In one of the ‘popular’ neighborhoods, the euphemistic term for a working-class colonia, the municipality offered up some funding to change regular street graffiti and gang tags into something a little more artistic. Here are some of the walls in the Amalia Solorzano neighborhood, en el sur de la ciudad de Merida.
Don’t misunderstand – the Casual Restaurant Critic loves Miyabi’s food. And hanging a whack of plywood sheets from the ceiling is apparently is a design concept that is award-winning so there is that. The food is always amazing too; the ramen is the best in town and the fish is always fresh.
What is really puzzling is the staff. With attitudes that range from the completely and defiantly indifferent to the almost Valium-like spaced-out-ness of a lobotomized Walking Dead character, the Critic can’t understand why the service end of this potentially first class restaurant is so bad.
The Critic would also like to add that he has been coming to Miyabi for years now – alone and with several iterations of familial critics – so it’s not like staff doesn’t know who he is which is not implying that a red carpet needs to be laid out, but a simple ‘Hi, glad to have you back’ every once in a blue moon would signal to this particular client anyway, that there is some life, some enthusiasm, some passion for service, behind those rather dead eyes.
Walking in, one is greeted with the sight of several chefs behind the sushi bar, some of whom will look up and then get back to their important work. No greeting is proffered, not even a raised eyebrow acknowledging one’s existence. “Sit anywhere” is not only recommended, it is the policy and that’s what you are told when you ask someone who finally looks your way.
A waiter then eventually slinks to your table, and it is highly recommended that you make the most of this interaction, as any additional visit (to take an order, to replenish a drink, to clear away a dish) will require enthusiastic hand-waving and yoga-like contortions (if the server is behind you) in order to get anyones attention.
Amongst themselves, they are a happy bunch, smiling and laughing but when it comes time to deal with guests, the smile disappears and it’s all slinkiness and tail-between-the-legs standing there, awaiting instructions. Sales pitches for drinks or specials or anything really, are unheard of.
And thank goodness for cell phones, since this is what entertains both waiters who have nothing to do as well as yawning cashiers and anyone else not involved in the cutting of fish or the preparing of rice.
It’s a mystery. Perhaps it’s that they are content in letting the food be their strong card – which it is – and so, if you can put up with the sub-par service, you will be fine.
Having just come back from a little overnight in Playa del Carmen after dropping off the kids at their hotel in Tulum, I thought I would share a few impressions from Playa – as folks around here call it because it’s too hard and time-consuming to actually say Playa del Carmen – from a visitors/slash neurotic foreigners (the original viewpoint of this blog when it started 20 years ago) point of view.
Playa is heavily policed
In the touristy part around the 5th avenue area, the police presence is massive. There are armed policemen at every intersection and at one spot that I saw, a tank-like armored vehicle that probably came from the US Army’s surplus after the Iraq invasion was successfully completed.
Since you hear a lot about the gangs, the narcos and the violence that has plagued the area, this dark undertone to all the happy people selling stuff on the street and the trendy restaurants and shops, should be reassuring and not threatening. How you will react is entirely up to you. And in spite of their rather intimidating aspecto, what with their bullet-proof vests, machine guns, and all-black uniforms, they seem friendly enough though and don’t mess with anyone.
Touts is one of those weird words that I have trouble writing, just because it sounds so 18th century. But apparently, that is the official word for those guys in the street, that are trying to get you to come into their (or a friends or employers) store along the Quinta Avenida.
Predominantly men, they pester each and every passerby, inviting them to come and see their cigars, their hats or their tours. If they are waving a plastic covered menu, it’s a restaurant they want you to try. And listen to their banter, which is incredibly original – “hey, I remember you” and funny (sarcasm). If any females walk by, you can be sure that they will have a #metoo moment and be ogled and commented on by the touts, who usually hang around in small groups. As a tourist you can ignore them completely and if you don’t understand Spanish, the better it is for you since you won’t know what crap it is they are spouting.
Beyond the verbal sales pitches of “good price” “cheapest price” and “best price” there are signs everywhere advertising discounts of up to 50% (on selected items). These are crappy things that never sold as well as they were expected to and so, are things you don’t want anyway unless you can’t pass up a good bargain on some plastic Made in China glass holder that says Playa del Carmen or the purple top with fringes from last year.
