Tag Archives: Life in the Yucatan

El Catrin, a New Merida Centro Bar Option. The Casual Restaurant Critic, yet Again.

El Catrín, calle 47, Mérida

Accompanied by the Better Half and Mini-Critic, the Casual Restaurant Critic visited this 6 month-old addition to the Merida centro bar and restaurant scene, located on the up and coming gourmet stretch of calle 47, which already features 130 Grados, Oliva, Caffe 47 and others, and was suitably impressed by both the place itself, and its food. Gracious and friendly service rounded out the very positive experience.

The giant mural in the back, outdoor area of El Catrín

Artist credit. Murals and framed art inside as well.

Outside design and cool-ness

Salsas

These are napkin holders

Esquites, corn, queso fresco and plenty of zest. If you don’t like esquites, try this anyway. You’ll love it.

This caldo cantinero is a perfect seafood broth. For those who love chilpachole 🙂

Carnitas; can’t go wrong with carnitas

Good stuff to sprinkle on your carnitas, including chicharron

Carnitas deserve a close up, don’t you think?

Empanadas, beautiful

Guacamole w grasshoppers and cherry tomatoes

Fabulous chocolate brownie that looks like a tamalito, hoja santa ice cream and popped corn and strawberries and and and…

The Casual Restaurant Critic at a Xcanatun Wine Pairing Event

Hacienda Xcanatun, one of the Critic’s favorite go-to options when you want to eat in a civilized manner, without crowds, without downtown traffic (bonus: no retenes! for after-wine driving peace of mind) just the other day had an interesting event featuring some of their typically fabulous food paired with some delicious wine from Baja California, part of a collection called The Four Seasons by Proyecto Vinícola de México (links at the bottom of the page) On this occasion, three of those seasons were presented to the folks attending.

Since wine is such a subjective topic, we shall leave the flowery descriptions to others far more qualified than the Critic. Nevertheless, there was one fine Chardonnay (Spring) accompanied by both a home-made duck paté as well as a terrific no-lime esmedregal ceviche and one very rich red blend (Fall), the latter a favorite at the Critic’s table, with definite notes of forest fire and earthiness. ‘Velvet’ was was another term that came to mind after some serious consultation and mouth swirling with the Critic’s always entertaining table neighbor, the Sculpting Critic and her husband, the Eagle Scout. That’s some pretty flowery wordplay right there…

As usual, a terrific experience at Hacienda Xcanatun.

The menu, with what appears to be one unfortunate typo

A delicious meaty paté

Spring, one of the four seasons collection – a Chardonnay – presented this evening

Hearty meat dish with grilled veggies to accompany the smoky Fall wine blend

Fall, which you might do after having too much of this delicious wine

Fall, again

Part of the fun was trying to figure out what the medallion around the sommeliers’ neck was all about. “Lemon squeezer” was one guess from the Critic’s happy table partners

Scrumptious chocolate cake to accompany the Winter wine, a South African dessert wine made especially for the Mexican label

The dessert wine Elefante sparkles on the left and the sultry Fall wine rests sullenly on the right. The angle of the photo was seriously affected by wine consumed up to this point

Links for more info:

Proyecto Vinícola de Mexico

Hacienda Xcanatun

The Casual Restaurant Critic at La Galeria Cantina Artesanal

The Casual Restaurant Critic and his Better-than-Ever Half, had the opportunity (by invitation) to visit this cantina/restaurant and sample some of their amazing food very recently. With expectations not really high nor low but somewhere in between, both the Critic and BH were blown away by the food, which is on the level of some of the best they have tried in Merida, and if you are fan of Mexican food prepared with imagination, creativity, and attention to detail, you are in for a treat.

The room itself is a mixup of an art gallery – there is all kinds of art on the walls – cantina and restaurant. Real tables and chairs, cool and dark, and music videos on the television monitors.

Service is a little distracted until Salvador, one of the owners, shows up and then things improve dramatically. When asked what beers they had, the answer was “Sol y Lager” and when asked for more detail and what other beers there were, as in artisanal beers, the information became a little more detailed. La Cantina offers a chocolate stout and an IPA by Tatich, a local craft beer. The Critic ordered the dark which was a delicious accompaniment to the food that followed.

