Tag Archives: Yucatecan

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 Pueblo Pibil

It’s new! At barely three months old, this latest and impressive entry into the offerings of real home-cooked Yucatecan food in the nearby town of Tixcocob, is already causing a stir among foodie Instagram users (hashtag: foodporn) as well as all lovers of great food who are not afraid to hit the highway to discover these out-of-the-city gems.

Chef Silvio has run a food counter in the Tixcocob market for years, and now he has, in conjunction with several partners, opened this elegant alternative for those seeking his deservedly famous ‘sazon‘ in a more formal setting.

The restaurant is beautiful, the air conditioning more than adequate on a hot pre-April firestorm temperatures kind of day and the service is gracious, if a little uneven in some spots. A friendly hostess opens the door and welcomes you into a calm, cool room from the overheated effervescence outside. An outside terrace is available for those who enjoy sweating while eating, or for those who want to have a quick smoke before or after lunch. There, you can also see the pits that give the restaurant its name: Pibil. Almost all the food is cooked in the traditional underground pit oven (the pib) and the results are impressive.

The Critic, accompanied by the Better Half, Mini Critic and almost a dozen others, visited for lunch and sampled many of the dishes available on the small but varied menu and everyone was most impressed with the quality and flavor of each beautifully presented dish.

The Critic had, as usual, the Queso Relleno, which was very satisfying and cooked to perfection. This was immediately after a starter of Sopa de Antaño (soup from yesterday, as in yesterday from grandma’s time, not actually yesterday), consisting of a black frijol broth with short pasta noodles and spiced up with a condimented tomato sauce.

Also on the table were an order of smoky crisp longaniza, generously stuffed papadzules, a relleno negro to die for, brazo de india (reina) and a spicy mondongo soup. The tortillas were thick, handmade and piping hot each time another batch arrived at the table.

At about 2000 pesos for a group of eleven, this was not at all a luxury lunch but it felt like it, given the quality of the room, service and of course, the food.

The photos will speak volumes and give you an idea of what you are in for if you head to Tixcocob for lunch tomorrow. NOTE: If you go on a Monday, you will be able to sample Chef Silvio’s frijol con puerco, which was not available on this Sunday outing and will surely be motivating this Critic and his Better Half to return, ¡pero ya!

The room is beautiful, the flowers are real and the hostess is smiling

The bar

Brazo de India

Longaniza

 

Papadzules

Relleno Negro

Mondongo

Queso Relleno

 

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 at Crabster in Progreso

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 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.

New Restaurant Ku’uk Muscles in on the High End of Merida’s Restaurant Scene

Picture this: A cool, subdued and yet warmly lit environment, sparsely furnished and discretely lit. Innovative, creative, strikingly beautiful dishes presented before you in a dazzling succession of colors and flavors (and sensory experiences) that amaze, tantalize and delight your senses. Three and a half hours of celebrating food, glorious food, in ways you could not have imagined, enjoying a chef’s menu where each magical creation leaves you gasping and wondering “what can possibly be next?” or “how did they do that!”

A newcomer to the Merida restaurant scene, definitely at the higher end of the spectrum and not for the quantity-conscious (the “es mucho, so it must be good” crowd) has arrived in the form of Ku’uk and this may just be a valid a reason to come to Merida as the city’s colonial mansions and Mayan relics.

Ku’uk is not an abomination of the English ‘cook’ but rather the Mayan term for sprouts or shoots, as in all things organic that start with a sprout from a seed, and the concept is all molecular gastronomy featuring local ingredients presented to you in ways your abuela never dreamed of (more on molecular gastronomy here). In addition to the restaurant itself, Ku’uk will feature a market where one can purchase delicacies and also a culinary workshop featuring classes for food aficionados. There is an herb garden out back and the entire place is visitable, so do make sure you get the full tour. The kitchen is equipped with the usual grills, ovens and mixers, but also with equipment straight out of a mad scientists laboratory, from nitrogen-based fast-freezing to humidity extractors that remove all water from foods leaving only intensely flavored concentrated flakes to other strange (and most definitely expensive) pieces of equipment that help chef Mario Espinosa and his team perform their magic. The wine “cellar” is a spectacular room that can be reserved for a special dinner and must be seen to be appreciated.

The Critic won’t go into the hows, whys, or pros and cons of molecular cooking and will instead stick to a short review of the experience:

Breathtakingly sublime.

There, that was it.

Better Half and the Critic enjoyed 3 and a half hours of culinary bliss, enjoying the chef’s menu which featured a total of 14 dishes, each more spectacular than its predecessor. The idea was to go through the different dishes but the Critic thinks you will be better served trying them yourself and coming to your own conclusions. Besides the full tasting menu, there is a shorter menu of about 7-8 dishes and there are also some items available a la carte. The photos (below) will speak for themselves.

Service is formal, a little stiff and there is some confidence lacking when presenting dishes but if you are as enthusiastic about the food as Better Half and the Critic were, they warm right up and the experience from the service perspective becomes more fluid and relaxed and one can even elicit a smile from some of the servers, who are mostly young foodie students.

The restaurant is currently in “soft opening” mode, so you can go, and avoid any semblance of a crowd and help them get on their feet before the official presentation to society at the end of the month.

Definitely put Ku’uk on your restaurant “to-die-and-go-to-foodie-heaven-at” list!

The Ku’uk website is here for more info on reservations and location. Or call  999-315-5825

Enjoy the photos!

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.

