Tag Archives: Life in the Yucatan

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.

Casual Restaurant Critic Re-Visits Hermana Republica

Imagine if you will, a tiny infant coral snake curled up in the recess of a limestone rock, barely visible to the untrained eye and for all intents and purposes, invisible. This is what the bacon looked like on the hamburger the Casual Restaurant Critic ordered at the Hermana Republica two days ago.

Hungry and in the mood for a burger, the bacon and cheese hamburger sounded like a winner to the Critic. Unfortunately, the anticipation of strips of crispy, thick bacon stacked under dripping, melted cheese was not to be and there was only a sad hint of a bacon strip tucked into the top of the bun along with some sparse white cheese, all covering a rather undersized patty of what was admittedly tasty beef.

The fries were excellent again (see the previous review here)  and the Belgian ale outstanding.

The Critic was rather disappointed with this poor excuse for a hamburger and would not in all good faith recommend you try it.

You will be disappointed. Except for the fries, of course.

If you are in the mood for a burger, for that burger that you can’t get your mouth around, where the bacon is abundant and the melted cheese oceanic, you will be far better served at the Angry Angus location in Las Americas, across the highway. You can read the Critics review of that great burger place here.

The Casual Restaurant Critic visits Peruano

The Casual Restaurant Critic and his lovely Better Half were celebrating. It was an anniversary and that dangerous time of the year was coming up (pib season in the Yucatan) and so, the Critic thought, something light, but special. He had seen the Peruano on the occasional drive-by near Santa Lucia in el centro de Merida, but had never stopped in.

What a pleasant surprise!

A colorful, beautiful little restaurant serving all things Peruvian with a few local touches. The famous ceviches are very present, as well as other combinations that have put Peruvian cuisine on the map in the last decade or so.

The house drink, a Pisco Sour, was absolutely fantastic. It was necessary to repeat the drink order as the first round went down far too quickly.

The ceviche trio – a sampler, and perfect for two people – makes for a great appetizer. They are fresh, zesty and refreshingly cold. Critic liked the tuna ceviche best. Fried yuca was great. The little bowl of crispy but not rock-hard corn, lightly salted and with that smoky flavor of the fire, was a nice touch.

For a little bit of carbohydrates, some coconut rice was ordered which was delicious and accompanied perfectly the ceviche.

Service was great, from the on-site Peruvian waiter who seems to be in charge of things. Make sure you get him to help you with your menu choices as he knows what he is talking about. Air conditioned and beautiful little room.

The bill, which you must find in one of the drawers of the little piece of furniture brought to your table, was completely acceptable, given the level of food, the location and the service.

Another – thankfully great – addition to the Santa Lucia restaurant scene.

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Casual Restaurant Critic, sans new pants, reviews Petit Delice

The German part of the Casual Restaurant Critic feels it is important to have an afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen. If you have traveled to the land of the kraut (sauerkraut that is) you know what this custom is all about.

After a heavy meal the other day, the Critic wanted a good cup of coffee and Petit Delice has one of the best coffees in town, bar none. Along with their excellent coffee and tea selections, they feature some real French-style pastries that are out of this world.

The local bible, el Diario de Yucatan, did an article on them a while back, for those of you capable of reading en español:

Abren un rincón de estilo francés

The café, a little piece of France in Merida, is located on that awful and congested avenida that runs from El Pocito to City Center (Walmart) near the periferico, with it’s hundreds of small L-shaped plazas full of businesses that will probably fail sooner than later, due to the sheer volume of commercial offerings.

Enjoy the photos – this place is highly recommended!

Pastries that taste as good as they look

Pastries that taste as good as they look

Calm, subdued atmosphere

Calm, subdued atmosphere

The lamps are beautiful

The lamps are beautiful

Pavlova

Pavlova

The best coffee (this is a latte) in town

The best coffee (this is a latte) in town

Perennial favorite - lemon tart

Perennial favorite – lemon tart

Yum

Yum

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic is buying new pants – Hermana Republica reviewed!

