaniards, meeting brown skinned natives painted in fearsome colors and speaking what surely to them must have seemed utter gibberish. A ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ moment, to be sure.

To summarize the rest of the tale, Gonzalo Guerrero goes native, adopting local hair styles and perforations and leading his new friends in battle against his former countrymen when they inevitably return with more ships in their thirst for golden treasures. His pal Aguilar, who is famous only thanks to his being a counterpart to Guerrero and who kept his Catholic faith and beliefs throughout and runs back to the arms of the Spanish crown at the first opportunity, is soon forgotten by the scribes of history. Gonzalo Guerrero, on the other hand is immortalized forever and is dubbed the ‘padre del mestizaje‘ or the father of all modern Mexicans, who have the blood of native Mexicans and Europeans coursing through their cholesterol-addled veins.

Is this a great idea for a movie or WHAT? Enough with scouring the archives and garbage bins at Marvel Comics. THIS could be a real blockbuster, folks!

 

Casual Restaurant Critic at Los Frailes, Comida Yucateca en Conkal

Outside terrace

Many people have recommended the Critic visit Los Frailes, a pretty Yucatecan restaurant located in the village of Conkal, somewhat off the highway between Merida and Progreso.

With the always charming Better Half and on this occasion accompanied by members of the Vergara family (Sofia’s long lost Atlanta relatives) the Critic sampled the cuisine in the name of research and for the benefit of his 21 readers.

Upon arriving, an unsmiling, perhaps apprehensive, person of the male persuasion awaited to welcome the group with the question “Have you been here before?” said not as a welcoming comment but rather as a prelude to the next sentence which was “it’s that we don’t accept credit cards”.

OK, good to know and nice to see you as well.

The restaurant has an outdoor terrace and a small-ish interior which features air conditioned and enough hard surfaces to ensure a high level of noise which is always unpleasant and as the weather was conducive to outdoor dining, a table on the terrace was chosen.

Service was adequate and the ambiance pleasant. The food, which is traditional Yucatecan cuisine, is varied and offers all manner of classics as well as some the Critic hadn’t heard of before like the niños envueltos which are stuffed cabbage rolls that one can suppose look like children wrapped in green blankets, if those children were then covered with some sort of sauce.

The photos will show that each of the food items is very attractively and artfully presented but in the Critic’s never humble opinion the taste of these pretty morsels was somewhat lacking. Better-tasting Yucatecan food has been enjoyed at the Principe Tutul Xiu in Mani or Kinich in Izamal. Even the uneven Chaya Maya in downtown Merida has better-tasting food. Not to say it was awful – it wasn’t. It just wasn’t great.

Sikil Pak was a little on the sour side, and runnier than the Critic would like.

Sikil Pak was a little on the sour side, and runnier than the Critic would like.

Brazo de Reina, artfully presented.

Brazo de Reina, artfully presented.

Empanadas

Empanadas

Tortitas: fried corn masa and chaya bits

Tortitas: fried corn masa and chaya bits

Holoches. More fried masa covered in beans.

Holoches. More fried masa covered in beans.

Hmm.

Hmm.

Niños envueltos aka cabbage rolls.

Niños envueltos aka cabbage rolls.

Queso napolitano or flan for dessert.

Queso napolitano or flan for dessert.

 

Casual Restaurant Critic at Sushi Roll

What is it with the avalanche of sushi reviews! The Critic loves sushi, so no sushi place in Merida gets passed over without at least one visit form the cantankerous Critic and Sushi Roll, recommended to the Critic by the always delightful and insightful BeachWebGourmet power couple, is no exception.

Well the Critic and Better Half, accompanied on this occasion by MiniCritic and QuebecGuest, visited this new-ish sushi option located in the space formerly occupied by the defunct Sushi en Banda, which means sushi on little tracks that whizzed around the restaurant and not sushi in a gang in case you were wondering. In the Galeria aka Liverpool mall, directly above Chili’s and overlooking Merida’s only ice skating rink where you can watch the occasional hockey game or figure skaters practicing.

The welcome at Sushi Roll, a Mexican sushi restaurant chain, was cordial, and our hostess who turned out to also be our waitress, was the most pleasant person and extremely attentive to the point of almost overdoing it. At one point she took the time to stand behind each diner and fold the paper envelope the chopsticks came in into little chopstick stands.

What about the sushi you ask?

Well the Critic was less then impressed with the quality of the sushi. The rolls were colorful and nicely presented. The salmon skin roll was not salmon skin enough, with just a bit tucked into the rice which made each piece look like it had been smushed on top of a mosquito. Unagi (eel) was not warm, which is always a nice detail and was something that stood out at Hamachi and Miyabi. The nigiris were fine, but the Hamachi restaurant offered slightly larger fish portions and it was colder, which when dealing with fresh fish is a big plus, in the Critic’s never humble opinion. The specialty rolls all included the usual cream cheese which was omitted as per the tables request, but in general all were too sweet and tasted too much alike.

