Tag Archives: Life in the Yucatan

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.

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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