Category Archives: Casual Restaurant Critic

The Casual Restaurant Critic is where you can read all about restaurants both in Merida, the Yucatan and beyond.

The Casual Restaurant Critic Revisits La Pigua and Kraken

While La Pigua is the more famous of the two, Kraken is probably a little more elaborate in its recipes and presentations. Both restaurants, of course, are all about seafood and favorites of the Critic since the Pleistocene era.

In other words, for a while now.

La Pigua has the traditional coastal seafood you would expect; from seafood cocktails and salads to fried whole fish, all done with flair and accompanied by excellent and professional service. The Pigua was reviewed here (with photos) in 2012 – http://www.lawsonsyucatan.com/2012/01/08/la-pigua/

Kraken is the more recently opened restaurant, and Isla Arena (Campeche) native Eduardo Estrella is really an estrella when it comes to combining fresh fish and seafood with local and not so local ingredients and presenting the result in true top chef fashion. Service is still a little below the level of the food, but perfectly adequate.

Enjoy the photos (all from Kraken) and visit one of these classic Merida seafood dining options, both highly recommended by the cantankerous Critic.

Pulpo (octopus) Kraken

Camarones (shrimp)

Tiradito de Atun (tuna) This was the Critic’s dish and on top of the raw tuna was a mango sauce with serrano chile and sesame and a sauce on the plate featuring among other things, dijon mustard which was unexpected and delicious

Ceviche de camarones (shrimp)

Shrimp taco

Breaded shrimp taco

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at PhoMX Reforma

PhoMX has been reviewed before, here. But that was the other location – this PhoMX is the one that has taken over the space occupied by YoungHee’s kitchen, the Korean restaurant that has now closed.

The service here is great – the Critic would suggest better than the other location and the food seems better too, but that is probably a culinary illusion. If you are in the area, perhaps waiting on a bullfight to start down the road or waiting for Namu Namu to open in the parking lot, or are looking for an alternative to Platos Rotos (reviewed in 2011) nearby – this just might be the spot for you.

Noodles aka No. 23 on the menu 🙂

Appetizer platter, with a few delicious samples

Garnishes for the Critics broth

The delicious broth aka No 25 on the menu, which is really a meal for about 17 people

The iced Viet coffee is worth the visit alone

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Eureka

It’s not a screaming headline that the Critic loves Eureka. It is, in fact, the only restaurant in town where he will let the chef cook up whatever and it will be fabulous, menu be damned.

On this occasion, and in celebration of the arrival of 2019, the Critic, MiniCritic and omnipresent Better Half enjoyed a delicious New Years lunch at what is arguably one of Merida’s best restaurants.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Micaela

The Critic is well aware that those in the know have already been to Micaela and raved about it – hell, even the Better Half has been here before – but today was the day that the Critic was able to get his sorry self there and, together with the well-traveled and socially mobile Better Half, see what all the Micaela fuss was about.

The restaurant is, in a word, gorgeous. Each and every angle and corner is a feast for the eyes; from the decorations and art on the walls to the floor tiles to the ceiling lighting.

The service is gracious and attentive – thank you Ariel, Armando, and Alejandra – and the food, well the food is astounding.

Between the two of them, the Critic and Better Half enjoyed the sample chilpachole soup in a tiny cup, the arrachera ceviche, seafood soup, two kinds of oysters, and the pigs’ ears battered up and frittered to delicious chewiness and crispiness. Note that the oysters are small, even tiny, so don’t be expecting the gigantic Washington state version.

There is not much the Critic can add to the already many gushing reviews out there, so this brief description and the photos will have to do. Congratulations to co-owner Alberto, who graciously invited us to the Cacao dessert, which should not be missed!

Happy face in the kitchen

View from the bar into the dining room

The lamps over the bar, and the wall behind, were begging to be photographed

Where the magic happens

These oysters are really tiny, but this particular roasted version with that pesto, is amazingly delicious. Ask for a chunk of bread to wipe up the pesto.

Crispy, chewy, delicious pigs ears. Really. With a dipping sauce and a grilled lime

Crispy fried oysters. These are good, but the other oysters are better, in the Critics humble opinion.

Take out the fish from the ceviche and thrown in arrachera, and you have arrachera ceviche.

The slightly spicy shrimp and crab seafood soup. Too good.

Armando preparing fresh ice cream table-side.