Salvador told the Critic that the idea of the restaurant/cantina is to provide guests with a relaxing space where the beer is cold and not expensive (at $25 pesos it’s much cheaper than other places that serve free botanas) but with excellent food also at a reasonable price. A place you can visit 2 or more times a week and not break your pocketbook. And the food, dear readers, is truly amazing! Ingredients and recipe ideas from all over Mexico -guacamole w mezcal anyone? – are combined with Yucatecan influences to create original, delicious dishes that are generously portioned and extremely satisfying. You will not feel you are in a normal cantina; this is a much more gourmet experience and will please the most ardent foodie.

Enjoy the photos and come to eat here soon! La Galeria Cantina Artesanal is located on the corner of 54 and 35, very close to the CMA hospital just down the street, and open from 1-11 PM. Credit cards and cash are accepted.

A dark cool place to escape the midday heat

Blue corn chips for scooping up these delicious lentil and bean dips

The room. Plenty of art everywhere

Castacan con pulpo salad. This dish is gigantic and can be shared among many. Not to be missed!

Real mushrooms, real gouda cheese, looks as good as it tastes!

 

Poc chuc

Octopus tacos and grilled tuétano!

Blue corn tortillas

The men’s bathroom is worth visiting, truly

Entry to the bathrooms; if you’ve had too much to drink, you might find all the glass and mirrors somewhat disorienting. But this is the nicest baño you will ever find in a cantina, guaranteed.

More art on the walls!

The bar

Piece de resistance: pork chamorro bathed with home-made mole sauce

Roasting those bones

Chef Miguel Uicab at work

The Man behind the Magic, Miguel Uicab

Casual Restaurant Critic at Ixi’im, Chablé Resort and Spa

Recently the Critic had the opportunity, thanks to the well-connected Better Half, to attend a sort of ‘fam’ trip to the fabulous Chablé Resort and Spa, recipient of several international awards in the tiny village of Chocholá, Yucatan.

The outing was organized by the Merida-based Club Sibarita, an informal group made up of like-minded people who enjoy great food and wine, spearheaded by Caro Molina and Jean Philippe of Dolce Magazine, who have also organized spectacular dinner events with renowned chefs from the region and Mexico in general, the last one at Merida’s Hyatt. The purpose of this trip was to sample some of chef Luis Ronzon’s culinary creations and take a tour of the former – and extensively, lavishly reconstructed – henequen plantation.

The room at Ixi’im is welcomingly chilled (it’s a thousand humid degrees outside) and gorgeous and you will be impressed with the collection of over 3,000 different types of tequila, and the resort is well on its way to holding the Guinness World Record for largest collection of tequilas in the world. Yes, in the world. It’s not just the bottles though: look up and notice the lamps made with jicaras, the ropes used as a decorative element and take note of the architecture which is glass and steel surrounding and integrated into the original stone structures of the hacienda, which have been left standing and make up part of the innovative and award-winning design.

The food and wine were, in a nutshell, amazing. A light foam to start off and whet the appetite, followed by a very green and very fibre-rich salad of quelites (translated as pig-weed, or amaranth depending on who you consult), parsley and cilantro with an emulsion dressing and some Tabasco queso fresco and roasted green tomato. Very chewy and a good combination with a French 2014 Bordeaux white wine.

Next up, the main course of cordero from nearby Tahmek, where grower Jennifer and her husband are providing the area with some excellent local lamb cuts. This was served in an huasteco adobe sauce that to the Critic, rivaled any cochinita he has ever tried.  This was paired with the robust 2012 Chateau des Tourelles “La Cour des Glycines”. Perfect. A second glass of wine was had and things started to get very pleasant indeed.

Finally, a third plate was the cilantro foam with guanabana (soursop) sorbet and pineapple. Accompanying this dish was a sweet dessert wine: Haut Marin “Venus” 2015. Delicious.

Service was gracious and professional. This was a private event but the Critic is sure that your experience will be equally impressive!

For more information: click here to go to the restaurant’s own website. Wine info at Les Vines de Moliere website. And you can read more about Caro and Jean Philippe’s Dolce magazine here!

Enjoy the photos!

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Kraken

Remember the movie with Liam Neeson about the Kraken? The Critic is sure it was a fantastic movie with plenty of Oscar potential but for some reason he never had the opportunity to see it. Of course the Critic is being somewhat sarcastic in his appreciation of the movie’s merits.

Kraken the restaurant, on the other hand, would definitely be an Oscar contender if there was a category for best local seafood.

