The End of the ‘Temporada’ in Yucatan

If you have lived in the Yucatan for any length of time, you know that every good Yucatecan looks forward to the summer vacations at the beach, known simply as “la temporada”. While the term “temporada” literally means ‘season’ a word that is of special significance to hunters when combined with the word rabbit, duck, deer or moose; or that special time of the year when those of us past a certain age used to play marbles. In the Yucatan, the word has a special meaning and that is: summer vacations. Plans for what one is going to do during the upcoming ‘temporada’ can be started as early as January, when looking at the upcoming year on the calendar; it is a big deal here.

And, at the end of August, when Sams Club and Costco in Merida have already set up displays with plastic made-in-China Santa Clauses and inflatable snowmen, the temporada comes to an end and the locals pack everything up and head back to the city.

No more afternoon sunset-watching, cool drink in hand, while the kids walk the beach for kilometers on end. No more afternoons of entertaining visitors from Merida or beyond with fresh fried fish from the local fishermen and junk food galore to snack on. No more morning jogs on the beach, lazy afternoons with the kids on a boat or pre-dawn wake up calls to go fishing. The beginning of another school year means that Moms – and the occasional enlightened Dad – will be lining up at Merida papelerias like Burrel to buy their school supplies and books if they haven’t already done so for their children and you can’t do those things if you are still at the beach.

For the well-off, who have vacationed in Chicxulub, Uaymitun, Telchac and points further out, jet-skis and motorized beach vehicles are hosed off (by the help of course) and stowed on trailers, to be towed back to Merida behind luxury pickup trucks and minivans where they will be stored in the garage until the next beach break, usually Easter in April the following year. Boats of all sizes are taken to marinas to be taken care of by someone else. Leftover food, alcohol, hammocks and clothing will be loaded into the aforementioned minivans by sullen muchachas to be unloaded by same once they arrive back in the city.

Here’s a socio-cultural aside: most muchachas hate the temporada as it means much more work than usual what with all the sand being tracked in on an hourly basis and the constant arrival and departure of relatives and friends. Plus they can’t get back to their pueblos as easily from the beach on their (few) days off and don’t enjoy any of the beach activities as these are completely foreign to them, never having learned to swim or to appreciate a good ceviche or pescado frito.

For the less economically blessed, plastic chairs, remaining food items and TV’s will be crammed into and onto smaller, less-luxurious vehicles and will, with their owners holding onto rooftop items with their fingertips, also be transported back to Merida.

Both socio-economic groups use the same garbage disposal system, which involves throwing supermarket bags of accumulated trash on to roadside temporary “dumps” which make for a delightful visual treat for many weeks to come.

At the beach, restaurants and businesses that had moved their operations to the coast for the duration will shutter doors, unplug refrigerators and return everything movable back to Merida. The futbolitos, those popular tables with little plastic soccer players that every Yucatecan teen and pre-teen spends an inordinate amount of time at during the evenings to flirt with the opposite sex will be packed up and moved to an upcoming fair or put in storage. Local businesses, the ones that are on the beach year-round, will reduce their staff and count the pesos they made during the temporada, which will probably be just enough (but not quite, they will assure you) to tide them over until the next group of vacationers – the notoriously frugal snowbirds from Canada and the northeastern states – arrive in the fall to spend their winters in warmer climes and spread around what little money they bring with them. Beach houses themselves are closed up in preparation for long term emptiness, unless they are on the rental market for the afore-mentioned snowbirds, in which case they are only partially stripped as a caretaker will probably remain on site to keep things up and running.

All that packing, storing, towing and hauling activity comes democratically together in a sea of vehicles on the Progreso-Merida highway, thankfully now 4 lanes wide most of the way.  Traffic to Merida, in the last daylight hours of the last Sunday of the last weekend of the temporada, is usually a nightmare, especially on the stretches from Uaymitun to Progreso and Chelem to the Progreso-Merida highway as there are only two lanes and one lane, respectively, as the upper class and the middle and lower classes converge. 23 years ago, when there was one lane out to Progreso and one lane back to Merida, this last day’s traffic was literally bumper to bumper for the entire 20 kilometer drive with exasperated drivers looking for free asphalt on shoulders and passing dangerously at every opportunity.