Alberto showing off the amazing whole fish, one of the specialties on the menu. This will be ordered next time for sure.

Lime, coconut and maracuja dessert

Real coffee. Espresso and americano

Cacao – fantastic chocolate dessert

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Zu, a Club Sibarita Event

The recently opened Zu, located in the Victory Platz (yes, that’s German) along Merida’s busiest commercial street (the one that leads from the pocito roundabout to the City Center mall at the periferico) was the scene for another successful and delicious Club Sibarita event. Excellent food by the Zu chef and a guest chef from Zoetry Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres along with wines from the oldest winery in the Americas; Mexican winery Casa Madero. The results were spectacular and the Critic (accompanied as usual by the ever-present and multi-talented Better Half) was glad to have had the opportunity to experience this event.

If you haven’t been to a Club Sibarita event, you really should consider getting on their mailing list. There is no membership fee and there are events throughout the year that highlight amazing food, drinks, and the good life.  You attend only those events you find appealing or interesting.

All contact and additional info in the links throughout.

On to the photos!

Menu

table setting

The restaurant

the bar

full menu

artistic shot of our illustrious leaders, the founders of Club Sibarita and Dolce magazine

happy diner

an amazing salad to start

Casa Madero was the official wine provider for the event, matching great Mexican wines with each exquisite dish

Inside the La Isla Food Court – OnThai

At Merida’s second-newest (the newest being Via Montejo) monstrous shopping mega shopping mall, complete with a let’s-turn-Merida-into-Miami artificial lake, there are some shops now open and the food court is fully operational and worth a visit. The Critic is talking about La Isla at Cabo Norte.

It is a strange food court, in that all the locales, with the exception of a few at the entrance area, are owned by the same company, Distrito Gourmet. They all look alike: lots of black backgrounds with white lettering and yet, at the same time, different. There are tacos, sushi, Thai, steaks, pastas, but they are all under the same company umbrella. This was the info provided by one of the employees when asked why the sushi person was in the taco place and vice versa. Also, you can see the same company-labeled drinks in all the countertop refrigerators, like horchata, piña con chaya etc as well as the usual Cokes.

Speaking of those drinks, do not have the piña con chaya drink as it is quite horrendous, so artificial tasting that you might as well be drinking Fabuloso. The horchata is much more palatable. And if you do, notice the ingredients labels on the plastic bottles. Here are some photos so you can reach your own conclusions (it’s probably not even legal to have this lack of information on a food product but the Critic knows nothing about such things) regarding what’s in that drink:

That’s right, the ingredients are: water. Notice that they are also free of protein, fats and sodium. No sugar either. OK.

Anyway, back to the food.

The Critic and MiniCritic decided on Thai at OnThai for something different than the usual boring tacos. The one employee commented that he was the only one who had been trained in Thai cooking and was therefore working 12 hours a day, every day. Every day.  No days off. How a probably successful company (and the owners are probably doing very well thank you) can exploit an employee this badly in 2018 is beyond the Critic’s imagination, but again, what does he know about Mexican labor laws which look great on paper but are completely ignored in real life.

Back to the food.

The Critic ordered Pad Thai and the Mini-Critic a rice dish. As it turned out they were exactly the same: same ingredients (Mini-Critic chose shrimp and the Critic chicken) same sauce; they even looked the same. So much so that it wasn’t even worth it to take a photo of the rice. They were very tasty though and the Critic would probably go back to try something else from the limited menu of available items (about 8).

Hilarious non-related observation: there is a lifeguard watching the artificial lake.

Enjoy the photos and excuse all the ranting!

A pastry and dessert shop

Something healthy looking

Something Spanish

Pad Thai

Was it good? Yes!

 

Miyabi Revisited – What is Wrong with these Servers

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.

Playa del Carmen for Tourists

The strange roof top pool at the weird but comfortable Reina Roja hotel in Playa del Carmen

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.

The touts

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.

Discounts galore

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.

Pharmacies

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.

Weekend getaway

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.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Numen

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.

Pozole

Pozole

Tacos al Pastor, vegan style

Torta de Empanizado, which was sort of a bean paste, and not great at all

Pasta w Tomato Sauce and vegan “cheese”

Avocado tacos

The accompanying fries were the best part of this empanizado torta

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic Hitting and Missing at the Gran Plaza Mall

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 Miss

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.

The Hit

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.