The Casual Restaurant Critic at CienFuegos

Another upscale steak-focused restaurant opened a short while ago at the busy intersection of periférico and the City Center shopping center, where traffic is hideous during busy moments and horrendous at all other times. The restaurant is Cien Fuegos and it takes over the space once occupied by the doomed Tony Roma’s franchise.

Speaking of traffic, there will soon be yet another massive building opening there complete with a Camino Real hotel, so it will be interesting to see how Merida’s overly qualified traffic wizards will manage the results of a total lack of urban planning. The only plan seems to be “make it as much like Mexico City as possible” as if that were something even remotely desirable. But the continent was conquered with the help of colored beads and glass, and that legacy persists to this day.

Alas, once again the Critic digresses.

Having visited Cien Fuegos just recently during the pandemic and its limitations on how many people can be in a restaurant the Critic and his generous Better Half enjoyed a meaty meal in a very upscale setting. Service was attentive and all protocols were implemented. The Critic and BH were happy to be able to remove masks as the virus evidently respects humans when they are eating.

A hostess meets and greets, squirts gel and takes your temperature with the plastic pistol everyone has become accustomed to. Once seated, hunger overcame the Critic and BH and guacamole was ordered and devoured, followed by massive rib eye to be shared, served on a hot plate and sliced to allow serving oneself. The guacamole is interesting. The onions are grilled and it features ants. Yes. Other accompaniments were mushrooms and a grilled veggie platter. Thankfully no carbs were ordered as the food was too much to finish properly, and no room for desserts either.

This restaurant would be a good place for a group (six people or less per table at present) or anyone in a celebratory mood. The music is a little loud for whispering sweet nothings in one another’s ears and even regular conversation but the latter is probably because the Critic is old and decrepit and that’s what oldsters do, complain about the noise. Anyone remember the Grinch? That was one of his least favorite aspects of the Who’s celebrating Christmas.

Cien Fuegos has valet parking or you DIY under the building where there is a smallish underground lot.

The guacamole has ants in it. Yep.
Grilled vegetables including beets (foreground)
Mushrooms & peppers
The rib eye

Casual Restaurant Critic visits Humo, Progreso

It’s the weekend, there’s a rainstorm on the horizon and the sky is a roiling black and gray menace.

“Hey, let’s have lunch in Progreso!” exclaims the Casual Restaurant Critic in a jolly mood to his ever-lovely Better Half and after making a reservation on Humo Bistro’s Facebook page, the two are in the car, off to the beach.

About 10 minutes into the drive the car enters the blackness of Mordor and the from the heavens vast quantities of water pour forth in what seems to be a Great Flood of yes, biblical proportions.

“I bet Noah would enjoy this” thinks the Critic.

Visibility is reduced to a few feet in front of the vehicle and yet, the Critic and his Better Half are determined. Lunch will be had! In Progreso! Gripping the steering wheel tight and flicking the wipers to top speed, the trusty Suzuki battles onwards.

Fortunately, the space directly in front of the door to Humo Bistro was wide open and only a few drops made it down the Critic’s back as ran quickly inside. The charming young lady who was to be the wait staff popped open an umbrella and escorted Better Half inside, took the respective body temps and squirted sanitizer onto expectant hands.

Once seated, both CRC and BH ordered the onion soup, an appropriate dish given the gray wetness outside reminiscent of a disgusting yet typical Vancouver afternoon. It was quite good. The cheese might not have been Gruyere but nevertheless was melty and gooey and hit the right notes.

Then, the Critic ordered pasta, which he quickly changed to a burger and as per Gila’s recommendation, this burger became the Bistro Burger. This burger was outstanding with cheese, onions and a thick slab of beef. Better Half ordered capered (alcaparrado) fish filet which came with veggies but no rice, perfect for the meal plan she is currently experimenting with. In between the soups and the main courses, a Caesar salad was also ordered, again quite good.

For dessert, the apple crumble (which had caught the Critic’s eye from the first glance at the menu) and the key lime pie, another favorite. Both were excellent, with the crumble coming out on top in the Critic’s never humble and quite subjective opinion.

Service was charming throughout. Owner Gila and her chef hubby came over to say hello. The room decor is attractive and one feels not in Progreso, which can be a good thing when you want to switch things up a little and enjoy a nice meal in a place with a little more sophistication than the plastic beer company chair and reggaeton environment available elsewhere.

