Monthly Archives: May 2010

Seafood 3 Days in a Row: La Dolce Vita, Cancun

Question: does anyone know what happened to the former doyenne of fine dining in Cancun?

Maybe it was the empty tables, the absence of a hostess, the fact that no owner was on site or perhaps it was the sad spectacle put on by the waiters, bumping 3 Stooges-like into each other as they scurried about, but the Critic got the impression that La Dolce Vita, a 30 year fixture on the Cancun culinary map, has finished its run.

No special martini or drink was offered. The Critic recalls that when you arrived at La Dolce Vita, after being seated by an attractive and attentive hostess, a waiter mentioned the cocktail of the evening (grape daiquiris made with real grapes, banana margaritas etc). Often there was live music in the form of a saxophone playera in the middle of the restaurant. The place felt ‘alive’.

No longer.

While the food was alright, the fact that the recipes are more or less the same does not a great dining experience make. The Critic remembers that the Caesars Salad, for example, was delicious back in the day.

Ensalada Cesar

What arrived at the table on this occasion was a rather excessively creamy yet curiously bland dressing smothering the orejona lettuce. The seafood platter looked spectacular, but turned out not to have much to offer in the flavor department.

Seafood Platter

Boquinete Wrapped in Pastry

The Critics favorite dish, the motivation that precedes every visit to the Dolce Vita in the last few years, is the boquinete wrapped in flaky pastry, baked and served hot with a lobster gravy.  This dish was as good as the Critic recalled, but somehow did not make up for the rest of the experience.

One thing that remains the same, however, is that the crocodile still comes to feed off the deck overlooking the Nichupte lagoon. And while the Dolce Vita has shrunk in the Critics eyes, the crocodile has grown to enormous proportions!

Elio al Mare, Progreso, Yucatan

Better late than never, is the Critics motto when it comes to trying out restaurants that have already been commented on by others; take the Wayan’e case for example, where the Critic waited 20 years to try the famous tortas and tacos and lo and behold, when he did get around to trying them, he was convinced that the mythical reputation was justified.

Elio al Mare, located between Progreso and Chicxulub right on the beach, has not been around for 20 years, but it has been commented on and recommended by Italian friends in Merida (OK one Italian friend) and several other people as well. In fact, it has become such common knowledge that an article even appeared on the restaurant in Plan B, the Diario de Yucatans colorful Thursday supplement featuring fun, exciting activities and places to go as well as the latest photos of Meridas beautiful people having a great time at Fridays.

So the Critic, with the Motley Crew, an assortment of friends who occasionally dine and travel together and is made up of several entrepeneurs, including the Better Half, a doctor and his wife and an engineer set out for Progreso. Why the Critic is even mentioning the existence let alone the composition of the group is not entirely clear, as it has absolutely nothing to do with the comment at hand, which is Elio al Mare.

Elio al Mare is in a converted house, right on the beach and open to the breeze that on this occasion was just perfect. Sometimes that breeze is too strong and no amount of gel will keep your do in place and you end up looking like Mickey Rourke in any of his latest films with your hair standing on end. At other times the breeze at the beach is too weak, thereby allowing the mosquitoes to get a wing-hold in the sticky humid night air, and your legs will become an “All You Can Suck!!!” bloody nightmare. As mentioned before, the breeze was perfect.

The man in charge, an Italian one assumes, as were several key people in bar and kitchen areas, greeted the party and threw together two tables on the deck/porch and the Crew was seated comfortably. A menu was presented and then everyone was served a sangria, cortesia of the restaurant, from a large punch bowl in the middle of the restaurant. A refreshingly original way to start a great meal!

So how was the food you may be wondering?

From the bread (warmed) and mushroom dip, through the octopus carpaccio, which was more like a cross between carpaccio and ceviche served with parmigiano chunks, onion and tomato, through the main courses, all pastas, were incredible. The other appetizers, an ensalada Caprese and a Greek salad, were delicious.

