A Second Visit to Maya de Asia

The Critic loved that duck so when another opportunity arrived to go eat at Maya de Asia, well, he was all over that idea. This time with the MiniCritic and BetterHalf to better sample more dishes (besides the aforementioned duck) the late lunch early dinner was great.

With the first-date wow factor somewhat diminished, the Critic had time to notice other things besides the mostly spectacular food. The waiters are somewhat professional and friendly enough but they don’t seem, well, happy. Perhaps they get shat on a lot or they are practicing their all-black ‘cool’ thing, but they don’t seem to be having a particularly good time. Yes, it’s a job, but in a nice place with a great kitchen and whatnot, you would think a few more smiles would grace the faces of these servers.

The other thing the Critic took notice of was the weird bathrooms on the second level. The restaurant is so expansive and grandiose, that these mini bathrooms seem like an afterthought. It’s almost like – as Mini Critic pointed out – that perhaps the architect was so concentrated on creating an award-winning design and interior treatment that he or she forgot about the bathrooms and this was the only space left. Who knows.

Enjoy the photos and don’t let potentially sad wait staff or a climb to the bathroom put you off. Try this place and enjoy the experience, which is totally worth it.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Maya de Asia

The Casual Restaurant Critic was proud of the fact that he has been able to avoid entering the new Harbor mall, not being a fan of malls in general and malls in Merida to an even lesser degree. However, dinner at the relatively new (the mall did just open a short while ago after all) and quite spectacular Maya de Asia may mean that the Critic make his way into this labyrinth more often.

Try to forgive the planners the tiny, wormhole tunnel that is the confusing underground parking and find somewhere to park near an escalator. Maya de Asia is located on the first floor, near the Macaroons kiosk (these are amazing too by the way) and Forever 21. is it true that Forever 21 has closed stores and so is not as Forever as the name would imply?  The Critic digresses.

Maya de Asia is a gorgeous room with an ample terrace overlooking the water feature and lit sign for The Harbor. You could imagine you were in Miami, which is the ultimate compliment for Yucatecan designers intent on re-creating exotic locales and discarding anything and everything that is from the Yucatan. However, and in an unexpected turn of events, in this restaurant Mayan and Yucatecan elements from the culinary world have been taken and slapped onto Asian food and the results, at least from a preliminary visit and in most cases, are quite spectacular. As in delicious.

The Critic, fan of all foods Asian, and his lovely Better Half had a Pad Thai, the Panang duck, a chaya humus and to make it complete, a Sikil Roll. The Pad Thai was fantastic, with surprising bits of what seemed like longaniza thrown in. The duck did not have anything Yucatecan in it that the Critic could immediately identify, but it is very possible and highly likely that there is a local ingredient mixed in there somewhere. The chaya mousse was excellent and the warm bread that accompanied the dip so very good. The Sikil Roll was a fat, cold, fresh roll with a solid fish, none of that awful cream cheese and a brown dollop of a rather liquid sikil pak (traditional local pumpkin seed dip) on each piece. This, to the Critic, seemed unnecessary and the flavor combination was nothing special. Fresh fish, rice and pumpkin seeds. It could also be that the Critic was absolutely stuffed by this point.

No room for desserts, coffees or other distractions. The place definitely warrants a second visit and there will be another post, very soon!

The ceiling decor. Can you tell what those wooden elements are?

Room, with a view of the kitchen to the left

The menu

Humus, featuring local superfood chaya

The absolutely spectacular duck

Pad Thai

Sikil Roll with its fish and its pumpkin seed dip on top

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Bistro Cultural

It was their anniversary, it was very busy and the Critic won’t pass judgement on the experience he had this morning with the Better Half and several other, local guests. Breakfast was long, leisurely (not for the two waitresses desperately working the entire restaurant inside and out) and the food delicious. Good coffee too.

The space is cozy and attractive and chef Yohann kind in his attention to his guests.

Some serious swinging music in the garden

Some serious swinging music in the garden Part II

The garden patio, full of happy eaters

Inside

View to the street, from the inside

Pretty flowers as centerpieces throughout

Creme brulee

Isla flotante

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Soberana Steakhouse

The discrete Soberana restaurant, tucked into the bottom of the Santa Lucia hotel, might be overlooked with all the more visible eateries in the Santa Lucia square across the street (60) but it shouldn’t be.