Mexico is famous for its lax pharma laws and cheap drug prices and that, combined with the ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines in the US, means you will see pharmacy counters in the gift shops advertising everything from anti-depressants to anti-biotics to erectile dysfunction drugs with dubious labels. There are legit pharmacies a few blocks away where you can buy real drugs and medicines at local prices and so, you really don’t need to shop here unless you are afraid to venture into the “real” Playa del Carmen, a fear which is unfounded (read the part about the police, above)
The rich and the poor
You can see the disparity between the rich and the poor on the touristy streets of Playa. The wealthy tourists from abroad and from within Mexico stroll past high-end shops especially around the luxury shopping mall complete with Starbucks and all manner of luxury brand stores, while the miniature young women from Chiapas with their wares displayed Mayan market style on the very same streets right outside. Note that these women usually have small children in tow, who are entertaining themselves on cell phones, and who add a sympathetic look to the scene, invoking a sense of guilt to passers-by and thereby perhaps making it more probable to get that sale.
At one point, a shiny black Mercedes Benz coupe drove past a police checkpoint which was interesting since a) it was a black Mercedes that costs probably about a million and a half pesos and was driven by a twenty-something-year-old and his female cohort which might raise an eyebrow or two; b) they had a child on the lap of the female in the front seat, a clear violation of transit law and c) the car had no plates, another violation and normally a reason for the police to pull the car over.
In any case, Playa del Carmen is a great destination for a weekend escape from your routine if you enjoy a little beach time and some great restaurants. Other than that, I wouldn’t come back for more than a day or two as the whole ambiance seems just a little too much for my laid back Yucatecan self.
While the Casual Restaurant Critic is a meat lover (and dairy and fish and and and) some members of the Critical Family are vegan, and so, with a resigned sigh and little hope of a decent lunch, the Critic and the Family had lunch at the well-known vegan restaurant Numen, in northern Merida. The result was a mixed bag. Some good food, some OK food and some food that was quite forgettable.
The best option was the tacos al pastor, which is a local favorite and Numen has created a vegan option of this classic. Don’t ask, don’t tell is the Critic’s motto when it comes to what is actually in the vegan version, but it was tasty and satisfying. If he came back, the Critic would definitely have those again.
Most forgettable dish? The pozole. Pozole is a rich broth with all kinds of meaty juices and in this case, it was sliced mushrooms and hominy floating in a barely salted broth that was really quite watery. Not satisfying at all, ITCO. In between was the Critic’s dish, a pasta with tomato sauce, which he could have made at home but was tasty enough and the Critic devoured it down to the last spiral of fusilli.
Some photos will illustrate that the dishes are beautifully presented. The service was average, not horrible, but not particularly gracious or charming either.
Every once in a while, the Casual Restaurant Critic finds himself in the mall – the Gran Plaza mall to be exact – to do some banking, pay the CFE or TelCel or whatever, and the timing works out in such a way as to necessitate a bite to eat. The question is always: where will it be this time? Such a situation occured twice in the past week, resulting in one hit, and one awful miss.
Besides the one or two restaurants in the mall, there is the hilariously-named Food and Food food court. Choices abound! Will it be the MSG-laden offerings of Win Fa’s Chinese food, with the promise of ever-lasting thirst for hours; or the line-up infused hamburgers of Burger King? Or perhaps deal with the indifferent doñas at Doña Gorda, who make deep-fried and oily gorditas that will inspire a rush on the local omeprazol supply? The salad place is sadly dead and gone with its healthy options and so other choices might be Alabama Mama with “southern food” or some fairly decent Trompos tacos (try their heart-valve-bursting nachos especiales if you really want to gorge yourself with calories.
The Critic, however, found two new additions to the Food and Food food court, one was a definite and resounding miss, while the other promises to be a hit.
The Critic has a soft spot for entrepreneurs who make the effort to provide something new and in this case, it was a Yucatecan food outlet that calls itself Pibilxito (which in Mayan means absolutely nothing), among all those tacos and hamburgers and cheap pasta. It is exceedingly hard to please Yucatecans with Yucatecan food since everyone has an aunt or a mom or a grandma or a suegra who makes their favorite dish just so. It’s an impossible situation, the Critic believes, and this place will go the way of another attempt at Yucatecan fare that met its demise in this very same Food and Food food court years ago.