Upon arriving in Merida, temporadistas are welcomed by the flashing blue and red lights of many police patrol vehicles and face the final hurdle of getting into the city and home, where washing machines and empty refrigerators stand ready to process sand-encrusted towels and receive plastic containers of leftovers.

A sense of relief mixed with nostalgia washes over many. But, the temporada has officially ended and it’s time to get back to the regular routine of life in Merida.

Casual Restaurant Critic – Houston, Texas

Once again, it’s time for a visit to Houston which is becoming quite the culinary destination and the Critic has had the opportunity to visit and revisit some great restaurants. Here’s the latest:

Tiger Den
The Casual Restaurant Critic didn’t even know that such a sprawling “Chinatown” existed in Houston, or that is was stuffed with small and large eateries of all Asian types, from Korean BBQ to Hunan Chinese with Thai and of course Japanese thrown in the mix as well. It’s not really a “ChinaTown” but more like a large commercial area with several shopping centers, all Asian themed and with more foot massage places than you shake a set of toes at.

The destination was Tiger Den, on many lists of the best places to get ramen, the soul satisfying, mouthgasm-inducing broth that takes hours or days to get just right. The Critic and Better Half were joined by two other, younger and local diners, both male, who agreed to share a table of four and cut the waiting time by at least 10-15 minutes. Yes, there is a lineup every night and the owner, is not shy about warning smartphone-game-playing teens that there is to be no game playing once seated – you are there to eat. If not, “I throw you out!”

While the Critic, BH and friends talked about the latest news (guns, Texas, Dallas) everyone enjoyed a their ramen soup. BH and Critic had the tantan-men soup, with ground pork garnishing a hearty broth and with large, thick melt-in-your-mouth mini-slabs of slow cooked pork belly floating among the noodles. It was, according the Better Half, the best ramen ever, surpassing last years Momofuko which itself was outstanding.

There are other things on the menu like ribeye skewers and chicken hearts too, but stick to the soup and you will be one happy camper.

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Tantan men soup – courtesy Yelp

9889 Bellaire Blvd, Houston, TX 77036

The Critic had been to this award winning sushi destination alone, and so was eager to share the find with Better Half, who, to make a long story short, proclaimed the evenings meal as one of the top three… ever. High praise indeed from a lover of great food and exotic locales.

The thing to do here is the omakase tasting menu, where the chef decides what’s best for you and serves nine stunning and delectable courses that range from tiny to generously large and run the gamut from fresh oysters flown in from Prince Edward Island to fresh toro from Japan. Everything is sparkling fresh and your place at the bar (do sit at the bar, not a table) is a wonderful vantage point from which to enjoy the artist Hori-san at work with his largely latino team.

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When Better Half noticed some people nearby having a bone marrow dish, she asked the waiter if it would be possible to try that as well. Chef Manabu Horiuchi (above, right) was consulted and included it – a large bone sawed in half and the marrow baked with condiments and spices – in the tasting menu.

The crab, according to our excellent waiter, was so fresh that it had been alive when we walked in. This waiter, by the way, was probably the best waiter the Critic has ever had, at any restaurant, anywhere.

Wine and sake accompanied the 9-10 dishes, including dessert. The experience lasted 2 and a half hours and was truly sublime. Extremely highly recommended.

Oyster

Oyster

Ceviche, toro tuna and watermelon, among other delicacies

Ceviche, toro tuna and watermelon, among other delicacies

Rainbow carrots

Rainbow carrots

Seafood custard, sea urchin

Seafood custard, sea urchin

Massive sashimi platter

Massive sashimi platter

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The object of desire, bone marrow

The object of desire, bone marrow

Nigiri trio

Nigiri trio

Crab, tempura style

Crab, tempura style

That is foie gras, really

That is foie gras, really

Sea urchin

Sea urchin

Toro tuna with salmon eggs on top just for fun

Toro tuna with salmon eggs on top just for fun

Our one and only noodle dish

Our one and only noodle dish

Dessert too!