The Critic ordered a Carbonara, which in Merida usually means loads and loads of cream and a hint of bacon; all that cream has nothing to do with a Carbonara pasta; and this time, it was perfect. Not good, perfect. The pasta itself, homemade and cooked to al dente perfection. The egg and olive oil in the pasta, perfect. And the crunchy bacon chunks were not hiding timidly under bits of parsley, but out there in full force and in your face. The seafood pasta ordered by the doctors wife was a-ma-zing. The doctor, the Crews most finicky eater and skeptical sampler of menus, was motivated to enthusiastically exclaim that his lasagna was excellent, a comment that rarely escapes his lips with such feeling.

It might be because the Critic was hungry, that all this seemed so wonderfully delicious; however, avid readers may have deduced by the previous review that the Critic had in fact lunched rather heavily two hours earlier on Progresos malecon, so the rave review is not a result of an empty stomach.

The one quibble was with a glass of red wine ordered by yours truly, which was chilled to room temperature in Inuvik, but that was it.

The service was fine and the bill for 6, with only a little alcohol served, came to about 1800 pesos before tips.

Elio al Mare is one of the best restaurants the Critic has had the pleasure of reviewing in a while. Open from 1 – 10, they don’t take credit cards, only cash and will modify their operating hours during the summer months, opening a little later, from 3 – 12.

To make this review a classic Casual Restaurant Critic review, there is no address. The fine folks at Yucatan Today have one though, click here and you shall find it!

Happy eating!

Le Saint Bonnet, Progreso, Yucatan

Le Saint Bonnet is arguable the nicest looking restaurant along Progresos rather ragged malecon, which is why the Casual Critic suggested this as a lunch stop today for some out of town folks who wanted some seafood.

The tablecloths are white, but the fact that there are red stains indicates that these are not changed between diners.

Entertainment is provided, as is the case with all beach front restaurants, by the pirate DVD salesman, the plastic Chinese plastic bird salesman, the Chiapanecan blanket girls, the Cuban cigar salesman, a second pirate DVD salesman, a second Chinese plastic squawking bird salesman, and a lonely musician with a guitar who strummed a chord optimistically while smiling at diners and offering una cancion.

The Critic and his guests had – at the waiters suggestion – one of the restaurants specialities: the shrimp stuffed with crab, served with a combination of a creamy white and what appeared to be cocktail or barbecue sauce (red). When asked how many shrimp the dish had, the waiter replied that it had 4, but that it was well served and ‘si te llena‘.

And llenarnos it did. Those four shrimp, with the crab and the creamy sauce and an upside down bowlful of white rice in the center of the plate was too much to finish, and only the voracious 16 year old at the table managed to do so. The Critic wasn’t too enamored of the dish itself though; after the first shrimp it became empalagoso, which is a term that is hard to describe in English but it could be defined as when your taste buds become over-saturated with whatever it is you are eating – usually it’s used in reference to something sweet. Shrimp 3 and 4 were decidedly less exotic than shrimp 1 and 2.

There was no room for dessert. With 3 Cokes, the bill came to $465 pesos, before tip.

That Seafood Palapita across from Bancarios

The readers (well, some of them) of the Casual Restaurant Critic have asked him to include addresses so that they can find the restaurants he trashes and praises. This review, from the title alone, will probably irritate one or two of those people, but the truth is, that the Critic doesn’t want his column to look like everyone elses, what with B/L/D, AX, VI, MC, 9:00AM -5:00PM and all that other junk that the Critic can’t be expected to remember or jot down when he is enjoying a fantastic or terrible restaurant experience.

That said, the Critic will ALWAYS give directions to anyone who asks.

Today’s stomach-bursting seafood extravaganza lunch was had at that little palapita across from Bancarios, on the Correa Racho avenue. Bancarios is a club, with a huge swimming pool and all kinds of fun activities in the back; the Correa Racho avenue is named after a deceased local politician of PAN extraction, father of a local politician who still is in the business of politics. But this has nothing to do whatsoever with the restaurant, located on that avenue which, by the way, turns into the street in front of the Star Medica and Altabrisa mall that will eventually take you to the periferico and on to Cholul. This should be enough information to give even the most navigationally-challenged among you an idea of where to go. To find this restaurant, of course.