Chef Eduardo Estrella and his crew have created a restaurant that looks like your average seafood place from the outside, but when you talk to him and try his food, you will quickly realize that he is in another league entirely. He and his family are from Isla Arena, Campeche and if you dear reader know anything about gastronomy on the Yucatan peninsula, you know that the best recipes and most amazing cooks come from the neighboring state of Campeche; Eduardo is one of these people. Not only does he come by his skills naturally, he also formally trained in the US and applied the techniques he learned there, to the abundant local ingredients he can get here.

Chef Eduardo Estrella (middle) and his hard working team

All the seafood is fresh, and brought directly from Isla Arena. He will not purchase frozen seafood from the many suppliers who have stopped by to offer their products – and you can tell when you taste the food.

The Critic and the always amazing Better Half visited Kraken for lunch and it was probably the best seafood either have had in a long while. For starters, the menu was set aside as chef Eduardo suggested that he would prepare a series of plates for the table so as to be able to sample as many different flavors and textures as possible.

First up was a mixed ceviche tostada. Tiny ria (think Lagartos or Celestun) shrimp, literally bursting with flavor, unlike the flavorless shrimp one so often gets in a cocktail or ceviche these days, mixed with fish and octopus. This was glorious.

Next, aguachile in both red (shrimp) and green (fish) styles, with both items marinated in a lemony and very spicy broth, full of flavour. Notice that the dishes are beautiful to look at as well; presentation is top notch.

The third dish was a shrimp broth (caldo de camaron) full of flavor and some larger shrimp along with assorted minced veggies chopped in for texture.

Two plates arrived next, both octopus. The charred octopus is the Kraken octopus and the other was del Capitan. The Critic is not a huge fan of octopus since it is so often poorly prepared and impossible to eat unless you are a cat. These two samplings were perfect.

Then, what was probably the favorite dish of the meal, shrimp wrapped in bacon and cooked to crisp, on a lake of home-made tamarind sauce that was out of this world. The kind of sauce you want to stick your fingers in and get the last drops off the plate. And, something original and unseen in many restaurants, perfectly cooked vegetables on the side. Who does green beans in Merida?? And a black rice cooked in octopus ink. Amazing!

At this point the Better Half and Critic both were thinking that this couldn’t go on much longer as it would be sheer gluttony but there was one more plate to come: a pasta dish, with a cream sauce and fresh crab, baked over with parmesan and panko. This too, proved to be fantastic and was finished to the last noodle, much to the dismay of the ever-expanding waistlines.

Obviously there was absolutely no room whatsoever to even think about a dessert!

The room is casual; there are two televisions with music videos and a Kraken mural on one wall. The service is laid back but friendly. But the food! It is absolutely worth the drive, for drive you must to this location in Caucel, just past the periferico about a kilometer from the Walmart. The restaurant is located in Plaza Boulevard, behind Lapa Lapa which is what you will see first when you are arriving at your destination.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Radio Station Pizza

Radio Station Pizza

With Better Half (BH) and Cincinnati Girl Invited (CGI)  along for giggles, the Critic visited this brand new pizzeria which is owned by a distant family member.

((begin disclaimer)) If you – dear reader – are wondering what the policy is regarding the reviews of restaurants owned by friends or family, it is this: if the restaurant is crap the Critic will not mention it so as not offend sensibilities and cause massive discussions at Thanksgiving dinners. If it is good however, and worth a visit for the seventeen readers of this column, then the Critic will go ahead and write about it ((end disclaimer))

The view from out front

Back to the Radio Station. It is called Radio Station as the owner – let’s call him Rach for now – is a big fan of all things music. He plays in a band. Has regular jam sessions. Loves rock and has traveled extensively. And he loves pizza. So pizza and music = radio station pizza. Signature pizzas are named after rock songs and there are musical referencesthrough out the simple but functional locale.

Clients w Rach, music and pizza lover (and pizza maker too)

You can also create your own pizza with plenty of ingredients to choose from. These, by the way, are quality ingredients. The cheese (along with the flour) comes from Italy via Mexico DF. Lomo canadiense (not the Critic’s the stuff you put on the pizza) is the real thing. Pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes. Rach is not going to Super Aki for his ingredients and when you bite into a slice of the pizza you created and that popped out of his brick oven in 3-5 minutes, you will see that this is what makes these pies taste great.

The crust is thin and if you want it cooked normally, it takes about 3 minutes. If you like it charred and crispier (highly recommended) it will be about 5 minutes.

