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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.

A Casual Critic Revisits Elio al Mare (for lunch)

All the Critic can say to begin this review is what the hell happened?

That would be a great way to describe what was going through the Critics mind the other day when he visited the famous Italian seaside eatery outside Progreso in the company of distant relatives from the Sofia Vergara family. Are you now thoroughly distracted, dear reader? Well, don’t be, because what the Critic is about to write is important and will save you gas money if you are coming from Merida with the intention of enjoying a good Italian meal.

Let the Critic preface (some more) by saying that this is what most people would call an ‘expensive’ restaurant for Merida; pasta dishes are in the $150 to $200 peso a plate range and there are Italian wines that are truly Italian – not from Costco – and priced accordingly. That, and the rave reviews previously expressed not only by the Critic but also others who have loved this place in the past, was one of the reasons the Critic wanted his guests to try this restaurant.

While they loved it, the Critic was appalled.

It was just after 1 PM, and the sign said they were open. However, no tables were set up and the little trio (Critic plus two) was greeted in a casually uninterested way by two individuals of the male kind, while two more of the female variety sat in the kitchen eating a meal of pasta and bread. Two schoolchildren were sitting at a small table in the restaurant, presumably somehow related to the women in the kitchen, also eating their lunch. They later provided sound effects and background noise in an otherwise empty restaurant.

Gone are the days of the charming Italian host, the sangria, the restaurant set with white tablecloths. Gone is background music, any ambience whatsoever or any feeling of being welcome. A meek, unsmiling individual with the personality of a sea urchin – a traumatized sea urchin that has suffered parental abuse as a baby urchin and moves like it expects a whipping any minute – set the one table and proceeded to take the order. Two of the dishes ordered were not available due to the absence of gorgonzola in one case and basil in another. This is an “upscale” Italian restaurant, you will recall. Orders were modified and eventually arrived at the table. The food was fine, in fact it was pretty darn good, especially the fish, a robalo in a tomato and black olive sauce that was succulently flavorful, albeit raw on the inside. The Critics pasta was tasty but non-descript and the other pasta dish, fetuccine carbonara, apparently was decent enough also.

Did the Critic already mention the noisy children who were now playing hide and seek and shrieking in delight as they skidded through the restaurant from one end to the other. The waiter, if one could call him that, would hide near the kitchen and when forced to come out to set another table for yet another couple (also foreigners who spoke no Spanish) would pass the Critics table and make a determined effort to not establish any eye contact or look at the table, choosing instead to look nervously the other way lest the Critics table asked for something he might have to respond to.

The Critic can not in any good conscience recommend this place any longer, at least not for lunch. What a disappointment.

The Critic Visits Los Huaraches de Doña Mary

Driving around one weekend morning, looking for someplace to eat, the Critic found himself in Francisco de Montejo, the sprawling mega-thriving housing development filled with families starting up and a lot of families from central Mexico and more specifically, Mexico DF. There, on the main avenue (see photo) was a promising sight: a garage filled with people and chairs and a colorful sign looming overhead in that profoundly Mexican way that would never pass muster in most North American cities (except of course parts of east L.A.) that said Los Huaraches de Doña Mary.

A quick call to the Better Half and the Critic was seated, waiting for BH to arrive and order. And what an order! Quesadillas and sopes and gorditas are on the menu, and are stuffed with all sorts of artery-pluggin goodies. Papa con chorizo, cheese and poblano chile and many more. The Critic and Better Half were hungry and ordered too much, evidently. Check the photos for an idea of the generous portion sizes. The food was all good, very good and the salsas bitingly spicy. Service; well the restaurant is in a garage so don’t expect the Tour d’Argent but the one girl looking after all the hungry folks there did a good job of keeping everyone happy.

A Merida Institution Turns 50 – La Susana Internacional

If you have spent any time in Merida, any time at all, you have been to La Susana Internacional in Kanasin for panuchos and salbutes and perhaps a delicious caldo. If you haven’t, well shame on you!

Last night, La Susana Internacional threw at party to celebrate their 50th birthday and the Casual Restaurant Critic was there to partake in the festivities and a chunk of tres leches birthday cake complete with fluorescent, super-sweet icing. Imagine! 50 years this place has been operating, not in its present format as it once was a trailer-type stand. This beats Elaines, which recently closed upon reaching 50 years – it seems that panuchos never go out of style!

The restaurant was packed with larger than large tables and it seemed that entire Yucatecan clans came out in full force to celebrate and ; there were at least 5 tables of 12 or more people, happily enjoying their dinner to the sounds of live trio music, and the waiters were scrambling to get the food out of the kitchen.

Here are just a few photos; enjoy!

Here’s a Weird Fruit You Won’t Find in Publix or Safeway

In an ongoing conversation I am having with someone online one of the things he mentions is that he wants to buy some vanilla-flavored tequila on his upcoming visit. Not being familiar with flavored tequilas, I stop at COVI, our local specialty liquor store to see what they have available. There is no vanilla-flavored tequila, but there is tequila almendrado which means it has been flavored with almonds and tequila with membrillo.

What the hell is a membrillo anyway?

A stop at Walmart to check on prices for some Microdyn that another online acquaintance is asking for, I pass the newly refreshed fruit and vegetable aisle and what jumps out at me (figuratively, not literally) but a whole bin full of membrillo. So I buy one.

It’s a hard fruit, like an unripe pear and cutting it open is difficult and yields a hard flesh and stony seeds. I have seen dulce de membrillo here and there so I suppose that this is what it is best suited to; cooking the bejeezuz out of it with lots of sugar. It’s flavor is slightly applish but takes so long to chew that I don’t have a second chunk.

If anyone knows the story behind the membrillo, don’t be afraid to share!

Here are some photos of this strange and decidedly exotic fruit:

New PhotoBook on Meridas Fabulous Doors Now Available!

My good pal and associate Ralf has published a new photobook of a very small selection of Merida’s beautiful doors, taken in downtown Merida one sunny afternoon! If you like reading this blog and have found some use for the information contained herein, you can support the effort and get an attractive Merida souvenir at the same time! Enjoy!

Vivero Fun

One activity I enjoy here in the Yucatan is a visit to the local nursery; not the ones with the screaming babies but the ones with the plants, flowers and trees. I have always thought that it would be fantastic to have a nursery on each block (or every two blocks, like an OXXO) to provide a shady, oxygen producing oasis for the surrounding concrete misery that makes up so much of Merida’s new fraccionamientos.

These photos were taken this morning at the Verde Vivo nursery, albeit with a phone camera so they are not that great, but you can still get an idea of all the color and exotic greenery that is available out there.

While we are on the subject of Vegetation…

I have this palm variety in my backyard, a shorter plant, that at this time of the year produces fruit in the form of berries. Each morning I wake up and see them lit up in the morning light just outside my window. I think the photo below (the one that is bright orange) captures the beauty of these little guys quite nicely; if anyone knows what the plant is, let me know!