It is a locals favorite, and you won’t see too many tourists in there at all. The restaurant is small, maybe 20 tables at most; there is a palapa roof but air conditioning as well to keep things cool. It’s dark and homey inside and there is of course a television that you can watch when you realize that the person you are with is too boring to have a conversation with or if you are having a spat.

The service is fast, friendly and the waiters are knowledgeable and will recommend dishes rather than saying “todo esta bueno” which is the Critics least favorite answer to the question “What’s good?” Upon taking a seat, you are brought a basket of crispy corn chips and a few moments later, a small plate with a sample of whole-shrimp ceviche. Nothing better than getting something to nibble on when you are hungry and still have before you the weighty task of perusing the menu!

The Critic and his lovely Better Half ordered what amounted to too much food, but it was so good that it all managed to get finished. Two medium cocktails to start, one shrimp only, the other shrimp, octopus and squid; an order of xcatic chiles stuffed with cazon (shark) and bathed in tomato sauce; an order of queso relleno (stuffed cheese) with seafood instead of pork and beef and an order of the Critics favorite local fish, boquinete, pan fried with crunchy garlic bits.

All the food was delicious! The queso relleno was a little heavy on the bell peppers, in the CHO (Critics Humble Opinion), their sweet flavor overpowered the subtler taste of the almonds, capers and raisins. The presentation was interesting, on a banana leaf, which actually imparted some flavor to the dish. The boquinete filets were cooked just enough to not dry them out and the crispy garlic concoction that was sprinkled on top in tasty chunks complemented the understated fish nicely. Was that a pretentious sentence or what. But the most interesting item to pass over the Critics palate was the complex flavors of shredded shark meat stuffed into a mildly (if that) picante xcatic chile and bathed generously with a cooked tomato sauce.

No alcoholic drinks were had; only two limonadas con soda and of course, desserts were skipped entirely. The cost for this feast? $440 pesos, before tips. Highly worth your while to find this little gem of a place, which the Critic believes is only open for lunch.

Make sure you save a few coins for the bowing, scraping, toothy-smiled individual who works the parking lot and may open the restaurant door for you.

Merida Malls – A Primer

For those of you into malls, you will happy to know that there is a glut (too many, pues) of shopping malls in the formerly-white city of Merida. Wherever you turn, there is another mall! This is in addition to the already gazillion little placitas that people keep building on any available corner that feature independent and sometimes chain business that quite often are doomed to fail as a result of over-supply. This is the mall panorama at the time of this writing:

  • Plaza Dorada – The ‘family’ mall as they like to advertise themselves. This mall was one of the first malls on this side of the city and is an early architectural design by the now famous Augusto Quijano. It looks severely dated now, however, and is comprised of a series of independently owned shops for the most part along with one or two chains including a supermarket. The feel is cheap, and their market could be described as lower middle class. Not a place you would want to spend any more time than necessary in. The arrangement in the mall is that all commercial space is privately owned, so any renovations or improvements have to be agreed upon my all the owners, which, in Merida, is a challenging prospect to be sure.

    In addition, Plaza Dorada was eclipsed by the construction of the Las Americas mall right next door, which put the nail in the Dorada coffin – a nail that had been placed there by the burning (some say intentional) of the Dorada cinemas, run by Ramirez who were opening a mini-plex at the new Las Americas across the street.

    Plaza Dorada is not a happy place.