With a couple or three glasses of Merlot and all that food, the bill came to about 1200 pesos. Not cheap, but not Chablé level either.

Speaking English in Mexico – Entitlement 2.0

I’m in line at my local Scotiabank, waiting and watching. At the cashier, a gringo is telling the cashier – in English – that there had been a mistake when he paid his fees for his wife’s residency permit (immigration) and that he needed to correct the name on the receipt as it didn’t match the name on the passport and therefore, the folks at immigration did not allow it .

The cashier listens patiently and informs the gringo in broken English that she would call a manager. The manager comes and explains – in English – that they are unable to change the receipt information,

The gringo nods.

No es problema” he manages to say, and with a garbled “solo es dinero” and “es my fault, mi problema, ok ok ” reaches into his pocket to fork over another wad of bills to pay the immigration fee a second time, in order to get the receipt with his wife’s name spelled correctly and complete.

This exchange got me thinking about how a Mexican who shows up at a bank in the US or Canada would be received under similar circumstances, speaking no English, only Spanish.

I’m not talking about dealing with a latino bank employee – of which there are many in Texas and Florida – although those can often be the biggest assholes. No, I have in mind the sense of entitlement that enables one to walk into a bank in a foreign country and without speaking the language, simply expect people to help you or speak in your language to help you. Would a Mexican even attempt this? I doubt it. Never in a thousand years would the executive from Las Lomas de Chapultepec or the bracero from Oxcutzcab even consider just throwing out the Spanish and expect to be understood, let alone be served. Even the most entitled, rich and aloof white Mexican would speak English.

Español? The cashiers would just stare at him like he is completamente loco.

“I’m sorry sir we don’t speak Spanish” they would say to the Mexican, the ones with Ramirez or Rodriguez on their name tag adding a barely perceptible smirk to the statement.

Why doesn’t the cashier here say “Perdón señor, no hablamos inglés” to the gringo?

Is it the desire to serve? Are Mexicans so much more service-oriented than gringos? Is it an inherent (and erroneous) understanding of the gringos assumed superior social position?

Whatever the reason; if this intrigues you like it did me today and you’re a gringo or gringa, take a moment to observe your privilege and fully appreciate the friendly reception Mexicans provide for recently arrived norteamericanos as compared to the reception the mexicanos get up north.

The Casual Restaurant Critic: Brekkie at La Libertad

Venturing ever-further out with the pandemic still ongoing, Better Half and the Critic recently visited the relatively new breakfast spot La Libertad, located in Temozon Norte, a suburb of Merida outside the periférico and just beyond La Isla shopping mega-complex.

Not quite open, the restaurant sets up chairs outside for people to wait in a safe and socially distanced way. Once inside and the obligatory gel squirts and temperature pistol to the head protocols complied with, the Critic and BH were seated. Breakfast items were varied and plentiful, from an açai bowl to chilaquiles to real sourdough bread sandwiches.

What makes the place more special is that there are trees everywhere, even in the parking lot outside; there is a distinct Tulum-ish vibe going on which you will feel when you go.

The food was delicious and the service charming and friendly. Definitely, a return is in the cards, as there is much to try and the ambience is very appealing. Terrace and inside dining available.

You can see more about La Libertad on their Facebook page and even make reservations directly.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Izamal – A Club Sibarita Event

Plenty of Sunday activity in Izamal

Just this past Sunday, Merida’s Club Sibarita organized another outing to a town nearby (the previous one was Espita, which the Critic was unable to attend); in this case the Yellow City of Izamal. Also known as Yzamal if you carefully read those engraved stone reminders embedded in the walls of the monastery and other buildings. The Spanish were notoriously relaxed in their spelling.

Back to the trip.

First stop was the market, where, it being the first Sunday of the Easter holidays, it seemed like the crowd that had banned from the malecon in Progreso had decided to converge on Izamal. Extremely congested with minimal social distancing possible, the Critic and his Better Half wolfed down a cochinita pibil and dzic de venado taco or two and fled as quickly as possible to enjoy a coconut ice cream outside, in the fresh air, far away from the hordes.