Chef Andrés Zapata has created a meat-lovers menu and even sells some of the rubs that have made him somewhat of a local legend in the local culinary scene. That and his personality which displays none of the dickiness of other more diva-like chefs, make him one of the most sought-after personalities when it comes to events featuring barbeque, grilling and the like.

On this visit, the Critic had been invited to sample the new menu and in the absence of a recuperating Better Half, the Critic invited a second critic to help try the new meat offerings.

Frijoles Puercos

The first item to grace the table was a small bowl of beans, cooked non stop and served with black corn chips. The thing that makes these beans decadent (they are called Frijoles Puercos) is that when cooking up meat in the kitchen, the pot is always on the back burner and chef Andrés throws in whatever meat juices are bubbling up and left over, resulting in extremely flavorful and deliciously fatty beans. Cholesterol warning in effect.

Chef Andrés taking a momento to crack a joke. This Critic has never seen Andrés in a bad mood, ever.

Rubs to take home

Soberana’s take on Mac & Cheese

The Critic let the chef decide, although anything off the menu was available to try. First up? The Mac and Cheese. It could use a tiny bit more cheese but the creaminess and the addition of caramelized “million dollar” bacon was amazing.

Smoky fish tacos on Panela cheese tortillas

The second appetizer was smoky fish tacos served on panela cheese “tortillas” Anyone familiar with dieting and panela cheese knows that this is a cheese-like substance, far removed from anything resembling tasty cheese. An interesting and probably healthy concept, but as far as flavor goes, eat the topping, skip the cheese.

Salsas

Main course – picaña steak, prepared tableside by the master grill chef himself.

For the main course, and to share, the picaña beef steak, cooked to perfection. The flavor of this cut was truly mouth watering and this is the steak the Critic highly recommends you order. Andrés will prepare it with it’s juices , at your table.

Preparing the Picaña

Delicious!

Prices are reasonable and this is a good alternative to mix things up a little in Santa Lucia. You can eat in the restaurant or enjoy a limited menu on the park itself, where there are some tables and chairs set up so you can have your conversation drowned out by the musical acts, if that is your thing.

Casual Restaurant Critic at Pan & Kof.fee

OK thanks very much – the anticipation of going to Paris and sitting in a sidewalk cafe, munching on fresh baguettes with butter is now a thing of the past. It appears that the folks at Pan & Kof.fee are trying to discourage travel to France with their most amazing baguettes, croissants, and pain au chocolat.

The Critic has not tried bread this good since discovering Monique’s sourdough and Petite Delice’s pastries, so whenever you are downtown, do stock up. Recommended are the baguettes and the ciabatta as the loaf had too much air in it and the butter and jam went directly through the holes in the bread and onto my plate.

The restaurant – it is a restaurant as well – is drop-dead gorgeous and you can see the bakers in action with their ovens on the second floor, which is clever. Staff are beyond friendly and completely bilingual, at least the ones that looked after the Critic and his Better Half.

Located on 43 at 58 more or less behind the Palacio Canton museum or whatever it is this week.

Sublime, Stimulating, Serene. Kayaking in Progreso

deck view with mangroves

This is the dock from where you will depart into the mangroves. This is on the leeward side of Progreso, just off the highway to Yucalpeten/Chelem, the bridge and the marinas.

Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t go to Brazil this year, but I found a recent trip through the mangroves by kayak to be a mostly relaxing and somewhat challenging adventure that reminded me much of what I miss the most about Amazonas.

The water is shallow, there are birds to be watched and the single-person kayak was easy to handle, even through the cramped tunnels of the mangrove forest that are literally meters away from the Progreso-Yucalpeten highway (you can hear the cars) but it seems like you are in another world entirely. In fact, you can imagine being in one of those cars speeding along and looking at the bush on the side of the road and not even thinking that there could be this whole other environment just inside.

The highlight for me was the relief of paddling in open water after the twisting and manoeuvering of the tunnel which presented multiple challenges to get the kayak through; in one case having to charge at full speed to go OVER a large mangrove branch, which our guide thankfully helped with.

