Tag Archives: restaurants

Playa del Carmen for Tourists

The strange roof top pool at the weird but comfortable Reina Roja hotel in Playa del Carmen

Having just come back from a little overnight in Playa del Carmen after dropping off the kids at their hotel in Tulum, I thought I would share a few impressions from Playa – as folks around here call it because it’s too hard and time-consuming to actually say Playa del Carmen – from a visitors/slash neurotic foreigners (the original viewpoint of this blog when it started 20 years ago) point of view.

Playa is heavily policed

In the touristy part around the 5th avenue area, the police presence is massive. There are armed policemen at every intersection and at one spot that I saw, a tank-like armored vehicle that probably came from the US Army’s surplus after the Iraq invasion was successfully completed.

Since you hear a lot about the gangs, the narcos and the violence that has plagued the area, this dark undertone to all the happy people selling stuff on the street and the trendy restaurants and shops, should be reassuring and not threatening. How you will react is entirely up to you. And in spite of their rather intimidating aspecto, what with their bullet-proof vests, machine guns, and all-black uniforms, they seem friendly enough though and don’t mess with anyone.

The touts

Touts is one of those weird words that I have trouble writing, just because it sounds so 18th century. But apparently, that is the official word for those guys in the street, that are trying to get you to come into their (or a friends or employers) store along the Quinta Avenida.

Predominantly men, they pester each and every passerby, inviting them to come and see their cigars, their hats or their tours. If they are waving a plastic covered menu, it’s a restaurant they want you to try. And listen to their banter, which is incredibly original – “hey, I remember you” and funny (sarcasm). If any females walk by, you can be sure that they will have a #metoo moment and be ogled and commented on by the touts, who usually hang around in small groups. As a tourist you can ignore them completely and if you don’t understand Spanish, the better it is for you since you won’t know what crap it is they are spouting.

Discounts galore

Beyond the verbal sales pitches of “good price” “cheapest price” and “best price” there are signs everywhere advertising discounts of up to 50% (on selected items). These are crappy things that never sold as well as they were expected to and so, are things you don’t want anyway unless you can’t pass up a good bargain on some plastic Made in China glass holder that says Playa del Carmen or the purple top with fringes from last year.

Pharmacies

Mexico is famous for its lax pharma laws and cheap drug prices and that, combined with the ridiculously high prices for prescription medicines in the US, means you will see pharmacy counters in the gift shops advertising everything from anti-depressants to anti-biotics to erectile dysfunction drugs with dubious labels. There are legit pharmacies a few blocks away where you can buy real drugs and medicines at local prices and so, you really don’t need to shop here unless you are afraid to venture into the “real” Playa del Carmen, a fear which is unfounded (read the part about the police, above)

The rich and the poor

You can see the disparity between the rich and the poor on the touristy streets of Playa. The wealthy tourists from abroad and from within Mexico stroll past high-end shops especially around the luxury shopping mall complete with Starbucks and all manner of luxury brand stores, while the miniature young women from Chiapas with their wares displayed Mayan market style on the very same streets right outside. Note that these women usually have small children in tow, who are entertaining themselves on cell phones, and who add a sympathetic look to the scene, invoking a sense of guilt to passers-by and thereby perhaps making it more probable to get that sale.

At one point, a shiny black Mercedes Benz coupe drove past a police checkpoint which was interesting since a) it was a black Mercedes that costs probably about a million and a half pesos and was driven by a twenty-something-year-old and his female cohort which might raise an eyebrow or two; b) they had a child on the lap of the female in the front seat, a clear violation of transit law and c) the car had no plates, another violation and normally a reason for the police to pull the car over.

Weekend getaway

In any case, Playa del Carmen is a great destination for a weekend escape from your routine if you enjoy a little beach time and some great restaurants. Other than that, I wouldn’t come back for more than a day or two as the whole ambiance seems just a little too much for my laid back Yucatecan self.

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Numen

While the Casual Restaurant Critic is a meat lover (and dairy and fish and and and) some members of the Critical Family are vegan, and so, with a resigned sigh and little hope of a decent lunch, the Critic and the Family had lunch at the well-known vegan restaurant Numen, in northern Merida. The result was a mixed bag. Some good food, some OK food and some food that was quite forgettable.

The best option was the tacos al pastor, which is a local favorite and Numen has created a vegan option of this classic. Don’t ask, don’t tell is the Critic’s motto when it comes to what is actually in the vegan version, but it was tasty and satisfying. If he came back, the Critic would definitely have those again.

Most forgettable dish? The pozole. Pozole is a rich broth with all kinds of meaty juices and in this case, it was sliced mushrooms and hominy floating in a barely salted broth that was really quite watery. Not satisfying at all, ITCO. In between was the Critic’s dish, a pasta with tomato sauce, which he could have made at home but was tasty enough and the Critic devoured it down to the last spiral of fusilli.

Some photos will illustrate that the dishes are beautifully presented. The service was average, not horrible, but not particularly gracious or charming either.