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Hola!

Just when you thought it was safe to visit a restaurant without some idiot snapping photos of every single dish, the Critic strikes again, camera in hand, to review the Hermana Republica on the Merida-Progreso highway.

If you haven’t seen it, you have been spending far too much time in El Centro de Merida, where admittedly the offerings have been improving and where the Critic does not often venture, what with the dearth of parking and the enormous amount of time it takes to get there from his casa.

The Hermana República (sister republic) is an affectionate term for the Yucatan, employed by long-time fans of an independent Yucatan and the occasional jokester who understands that the Yucatan is a different place from the rest of the República Mexicana.  The restaurant that bears this name is located just after the Xcanatun exit on the afore-mentioned highway and features a very large, very in-your-face Yucatecan flag flapping proudly. This flag was the actual flag used when the Yucatan was an independent state back in the day, separate from the hated waches and other foreign meddlers (except for International Harvester – that was alright)

But, and in the keeping of this long-standing blog, the Critic digresses once again.

You want to hear about the restaurant and the Critic can tell you without hesitation that the food is great! While Better Half had pork cooked with mushrooms and a delicious gravy that warranted ordering the excellent (really – excellent!) french fries to soak up the juice, the Critic ordered the pork ribs cooked in smoky adobe. To the side of the ribs was sour and crunchy esquite corn, sans cream thank god. Both dishes were fantastic. Five stars on the food. Again, just to be clear, the french fries are disturbingly delicious – the Critic had to have them removed from the table in order not to devour the entire generous helping.

Appetizers included the guacamole with chicharron and sikil-pak, which is a must for any restaurant flying the Yucatan flag so proudly. That was really the only ‘typical’ dish on the menu. No queso relleno, no poc chuc, no relleno negro. The truth is, no hacen falta. No need to duplicate what others are already doing, in some cases well.

There was also a trio of very fresh salsas: tomate verde, chiltomate and habanero. It’s been a while since the Critic had such fresh salsas; they literally dance on your tongue and don’t just lie there like a tomato-flavored piece of sock as is so often the sad case in many Merida restaurants. The tostadas too, deserve special mention. They are baked apparently, thick and smoky tasting, like in some pueblo – and anyone who appreciates such subtleties can not stop eating them.

Service is adequate and friendly with the usual quiet/shy/unsure component shining through ; the room is essentially a box but a tastefully decorated and well air-conditioned one so it feels cozy. The furniture is real, no plastic.

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Skip dessert; the apple pie with vanilla ice cream was the choice but the pastry is too dough-y, which is overbearing and those poor apple chunks (and there aren’t that many of them) get lost in their heavy casing. It is warm though and potentially could be good with the ice cream on the side. Perhaps switch to a crumble? No photo because by the time the Critic remembered, the poor tart had already been jackhammered to death.

It should be noted that this is (out back) the actual brewery where Patito beer is made. You have heard of Patito beer? It along with Maneek and Ceiba are the microbreweries that are putting Yucatan beer making back on the map where it should be. So of course beer is highlighted on the menu also and one can order 2 samplers with four beers each (5 ounce glasses – you can do this) to try all eight varieties of local, microbrewed cerveza.  From stout and porter to Weizenbier, there is surely a cerveza for you here. Critic’s choice? Vanilla Porter and Belgian Blonde. Take a chew of a tostada between each beer to cleanse the palate.

Outside, there is a courtyard with wooden picnic tables and a row of food trucks that start up in the evenings, creating a biergarten atmosphere, hidden just a few meters from the busy highway. No retenes either out this way!

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Casual Restaurant Critic at Zamna, in Izamal

The Casual Restaurant Critic had the opportunity to spend a Sunday afternoon near Izamal and so it was only logical that lunch should be had there. Instead of the usual and 99% excellent Kinich it was decided, with the Better Half’s acquiescence, that the newer Zamná, which has somehow appropriated the entire serving staff originally working at Kinich (how did THAT happen?) should be given a chance.