The water is shallow, so you never feel you are going to drown, and unlike the Rio Negro, there are no piranhas to nibble on your fingers when you are pulling the kayak along using roots, branches and fallen debris, the paddle having become totally useless and stuck between legs and arms, along the length of the kayak.

Progreso has more to offer than cantinas and cheap massages on cruise ship days. Kayaking in the mangroves is definitely one of the more sublime and rewarding activities you can undertake, to work up an appetite for your freshly fried fish lunch at one of Progreso’s seafront restaurants a little later in the day. Enjoy the photos!

Thanks to SEFOTUR for the heads up and invite on this, the idea being to better get to know what sorts of activities there are for visitors to the Yucatan coast. This one is highly recommended!

reception desk, kayaks, Progreso

Here is the reception area where you will pay and decide what it is you want to do. There are night kayak tours and motorized fishing tours also available.

A look at the mangroves

These usually mark a natural fresh water spring many of which sprout up in the salty sea water, creating the brackish environment that birds love (think food)

Local celebrity Andrea from Yucatan Today, accompanying our little group on what was an official FAM trip

Into the tunnel

Traffic jams in the mangroves

Mangrove roots

More traffic

On this little island you can see birds (if you come early or late) and enjoy sinking into thick muddy quicksand up to your waist. It’s also nice to walk around for a bit after the mangrove tunnel kayak experience.

 

What is That in There?

Refrescos

Unmarked mysteries in the fridge

What the Hell is That?

Explaining some of those mysterious things lurking in that fridge.

If you are traveling in the Yucatan, and stopping here and there, especially in the smaller towns and villages along your route, you will perhaps see unusual things (along with the usual assortment of commercial brand soft drinks) in the corner store refrigerator that you might not have at your Seven Eleven back home. Here is an example (photo) of such a fridge and a brief explanation of what it is you are looking at, top left to bottom right.

Top Shelf

  1. Flan Casero. This means home-made flan and when I asked the young lady what it all had she said “huevo… y no sé que otra cosa” which means that she knows it has eggs in it, and that’s the extent of her knowledge of this version of flan. Flan is flan, so no need to go any further with the explanation, I think.
  2. Flan Comercial – this is flan from a box. Jello brand makes a flan that you add water or milk to and voila. That’s what’s in this larger cup.
  3. Those white liquid bottles are horchata. More on that when we get to the main horchata section.

Second Shelf

  1. Jamaica. Pronounced hah-MY-cah, this is an infusion made from a plant very similar to rosehips but much stronger. With fantastic diuretic and antioxidant properties, jamaica, along with its pale cousin horchata, are the most commonly found drinks along with sodas, in any self-respecting taqueria. Note that it is sweetened, as the original version with no sugar will make your tongue curl.
  2. Cebada. Cebada (seh-BAH-dah) is a drink made with barley. It’s kind of a strange, acquired taste kind of drink and those barley bits are a bit like bubble tea with the rubbery tapioca balls, and personally I am still struggling with it. But hey, it’s a drink with a source of fiber built-in.

Bottom Shelf

  1. Horchata. The rice (and sometimes almond) drink that accompanies jamaica in every fridge where Mexican food is served. There will be sediment on the bottom, which is a good thing. Give it a shake or two and enjoy it’s almond/cinnamon taste. Again, very sweet and most times made from concentrate. If you find the home-made version, marry whomever it is that made it because this is a true delicacy and becoming more and more rare in the world.
  2. Tamarindo. The fruit of the tamarind tree is a paste and it is extremely sour. Mixed with sugar, it becomes an excellent base for sherbets and drinks. Mixed with sugar, salt and chile it becomes the ubiquitous Mexican candy that will certainly give you the runs when you first try it.

There are other things in the fridge as well. In this case, as it was a taqueria, there was a giant tub of raw meat on the floor of the fridge. Do not be put off by such apparent disparate refrigerator ingredients and be thankful that you don’t live in a land where nanny-state laws prohibit such practical solutions to every-day restaurant problems.

