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.
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.
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.
Eureka is probably one of the Critic’s favorite restaurants in Merida. It is the only place where instead of looking at the menu, he will just take the chef’s suggestions as he is always offering something new and interesting that he wants to try out. This is great since the Critic doesn’t order the same thing as always, a bad habit based on fear of the unknown and love for the dishes already tried and can expand his palate to other options that might not seem as appealing as the carbonara pasta.
A recent visit with the Better Half confirmed that the restaurant is still as good as ever.
Just a quick update on this great Santa Lucia restaurant, in the heart of Merida – it’s still fabulous as of this writing. Don’t miss the ceviches – on this occasion we had two different tuna ceviches and one warm shrimp ceviche – and drink a Pisco Sour or two: refreshingly delicious but strong, so don’t be getting into your car after this!
Crabster is the newest addition to the food scene in Progreso, which until now, has been made up entirely of plastic Coca Cola chairs, familial service (cousins and siblings doing the serving with no training whatsoever) and the same tired menus at each and every restaurant. Thankfully, they have taken the bar and raised it substantially, which means you can now have a great meal right on the malecon in Progreso!
A recent visit impressed the Critic – the menu is vast, the actual restaurant is beautiful and the service is professional. The food? Fantastic. Highly recommended when you want to take someone to a civilized lunch or dinner overlooking the waterfront and not be kicking dogs or cats under your table or getting your food as it comes out of the kitchen meaning everyone in your party eats at a different time.
Enjoy the photos and plan a trip to Progreso’s Crabster soon!
The Critic is aware that for many people the thought of sushi in Merida is somewhat disconcerting. A lot of these people also think that Starbucks ruined the local coffee culture to which the Critic can only snort in derision at the mere idea of a coffee culture in Merida back in the days of melamine plastic cups served with hot water and a spoon alongside a jar of instant. Nescafé if you were lucky.
But the Critic digresses.
The newish sushi place Hamachi is Japanese owned and features a chef imported all the way from exotic Cancun for the express purpose of putting Miyabi on alert as they may soon be ousted from their premium spot on the list unless the latter becomes a little less complacent and makes an effort to be more professional when it comes to service.
The nigiri or sushi by the piece is scrumptious, with generous portions of fresh and cold fish on perfectly cooked rice. Cream cheese is notably less in your face in comparison with other Merida sushi restaurants and that is a relief. What little there is on the menu can be left out, at diners requests. The unagi is delectable, warmed and again, generous in portion size when ordered as a piece of sushi or as part of a sashimi platter.
The scallops (cooked) on the appetizer menu sound great but while the texture is fabulous, the flavor is to subtle and after a few pieces, it loses its appeal. Dip it in soya sauce for a little extra salt. An appetizer that consists of the cheeks of the robalo fish (fried, you basically get the head to pick at) was better than expected.
Service is superior to Miyabi (not hard to accomplish) and friendly. Prices are up there, but the quality of the fish and an interesting menu make Hamachi worth it.
Just when the Critic thought that is was not possible to find yet another sushi restaurant in Merida, another one popped up on the radar thanks to Better Half’s socializing and lunching ways.
This one is AOKI and if you have been to the great Beer Box store you will know exactly where it is; if not, you won’t. It’s right next door. Maybe it helps that there is a glorieta with five avenues emanating from it, and in the area is the the Chevrolet Monte Cristo dealership, the Super Deli store which is more super than deli and the Jarochita fruteria where you can get the best, freshest fruit in the area.
But who cares about all that.
The fact that the hostess (who turned out to be our waitress as well) told us to just go ahead and sit wherever we wanted seemed like a rough start. The Critic has become accustomed to having someone show him to his table and maybe that’s just ridiculous, but if you are coming to someone’s house, wouldn’t you want to make them feel welcome? If you’re already at the door and have nothing else to do, take your guest to a table, make her or him feel like you’re glad they’re there.
