The highlights reel

I was in Mexico for just one week yet I came away with enough delicious material to go on posting about it for at least another couple of weeks. But alas, I won’t. Instead I’ll end the reminiscing with a collection of some of the best stuff we had during our little Yucatan/ Riviera Maya jaunt.

Enchiladas verdes at El Cuerno de Oro in Playa del Carmen

 In Playa del Carmen Flaneur had the above pictured enchiladas verdes and I had the below pictured enchiladas de molè at a no-frills, definitely-not-trendy restaurant just a couple of streets off the main tourist area (known as Quinta Avenida, or yup, Fifth Avenue). The green ones were good—tangy, zesty and perfectly gooey and cheesy—but the ones in molè, a sauce made of chocolate and chilies, spoke directly to me. A little spicy and a little sweet. Yes please.

Enchiladas al mole at El Cuerno de Oro in Playa del Carmen

In Tulum, a smallish, quiet town with a laid back vibe, we had a heated-at-the-table dish for two at a place called El Mariachi. (No actual mariachi bands were involved, thankfully). Instead there were strips of chicken breast, pork and chorizo topped with avocado, lemon and tomato for bright, colorful flavors and spicy, seasoned meats, served with refried beans, rice and corn tortillas.

Parrilladas del campo at El Mariachi in Tulum

Then there was the flan at Squimoz in Valladolid. Oh that flan… so creamy in flavor but smooth and thick in consistency. So sweet, almost buttery, just perfect. So… exactly what I could eat every day.

Flan at Squimoz in Valladolid

Below, after a day sweating it out under the relentless sun at the Maya ruins at Chichen Itza, Flaneur ordered this colorful and traditional Yucatecan dish in Valladoli, cochinita pibil with rice and sweet plantains. Pork meat is marinated in all sorts of juices, bitter oranges, seasonings and spices and then wrapped in plantain leaves before being slow roasted so that the end result is incredibly juicy, soft meat that really almost melts in your mouth… while you almost melt into your chair.

Cochinita pibil at Plaza Maya Restaurant in Valladolid

At the same restaurant, Plaza Maya Restaurant in Valladolid, I had the poc chuc, a funny sounding dish also typical of Yucatecan cooking. Like the cochinita pibil, poc chuc features pork but instead of being roasted it’s grilled. It’s not as tender as the cochinita but because it’s also marinated in sour oranges and citrus juices, it has that similar flavor and zest.

Horchata at Parque de las Palapas in Cancun
Last, but most certainly not least, was my favorite non-alcoholic drink of the trip: horchata. (Yes, between the frosty beers and the salt-rimmed margaritas there were indeed a few drinks of the non boozy variety.) It looks semi-sketchy in this unmarked (possibly reused?) bottle, but I threw caution to the wind (perhaps not always a smart idea when regarding food and drinks in Mexico…) and guzzled it anway. You know why? Cause that milky sweet almondy drink was delicious, and on those sweltering days, the perfect creamy, cold cure to beat the heat.
 
So there it is, that’s everything from a pretty perfect vacation. Eso es todo, folks! Hasta la proxima!

Sorry, but I’m getting the coconut

As a personal rule, I try and not order anything with shrimp, crab or lobster in it when I’m eating with Flaneur because as I’ve mentioned before, he’s allergic to them. Every once in a while though, I break that rule, and most recently I did it in Mexico.

In New York, I can always go back to a restaurant with friends but in Mexico there was no such thing, so when at dinner one night the house special where we were eating (La Habichuela in downtown Cancun) was a plate that involved two of the three in the trinity of shellfish allergies, I bent my rule and ordered it anyway.

House special: cocobichuela

How could you not be curious about a dish that involved lobster and shrimp cooked in curry, served with rice, all inside a coconut and garnished with pineapple, coconut shavings and sweet plantains? I mean really. I wished the beau could try it, but there was no reason both of us couldn’t.

I won’t say it was the best thing I ate during my vacation, but it was probably one of the most interesting and definitely got the most points for presentation. Though you can’t see it in the picture, the inside of the coconut was full of a rich, hearty bunch of rice with fat chunks of sweet lobster and shrimp in a peppery, sweet and earthy tasting curry sauce.

Maybe I was a little selfish in ordering this, but the boyfriend understood. Plus, vacations aren’t about following the rules anyway.

Guacamole greatness

Every now and then I meet someone who doesn’t like guacamole and it really just blows my mind. Unless you’re allergic, how could you not love guacamole?

Were you pelted by bullies with unripened avocados? Were your parents killed by a truck carrying a shipment of avocados? Does the green make you think of the time you were posessed and had the messy incident with the green vommit and the spinning head? What HAPPENED?

The best guacamole I've ever had

I love guacamole and would be perfectly happy eating it at least once a week from now until, well, always. Cause I just love it so. Which is why I was beside myself with gluttonous joy when we had the delicious heap of guac pictured above at a small, beachy cafe in Playa del Carmen called Caiman Tugurio. Flaneur and I were there for a couple of afternoon margaritas after spending the day lounging on the beach (God, I miss being on vacation) and decided to get something to munch on while we drank. Little did we know the guacamole at this unassuming, laid back bar would be the best I have possibly ever had.