Dessert too!

3600 Kirby Dr, Houston, TX 77098
(corner of Kirby and Richmond)
(713) 526-8858

Caracol
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Have you heard of chef Hugo Ortega? You might have as he has been around for a while, has visited the Yucatan (we visited the Santiago market together) and runs a very successful restaurant called … Hugo’s. More on that place a little later.

Caracol is a seafood restaurant with a definitely Mexican twist featuring a $29 dollar margarita which is quite delicious and packs a kick. The pescado zarandeado is amazing, as are the mejillones. Better Half and Houston Cookie Baker enjoyed, along with the Critic, an amazing meal in a crisp cool room, with attentive service and the location near the Galleria makes it an easy destination for those of the shopping mindset who need a relaxing and refreshing break from the madness of retail.

Service was prompt and friendly; however, for a restaurant of this caliber one expects a side plate for the mussel shells and wait staff to not barge into the middle of a conversation with their obligatory “so, how is everything?” question. Wait until there is a break in the conversation, people.

Mejillones, aka mussels

Mejillones, aka mussels

Poblano chile relleno

Poblano chile relleno

Scallops

Scallops

Pescado sarandeado

Pescado sarandeado

Chocolate ice cream made in house, coffee

Chocolate ice cream made in house, coffee

2200 Post Oak Blvd #160, Houston, TX 77056
(across from the shopping center w DSW, Container Store, etc)
713-622-9996

Hugo’s
Famous in Houston for years,  the Critic was searching for the best brunch on a Sunday and this place always came up, so off he went, with the ever accommodating Better Half in tow.

A buffet was set up and although the seating was at the very end of the brunch schedule, not one of the steam table trays showed any signs of neglect and were promptly refilled with a delicious selection of Mexican food items, all obviously made with quality ingredients (no skimping) and prepared authentically, with dishes ranging from huevos poblanos to pan de cazon.

The desserts are not only pretty to look at, they are actually very good. Which is not always the case in a Mexican restaurant. Service was top notch.

Absolutely amazing and a must-do on your next trip to Houston. Just plan on a siesta afterwards as you will not be able to move.

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1600 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006
(lots of restaurants in this area)
713-524-7744

Dolce Vita (TripAdvisor link – website domain name expired)
This Montrose-area pizza restaurant was recommended by chef Horiuchi at Kata Robata (above) as the best place for pizza. Thin crust and officially recognized by the pizza association from Napoli, Italia as the real thing, the pizza (margherita) was good but not overwhelmingly OMG good. The crust was indeed thin and a tad soggy, but the sauce and cheese and basil were right on. Service was very friendly, prices were reasonable and the place has signs outside prohibiting gun carriers, concealed or open, to abstain from entering the premises.

It was hard to fit in the pizza after the brunch that same day, but somehow the Critic managed.

Margherita

Margherita

500 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006
(if you were at Hugo’s previously, it’s in the same area, just a little further down Westheimer)
713-520-8222

Picking Your Wedding Music – The Dinner

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If you have been to a production-quality wedding in Merida, you know that it is a blow-out event, and in many cases, it seems that no expense is spared; the sheer volume of guests, tables and accoutrements making the “large” wedding North of the Border (NOB) of 80 people or so seem like a children’s party in comparison.

Besides the catered meal (in Merida, Rigel is your best option), the photography, the flowers, and the ‘hall’ which in the Yucatan is much more than that: a former plantation or hacienda could be the venue or perhaps one of the social clubs like the Campestre or Libanés which are also popular for those who don’t feel like driving out into the countryside in the dark.

The music, which is the topic of today’s article is also a make or break part of any wedding event and you can choose from a DJ or a live band, of which there are many, some better than others. At the time of this writing, Grupo Crack (honest, that’s their name) is among the latter group with vocalists that not only have great range and sing in tune, but also featuring an almost limitless range of musical genres from the ever-popular tropical cumbias to reggaeton and even – gasp – classic rock and disco numbers.