CRC and BH chose a table along the wall, you know, the kind that have one long bench along the entire wall that serves various tables. The Critic only brings it up because when you sit down on this vinyl stuffed bench, you feel the wood and uneven filling under your butt. This is common in Merida restaurants and one day the Critic will dedicate a whole article to it. Is is possible that the owner or designer has never parked his butt on these uncomfortable homemade booth seats? If you’ve been to Brians and plopped yourself on one of those comfortable looking booth seats and felt your tailbone crush on the hardness of it all, you know what this gripe is about.
Bitch, bitch, bitch.
Well, guess what, dear Reader! Things got better after that, and the food was ordered from the initially shy waitress (note to self: another article on shy and intimidated acting wait staff in Merida restaurants) who opened up, cracked a smile or three and brought all the goodies to the table.
If you are ordering rolls, make sure to notice that all of them contain cream cheese, as seems to be the custom in Merida. If this is the custom in other parts of Mexico, please can a reader enlighten the Critic on the origins of this practice and the reasons behind it? Thank you.
Niguiri pieces are rice-heavy but the fish is cold, delicious and the portion is a welcome fat chunk, not a thin excuse carefully applied on top of the rice. The stuffed squid is delectable and beautiful and for the amount of work involved in preparing this dish and the presentation, the price was ridiculous on the cheaper end of the spectrum. The tempura entree with the funny black noodles sprinkled with nori was just alright. The rolls were excellent.
Would the Critic return? Yes! Better than Miyabi? Food-wise, AOKI is a noodle below but at least they don’t have the Valium Crew waiting on tables, so big plus there.
At the recommendation of the now departed Mini Critic, the Casual Restaurant Critic took her to the fishy taco place called El Tovar, which has a seafood menu along the lines of El Pez Gordo; shrimp, fish and other seafood tacos prepared in a sort of Tampico/Monterrey way.
Located near the Cumbres school and that avenue that runs from El Pocito to the Monumento a las Haciendas, El Tovar was opening for lunch when the Critics arrived and as the weather was cool, the sliding glass door was open and once seated, the owner asked if it was OK that the door was open, or would the Critics prefer it closed and the AC? Open door was fine, the Critics agreed, and some drinks were ordered while the menu was looked at.
A waiter-type person arrived and proceeded to close the sliding glass door until the owner told him that the door open was fine, whereupon the glass door was opened again.
Fishy tacos were ordered and the drinks arrived, along with a third person who, you guessed it, started closing the sliding glass door, until informed to leave it open.
The food arrived and, the Critic kids you not, a fourth person started on the door. Apparently there is some confusion about whether or not this door should be open or closed.
Now, the tacos were fine. In fact, they were pretty darn good. In particular, the queso fundido con mariscos, with its’ seafoody cheesy gooiness and the spicy broth of the pozole de mariscos, were outstanding and both meals in and of themselves. What really makes El Tovar amazing was the completely indifferent service. Each move on the waiters (and here the term is used lightly and generously) part must be provoked by the client as the personnel at El Tovar on this occasion seemed far more concerned with the exciting distractions of their cell phones than they are with perhaps serving another drink, clearing away dirty plates and heaven forbid, checking on the clients to see how everything is. Another reason cell phones should be banned in the workplace.
In short, the food is great, the room is not unattractive and the service is absolutely awful to the point of making one wonder what the owners are thinking in keeping these useless carriers of trays around. Is it that hard to find and train people? Come on. You already have the food, the presentation and the flavors are fantastic. Take a moment to get some real servers!
MiniCritic informed the Critic that there is an attentive wait person of the female variety but she was not working that day.
So, if you want tasty seafood tacos and don’t mind the abysmal service, El Tovar is a good choice for a satisfying mid-day lunch.
If you like seafood, and who doesn’t, then Campeche is the place for you. The Critic has been told also, that the fine Yucatecan traditions originate in Campeche, which was where the best cooks came from. The person that told me had relatives in Campeche so they might have been somewhat biased.
Campeche was once of course part of the Yucatan, even though they hate to admit it now. It was the main port of entry to the entire area and much wealth concentrated there before being either loaded onto ships or distributed into the countryside. So in a nutshell you have great cooking talent plus an abundance (up to recently anyway what with all the oil rigs out there) of fresh and varied seafood; all of this adds up to some pretty fine eating.