Located just near the edge of town, where the ‘paint your place yellow’ memorandum somehow failed to arrive, the Zamná restaurant is an attempt to recreate the same atmosphere as Kinich, with mixed results. There are artesanias for sale, there is a giant palapa roof, there is an hipil-clad Mayan lady making tortillas in a separate hut along with a young man grilling the poc chuc and the servers are all women, able to maneuver giant trays of food and drink to their guests.

But somehow, the atmosphere is lacking. There is something missing here and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is – maybe a lack of interaction with the friendly-enough staff, who are mostly efficient, but not particularly charming. The actual space is a long an unremarkable rectangle and the music is all trio but the overall feel is… meh. If you are going to copy or emulate the already very successful brand that is Kinich, you are going to have to try to make it better, not just the same or almost the same.

The food you ask?

The food is fine. Better Half had the pipian de conejo, served only on Sundays which was quite good and the Critic had the queso relleno, which his go-to dish to evaluate Yucatecan restaurants, due to its complexity and the facility with which one can get it wrong (like at the over-rated Hacienda Ochil, where the dish is quick to arrive at your table and has seemingly been microwaved) and here, the platillo tipico was very good, but not better than, Kinich. Or Teya, where it is excellent.

Sikil pak dip was excellent, as were the empanadas, crunchy on the outside and melty cheesy inside.

Here are some photos of the food and restaurant and in the Critic’s opinion, visitors to Izamal are well-served by sticking to Kinich.

The restaurant Zamna

The restaurant Zamna

Hammocks make up part of  the decoration

Hammocks make up part of the decoration

Empanadas w chaya corn stuffed w edam cheese

Empanadas w chaya corn stuffed w edam cheese

Sikil pak and chaya limonada

Sikil pak and chaya limonada

Pipian de conejo (rabbit) only on Sundays

Pipian de conejo (rabbit) only on Sundays

Critic's choice - queso relleno

Critic’s choice – queso relleno

The End of the ‘Temporada’ in Yucatan

If you have lived in the Yucatan for any length of time, you know that every good Yucatecan looks forward to the summer vacations at the beach, known simply as “la temporada”. While the term “temporada” literally means ‘season’ a word that is of special significance to hunters when combined with the word rabbit, duck, deer or moose; or that special time of the year when those of us past a certain age used to play marbles. In the Yucatan, the word has a special meaning and that is: summer vacations. Plans for what one is going to do during the upcoming ‘temporada’ can be started as early as January, when looking at the upcoming year on the calendar; it is a big deal here.

And, at the end of August, when Sams Club and Costco in Merida have already set up displays with plastic made-in-China Santa Clauses and inflatable snowmen, the temporada comes to an end and the locals pack everything up and head back to the city.

No more afternoon sunset-watching, cool drink in hand, while the kids walk the beach for kilometers on end. No more afternoons of entertaining visitors from Merida or beyond with fresh fried fish from the local fishermen and junk food galore to snack on. No more morning jogs on the beach, lazy afternoons with the kids on a boat or pre-dawn wake up calls to go fishing. The beginning of another school year means that Moms – and the occasional enlightened Dad – will be lining up at Merida papelerias like Burrel to buy their school supplies and books if they haven’t already done so for their children and you can’t do those things if you are still at the beach.

For the well-off, who have vacationed in Chicxulub, Uaymitun, Telchac and points further out, jet-skis and motorized beach vehicles are hosed off (by the help of course) and stowed on trailers, to be towed back to Merida behind luxury pickup trucks and minivans where they will be stored in the garage until the next beach break, usually Easter in April the following year. Boats of all sizes are taken to marinas to be taken care of by someone else. Leftover food, alcohol, hammocks and clothing will be loaded into the aforementioned minivans by sullen muchachas to be unloaded by same once they arrive back in the city.