Nothing like a greasy cochinita taco or torta in the morning! Sublime!
Dzic de Venado on a fat corn tortilla. Yum.

After that, a visit to the Kinich Kakmo pyramid, a short tutorial on the how to make a recado rojo – with achiote (annatto seed) and a visit to the very top of the Izamal convent!

Then the main event: a delectable multi-course gourmet local-ingredients Yucatan meal featuring the best of the Critics favorite Yucatecan restaurant of all time – Kinich – accompanied by a selection of white, rosé and red wines, and cervezas from the newest local brewery, Mastache, all the way from the nearby suburb of Caucel.

The photos (below) speak for themselves. If you love Yucatecan food, you must visit Kinich and if you want to join in these kinds of fun activities, contact Club Sibarita and become a member. Or follow them on social media – many events are open to the general public as well.

Buen provecho!

Oh, the Noise, Noise, Noise, NOISE

“Sleeping is hard”
the old gringo suggested
at a meeting of townsfolk
the salón quite congested

Many residents turned out
to see what could be done
for the noise levels of late
too high had become

Others nodded that they,
too, had difficulties sleeping
for the bars down the street
towards them now were creeping

Merida’s yuppies, you see
from their north city perch
were “discovering” centro;
and drunkenly they’d lurch

from cantinas to bars
and from bars to cantinas
they puked on front doors,
cackling, like in-heat hyenas

They peed on parked cars,
and on trees newly planted,
in flower pots, on gates;
they sang and they chanted

The gringos of course,
with restored antique homes,
were sick of the partying,
the watts, volts and ohms

The loud music you see,
was the worst part of all,
booming into the night,
it would shake every wall

El derecho ajeno…
tired expats would quote
Benito Juarez’s speech
they all knew now by rote

A conflict was brewing
with resentment in the air
both sides were quite angry
and tempers would flare

The partyers were offended
and angrily cried
“We’re reviving our customs;
our city hasn’t died!”

They continued like this
the spoiled yuppies would foam
“If the gringos don’t like it,
they should pack up and go home!”

Some went a bit further,
xenophobic and furious
“stupid gringos should have known,
and bought land in some curious

hacienda or village
far away from the city
no bars or cantinas, and
an existence less gritty.

What they didn’t realize
kids privileged and bored
was that the gringos had come
and their downtown restored

It was they with their love,
with their patience; their money
who fixed up El Centro
and wasn’t it funny

that now Merida’s centro
had recovered its charm,
new restaurants and bars
all started to swarm

and what once were just houses
on quiet residential streets
became targets for investors
to increase their receipts

So now here we stand
at an impasse, it seems
while the conflict continues,
El Diario prints reams

about musicians and artists;
this regulation, that norm;
about sleep-deprived gringos;
and an imminent storm.

The Memory of the Milpa

Tales from the World of Tourism

Sembrando mais, frijol, calabaza

We are returning from a very early morning visit to Celestun and are taking the back road to Merida, via the haciendas and Maxcanú. One of our stops is at the village of Kochol where the ruins of a once majestic sisal plantation slowly disintegrate.

Casa Principal – Hacienda Kochol

My travel companions/guests wander over to the ruined hacienda building for a photo or two. Looking around, I see someone in a red baseball cap on the ground nearby.

¿Que está haciendo?” I ask what turns out to be an ancient campesino sitting on the ground, determinedly scraping the dirt.

Estoy sembrando, mira.” He waves his arm out around him, looking up, squinting, at me. “Ahi tengo mais, frijol, calabaza.”

His ‘milpa‘ is a patch of dirt behind the village public school and on the grounds of the crumbling former sisal hacienda, a short distance away. I don’t see corn, beans, or squash, but I realize that in his mind he is back in his fields, doing what he and the Mayans have done for hundreds of years.

I look over to see that the village drunk has stumbled over to socialize with the selfie-taking pair by the broken steps of what used to be the hacienda’s ‘casa principal‘. Another individual on a motorcycle shows up as well. My travel companions/guests are two women, Americans. Always a target for would-be Lotharios.

Time to get back to work.

Hacienda Kochol – February 2020

Merida’s Very Own Refettorio

La cultura trae conocimiento. El conocimiento conduce a la conciencia. Y cuando nos hacemos conscientes, estamos a un paso de ser socialmente responsables. La cultura es la clave

Massimo Bottura

Note: a version of this article is soon to be published in the Yucatan Today magazine.