The Death of the Kankirixche Cenote

As the owner of a tour company specializing in off-the-beaten-track adventures I have seen, over the last 10-15 years, a notable increase in tourism traffic to places that used to be quiet, beautiful and often magical.

This is unfortunate but natural, given that

  • a) we have more people in general so there is going to be more traffic everywhere, not only on the heart-attack-inducingly congested Prolongacion del Paseo de Montejo on weekdays around 1 PM
  • b) we have the ubiquitous internet to thank for the massive diffusion of any and all information so now potentially everyone knows where everything is and how to do it or get there
  • c) tourism authorities rack their brains to come up with new and exciting promotions to places that are often not ready to receive the influx of tourism that comes from said promotion
  • d) politicians not involved in tourism but who are anxious to be patted on the back for their social awareness and for helping the ejidatarios and campesinos in becoming better political clients, throw massive amounts of money in their general direction (with plenty left over for splatter to cousins, compadres and family members who carry out their ambitious projects) in the form of infrastructure and development.

Case Study – Kankirixche Cenote

Located between the towns of Abalá (which in Mayan means not much going on here but we like to spend money on lamp posts) and Mucuyché (we’re a rustic pueblo but our hacienda is fancy) the Kankirixche cenote is a large, mostly open cavernous cenote that was absolutely gorgeous, and difficult to access both in terms of the road and also the actual climbing in and out of the water.

You would drive along an extremely rustic and rough former railway trestle, hoping for no oncoming vehicle since this would mean you had to back up from whence you came, and would park under a tree near the cenote. You might find a pickup truck there with diving tanks and other related paraphernalia, and in the water, lots of bubbles and lights from below as you lower yourself down a rickety ladder strapped – in pieces held together by wire, rope and faith – to the roots of a magnificent alamo tree growing out of the middle.

Aside from the divers and occasionally some local kids who arrived by motorbike, the site was serene and lived fully up to how cenotes are described in glossy tourism promotion materials: magical, mystical places full of history and home to aluxes and the spirits of the ancient Mayans.

Fast forward to 2019.

There is now a giant blue government sign marking the turn-off to get to Kankirixche cenote. The sign has the symbol for the cenote, for a restaurant, etc. All very civilized. The road has been somewhat widened here and there, so there is no more backing up except for perhaps a few short stretches, and that is a good thing because there is now a LOT of traffic going in and out.

When you arrived you are greeted by a handful of constantly changing campesinos from nearby Uayalceh, who claim that this cenote falls within their jurisdiction ejidatariamente speaking and so it is they who are entitled to charge you 60 pesos (gringo price) to enter the cenote. There is a rope that is lowered once you have paid so you and your vehicle can proceed. Your laminated “tickets” you will turn in to yet another individual who is sitting under the dilapidated life jacket structure, where you will pay extra to rent those should you so desire. There, is also the rocky parking lot, which is now usually filled with at least 5 cars and vans (on a good day) and up to 20 vehicles on a holiday or weekend.

 

That laurel tree growing from inside the cenote? It is now dead, having been blown over by a chubasco, a small whirlwind storm that hit the area some years ago. Its carcass is still lying there, in the trampled brown dirt and dust-covered rocks. The desolate scene is accompanied by the shouts and shrieks emanating from the water inside the cenote, which you can now access via a rickety wooden staircase and which is covered with clothing, sandals, backpacks and more, all of which belong to the hordes in the water, who are screaming and hollering like there is no tomorrow.

Whatever spirits inhabited these caves have long since departed in disgust, as you might also do upon encountering this disturbing scene. There is no magic here, no mysticism. It is a swimming hole, pure and simple and a very commercialized and crappy one at that.

I haven’t gone into the infrastructure details that are a modern feature at Kankirixche. The powers that be, in all their infinite wisdom and benevolence, have provided the campesinos with everything they need (this is at many cenotes throughout the Yucatan by the way) and that means the ladder access, the life jackets, a massive palm thatch roof structure to be used as a restaurant, accompanied by a fully equipped industrial kitchen with refrigeration, giant gas stove, oven, and even an extractor. There are solar panels on the roof for electricity. There are bicycles for rent – stored in chains among the upturned tables and chairs – that have never been moved except when the palapa restaurant floor is swept which happens rarely as the restaurant is NEVER open. There are change rooms, and bathrooms with composting toilets.