Some of the most famous Yucatecan items are on the menu like cochinita pibil, relleno negro and the Critics favorite, queso relleno, which he proceeded to order from the rather bored and uninspired young man alternately playing with his smart phone and looking up blankly at the zero clientele stopping there. The Critic paid his 70 pesos for an order, a full 10 pesos more than the other orders, a price point explained to him by the hapless employee with the help of a prop: an actual Queso de Bola marca Gallo kept under the counter to prove the worthiness of that 4 dollar expenditure.
The food, ordered to go and unpacked from its mismatched plastic and styro containers at home, was pretty well inedible. The Critic’s cat did, however, get into it and managed to down a few swallows of the unappealing white ground meat that had not a hint of a raisin, a caper or an almond, let alone an olive, accompanied by the afore-mentioned Gallo brand cheese, all served in the traditional corn flour kol. The tortillas that came with the order were of the store-bought variety, rounding out the exceptionally gnarly experience.
Highly not recommended. Avoid at all costs.
Having just opened, the new Thai Bistro Express, an offshoot/expansion of the popular place by the same name in Chuburna (beach, not colonia) promises to be the real deal. The super-friendly, engaged and energetic owners are right there and are happy to see you, happy to explain their food offerings to you and happy to cook it for you too. What a difference a smile makes!
The Critic had the Pad Thai, with pork. It could have a little more punch to it but was very good in any case. The iced coffee is absolutely delicious and a treat in the land (Food and Food food court land) of Coca-Cola and other gaseous beverages. What the Critic liked best was the fact that the owner asked how it was and seemed genuinely interested in some constructive criticism, offered with the sincere interest in making their place a well-deserved success. Price of the meal? $120 pesos for Pad Thai and Iced Coffee.
The Merida-based Club Sibarita (https://www.facebook.com/clubsibaritamx/) organizes events both in Merida and the outskirts, featuring themes or restaurants worthy of note and this time it was the famous comida enterrada (food cooked underground in pits called pibes) that the Yucatan is known for and that the restaurant Pueblo Pibil in Tixcocob does masterfully.
The last event the Critic attended was in Merida and before that, an event at the spectacular Chablé resort/hacienda and this one proved to be as well-organized and the food as delicious as promised.
If you haven’t yet been to Pueblo Pibil, put this on your to-do list ASAP. It is an amazing lunch destination, well worth the 30-40 minute trip from Merida.
Here are a few photos from the event.
In the backyard patio of Pueblo Pibil, the pits are unearthed and the food is taken out, cooked for hours and hours on hot coals. Chef Silvio supervises the process and proceeds to hand out samples. iPhones record the moment and guests wait for their samples, in this case, the exquisite relleno negro (the best the Critic has ever had in the Yucatan) and owner Karina, out hostess for the day watches.
Then it’s off to the restaurant, where two large tables have been prepared for the group. There are two representatives from Casa Madero – the oldest wine company in the Americas by the way – who will be serving wines with each course and talking a little bit about each wine and how it complements the Yucatecan food served.
And of course, the food. Each dish is beautiful and as delicious as it looks, truly. The relleno negro has to be tasted to be believed and the hand-made corn tortillas, thick and luscious, are divine. The house signature dessert, el merengue de la abuela, was presented by the abuela herself, where she confessed that she won’t share her recipe with just anyone.
Last but not least, a shot of a few of the waiters and hostess. An amazing experience! If you like good food, good wine, and good company, join the Club Sibarita and come along on the next culinary adventure!
In the years I have lived in Mexico, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon among business owners and their friends, that I can only attribute to cultural differences between where I grew up and where I live now.
In Canada, and I suspect this also happens in the U.S., when you open a new business, you put out the word and where do you start? Friends and family of course. And your friends and your family will come and check out your new venture, congratulate you perhaps and wish you well; they will also buy stuff. No matter if you are making empanadas or ear wax candles, they will probably pick up something to support your latest entrepreneurial effort. They appreciate the time and work put into the logo, the concept, the locale if you have one, and the actual products themselves and they want to support you, so they buy something, even if they really have no use for it. They’re your support base and they want you to succeed, so they do.