La Europea – Nada Que Ver

Today I was shopping in Walmart City Center (because there’s nothing like doing some grocery shopping on December 23rd, right?) and decided to walk over to the newly opened La Europea store.

La Europea is the well-known wine and liquor shop in Cancun that also has gourmet food items and a sandwich bar featuring fine hams and other cold cuts. They just opened their Merida location in the City Center mall, where a food court was destined to be but never materialized.

Walking in, you are looked at, walked by and generally ignored by each and every employee you come across. There are boxes all over the place and plenty of paper strewn on the floor. An employee in “Ignore Client” mode, pushes a broom lackadaisically ignoring you as she meanders past. The shelves are somewhat sparsely populated; in particular the chips were one bag to a shelf, indicating a last minute attempt to fill retail space with something – anything. I was pleased however, to find some jars of white asparagus that was NOT from China (see earlier post on Superama) but rather imported from Peru.

The whisky selection seems a little more extensive than that found at COVI, with a greater selection of Kentucky and Tennessee whiskies on display. All the other brands of Scotch, vodkas and rums are ones you will find elsewhere in Merida, from Costco to Walmart to Sams to the aforementioned COVI.

Like Superama, this is a store that is marketed to appeal to a clientele that is interested in quality. However their service, just like Superama and from what I witnessed today, is nowhere near anything resembling good or even mediocre. It sucks.

With employees completely indifferent to your presence you will be much better served and enjoy a much more pleasant shopping experience at the store whose name begins with a C and ends with an I which I am hesitant to name again so as not to be accused of owning stock in the company, which I don’t.

Doña Juany gets a Headache

Stepping out, broom in hand, into the relatively cool morning air in front of her colonial home that had once belonged to her parents and who had gone off and died, leaving her in charge of taking care of the old, crumbling family home, Doña Juany paused for a moment to take a breath.

Fate. Yes, as fate would have it and thanks to her ungrateful and unhelpful brothers deciding to marry and move to el norte because God forbid that her sisters in law should have to live in Merida’s congested downtown – las wachas – she had been the only one left to live in what used to be a grand colonial home but which was now reduced to a dusty relic, complete with cracks in the walls and ceilings, vines creeping into the kitchen and rotting wooden door frames. She glanced – half angry, half sad – back at the sagging front door and grunted sharply, beginning to sweep the sidewalk with quick, violent movements.

Of course she had not gotten married; the love of her life had been Carlos Irigoyen but what had been a promising love affair was fatally interrupted by the constant neediness of her mother who was on her deathbed and had no one else to care for her. Juany’s father had died a few months prior and that prolonged illness and the news that Mama was also now sick, was the motivation her brothers needed and they had fled the family home to take refuge with aunts and uncles and in universities in Mexico City and Monterrey.

“Anywhere but here” she muttered to herself, sweeping a little more vigorously.

Of course while they were off enjoying life and improving themselves under the guise of ‘studying a career’, she was left behind with Mama Rita, as the servants – long since gone after her fathers illness dried up what was left of the family fortune – used to call her; bathing, feeding, changing her now baby-like mother and arranging for a priest to come visit once a week to keep up her spiritual health. Not that she minded of course – she had to remind herself sternly – but wouldn’t it have been nice if her brothers had shown at least some interest in helping out, in some small way. But no, not even a hint of interest let alone outright help. And then they started in with their girlfriends, some of whom eventually became their wives – las wachas – and they all moved back to Merida, but as far away from el centro as possible, to fashionable neighborhoods with pretentious names, like Monte Alban and Monte Cristo and Monte Fulano and Monte Mengano.

Her sweeping picked up speed to the point where she was now slashing the broom back and forth, not even seeing what it was she was sweeping.

And so here she was, unmarried, overweight and bitter, saddled with a responsibility in the form of a house that she couldn’t get rid of even if she wanted to, given the condition of the building and the drooping real estate market in Merida.

She stopped sweeping and her eyes suddenly filled with tears. Embarrassed, she quickly wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and muttered something about el polvo just loud enough to be heard, in case anyone was looking out a nearby window or door.

She could feel a headache coming on.

It was at this moment that Frijol, the neighbors dog, sauntered into her line of sight and stood before her, looking up with those big dark malix eyes and wagging his tail expectantly. He was a healthy, well fed, all-black former street dog who had had the fortune to be adopted by Doña Juany’s neighbor, a gringa who had moved in a few years back and with whom Doña Juany had come to be on speaking terms when they occasionally crossed paths on their street.

With a jerk of his head, Frijol turned to bark happily at his owner, who now also appeared in front of Doña Juany.

Buenos dias, Juanita!” said Betty cheerfully.

Buenos dias, Doña Beti” answered Doña Juany, forcing a smile and hoping her eyes were not too red. “Mucho polvo” she added with a quick rub of her left eye.

Si” replied Betty “es muy seco todo” and with that she turned, waving, and sang out “adios Juanita!” while opening her front door and with the malix Frijol bounding happily ahead of her, disappeared inside.

Doña Juany looked after them for a moment, then took her broom and slowly stepped through the sagging wooden front doors back inside, closing them carefully behind her, making her way past the scratched petatillo rocker next to a small metal end table that featured a scene from a Disney cartoon, through the off-white, almost green square-tiled kitchen, making a beeline for the baño with the one naked overhead light bulb and finally reaching the stained wooden wall cabinet with the broken mirror, where she kept her headache medicine.

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Will Doña Juany find comfort in Aspirin? Will Frijol the Malix live happily ever after? Will Betty remember to call Pat?

Stay tuned for another installment of TihoTales, when inspiration strikes!