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Before the band or DJ swing into action, however, dinner is usually served and during that time, which is ideally suited to conversation and getting to know or reacquainting yourself with the folks around your table, the music ideally should be at a volume conducive to the aforementioned activity.

Options for this musical interlude include:

  • recorded music played at a moderate volume thus permitting one to converse without screaming across the table, with the ensuing potential for projectile food particle dispersion;
  • a juggler (kidding – this is not an option at a wedding)
  • a string quartet or similar acoustic and unamplified musical option, again allowing not only the all-important table conversation (you will leave your iPhone with these people after all when you hit the dance floor), but also enabling you to actually digest in a manner becoming civilized human beings, the food you are partaking of;
  • a saxophone player. Unfortunately the saxophone player, who plays with himself and his previously recorded background tracks, is the worst of any option, as I can attest to personally, having just suffered through an hour of over-amplified alto sax wailing that reminded me of Monty Pythons cheese shop sketch (“shut that bloody bouzouki player up!”), or perhaps an afternoon at the local goose farm, where gaggles of geese incessantly honk while you are trying to have a meal.

It was, in fact, a rather unpleasant musical sax intervention during dinner at an otherwise delightful wedding that  prompted this article. Fellow guests and I (and Better Half) could not believe that the screeching, out of tune and random notes being played at eardrum-piercing volume along with pre-recorded backing tracks ranging from Metallica (really) to Celine Dion (naturally) was intended to make the guests dining experience more pleasant. The effect of this musical masturbation, a term I invented for musicians who play and receive enjoyment themselves at the expense of their audience, is mind numbing and heart palpitation inducing. You will want to get up at some point and stuff a floral centerpiece into his instrument or simply shoot him.

If you are planning a wedding and have the usual large production in mind, please think of your guests and do not, I repeat, do NOT include a sax player for your dinner interlude music. Your guests will love you and thank you for it.

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Casual Restaurant Critic visits Hacienda Santa Cruz

Under new Mexican ownership, the hacienda Santa Cruz, on the outskirts of town, is undergoing a massive facelift and renovation. The Critic visited recently to have dinner with Better Half and spent a very pleasant few hours in this beautiful dining room.

Food was good, service was fine and the place is peaceful and relaxing. There are the usual tweaks that could be made to the service, which is a pet peeve of the demanding Critic and BH, but it is a nice way to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of life in Merida.

The pasta was fine, “spaghetti” according to the waiter when asked, which turned out to be a flat noodle more reminiscent of a tagliatelle, but who cares. The cheese-y sauce was tasty enough. Better Half’s choices were more inspired and definitely better. The black bean soup in particular was excellent. The pork with a guayaba salsa was also delicious.

Not cheap, but not expensive either, considering the location, which is here.

Enjoy the photos.

Napkin

Napkin

Dining room view

Dining room view

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Little welcome snack

Little welcome snack

Serving the black bean soup

Serving the black bean soup

Beef carpaccio

Beef carpaccio

Black bean soup

Black bean soup

Pork w guayaba sauce

Pork w guayaba sauce

Pasta

Pasta

Grounds at night

Grounds at night

Chichen Itza – Random Imagery

A menagerie of tourists
wandering herds of pampered human flesh
bright white sneakers, tomato-red faces, tank tops with sunburnt arms dangling

scrawny brown vendors en masse
hogging shady trees,
waving shiny trinkets, “Juan Dolla!”

weary, burnt-out guides
in mirrored sunglasses, white guayaberas washed to the point of transparency
“now look over here, my friends” ad nauseum

wrinkled wizened face
the ancient tiny Mayan lady’s sad eyes
“hankie 10 pesos” her only English

sweaty lineups
crowded bathrooms and overpriced ice cream shops
tourists in heat-exhausted stupors, indifferent employees

“hat my friend, hat my friend”
brown woman ignored by the pale masses
climbing the stairs to their overheated destiny

flocks of silver buses
motors racing, air conditioners on high
parked, waiting for their victims to return, the driver snoring in his undershirt

Wonder of the World
Chichen Itza Disney-fied
and cash cow to the government

Casual Restaurant Critic – Truck Chef

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Here’s a little mini-review from the Casual Restaurant Critic on just one of the many food trucks now sprouting up all over the place; Truck Chef is one of the more popular options.