Maria furiously swings her cane, over and over, beating on the defenseless form at her feet while I and a few others stand in a circle around her and watch a mixture of respect and a touch of alarm at her energetic, almost frantic, efforts to rip open the piñata.

“I do not want to get on her bad side.” This thought rushes into my mind as she vents a hidden fury.

While the concept of volunteering is not as evident as it is north of the border, Mexico does have a long tradition of individuals and social organizations responding to help those in need; particularly through the church. Of late, as more and more people find themselves in need, more and more individuals, organizations and even private companies have stepped forward to provide relief.

She looks up, her hair wildly out of place and flashes us a huge toothless grin. She has succeeded where the tender fists of the few children who had come to the Refettorio’s first Christmas brunch had not; candies now lie strewn about, and everyone –young and old – scrambles on all fours to grab their share. Everyone loves a piñata!

The latest entry into the world of social assistance from the private sector is a joint venture involving non-profits including Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s Food for Soul and our very own Fundación Palace Resorts. In a meticulously restored colonial mansion in the heart of Merida’s centro, a space has been designed to provide those who need it with a dignified and communal place to eat healthy, beautiful three-course meals served by volunteers. There is art on the walls, silverware on the tables. Meals are planned, based on what donations have been acquired and how they can be combined in a nutritious and attractive way. Each plate, as designed by chef José Angel Zamudio, rivals anything you will find at any of Merida’s finest restaurants, both in presentation and in deliciousness.

As the children and the adults return to their seats, a small band plays music and a few of the people get up to dance. Many of the guests, homeless or in otherwise precarious situations, are able to enjoy a moment free of tension, worry and hardship. The Refettorio is a place where they not only enjoy a first class meal, but also have the opportunity to take a shower with fresh soap and clean towels, obtain a change of clothes if necessary and even, on certain days, get a haircut.

All of this is possible through the support of the Palace Resorts and the logistical backing of Food for Soul. A minimal staff under the expert supervision of Claudia Bolio runs the operation and the active participation of dozens of volunteers – in the kitchen and in the dining room – provide the hands that ensure the work gets done.

Since opening this past year, in the middle of a very unplanned pandemic, the Refettorio has:

  • served over 21,000 plates of food
  • reclaimed over 8 tons of food
  • organized the participation of over 100 vulnteers
  • supported 34 organizations with donations
  • registered and attended over 350 individuals in need in Merida’s historic centro

There’s one other bit of data missing: how helping out has affected me, as one of a score of volunteers. Many of the families and individuals I had the opportunity to visit in their homes when we were doing meal delivery and now those who have come to the Refettorio to enjoy a meal I know by name and they know me. It has been a blessing to have found Claudia and this program, as it has allowed me to get out of my often-negative pandemic headspace and do something productive and feel useful.

If you have the time and the inclination, helping out at the Refettorio is a great way to give back to the community and assist those who need it most. See their website for details and contact information.

The Casual Restaurant Critic at Kuro Uma Sushi

Yes, more sushi.

The Critic (and the always-lovely Better Half) first tried Kuro Uma sushi at an in-home catered event, given that the restaurants were not yet allowed to open at the time and this was a special birthday celebration indeed.

Impressed by the food, the service as well as the presentation, and attention to detail, both Critic and BH could not wait to visit the restaurant, a happy event that occurred just this past week. Merida restaurants are now allowed to open with a limited number of patrons and so, Kuro Uma was the Critic’s first official restaurant outing in at least six months.

A reservation was made in person, with trepidation and specifically requesting terrace seating (being in a small, enclosed environment makes the Critic somewhat hesitant) This did not happen as that day, the folks running the commercial center decided that they would undertake repairs on some water damage and the one terrace that was inoperable (all the other restaurant patios and terraces were open) was the Kuro Uma patio. So, the decision was made and the Critic and Better Half took their places at the counter/bar and proceeded to order. Too much food, as usual.