The best-known of the seafood places in Campeche also has a branch in Merida; called, believe or not, La Pigua. Known for it’s excellent dishes it became THE place to go for anyone of any importance visiting Campeche and in it’s former location/presentation it had many signed photographs on the wall from dignitaries real and imagined that had eaten there. The Pigua has been renovated and renewed. The look is sleek, minimalist and upscale and the food is as delicious as ever. The service, however, remains firmly rooted in the lackadaisical 1970’s, completely at odds with the modern and upmarket rest of the restaurant. The Critic was there before, and a recent visit confirms that the review stands as is.
The new CRC’s favorite, the restaurant is down by the wall in the old section of town and features all-women servers, dressed in traditional Campeche garb (think hipiles, Campeche style) and a terrific seafood menu from which anything you order will be delicious. The Critic always ends up ordering the Marganzo fish fillet and is never disappointed; but their coconut shrimp are a mouthwatering appetizer that should not be overlooked.
There is, along the gorgeous malecón, a shopping center that advertises itself as the place to buy artesanias or crafts from Campeche artists. Inside, you will find several stalls featuring all kinds of cheesy trinkets made from shells as well as other pirate or ocean related items that will end up in your basement (if you are from up north) much like that purple-sequinned sombrero you got from your parents when they went to Tijuana in the ’70’s.
However, right around the corner on a side street leading back into the city is a terrific and authentic Italian gelato place with real, smooth and refreshing gelato, from limoncello to nocciola. Absolutely worth finding and enjoying after a seafood lunch at one of other places mentioned. Service is lackadaisical at best but the gelato more than makes up for the employee’s indifference and the pirated movie on the television screen which they are far more interested in watching than helping you, the inconsiderate interruption of their shift.
More info on it here.
At the time of the year corresponding to the visit of the Easter Bunny and all that hype, many locals like to enjoy a seafood meal at the beach. If you are not able to get all the way out to Progreso or Celestun or some of the other popular Easter break destinations, there are plenty of seafood options in the city of Merida to satisfy your craving for something shrimpy; one of these is Puerta del Mar, located almost across from the Bancarios sports center, somewhere between Plaza Fiesta and Altabrisa, on that bumpy stretch of avenue called Avenida Correa Rachó after a well know and loved PAN party mayor of Merida.
It is a modest-looking palapa and inside, it continues to perpetuate that impression with plastic chairs and tables and the obligatory television showing some inane sports event.
But, the beer is cold and the seafood is fresh tasting and comes from the kitchen quickly. A nice touch is a complementary tiny plate of mixed seafood ceviche placed on your table as you sip your drink and wait for your lunch. Service ranges from the “I couldn’t be bothered to welcoming you to the restaurant” to extremely efficient and fast once you are seated.
The dishes pictured below, are, in order of appearance:
1) Complementary seafood ceviche mini platter. Tasty, a little too lemony for the Critics taste, but fine when you are hungry. To be eaten with their excellent corn chips. It’s hard to screw up corn chips, but VIP’s manages on a regular basis so it is nice to have these be crispy crunchy, and not all limp and gross.
2) Chilpachole de Camaron – a spicy shrimp soup that the Critic absolutely adores. Unfortunately, this one is not great; the broth is far too reminiscent of tomato paste and lacks real flavor. Mildly spicy and plenty of fresh shrimp in there though.
3) Pan de Cazon – dogfish or shark meat cooked in a tomato mixture and then served between layers of corn tortillas and black refried beans. Covered with more tomato sauce and that garnish is NOT a little bell pepper, it is an habanero and so don’t just scoop it up and toss it in your mouth. A Yucatan classic (or is it really a Campeche classic?) and the Critic thinks the version served at Colonos in the Colonia Mexico is better. Still, not bad.
4) Seafood Stuffed Shrimp – Yes, that is what the menu said. Each of the shrimp is cut and stuffed with a minced seafood mixture that is borderline inedible. To make matters worse, the shrimp are bathed in a mysterious cream sauce that is both tasteless and yet somehow rather nauseating. Not recommended.