Pozole

Pozole

Tacos al Pastor, vegan style

Torta de Empanizado, which was sort of a bean paste, and not great at all

Pasta w Tomato Sauce and vegan “cheese”

Avocado tacos

The accompanying fries were the best part of this empanizado torta

 

The Casual Restaurant Critic Hitting and Missing at the Gran Plaza Mall

Every once in a while, the Casual Restaurant Critic finds himself in the mall – the Gran Plaza mall to be exact – to do some banking, pay the CFE or TelCel or whatever, and the timing works out in such a way as to necessitate a bite to eat.  The question is always: where will it be this time? Such a situation occured twice in the past week, resulting in one hit, and one awful miss.

Besides the one or two restaurants in the mall, there is the hilariously-named Food and Food food court. Choices abound! Will it be the MSG-laden offerings of Win Fa’s Chinese food, with the promise of ever-lasting thirst for hours; or the line-up infused hamburgers of Burger King? Or perhaps deal with the indifferent doñas at Doña Gorda, who make deep-fried and oily gorditas that will inspire a rush on the local omeprazol supply? The salad place is sadly dead and gone with its healthy options and so other choices might be Alabama Mama with “southern food” or some fairly decent Trompos tacos (try their heart-valve-bursting nachos especiales if you really want to gorge yourself with calories.

The Critic, however, found two new additions to the Food and Food food court, one was a definite and resounding miss, while the other promises to be a hit.

The Miss

The Critic has a soft spot for entrepreneurs who make the effort to provide something new and in this case, it was a Yucatecan food outlet that calls itself Pibilxito (which in Mayan means absolutely nothing), among all those tacos and hamburgers and cheap pasta. It is exceedingly hard to please Yucatecans with Yucatecan food since everyone has an aunt or a mom or a grandma or a suegra who makes their favorite dish just so. It’s an impossible situation, the Critic believes, and this place will go the way of another attempt at Yucatecan fare that met its demise in this very same Food and Food food court years ago.

Some of the most famous Yucatecan items are on the menu like cochinita pibil, relleno negro and the Critics favorite, queso relleno, which he proceeded to order from the rather bored and uninspired young man alternately playing with his smart phone and looking up blankly at the zero clientele stopping there. The Critic paid his 70 pesos for an order, a full 10 pesos more than the other orders, a price point explained to him by the hapless employee with the help of a prop: an actual Queso de Bola marca Gallo kept under the counter to prove the worthiness of that 4 dollar expenditure.

The food, ordered to go and unpacked from its mismatched plastic and styro containers at home, was pretty well inedible. The Critic’s cat did, however, get into it and managed to down a few swallows of the unappealing white ground meat that had not a hint of a raisin, a caper or an almond, let alone an olive, accompanied by the afore-mentioned Gallo brand cheese, all served in the traditional corn flour kol. The tortillas that came with the order were of the store-bought variety, rounding out the exceptionally gnarly experience.

Highly not recommended. Avoid at all costs.

The Hit

Having just opened, the new Thai Bistro Express, an offshoot/expansion of the popular place by the same name in Chuburna (beach, not colonia) promises to be the real deal. The super-friendly, engaged and energetic owners are right there and are happy to see you, happy to explain their food offerings to you and happy to cook it for you too. What a difference a smile makes!

The Critic had the Pad Thai, with pork. It could have a little more punch to it but was very good in any case. The iced coffee is absolutely delicious and a treat in the land (Food and Food food court land) of Coca-Cola and other gaseous beverages. What the Critic liked best was the fact that the owner asked how it was and seemed genuinely interested in some constructive criticism, offered with the sincere interest in making their place a well-deserved success. Price of the meal? $120 pesos for Pad Thai and Iced Coffee.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Nacion Gourmet

One night not too long ago – but long enough that the Critic cannot remember what it was he ate – visited Nacion Gourmet with a large group of amigos. The concept is basically what Mercado 60 and that monstrous place downtown on 47 that is the scourge of all the poor folks who renovated their homes and now have to live with all the goddamn noise coming from this “hot spot”. A bunch of small restaurants in a circle-the-wagons set up with communal tables in the middle, with the added bonus of a stage set up on a platform over the bar.

Again, the food was entirely not memorable, so the Critic does apologize for those of you looking for a review of food; however, the experience, in general, was so meh that it behooves him to warn you, dear reader, in advance. The service started off well enough and went downhill from there, as more people arrived and the wait staff basically ignored the table. Food came out in spurts, no timing at all to ensure that the guests at this table would be eating more or less simultaneously, thus resulting everyone watching everyone else eat as food appeared. Great concept. It got better when the live music folks appeared and blasted out old Ana Gabriel hits and other such tropes at a volume entirely non-conducive to conversation. It may be of course that the Critic is just getting older and less patient with this crap.

Below, some photos of the various offerings at Nacion Gourmet. The Critic did not feel particularly gourmet-y at this venue. Your mileage might vary. 