Food took it’s time coming out but the level of detail in the presentation and cutting of the fish which you can observe firsthand from your seat at the bar, was exquisite. Fish was fresh and very tasty. Recommended is the omakaze sashimi plate (5 types of raw fish) which on this occasion was mostly tuna. The 7 piece omakaze sushi was also excellent. But the dish that still makes the Critic salivate as he writes his casual review, is the pork belly, recommended by the folks also sitting at the bar who shall be called the Xcanatun Couple for the purpose of showing them the appreciation for recommending the dish. Marinated for god knows how many hours, the pork belly literally melts in your mouth and the flavor touches on all the taste points, guaranteeing your blissful satisfaction. The term “mouthgasm” comes to mind.

Accompanied by an icy Sapporo and some sake, this was a luxe lunch that the Critic hopes to repeat very soon! Enjoy the photos.

Pork belly
Not your average Rice Krispies squares
Sake

2020 Weather and the Yucatan’s Water Table

We’re in the middle of our hurricane season and so far we’ve seen Cristobal, Gamma and Delta work their way across or along the coasts of the peninsula leaving behind not so much damage in the way of wind, but plenty of concerns over an excess of water.

What Happened

The water table in the city of Merida sits at about 8 meters below ground level. After the heavy rains dumped on the peninsula by tropical storm Cristobal in June, not a historically rainy month, the ground became saturated and the water table began to rise as underground currents pushed the water towards the coastlines (Progreso, Campeche, Cancun) and there, the unusually large volume of water, finding normal resistance from the sea, was pushed back. However, there was nowhere to go but up. And so the water table continued to rise.

Tropical storm Gamma, that moved across the peninsula, dropping massive amounts of water as it went, hit the coast near Progreso and then turned back, dropping down onto land again and making its way slowly towards the city of Campeche.

Finally, hurricane Delta hit the coast of Quintana Roo and moved across the peninsula in a northwesterly direction. It did not directly impact the city of Merida but the rains accompanying the storm impacted further the already waterlogged state.

The water had nowhere to go and so, it broke the surface.

The Results

Flooding has been rampant. The newer neighborhoods of Las Americas and Caucel seemed especially hard hit. Entire streets were converted into lakes and rivers. Homeowners, desperate to see the water disappear, took the unfortunate and ill-advised step of removing the grates from the drains, thereby exposing the wells to garbage, leaves and more. The wells were, in fact, not absorbing water; rather, they were acting as springs, spewing up groundwater into the streets around them.

The city’s only underpass, a constant source of amusement for citizens who love to criticize and often the victim of the Yucatecans acerbic wit, was flooded once again. Below-ground parking lots at the La Isla and Harbour shopping malls, as well as Chedraui, were flooded to the roof. There are spooky videos online of divers in the underground/water parking lot of Harbour.

The underpass, subject of much controversy when it was built by Angelica Araujo and an ongoing subject of criticism by the populace

The only Costco in the world with a cenote, now had a cenote with water you could almost reach out and touch.

Costco. Looks like it’s Photoshopped but no, it’s real.

In our neighborhood in the northern part of Merida, we have seen severe flooding that hasn’t – as of this writing, 3 days after Delta’s tail passed through – yet receded. Many people all over the city are up in arms, complaining on social media about poor planning, the lack of drainage wells, the criminally negligent architects and engineers, and of course, the incompetence and useless efforts of the hated politicians, both city and state.

Pumping – A Possible Solution?

Calls for more pipas (tanker trucks with pumps that will remove water) are a popular theme. City and state officials are happy to comply although they probably are aware that this is a short-term, mostly cosmetic solution. These are not puddles or pools of water that can simply be emptied. This water is the water table for the entire peninsula that has risen to historic levels, breaking the surface in many areas that are low enough to be impacted. Any attempts to suck it up and take it somewhere else (where, exactly, is a mystery) are doomed to failure as it will simply seep up again.

The only real solution is to wait. This is less than comforting if your living room has a couple of inches or more of water or you have lost your furniture due to flooding, but there really is nothing that can be done. The water under our feet must move to the ocean and the water table must drop, in order for the surface water to disappear. It behooves us all to pray/wish/manifest that there be no more rain as that would prolong this slow process.

The Mexican Solution is Humor

The best part of any tragedy or ostensibly negative situation is the Mexican acute sense of fatalistic humor. It never ceases to amaze me the creativity of people coming up with these ideas and how quickly they make their way into everyone’s Facebook, Instagram and other social media accounts.