Category Archives: Travels

Traveling to Chetumal? The Restaurant Critic Recommends…

There’s not a whole lot to motivate you to want to go to Chetumal, the capital city of the neighboring state of Quintana Roo unless you have business with the state government there or are enroute to points further south via Belize. As a city, it has a somewhat provincial feel completely unbecoming a state capital. Everything there revolves around government jobs, real and imagined and the economy is based on the circulation of  government money. Also, as part of the now historic so-called zona libre, exempt from taxes levied against consumers back in the day, Chetumal became synonymous with cheap imported stuff that folks from Merida would drive hours for to buy and smuggle back into the Yucatan. Smuggle, because there was an actual border checkpoint on the Chetumal and Cancun highways where these entered the state of Yucatan. Cheeses from Holland, candies from all over, cookies from Denmark and butter in blue cans from New Zealand all became staples in the Yucatecan diet in the 60’s and 70’s, long before Costco, Sams and Walmart. Or Pacsadeli.

Enough with the history already!

Nowadays Chetumal will remind those who have lived here for some time, of a late 70’s, early 80’s Merida. There is nothing historical to look at really, except for the occasional wooden house, a tradition that made the place charming but wiped out by a hurricane in the 1950’s and never rebuilt. Everything is modern, square, unimaginative concrete with garish paint and horrific signage everywhere. There seems to be a problem with providing folks with garbage containers and so garbage can be seen most everywhere, including among the mangroves at waters edge. Chetumal is a popular place for folks from Merida to go when they head over the border into Belize to buy inexpensive Chinese junk and for Beliceños who want to step up and out from their border area to see something more modern. Granted, the state of Quintana Roo is one of the newest states in the United Mexican States (official name of Mexico did you know) but still, and for the same reason, you would think a somewhat more dignified city would carry the label of state capital.

On that 70’s-80’s theme, the fancy restaurant described a continuacion, is very much like what the Critic recalls from fancy restaurant experiences in Merida 30 years ago. The formal service, the elegant table-side dessert and salad preparation, the hygiene-challenged, poorly lit and charmless bathrooms completely at odds with what is happening out front, is a throwback to an earlier, less sophisticated time at least in terms of restaurants.

El Faro

El Faro, which means The Lighthouse, is undoubtedly one of Chetumals’ better restaurants. Ask a local which place is the best and the name will come up. Featuring formal service, lots of glassware and cutlery, real tablecloths and the stuffy feel of a tropical restaurant gone formal, the food is presented in a way suggesting that the chef or whoever is in charge of the kitchen has seen a few magazines and websites. It is good without being great and combined with the attentive yet cool service, the experience is decent enough.

Bucaneros

Bucaneros surprised the Critic because not only was the food great, but also the service was the friendliest experienced at any commercial establishment in Chetumal. Highly recommended for fun ambience and tasty, generously-portioned seafood creations including seafood-stuffed queso relleno!

Vietopia – Houston, TX

A quick layover in Houston on the way to Vancouver gave Better Half and I the opportunity to try the Vietopia restaurant, a busy with the lunch crowd Asian place in a strip mall near the Galleria area. The food was fine, although I have had better, particularly the General Tsao chicken. Better Half had some vermicelli with goodies on top and it came in a huge bowl which seemed to never empty. It was good, but not an OMG moment.

Go back? Probably not.

Dude! Really?

On my last visit to Vancouver, from which I have just returned only days ago, I was struck by the re-invention of the term “really” in the English language. I suspect that this is North America-wide and not just a Vancouver or Canadian thing as evidenced by a friend who visited from the nearby hamlet of Bellingham, Washington and uttered the expression in the title of this blog post over and over again.

“Really?” used to mean just that.

“I just bought a Ferrari” you would say.

“Really?” would be the incredulous or envious reply, depending on the self-esteem of the person you were conversing with.

If I were to describe the word ‘really?’ (as a question) as a wine it might be something like this: Questioning; with elements of sarcasm, disbelief and subtle undertones of disgust or pena ajena.

An example would be the following:

You are dying to get to a bathroom and simply cannot wait any longer. You stop between two cars in the parking lot to relieve yourself and your buddy, who had walked on ahead, walks back, sees what you are doing and says, with a pained look on his face “Dude. Really?”

I suppose a Spanish equivalent is being used as you read this, but I don’t know what it is. Perhaps “En serio, guey?” would be appropriate?

The Casual Restaurant Critic – Vancouver, Canada (Part II)

Continuing with the Critic and his neurotic reviews, here are some more notes on the restaurant scene in Vancouver which you may or may not find useful. A full refrigerator and invitations from friends for dinners and lunches have scene a drastic decline in the number of establishments visited; nevertheless, there is always something to observe, document or write about and so here goes.

VIJ

A good friend (who shall be referred to as Ms Cinci for the remainder of this write-up) of the Better Half and the Critic came to Vancouver for a brief visit and says “hey, my friend recommended Vijs for Indian food!” by way of suggestion and so the Critic and BH just had to see what the fuss was about; and were pleasantly blown away by the food!!

One arrives at Vij and sits at an outdoor terrace, where one can order an exotic drink; how does an Indian Mojito sound, with cilantro? Or a mango and masala infused dark rum cocktail called Dark Army?  Both of those were had and they were fantastic, while the little group sat outside waiting for a table in the packed, deliciously lit room. Appetizers are brought out while you wait, courtesy of the restaurant which takes no reservations and seating is on a first come, first served basis.