  • Plaza Fiesta – Once Meridas premiere mall, before the opening of La Gran Plaza, Plaza Fiesta manages to hang in there after years and years of operation and several ambitious renovations. Built in the square, boxy style common at the time, Plaza Fiestas latest reno made the interior more curvy and a little more modern. Hard economic times have hit Plaza Fiesta where it counts and many many commercial spaces are vacant making the ambiance more depressing than it was. Sin embargo, locals from the area still go there to do there shopping at the supermarket and there are several bank outlets as well, making it a functional plaza but not a destination for people who like to stroll the malls
  • Plaza Oriente – As its name implies, Plaza Oriente is in that part of town known as the Oriente, which is not an oriental reference in the sense of anything Chinese, but rather that it lies in the eastern part of town. Not exactly an upscale neighborhood, the area around Plaza Oriente is middle to low income families and the minimal offerings at this shopping center reflect the low level of discretionary income available to be spent within its severely aesthetically challenged interiors. A few shops, a bank or two and that’s about it. One of Meridas first malls, this is one place you would never feel compelled to visit for any reason.
  • La Gran Plaza – the construction of this new, modern mall was announced with much fanfare in 1994 and its moniker is ‘the fashion mall’. Just like that; in English. And when it was finished, in its initial phase, it was indeed the place to go and Merida was excited to have a mall just like the ones in the US and Canada, all fancy and upscale. Shops were charged an arm and two legs to get in and the rents were the highest ever charged for commercial space in an enclosed shopping environment. The Gran Plaza became THE destination mall to stroll around in and the businesses that catered to this strolling market made a killing.
Now when I say ‘destination’ mall I mean that it took the place of the traditional zocalo or main square that is a central fixture in every Mexican town and small city; where the populace comes to see and be seen, where young folks of opposite sexes glanced at each other furtively under the watchful eyes of aunts or mothers or perhaps a chaperon in the form of a little brother or sister; where old men came to gossip and leer somewhat discreetly at the young females in their best and flirtiest outfits; where entire families strolled, ice cream cones in hand and greeted one another warmly. This social environment has not been eradicated in spite of the best efforts of Televisa, Dish Network and DirecTV. It has simply moved indoors, where a climate controlled environment makes for a much more pleasant outing. Mothers and fathers routinely leave their barely pre-teen children in the mall, to hang out with their friends, perhaps go to a movie and just chill, thinking that the mall security will keep an eye on them. Those of us who have children who grew up during that time can remember vividly the masses of people congregating at Wendy’s (now Starbucks) directly across from the Gran Plaza and where parents would pick up their offspring after the mall closed.
  • Plaza Las Americas – As I alluded to earlier, Plaza Las Americas was built directly across the street from Plaza Dorada under the auspices of the owners of Chedraui, who own similar projects throughout Mexico, always with one of their supermarkets as an anchor. Plaza Las Americas was a ‘big deal’ at the time since it actually looked pleasant and had some interesting stores, a cinema (the Ramirez company who used the insurance money from the fire at their Plaza Dorada location to finance the new theaters) and a food court with real gringo franchises like KFC, McDonalds and Burger King. It is however, a small mall and not much fun to stroll around in since the distance to be covered from one end to the other is too short and the layout is a Y which makes it difficult to go in circles.
After a few years of stability in the mall market, someone heard something and a spate of construction began that created the current mall glut in Merida.
  • MacroPlaza –  built in that area behind Los Pinos, near the monument to the Xtabay, this tiny strip mall is another shopping only kind of mall with not much to offer beyond a supermarket, some stores, a nearby WalMart and a cinema. There is a tiny food court but nothing exciting that would lure you to come and have a look.
Major malls soon followed.
  • Altabrisa – a joint venture by the group that built the Gran Plaza, along with Carlos Slims company (one of them, anyway) and two other investors, this mall is probably Meridas most ambitious mall to date, easily out doing the Gran Plaza in terms of fashion-ability and status symbol stores. Everything from Haagen Dazs to Zara to Starbucks to Nine West to Benetton can be found within the walls iof this huge, high ceilinged collosus that is run like a mall would be run in the US or Canada. That is to say: all the stores, or at least 80%, are occupied, the air conditioning works, there is music from the moment you step out of your car and in general it’s just a pleasant place to be on a hot Merida day. All the upper middle class to upper class folks from Merida, young and old, come to this mall to do their walking around and the cinemas are probably Meridas best. Unlike movie theaters in the US or Canada, these cinemas are packed when a blockbuster movie comes out or on a Saturday night.