Overall, the service was superior to Miyabi (not a stretch) but about the same in terms of attentiveness to the needs of the table as Hamachi. The fish just tasted better, was colder (and warmer in the case of the eel) and portions were slightly more generous at Hamachi.

Prices were high, and it is probably going to be a while before the Critic goes back, unfortunately.

Enjoy the photos!

Calamari, tempura style, were fine.

Calamari, tempura style, were fine.

Lots of fruit on this one.

Lots of fruit on this one.

A little light on the eel.

A little light on the eel.

Sunset or sunrise roll

Sunset or sunrise roll

Eel and toasted almonds was less excellent than expected from the description

Eel and toasted almonds was less excellent than expected from the description

Biggest disappointment of the evening was the duck roll. Chewy, not crispy and kind of off-putting.

Biggest disappointment of the evening was the duck roll. Chewy, not crispy and kind of off-putting.

Hamachi Sushi. Yes, more Sushi.

The Critic is aware that for many people the thought of sushi in Merida is somewhat disconcerting. A lot of these people also think that Starbucks ruined the local coffee culture to which the Critic can only snort in derision at the mere idea of a coffee culture in Merida back in the days of melamine plastic cups served with hot water and a spoon alongside a jar of instant. Nescafé if you were lucky.

But the Critic digresses.

The newish sushi place Hamachi is Japanese owned and features a chef imported all the way from exotic Cancun for the express purpose of putting Miyabi on alert as they may soon be ousted from their premium spot on the list unless the latter becomes a little less complacent and makes an effort to be more professional when it comes to service.

The nigiri or sushi by the piece is scrumptious, with generous portions of fresh and cold fish on perfectly cooked rice. Cream cheese is notably less in your face in comparison with other Merida sushi restaurants and that is a relief. What little there is on the menu can be left out, at diners requests. The unagi is delectable, warmed and again, generous in portion size when ordered as a piece of sushi or as part of a sashimi platter.

The scallops (cooked) on the appetizer menu sound great but while the texture is fabulous, the flavor is to subtle and after a few pieces, it loses its appeal. Dip it in soya sauce for a little extra salt. An appetizer that consists of the cheeks of the robalo fish (fried, you basically get the head to pick at) was better than expected.

Service is superior to Miyabi (not hard to accomplish) and friendly. Prices are up there, but the quality of the fish and an interesting menu make Hamachi worth it.

Fish cheeks

Fish cheeks

Rolls

Rolls

Salmon, tuna and hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi

Salmon, tuna and hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi

Unagi

Unagi

What’s up, Apoala?

Better Half and the cantankerous Critic enjoyed their previous meal at the Oaxacan restaurant that everyone is raving about and that enjoys record crowds in its Santa Lucia location. In fact, reading a previous review, it’s almost embarrassing in its gushiness.

On this latest occasion, BH and the Critic had a table inside, as the appeal of the occasionally talented musicians, dancers and whatever else is going on in the plaza outside is somewhat limited and a good meal was the goal for the evening.

Unfortunately, everyone else did not seem to share this affinity for the inside tables and, while the Critic and Better Half were having their dinner, all the tables inside were moved one by one to the outside patio, leaving the Critics table alone in a large room, with no tables and no chairs. It gave off a distinct “hurry up and get the hell out as we need your table” feel to the evening and the Critic and BH obliged by leaving soon after.

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Take out all the tables but one and you get the idea.

While the food is still excellent and the Critic won’t hesitate to recommend the restaurant as a good option for downtown diners, this whole table thing was somewhat disconcerting if not downright rude in the Critics humble opinion.

Is there a protocol for restaurants in these situations?

The Casual Restaurant Critic revisits SOMA, now in Merida. Multiple mouthgasms result.

If you didn’t read the previous great reviews on SOMA you can have a look at them here and here.

SOMA, run by the talented Alberto and dulce Linde, is a restaurant that really stands out from Merida’s other restaurant offerings not just because of the food, which is truly extraordinary, but also the warm and fuzzy (and authentic) attention you get from the owners and staff alike.

The Critic won’t get into an entire review again, because it is just as good as ever and the new Merida location is a blessing to those who live in the formerly white city and are too lazy to trek out to Chelem (that location is closed by the way – sorry beach people).