While you wait you can enjoy the music and drink the home-made jamaica, infused with rosemary and brought to your table in glass bottles (no plastic!). No alcohol license just yet, it appears.

To give you an idea, the Critic, BH and CGI had two pizzas, which are ‘one-size-fits-all’ approx 8 inches or so across. Not too huge. Another pizza was ordered to take home to the MiniCritic, who had not come along on this particular outing, preferring to stay home  andhave the food brought to her as is befitting of the queen she is.

Almost ready for the oven

 

Some meat, gorgonzola, sun dried tomatoes on this one – note the extra crispy crust

parmigiano on top, tomato sauce, basic pizza

The Critic can recommend Radio Station Pizza without hesitation, family member or not.

And do save room for dessert – available right next door at Shüteln – which will be dealt with in a separate review.

Casual Restaurant Critic visits Las Yuyas

Every once in a while, my work, such as it is, requires me to visit restaurants that could be potentially incorporated into a tour offering. Such was the case today, with Las Yuyas, located in the Merida’s Jesus Carranza colonia.

Open since March of this year, they are cooking up traditional Yucatecan food with some original twists and presenting it in an attractive manner. My dear readers will agree that one of the most delicious and absolutely worst Yucatecan platillos to photograph is sikil pak, but the way chef Edwin prepares it here is a work of art. Very tasty too! Look:

Sikil Pak at Las Yuyas

All the dishes tried were excellent, from the queso relleno (my go-to dish when comparing Yucatecan restaurants) to lomitos de Valladolid to pipian de puerco. Also sampled were chayitas, taco de cochinita, relleno negro and escabeche, along with crema de brocoli and sopa de lima. Each was very well presented and perfectly seasoned. Tortillas were handmade and hot, and the tostadas for the sikil pak were fried just before being brought out to the table which made them extra hot and crispy. Nice touch.

Dessert was caballeros pobres, better than the usual goop served at so many restaurants, and papadzul ice cream. This is made by a local ice cream artist and this restaurant is the only place in town where you can have this flavor. Reason enough to come and sample the wares.

The room is comfortable, chairs are a bit on the hard side, walls are all glass and the A/C is cold. Service was very friendly with a bit of a delay on the removal of dirty dishes but overall very attentive. Owner Mario stopped by for a chat and explained a little about what he is trying to do.

Recommended; a restaurant that deserves a visit. Enjoy the (iPhone) photos!

Little masa ball appetizers

Crema de brocoli

Sopa de lima

Nido de Yuyas – a large sampler plate of several items

Pipian

Lomitos de Valladolid

Queso relleno

Caballero pobre (dessert)

Caballero pobre II

Papadzul ice cream. Yes, papadzul – amazing!

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Chilakillers

Chilakillers. Chilaquiles. Get it? Clever name.

The Casual Restaurant Critic, accompanied by his darling Mini-Critic, visited this restaurant this past week thanks to several recommendations that said it was a great place for, well, chilaquiles. Mini-Critic loves her some chilaquiles.

The place is really pretty, amazingly so, on a non-descript stretch of 57 between 56 and 58 in the heart of Merida’s downtown, or as some of the expats call it – Centro. As in “I live in Centro, and you?”

You can see in the photos (below) that they have taken some time to create an original and attractive room, from furniture to ceiling and wall treatments. Treatments. This is beginning to sound like a pretentious architectural piece.

The service was of the shy, slither to your table variety, with one waiter and one what appeared to be an encargado at the cash register who did nothing to acknowledge the presence of the Critics and at one point, when the waiter was needed, who was taking dishes to the back, this person waited for the waiter to reappear and wave his hand in the Critics direction indicating that he was needed there. Perhaps he had a mobility issue and couldn’t leave the comfort of his cashier area. Who knows.

The food was good, but with one table and one order, they managed to screw it up – it is unclear if it was the waiter or the kitchen, but both orders of chilaquiles with castacan and chicken both arrived without the castacan or the chicken. After some digging to see if perhaps the meats had been hidden at the bottom of the bowls, the waiter was notified and he remedied the problem, taking the dishes back to the kitchen to have the order fixed.

The plates are deceptively small-ish, but the Critic suspects you might find it difficult to finish your order, as it seems to be an endless bowl situation. No matter how many spoonfuls you take out, it never gets smaller. At the end, there are soggy corn tortilla bits and while some like those, the Critic is not a huge fan. There could have been more cheese, more onions on them too.