    A quibble I have with this mall is its awful food court, which resembles an unfinished airport hangar with food stalls on either side of it. The space in the middle is gigantic, full of metal and plastic chairs and tables and completely devoid of any charm. Eating there is an exercise in self control, as you want to run from the place, it is so uncomfortable.

    Points go this mall for its mall-ness, its location; ideal for buying a gift or waiting for someone to get better (or die) at the Star Medica hospital next door, the fact that it has a Chili’s and those deliciously decadent top shelf margaritas, a great cinema experience, Starbucks coffee and almost every upscale store you could want.

At the same time that Altabrisa was being built, a group from Mexico City announced the construction of yet another mall, because Merida – hooray – really needed another mall.
  • Galerias – owned by the folks who run Liverpool the department store, this is another high end mall, complete with a central ice skating rink, a Ghandi bookstore (big deal if you are from Mexico City, although it has absolutely nothing on a Borders or Chapters) and even a Hugo Boss boutique. I don’t know of anyone who would buy anything at retail in a Hugo Boss store here, but then that’s just me. This mall, as a shopping experience, is probably a failure judging from the business closing there in the last year or two. The big draw is the air conditioning, the casino and the skating rink. Oh and the fabulous margaritas and consistently mediocre service that characterize the American chain restaurant, Chili’s. The food court at Galerias is off in one corner on the second floor, almost as if it were an afterthought and is as unattractive as the one in Altabrisa, but with even less options.
Another group of businessmen, from somewhere up north, smelled opportunity (how or what, quien sabe) were building, at the same time:
  • Plaza Senderos – another giant project that would serve that part of the city previously attended to by the tiny and outdated Plaza Oriente. Unfortunately this mall never really took off and is struggling at the moment.
  • City Center – If the above were not enough, the Hines Group out of Texas (Gallerias in Houston is one of theirs) and their Mexican affiliates had the brilliant idea to also build a shopping mall, but with a different concept in mind. Theirs would be half outdoors and strollers would be able to shop and dine al fresco since to get from one shop to another you needed to stroll around outside. With retail giant WalMart as their anchor, they ambitiously launched their advertising campaign. Fridays came on board (under a different franchise owner than the Fridays on Montejo, btw) as did Los Trompos who opened their most ambitious taqueria yet, complete with a giant revolving sign. Unfortunately here too, the demand for this mall did not meet expectations and the shopping center is mostly empty. The food court, for example, has not a single occupant.
I think I have hit most of the major shopping malls in Merida with this little write-up; hopefully, as a newcomer to Merida, you will find it useful when deciding where to go to escape the heat, which is what a great majority of Meridanos use their mall time for.

Allianz Medical Insurance – My Experience

Here is a post that I started writing about two years ago and never got around to finishing. Apparently at the time I was venting on subjects more political than Merida.

I think it still pertinent and also somewhat interesting for those of us who pay private medical insurance in Mexico in the hopes that if something goes wrong one won’t have to stand in line dripping blood at the nearest IMSS clinic along with a hundred other unfortunate beneficiarios of their magnificent service.

And it is interesting to think that if the medical insurance companies in the united states are unregulated, imagine what they are like here. In any case here is what I wrote, again, two years ago:

It’s about time I got back to writing something – anything – about life in Merida from a neurotic foreigners POV before this turns into another political blog, of which there are so many. It’s just that sometimes I can’t help myself; my neuroses are not limited to local events or situations and must be expressed, divulged and otherwise expelled from my neurotic mind, according to my therapist. You, my dear readers, suffer the consequences of my therapy.

It turns out that Yours Truly, under a lot of stress during the holidays, had a Medical Situation happen that involved a restaurant, a loss of consciousness, an ambulance, paramedics and a short stay at the Star Medica hospital here in sunny Merida.

Without going into too much detail, once I was declared alive and well, the $18,000 peso bill was paid by credit card on the 24th of December and this neurotic foreigner was let loose and went home with the understanding that the medical insurance he had been paying for the last 7 years would reimburse the costs (or a portion thereof) forthwith.