Here’s a socio-cultural aside: most muchachas hate the temporada as it means much more work than usual what with all the sand being tracked in on an hourly basis and the constant arrival and departure of relatives and friends. Plus they can’t get back to their pueblos as easily from the beach on their (few) days off and don’t enjoy any of the beach activities as these are completely foreign to them, never having learned to swim or to appreciate a good ceviche or pescado frito.

For the less economically blessed, plastic chairs, remaining food items and TV’s will be crammed into and onto smaller, less-luxurious vehicles and will, with their owners holding onto rooftop items with their fingertips, also be transported back to Merida.

Both socio-economic groups use the same garbage disposal system, which involves throwing supermarket bags of accumulated trash on to roadside temporary “dumps” which make for a delightful visual treat for many weeks to come.

At the beach, restaurants and businesses that had moved their operations to the coast for the duration will shutter doors, unplug refrigerators and return everything movable back to Merida. The futbolitos, those popular tables with little plastic soccer players that every Yucatecan teen and pre-teen spends an inordinate amount of time at during the evenings to flirt with the opposite sex will be packed up and moved to an upcoming fair or put in storage. Local businesses, the ones that are on the beach year-round, will reduce their staff and count the pesos they made during the temporada, which will probably be just enough (but not quite, they will assure you) to tide them over until the next group of vacationers – the notoriously frugal snowbirds from Canada and the northeastern states – arrive in the fall to spend their winters in warmer climes and spread around what little money they bring with them. Beach houses themselves are closed up in preparation for long term emptiness, unless they are on the rental market for the afore-mentioned snowbirds, in which case they are only partially stripped as a caretaker will probably remain on site to keep things up and running.

All that packing, storing, towing and hauling activity comes democratically together in a sea of vehicles on the Progreso-Merida highway, thankfully now 4 lanes wide most of the way.  Traffic to Merida, in the last daylight hours of the last Sunday of the last weekend of the temporada, is usually a nightmare, especially on the stretches from Uaymitun to Progreso and Chelem to the Progreso-Merida highway as there are only two lanes and one lane, respectively, as the upper class and the middle and lower classes converge. 23 years ago, when there was one lane out to Progreso and one lane back to Merida, this last day’s traffic was literally bumper to bumper for the entire 20 kilometer drive with exasperated drivers looking for free asphalt on shoulders and passing dangerously at every opportunity.

Upon arriving in Merida, temporadistas are welcomed by the flashing blue and red lights of many police patrol vehicles and face the final hurdle of getting into the city and home, where washing machines and empty refrigerators stand ready to process sand-encrusted towels and receive plastic containers of leftovers.

A sense of relief mixed with nostalgia washes over many. But, the temporada has officially ended and it’s time to get back to the regular routine of life in Merida.

Casual Restaurant Critic visits Hacienda Santa Cruz

Under new Mexican ownership, the hacienda Santa Cruz, on the outskirts of town, is undergoing a massive facelift and renovation. The Critic visited recently to have dinner with Better Half and spent a very pleasant few hours in this beautiful dining room.

Food was good, service was fine and the place is peaceful and relaxing. There are the usual tweaks that could be made to the service, which is a pet peeve of the demanding Critic and BH, but it is a nice way to spend some time away from the hustle and bustle of life in Merida.

The pasta was fine, “spaghetti” according to the waiter when asked, which turned out to be a flat noodle more reminiscent of a tagliatelle, but who cares. The cheese-y sauce was tasty enough. Better Half’s choices were more inspired and definitely better. The black bean soup in particular was excellent. The pork with a guayaba salsa was also delicious.

Not cheap, but not expensive either, considering the location, which is here.

Enjoy the photos.

Napkin

Napkin

Dining room view

Dining room view

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Little welcome snack

Little welcome snack

Serving the black bean soup

Serving the black bean soup

Beef carpaccio

Beef carpaccio

Black bean soup

Black bean soup

Pork w guayaba sauce

Pork w guayaba sauce

Pasta

Pasta

Grounds at night

Grounds at night