On this occasion, Better Half and the Critic made it simple. Looking at the appetizers, it was decided to just order one of each. Six in total and each one better than the last. The grits with Spanish chorizo and sauteed shrimp were outstanding and Better Half raved about the calabaza soup, a creamy concoction bursting with squash flavor. The salad with real oysters and Spanish chorizo, the warm bread and butter, the ginger peach tea – everything was absolutely scrumptious.

This restaurant is heads and shoulders above what some of the more ‘famous’ restaurants in Merida are offering, no offense.

Directions to this restaurant (in a car) are below the photos. Note that there will be a Christmas Eve day serving as well as New Years Day brunch. What a perfect way to start 2015, ¿no creen?

Hush puppies!

Hush puppies!

Mac and cheese (and bacon, yum)

Mac and cheese (and bacon, yum)

Crispy oysters on a salad

Crispy oysters on a salad

Squash soup!

Squash soup!

Close-up of the salad

Close-up of the salad

Grits, SOMA style

Grits, SOMA style

The famous cookie w ice cream dessert

The famous cookie w ice cream dessert

Coming north from el centro along Montejo, turn left at the Burger King fountain and the silly underpass. Note: you need to get in your right lane to do the roundabout and make that left. Proceed to Calle 60, where you will turn right. At the calle 21 lights (car wash on your right), make a left, cross the train tracks and calle 60 and straight ahead on calle 21 for a block to where the trees are. SOMA is on your right.

Coming south on Montejo from the beaches, turn right on calle 21 (burnt out Parisina textile store and Waldo’s on your right) and proceed to the lights at calle 60. Go straight over the train tracks and 60 and then about a block down, where the trees are, is where SOMA is, on your right.

 

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Yerbabuena, del Sisal in Valladolid

On a very recent visit to the Valladolid area, the Casual Restaurant Critic and the three ladies known as the Belle Groupe (it’s a southern thang) followed up on Casa de los Venados owner John Venator’s recommendation to try a restaurant he likes, called Yerba Buena.

A colorful facade

A colorful facade

Located across from the convent, this restaurant was previously unknown to the Critic and so, in the spirit of research and with the hungry Belle Groupe de acuerdo, this is where lunch was had.

Among all the pretty painted colonial facades across from the convent and right next to a video rental place (do video rentals still constitute a viable business option one wonders) was Yerba Buena. It’s even more colorful facade and interior, compared to the rest of the houses nearby, was a delight to behold.

The colorful entryway and restaurant

The colorful entryway and restaurant

A most accommodating young man, friendly as one can be, asked if the group would enjoy a table in the garden and there, several tables of Europeans were enjoying the sunny, cool day and zen-like atmosphere, surrounded by eclectic decorative items and a ton of jungly greenery.

It only got better.

The Critic was amazed at the level of kind, friendly attention and service and the freshness of the food. When asked about a menu item involving corn masa and maculan or hoja santa, the waiter promptly disappeared into the foliage and came back with a leaf of this plant on a plate, for the group to examine and sample.

Maculan, or hoja santa

Maculan, or hoja santa

The items had for lunch included smoked meat tacos (a standard for this area, where longaniza and smoked meat are a specialty), smoked meat in a Oaxacan mole sauce, a poblano chile stuffed with cheese and quesadillas. All were beautifully presented and very sabrosos. There are four salsas that are brought to the table: roasted tomato, xcatic and habanero. But it is the green tomatillo salsa that will blow the taste buds off your tongue. The Critic has never tasted a fresher salsa verde. Anywhere.

Prices were beyond reasonable and the entire staff was welcoming and friendly. Try their ginger honey drink!

Definitely a highlight of the trip to Valladolid and, along with the Taberna de los Frailes, one of the best restaurants sampled to date in this ever-more cosmopolitan city. highly recommended.The Belle Groupe and the Critic were all most impressed at this find!

More info on their Facebook page here.

Enjoy the photos!

Menu at the door

Menu at the door

Color everywhere

Color everywhere

Chips and salsas

Chips and salsas

Smoked pork tacos and fresh avocado

Smoked pork tacos and fresh avocado

There's smoked pork under that rich Oaxaca mole sauce

There’s smoked pork under that rich Oaxaca mole sauce

Chile poblano

Chile poblano

Quesadillas

Quesadillas

The fresh corn tortillas with maculan or hoja santa attached

The fresh corn tortillas with maculan or hoja santa attached

The maculan plants are the ones with the big leaves

The maculan plants are the ones with the big leaves

Eclectic ornaments in the garden

Eclectic ornaments in the garden

One happy chef, preparing a giant vegetarian burger

One happy chef, preparing a giant vegetarian burger

Hard at work

Hard at work

Chef number two

Chef number two

How often do you find a happy dishwasher and cooks assistant?

How often do you find a happy dishwasher and cooks assistant?

The view from the front door.

The view from the front door.