Here in sunny Mexico, things are a little different. You open your doors or Tupperware container on the corner and let your friends and family know. They will all show up of course; they do love you after all and most of them want you to succeed except for the ones that don’t who will voice unwanted opinions on your product, your idea, your enthusiasm. The goal is to not let you get ‘too big for your britches’ so to speak; they do it out of love and for your own good and that when you fail, you won’t feel so bad and they can say “te lo dije” And, as George Lopez would say “so you learn”
And while they love you, they love anything free even more. And this invitation to see your new business is exactly that: an opportunity to get something for nothing because you’re family! So instead of buying anything, they will ask – in some cases demand – that you invite them to everything on the menu, or in the case of ear wax candles, a free candle to take home. This is not hinted at; no, this is expected and you had better cough up or else your friendship or familial relationship will be in peril.
Where does this come from I wonder? I am not an anthropologist but would love to hear from anyone who has a theory.
One night not too long ago – but long enough that the Critic cannot remember what it was he ate – visited Nacion Gourmet with a large group of amigos. The concept is basically what Mercado 60 and that monstrous place downtown on 47 that is the scourge of all the poor folks who renovated their homes and now have to live with all the goddamn noise coming from this “hot spot”. A bunch of small restaurants in a circle-the-wagons set up with communal tables in the middle, with the added bonus of a stage set up on a platform over the bar.
Again, the food was entirely not memorable, so the Critic does apologize for those of you looking for a review of food; however, the experience, in general, was so meh that it behooves him to warn you, dear reader, in advance. The service started off well enough and went downhill from there, as more people arrived and the wait staff basically ignored the table. Food came out in spurts, no timing at all to ensure that the guests at this table would be eating more or less simultaneously, thus resulting everyone watching everyone else eat as food appeared. Great concept. It got better when the live music folks appeared and blasted out old Ana Gabriel hits and other such tropes at a volume entirely non-conducive to conversation. It may be of course that the Critic is just getting older and less patient with this crap.
Not having had any sustenance beyond the usual New York model breakfast of coffee and a cigarette, the by-now cantankerous Critic was driving to his pay-by-the-hour office at Alexandra’s when another luxurious plaza (not particularly luxurious, tbh) called Plaza Luxury – really, you can’t begin to fathom the local fascination with all things purportedly luxury – beckoned with its multiple culinary options ranging from the brand new Okana poke bar with its high-tech and line-up inducing iPad ordering system to the old-school Merida classic Siqueff to the restaurant the Critic finally ended up in: Chill Akil.
Once the loud family discussing family relationships at the next table had departed, the famished Critic was able to enjoy his classic chilaquiles rojos in relative peace and quiet while perusing CNN’s latest fake news on his iPhone.
These chilaquiles are really good, with lots of ‘stuff’ on top of those tortilla chips and they aren’t all soggy either, which is a nice touch. The red sauce is good, the chicken is good, the queso fresco is good, the onions and radishes are fresh and there are hot sauces and mild sauces (2 and 2) to add if you feel the dish lacks vim and vigor.
The restaurant is probably crowded in the morning with Moms and gym types who like to get up early, but the Critic had his breakfast at 2 PM thank you very much and had the place to himself. The A/C leaves something to be desired and it is uncomfortably warm in spite of the unit blowing all it can. Note: there are two air conditioners upstairs, but these were off.
Good service and plenty of parking available. You will also find a really nice high-end stereo shop in this plaza for your home theater installations in that new old colonial you are restoring.
Worth a second visit, ITCO.
Location: Plaza LUXURY (look for the Teslas, Ferraris and Jaguars parked outside) or just look at the map on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chillakil/
The Casual Restaurant Critic and his band of merry Critics including Mini and Better Half, tried this new sushi restaurant which is on the THIRD floor of yet another commercial plaza in Merida, where the commercial plazas outnumber the parks by a million to one. Yes, you have to walk up to get here (or take an elevator – fancy) but it is worth the effort. It’s in the Altabrisa area, in the umpteenth version of a luxury plaza; this one is called Luxus (yawn)
However, the sushi is great. Service is friendly and professional and the room offers a great view of the area around Altabrisa, specifically the mall and hospitals just down the road. There is also seating outside. And you might recognize the chef behind the sushi bar – he was a fixture at the now-defunct Hamachi, so you know he knows that you know that he knows what he’s doing.
Location info at the bottom of the page or on their restaurant link here.
Location: Calle 20 between 15 and 7 (Correa Rachó Avenue) in Altabrisa, Merida
From periferico, take Altabrisa exit, get into the side access road and turn right on Calle 20