 

Chilaquiles for the Casual Restaurant Critic at Chill-Akil

Not having had any sustenance beyond the usual New York model breakfast of coffee and a cigarette, the by-now cantankerous Critic was driving to his pay-by-the-hour office at Alexandra’s when another luxurious plaza (not particularly luxurious, tbh) called Plaza Luxury – really, you can’t begin to fathom the local fascination with all things purportedly luxury – beckoned with its multiple culinary options ranging from the brand new Okana poke bar with its high-tech and line-up inducing iPad ordering system to the old-school Merida classic Siqueff to the restaurant the Critic finally ended up in: Chill Akil.

There’s the Lexus dealership, the Prada flagship store, and the Bugatti watch shop. And the Ya Abrimos store of course

Once the loud family discussing family relationships at the next table had departed, the famished  Critic was able to enjoy his classic chilaquiles rojos in relative peace and quiet while perusing CNN’s latest fake news on his iPhone.

These chilaquiles are really good, with lots of ‘stuff’ on top of those tortilla chips and they aren’t all soggy either, which is a nice touch. The red sauce is good, the chicken is good, the queso fresco is good, the onions and radishes are fresh and there are hot sauces and mild sauces (2 and 2) to add if you feel the dish lacks vim and vigor.

The restaurant is probably crowded in the morning with Moms and gym types who like to get up early, but the Critic had his breakfast at 2 PM thank you very much and had the place to himself. The A/C leaves something to be desired and it is uncomfortably warm in spite of the unit blowing all it can. Note: there are two air conditioners upstairs, but these were off.

Good service and plenty of parking available. You will also find a really nice high-end stereo shop in this plaza for your home theater installations in that new old colonial you are restoring.

Worth a second visit, ITCO.

Location: Plaza LUXURY (look for the Teslas, Ferraris and Jaguars parked outside) or just look at the map on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chillakil/

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Oishii Japanese Cuisine

The Casual Restaurant Critic and his band of merry Critics including Mini and Better Half, tried this new sushi restaurant which is on the THIRD floor of yet another commercial plaza in Merida, where the commercial plazas outnumber the parks by a million to one. Yes, you have to walk up to get here (or take an elevator – fancy) but it is worth the effort. It’s in the Altabrisa area, in the umpteenth version of a luxury plaza; this one is called Luxus (yawn)

However, the sushi is great. Service is friendly and professional and the room offers a great view of the area around Altabrisa, specifically the mall and hospitals just down the road. There is also seating outside. And you might recognize the chef behind the sushi bar – he was a fixture at the now-defunct Hamachi, so you know he knows that you know that he knows what he’s doing.

Location info at the bottom of the page or on their restaurant link here.

Edamame

Unagi

Ramen ‘especial’ w pork

Location: Calle 20 between 15 and 7 (Correa Rachó Avenue) in Altabrisa, Merida

From periferico, take Altabrisa exit, get into the side access road and turn right on Calle 20

A Quick Casual Restaurant Critic Visit to Merci for Lunch

At the behest and invitation of the always generous Better Half, the Critic had the opportunity to re-visit Merçi and sample one of the better Caesar salads he has had in a while. Their version has crumbled and crispy bacon so don’t get your Caesar purist panties in a bunch; roll with it and you’ll be happy. Also, there was a delicious burger.

The Critic was pleased with the lunch and the service is very much more together than many moons ago when breakfast was had here on more than one memorable occasion.

The room is also double the size it once was thanks to the taking over of the failing locale next door, and, for readers that are reading this right now (August 2018) the A/C is excellent.

Good job, Regina!

Caesar Salad

The Hamburger

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Sushi Pop in La Isla

 

The Mini-Critic invited the Casual Restaurant Critic to try a new sushi place called Sushi Pop in the closest approximation of shopping bliss in Merida resembling Miami. If you are looking for somewhere to make you feel like you are not in the Yucatan (with the exception of the people around you) come to La Isla.

Sushi Pop is a franchise with locations all over the country. Merida location at the end of this post.

Directly in front of a colorfully lighted fountain with spurts of water shooting up ala Bellagio, and with the artificial lagoon in the background where you will nightly presence a light show, you can enjoy some truly average sushi, either in their air-conditioned locale or outside on the little terrace, where you will swelter but can enjoy a smoke without being hassled by the pure-air police.

The service was alright, but nothing outstanding. What put the Critic off is the fact that the waiter, who was dancing happily inside the locale, showed up at the table and his rumpled shirt with rolled up sleeves and unshaven face put an immediate damper on his expectations (the Critic’s, not the waiter’s)

There were some rolls which were fine, and an order of gyoza, but the most interesting item was their broccoli tempura, for which they are apparently famous, according to RumpleShirtSkin.

Would the Critic go back? Maybe, but no rush.

Broccoli tempura with spicy mayo and a slice of tuna

Unagi (roll) which was warm and delicious

Gyoza w meat filling

 

LOCATION AND HOURS INFO:

La Isla Mérida Cabo Norte
Calle 24, Cabo Norte
Mérida, Yucatán.

MONDAY TO WEDNESDAY:
13:00 – 23:00

THURSDAY THRU SATURDAY
13:00 a 2:00

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 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