This food truck features burgers for the most part and they are good; worth hunting down a location which you an do my checking their Facebook page, which also features a lot of really enticing photos that will make your mouth water. Besides burgers there are also some healthier options (pork belly tacos are not only delicious, they are healthy. Aren’t they???) and the whole menu has a rock and roll theme, in case you hadn’t picked up on that.

https://www.facebook.com/TruckChef

Verdict? Good stuff!

 

 

 

The Casual Hotel Critic visits Hyatt Zilara in Cancun, Mexico

The Casual Hotel Critic doesn’t show up as often on this website as the Casual Restaurant Critic, but occasionally he pops in and offers observations on a hotel or two, which might or might not help you with your travel planning.

This time, the Casual Hotel Critic and his lovely Better Half – yes, like the Casual Restaurant Critic – this one also has a Better Half – visited the number three hotel in Cancun on TripAdvisor, as numbers one and two were already booked due to it being Semana Santa aka Easter break. The hotel, formerly called The Royal, is now the Hyatt Zilara and the overall impression is positive.

For the money, this hotel should be perfect. And in many aspects, it is.

A positive, no kids. Nothing against the little critters, but the CHC has been there and done that and occasionally he likes to relax in an adult environment, devoid of screaming, crying and whining by the kids, followed by reprimanding, cajoling and wimpy caving in by exhausted parents.

It’s all inclusive. Normally the Critic eschews this kind of accommodation, but when all one wants to do is vegetate in the sun and eat and drink at will, not having to fish out a wallet or sign a bill is very welcome indeed. And the Hyatt Zilara offers up quality drinks (would that restaurants in Merida understand how to prepare a decent mojito like the one served here) and tasty, quality food, from its silly little billiard room where people are playing Jenga that offers a delicious chili that would do well in the Merida English Library’s Chili Cookoff competition to the Chefs Plate restaurant (more on that later).

Large Asian clientele. You can’t help but notice that you are surrounded by young Asian couples, mostly Japanese and Korean. A waiter informs the CHC that the hotel is a destination for honeymooners from Asia and that all the people one sees are on their honeymoon. This is an advantage because they are not raucous and screaming, although there were some partiers from Quebec at the beach who insisted on screaming their French Canadian jokes across five beach cabañas and would follow up each ‘joke’ with loud nasal cackles not unlike a gaggle of geese discovering a previously unseen dish of corn feed.

Hands on hearts. One is taken aback at first but comes to expect it from even the gardener or the painter who is touching up some railings. Each greeting and question is answered with a slight downward nod of the head and a hand placed over the employees heart. In some cases it works, while in others it seems a little forced and still others forget to put their hands on their hearts when they say ‘hola’ as they pass you by. Apparently this is to convey to you, the honored guest, the sincerity of their commitment to you. Again, sometimes believable, other times not so much.

A fantastic beach. When you come to Cancun you don’t come to experience the noise of the Kukulkan boulevard with its polluting noisy buses racing side by side cutting off little green and white Tsuru taxis with their fist-banging, head-shaking irate drivers. You come for the beach, which is what Cancun was all about back in the day before the spring breakers came and it went from ‘exclusive destination’ to Daytona Beach with chiles. And the Hyatt Zilara still has that beach. The entire front of the hotel is beach and it is carefully tractored and groomed each morning so that people will not find any nasty seaweed as they make their way, like baby turtles, to the waves crashing out front. It’s mostly too rough to swim, but there are lifeguards and one can wade out a little and getting refreshingly battered by the waves that, once, they have reached the shore, come back with equal strength the other way, challenging you to keep your footing and not get sucked out to sea. A lifeguard watches this and will blast a short whistle if you get anywhere near waist-deep.