It turns out that Allianz, through it’s representative who is also my soon-to-be former insurance agent, informed me that no, they can’t pay for any of the hospital bills until further tests are done. Apparently the doctor on duty referred my case to a specialist who wrote epilepsy on the preliminary diagnosis and so, Allianz needs more tests including MRI’s and what not to determine if that is the case, in which case, they will (perhaps?) pay.

It also turns out that Allianz will pay for an emergency stay in a hospital if you are in there for 24 hours, a fact which my excellent and informed insurance representative and former friend neglected to mention to my Better Half, even though he was actually at the hospital talking to the doctors about the case. I was released from the hospital about 18 hours after arriving, and had we known, I am sure my Better Half would have knocked me on the head to keep me there for a few hours longer.

A visit to Allianz’s offices later resulted in a receptionist giving me some forms to fill out, which were exact copies of the ones I already had where the doctor had filled in his preliminary diagnosis. No help there.

Moral of the story? Nothing major happened to me in this case, nor did this incident bankrupt me. But one should be aware that the health insurance horror stories you hear about from the United States are not limited to the HMO’s in the United States; they are part of the system here too, where supposedly we have an excellent public health system which, unfortunately, leaves much to be desired and requires a backup plan.

Caveat Emptor.

Possibly the Best Breakfast in Vegas?

While looking around Las Vegas for an indy record store to find an elusive CD by Marina and the Diamonds, the Mini-Critics favorite group, the Critic was on the look-out for a Starbucks for a good, strong, morning coffee.

After driving for some time, it became evident that the street called Sahara in Las Vegas is not as chockablock with Starbucks as say, Granville in Vancouver and so the Critic began looking for anything resembling coffee (besides McDonald’s) when suddenly, coming up quickly on the right, a sign advertising breakfast – the Hash House a Go Go.

The ad above, scanned from the Dine Out magazine that purports to tell its readers which restaurants are Vegas’ best, essentially says it all. And that dish in the ad actually exists: waffles and fried chicken (honest) in a vertical tower and of such gigantic proportions, that you would never believe one person could finish the platter by themselves.

Of course they can, and they do.

The Critic did a little survey of the people coming in and a solid 70 percent of the almost all-white patrons (along with a few hefty Latinos) were little more than round, roly-poly chubmuffins, who waddled up to the hostess station, announced their names and patiently waited. There was a 20 minute wait for breakfast, and the Critic arrived at 11:00 AM! This 20 minute wait turned into a 10 minute wait for lunch; the action never stopped.

The food is gloriously delicious and completely over-the-top too much. Not generous, TOO much! The Critic ordered a hash consisting of crunchy fried potatoes which are combined with different fresh ingredients (there are 5-6 on the menu). In the Critics case, a mild, almost Italian sausage-like “chorizo”, peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheddar cheese to round out the cholesterol content. This came with a biscuit/bun and a healthy serving of scrambled eggs. It was impossible to even try the bread, let alone attack the eggs and some of that hash didn’t get tucked away either. The juice – apple – is fresh squeezed and a real treat, as is the coffee which is formidably strong and tastes absolutely delicious.

Service is fast and friendly in the typical American restaurant way (when things are going right) and so no complaints there.

At 20 dollars for enough food for a mid-size Gambian family, the Hash House is both satisfying and not a big hit on your pocketbook.

And the Critic never did find that Marina and the Diamonds CD.

Coffee Cup Café – Boulder City, Nevada, USA

Just a quick update to let all Casual Restaurant Critic fans that the Coffee Cup Cafe (reviewed previously here) is alive and well, a touch of real food and ambiance just outside (a comfortable 15-20 minutes drive) of glitzy Las Vegas.

On this occasion the Critic had the Salsa Verde Pork omelet, a house special which was, as usual, far too much to eat for one person. Coffee could have been a little better, but all in all, it’s still a charmer, as is the little town of Boulder City itself.

Afterwards, visit the Hoover Dam or gamble at the Hacienda casino on the way, where you can play the roulette table for hours on 2o dollars.