The food is absolutely glorious! Hearty, complex in the variety of flavors that cross your palate as you savor each and every bite. The Critic ordered the prawns, the Better Half a chicken-based dish and Ms Cinci had “lamb popsicles” which were actually little cutlets perfectly cooked – crispy, crunchy and tender chewy at the same time – in the most delectable, buttery and decadent sauce. All the dishes were served in large bowls so sharing was not only nice (inside joke) but encouraged and easy. Appetizers were fantastic as well; the Samosa with a very spicy stuffing was a meal in itself and who could resist the pork belly? Not this group!

The meal was accompanied by a bottle of crisp white wine going by the name of Joie Farm Market and was the perfect, non-intrusive complement to the outstanding food.

Service was gracious, professional and friendly by a mostly female staff who all took care of all the tables at once; none of this “my section” nonsense.

Ms Cinci picked up the bill so price information is not available, but a look at their website can give you, my dear reader, an idea.

Overall, the experience was gourmet, perfect for foodies, but not pretentious or stuffy in any way. Highly recommended!!

Website for Vij here.

Tomokazu Japanese

Tomokazu is a very popular all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant on Broadway in Vancouver. Thanks to the Mini-Critic, the Casual Restaurant and Better Half were able to experience this incredibly inexpensive sushi restaurant which is one of the few places open late in Vancouver, where you can go at 11 PM and find the place hopping.

The sushi is not the greatest in the world but for an all-you-can-eat option, and at the ridiculous price of 12.95 CDN per person, it is a bargain and you will not be disappointed. The Critic suggests ordering your limit of sashimi (there is a limit of 2 orders per person) and plenty of salmon niguiri (pieces). The fish is fresh and cold and delicious. Service is quick, with servers speaking enough English to get by. Orders are taken via a piece of paper where one marks the amount of each sushi you want and this is handed to the server. The food comes along almost instantly, so those guys at the sushi bar are really cranking it out.

Excellent value for the money.

Write-ups on Urban Spoon here.

That Mediterranean Food Store

There is a little specialty shop on Commercial Drive that has the largest selection of Lebanese and other Mediterranean food you have ever seen – the Critic and BH “discovered” this Vancouver institution while searching for lunch options to have at the vacation rental in Vancouver. If you love Lebanese food – and who in the Yucatan doesn’t – this is the place to go. The owner is there each and every day, doling out olives, humus (garbanza) and fresh-baked sweet and savory pastries and making jokes with his many customers.

Write up on Urban Spoon here.

The Casual Restaurant Critic – Vancouver, Canada

The Casual Restaurant Critic is on vacation from his “relaxed and carefree lifestyle” in Merida (phrase borrowed from a real estate TV show featuring Merida) and lounging in a relaxed and carefree manner in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Here are some random, food-related thoughts.

Sourdough Bread

Having become addicted to Monique’s Sourdough Bread (available at the Slow Food Market ie. her bakery in Colonia Chuburna and soon to be in a new, as yet undisclosed, location, the Critic was looking forward to some great sourdough in Vancouver. Alas, it has not yet been found. There is plenty of excellent looking sourdough but to bite into it, you might as well be chewing hardened Bimbo. The Critic will, in the name of personal research of course, continue his quest to find a sourdough that matches what is available in Merida. Merida!

The Ravenous Raven

The name is so West Coast isn’t it? In the space formerly occupied by the Treefrog restaurant (another good eco-friendly West Coast kind of name) a group of talented women have formed a business partnership and are running this restaurant which also features two guest suites which the Critic did not get a chance to try. But the food is great! Homecooked, abundant and well-priced, it is worth your trip to Texada Island, just off the coast of Powell River. Ideally you would go to Texada Island for something and take advantage of the Ravenous Raven for a good place to lunch. It is good enough though, that you could go to the Ravenous Raven for lunch and then find something else to justify the trip over. Say hello to Wendy. Website here

Havana

Havana is a great little spot on Commercial Drive for lunch or dinner whether you prefer your lunches and dinners of the liquid variety, or not. Their drinks are delicious and their yam fries and chipotle mayo are highly addictive. Eat at your own risk. If you order the Latin Burger, you will find, along with the usual trimmings and a thick beef patty, a chunk of sausage in there as well, making this burger impossible to eat with your hands. Website here

Burnaby Keg

The Critic has reviewed or written about The Keg before so he won’t bore you with more of the same. It’s still good, the service is gushy-friendly, the room is relaxed and you can have dinner in front of a fireplace! Nice to warm one’s buns while you’re eating on a chilly September evening. Website here.

Fresh Fruit

One of the things the Critic likes to do on a Canadian visit is to stop at fruit stands and buy fresh peaches, cherries, organic apples etc etc etc. The peaches this year are, apparently, a little late in ripening due to a terrible British Columbia summer and so at the moment the Critic consoles himself with nectarines, which are unbelievable; juicy and sweet. And to bite into a crisp apple is a delight after the mushiness of what is available in the Yucatan in the apple department. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, a mango here costs 84 pesos EACH while in Merida during mango season people are giving them away.

Speaking of fresh fruit, if you are renting a house or apartment in Vancouver and have an oven, do visit Whole Foods, formerly Capers market on Robson Street, downtown, and pick up one of their fresh baked pies made with whatever fruit is good and ripe at the moment. Heat that pie in your oven, add some vanilla ice cream and feast ’till you burst. Last night it was the sour cherry pie for this Critic. It was an OMG moment. Mouthgasms, even.

More later!