Good food. It’s always a toss-up as to whether or not one will get decent food at an all-inclusive, but the CHC is happy to say that the CRC would be happy and well, there would be happiness all around. Good food. Not over-the-top unbelievable, but good. There are several restaurants to choose from:

Spice is the go to buffet standby when everything else is booked, closed or too fancy. It’s not Caesars Palace and the Bacchanal Buffet by any remote, way off-in-the-distance stretch of the imagination, but there is a small variety of items that are of acceptable quality.

Asiana has – you guessed it – Asian food and a teppan-yaki ‘show’ that is borderline cheesy but the honeymooners seemed to enjoy it. Sushi is available as an appetizer before the teppan-yaki but this is nothing to send pigeons home about. Mostly rice with a hint of fish, it made the CHC almost cringe in embarrassment for the Asian couples around him and Better Half. What were they thinking? The final product is a lot of food so don’t overdo it on the rice-y sushi.

Pelicanos is the casual all-purpose restaurant on the beach, with a great view and great staff. Very attentive, the food is very good and with that view, it’s a winner. Portions are small so you can order lots if you are hungry and try many different items from the short but varied menu.

Chef’s Plate is the other high end restaurant that, along with Asiana’s teppan yaki show, one needs reservations for. In either case, the CHC and BH just showed up and waited for no-shows which was the case on both nights, so they got in with no difficulty. Ladies, wear dressy sandals at least for the Chef’s Plate as you won’t get in with flip flops. They are trying to maintain a certain decorum here. This restaurant was the best of the bunch. A long table for about 20 people, and a tasting menu featuring fish, duck, salad, dessert and a few more plates. The menu was explained by a talented Porfirio who spoke English, Spanish and Japanese to his guests and, as each dish was served to the diners, he would then explain what the ingredients were and how it was made, again in three languages.

Special shout out to believe it was Jennifer at the front desk who seemed genuinely concerned about everything to do with the CHC and BH’s stay, especially after finding out that the room she had assigned had a ladder in front of it and was obviously being maintained. She later approached BH and offered a spa treatment which was quite nice.

It is a very expensive hotel and so, one notices these little details a bit more. Great stay though if you can swing it or find a good promo.

Website and more info here: http://cancun.zilara.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html

Another Morning in El Mercado – El Chile Pica

El chile pica” warned the waiter, pointing to the blackened chile habanero bits mushed up in the little bowl.

The gringo smiled. He had eaten chiles before. Had even watched a show by Rick Bayless once where Rick explained how to spot a particularly spicy one.

De verdad pica; tenga cuidado” repeated the waiter.

He seemed truly concerned and hovered for another moment at the red plastic table watching the gringo, who nodded and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture.

The waiter turned back to the counter to pick up another order; mondongo para la mesa cuatro, his Mom told him from behind the counter, hands slick with pork fat as she worked the lechon.

He was setting down the spicy soup at table four when he heard a loud cough and the scrape of a plastic chair being violently pushed on concrete; the gringo was standing up waving his hands in the air and his mouth opening and closing like a freshly caught pescado. Comical almost, if it wasn’t for the fact that he looked like he was going to die right there.

Pinche gringo, que bruto; se lo dije” he thought to himself.

People at the other tables smiled bemusedly at the gringo’s predicament and those nearby held out their drinks or some tortillas, all of which the gringo ignored, not out of rudeness of course but because he simply couldn’t see them, his eyes were watering so bad.

Mom was already out from behind the counter, arms around the stumbling gringo and leading him towards the counter where Luisa had some milk in a glass. Mom was also stuffing tortillas in his mouth to soak up the picante.

Little by little, his eyes drying and the coughing subsiding, the gringo came back to this world. He opened his eyes to find himself sitting at a stool by the counter with everyone looking at him. He gave a limp wave with one hand.

Bien, estoy bien” he said lifting one hand and looking somewhat chagrined. Everyone smiled and returned to their meals.

He walked slowly, almost carefully, to his table and sat down to finish his tacos.

The waiter stopped by at the table.

Esta bien? Si pica el chile verdad? Se lo dije no? he asked with a not unkind smile.

Oh, si!” said the gringo and gave a feeble laugh. The waiter patted the gringo’s shoulder and moved back to the counter.

Tacos de lechon para la dos. His Mom gave him a wink.