The campesinos have been given all this infrastructure in the form of a handout, with no conditions attached either in the form of repayment (insert guffaws of laughter here) or even teaching these people the basics of business to help them become self-sufficient and therefore actually achieve what was the purported goal of the program. And so, the campesinos could care less about making anything to sell, which means the restaurant is always closed and the entire infrastructure WASTED, sitting there like the white elephant it is, a monument to government waste and unrealized social program potential. The campesinos are happy to extend their hand for more money when something breaks and yes, if they vote for the party doing the handing out, they will receive the money.

On the last visit I made to this once beautiful spot, I was greeted by the usual shirtless men who charged me the entry fee, along with the sight of a family’s laundry hanging among the trees in plain sight. Pots, pans and dirty dishes were strewn among the tables in the restaurant, as were more unwashed pots and pans in the kitchen. Women, presumably the wives of the men, lounged in hammocks hanging in the restaurant. When I asked what they had cooked up that the answer was the same as it always is when I ask this same question: “hoy no cocinaron” Today they didn’t cook. Yes, well, there were only 10 cars in the parking lot at that moment and so it probably didn’t make economic sense to USE THE FREE INFRASTRUCTURE TO BRING A GOD DAMN CHICKEN AND SOME TORTILLAS to make some food for the approximately 100-200 people that would be visiting that day. It’s so much easier to just sit there and collect money.

Are you in a tourism destination or a village on laundry day?

looking back at the giant palapa built with a no-repay loan for the ‘poor’ campesinos thereby dooming them to a continuation of paternalistic handouts and no education or self improvement

Speaking of laziness and lack of planning, it is interesting to note that the garbage that is collected in bins at the site is simply dumped in the underbrush a few meters from the parking lot. Stroll into the forest, such as it is, and follow the trail. You will come upon piles of glass and plastic, as well as toilet paper (used) and evidence of human defecation with the charming sounds (huge flies) and smells that accompany an open toilet.

Yes, that’s a pile of human shit at the bottom left. How about we clean this all up before we go to Berlin to the tourism fair?

Kankirixche cenote is a perfect example of human laziness, blind mismanagement, government misspending and how a pretty tourism spot can be completely and utterly ruined by over-promoting it to the point of surpassing its capacity.

RIP Kankirixche.

Los Tiburones – Telchac Puerto

An afternoon on the beach in Telchac and a rumbling stomach with a hankering for something fishy? Try Los Tiburones right in the main square of Telchac Puerto, a half block from the pier and the cheesy shark thing to take your selfie in or the giant wrought iron bench to sit on.

Food is excellent, prices are moderate, and the service, given that the hated temporada was over and done with and the hordes having returned to their places of origin, was great.

Recommended!

Byblos Lebanese Restaurant – Club Libanés

The Casual Restaurant Critic and Better Half recently attended a small, family and friends wedding reception which was held at the Byblos restaurant in the Club Libanés, or Lebanese Club, where all the paisanos hang out on Sundays and where the debutantes’ photos line the walls. The club in itself is not much to speak of – as a venue for social events it is popular but not particularly appealing – but the restaurant has long been a Merida staple for solid Lebanese fare, home-cooked and delicious. On this occasion, the reception took advantage of the buffet, with many classic dishes represented.

From ftoyer to labne to garbanzo to gallina to kippeh to tabouleh, everything was delicious and far too filling to enable the Critic to try more than each dish twice. The service was gracious and the air conditioning cool. Prices are reasonable and if you want to be a Merida resident, you must have visited here at least once.

Kippeh crudo – raw meat, onion, mint

Kafta, or ground meat skewers, without the skewers

Ftoyer, filled with spinach or some such leafy vegetable

Kibbeh, Kipeh, kibi… many varieties of names. These are good but the ones from MIR are better.

Arrolladitos de parra, or wine leaf wraps (there’s meat and rice inside)

Arrollados de repollo aka cabbage rolls. Again rice and meat inside

Gallina rellena. This means stuffed hen. I don’t see the stuffed part, but this dish was the best of the buffet.