Prices are very reasonable, the room is pretty and the drinks were good. Try the Limpiador smoothie. That’s smoothie, not smothie.

Service is really (WHAT IS IT WITH MERIDA??) the fatal blow to this otherwise interesting option for breakfast or lunch downtown. Again, as in so many Merida restaurants, the owners have spent good money on their location, their menu, their graphics and their concept and then leaving the most important part out – good, professional customer service.

Will the Critic go back? Probably not. But you go have some chilaquiles and make up your own mind.

 

Brown People

There is and always has been a palpable racist element in this country and you will see, in the hundreds of interactions the well-to-do Mexican upper classes have with their supposed inferiors, a total disregard for these browner versions of themselves.

Look around. You will see it everywhere.

Privileged kids at private school
dropping wrappers and plastic bottles
Brown People

Dirty dishes in the sink
greasy pots and pans
Brown People

Enemas and bandages
bedpans and injections
Brown People

The Lincoln on Montejo
garbage out the window
Brown People

The traffic accident
blue lights flashing
Brown People

The Barbie Mom
coffee after the gym
Brown People

Babies in strollers
families at the mall
Brown People

The busy executive
car at the valet
Brown People

Gym workout
towels, wrappers, water everywhere
Brown People

The children’s party
the piñata bursts open
Brown People

The drug war rages
who to fight the cartels
Brown People

Fortunes made
henequen industry families
Brown People

A stray shopping cart
supermarket parking lot
Brown People

Political unrest
thugs beating up citizens
Brown People

Morning TV show
the silver-toothed buffoon
Brown People

Hacienda Cacao – A Little Slice of History

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On my forays into the Yucatan as part of the work I do with my touring company Lawson’s Original Yucatan Excursions, I try to poke my head into whatever mysterious or interesting site I can find, including the many haciendas both restored and abandoned that are so liberally sprinkled across the peninsula. This is a little bit of history of one of those haciendas.

On the way to San Antonio Mulix, home to several cenotes including ones used in scenes for the famous Mexican telenovela Abismo de Pasión, one must necessarily drive through another village, a former hacienda simply called Cacao.

Cacao is a strange name for a Yucatecan hacienda, since cacao was not really a product produced in any significant commercial form on the haciendas, which originally started as farms for livestock and some grew cotton, sugar cane and other products, before all turning to henequen (sisal) production in the early, mid and late 1800’s in an effort to cash in on the boom that made the Yucatan home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the world at that time.

On one such drive-by, with the enthusiastic approval of similarly curious guests, I stopped to explore the chapel, which is still intact (as opposed to the rest of the hacienda which is completely and utterly in ruins) to admire and photograph the original stain glass windows and high ceilings. The chapel is still used by the catholics in the village to this day, with a visiting priest performing the corresponding duties. On the floor, I photographed the plaques commemorating the people from the hacienda that had died over the years.

As I was reviewing the photos, I noticed that one of the plaques indicated that the deceased person had been ‘assassinated at the hacienda Cacao’ in August of 1924 (see photo below)

Assassinated! Really...

Assassinated! Really…

Now this is highly unusual. Normally, these plaques give us a name and date of death and not much else and so I immediately wanted to learn more.

It turns out that this hacienda, was the property of the Ponce de Leon family, the surname I associate with Florida, having seen it in Miami many times. This branch, here in the Yucatan, at one point dropped the ‘de Leon’ suffix and became simply the Ponce family, whose members to this day are movers and shakers in the Yucatan economy. The owner of the hacienda, one Jose Luis Ponce Solis, was part of the ruling elite in the 1920’s and in addition to the usual henequen production common to all haciendas at the time, was the founder of  Yucatan’s first brewery, Cerveceria Yucateca, for which he brought a German beer expert over from Deutschland to get it right. He also founded a chocolate factory and another company dedicated to the manufacture of ice.

A little more digging and I found the information I was looking for. In 1924, when tensions were running high between Felipe Carrillo’s socialists and liberal conservatives, a group of outlaws under the command of famous ‘bandit’ and personal friend of then-governor Iturralde Traconis, Braulio Euán, entered the hacienda and killed the caretaker, his wife and 20 workers as well. I suspect that the Francisco Yam on the plaque was either the caretaker or one of those 20 people killed on that fateful day in August, 1924.

We often find ourselves driving through half-forgotten villages, past crumbling buildings or under giant trees; unaware that these are all silent witnesses to a slowly disappearing history that is, as so often is the case in human history, tragic.