It was chunky and thick with hunks of tomato and little sprigs of cilantro, yet creamy and smooth on the tongue. Whoever made it must have used a perfectly ripened, soft avocado because it had the wonderful, buttery taste of an avocado that just screams to be eaten. They also didn’t hold back on the lime juice which was a good thing because it madethe guacamole just tangy and zesty enough to almost demand being enjoyed with a margarita.

I’m pretty sure that this guacamole could make a believer out of anyone, even those random people out there who say they don’t like it.

( ::Sigh:: I’ll never understand you people.)

On the road again

We had been driving down a hot, barren road toward the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza when there she appeared, quite literally like an oasis in the desert: a short, round faced, brown skinned girl sitting alone under a white tent, only a large cooler sitting on the table next to her. The hand-written sign on the gravel road said: NIEVES.

After breezing past her, we pulled over and turned back around toward the tent. A couple of minutes and a few dozen pesos later we were back en route with strawberry and pineapple-mango nieves, slushy, bright sorbets scooped into Styrofoam cups.

An easy way to make a good roatrip great

Like fun music and good company, snacks are crucial to a successful car trip, and those frosty, fruity nieves did just the trick. More like frozen blended fruit than just sorbet, each nieve in its modest Styrofoam cup was refreshing and bright, the pineapple and mango basically the food embodiment of a beach holiday, and the strawberry one less loud and showy, but just as sweet and tangy.

If I was that poor girl, sitting out there in the heat, bored and alone for God knows how long, I don’t think I’d be able to resist eating all those delicious tubs of nieve inside that cooler. Then again, no one would trust me with that job in the first place for that very reason.

Jackpot!

Cancun is made up of two very different parts: the zona hotelera, or hotel area, where all of the tourists and spring breakers hang out, fry in the sun, and get tanked at the clubs, and the centro, or downtown area, where there’s no beach, no big resorts and just a lot of locals.

Parque de las Palapas

Though we spent the majority of our time in Mexico exploring places other than Cancun, we did find ourselves looking for a place to eat there one night, and it was then that we hit the jackpot of food: Parque de las Palapas. An open and lively square, the park is named after the umbrella’d tables where people gather to listen to live music and eat the delicious food from the  many food stalls and carts selling all sorts of traditional Mexican eats. From tacos and quesadillas to things I had never heard of in my life, everyone was selling something, and for what amounted to no more than a couple of dollars.

Everything was so good, and so mind-bogglingly-cheap that we came back for lunch a different day. Add up everything below and it probably still was barely 20 US dollars. And let me tell you, it made buying lunch in New York upon my return almost that much more of a painful experience.

First, some of the most simple, no-frills tacos I’ve ever had. Nothing but juicy, savory hunks of chicken on warm tortillas, but yet somehow better than a lot of the sloppy, fat, overloaded tacos I’ve had at home.

Chicken tacos

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Once upon a time in Mexico

Starting the vacation off right with some ceviche

I recently came into a nice bit of money (thanks to scalped tickets and this year’s tax return) and instead of being a responsible adult and putting it in my savings account or towards paying off one of my credit cards or student loans, I used it to cure my latest bout of wanderlust. Being responsible and prudent is so boring, don’t you think? Traveling, eating and using accumulated vacation days is so much more fun!

And so Flaneur and I planned a little trip south of the border, to Mexico, where several people I know (including my perpetually wrong parents) told me I shouldn’t go. Something about drug wars, kidnappings and mass graves. But we went and came back and had an amazing time in between so all turned out well.

We spent a great week lounging on beaches, deepening our tans (or just mine actually, since Flaneur insisted on wearing spf 500), exploring small towns and Mayan ruins, and of course stuffing our faces with delicious and most-of-the-time-ridiculously-cheap Mexican food. See? So much better than debt repayment.

In the next few posts I’ll recap some of the awesome stuff we ate and the cool places we ate it in. For now, enjoy the above picture of the crazy delicious ceviche I ate within the first hour of being in Cancun, the home base of our trip. It was from one of the restaurants at the Westin Resort where we stayed, so by far not the most authentic or the cheapest eats we had, but still really good. Every bit as bright, colorful and refreshing in taste as it was in appearance, it was a pretty good start to what would be a a fantastic week in Mexico.

Hola, old friends

Pupusas de chorizo y queso

Last summer while spending a couple of months in San Francisco, I discovered pupusas, a Salvadoran pancake-like corn tortilla stuffed with delicious cheese and meat fillings. I was in love right away and wonderered how I managed to grow up in Miami, a melting pot of every country in the world but especially those of Central and South America, without ever having one. I’m still not sure, but on mylast trip to Miami, I was eager to try them again, especially since I hadn’t had any since my days in California.

Lucky for me, my sister and I seemed to be on the same wavelenght the day she picked up the beau and I from the airport, because she took us to a restaurant in Little Havana called El Atlacatl, specializing in the cuisine of El Salvador.

My sister was all about me trying the tamales there, which I’ll get into in a moment, but when I saw pupusas on the menu, that’s what I wanted. ASAP.

Tamal de gallina

And they didn’t disappoint. Savory in that salty, grainy cornmealy way that I remembered, they were just the right amount of soft and doughy with a flavorful, filling of chorizo and cheese. I don’t know anything about El Salvador but I’ve made up my mind that I’d love to visit. Any country where I could eat pupusas as much as I wanted seems like a damn fine place to me.

So about those tamales… my sister, who shares not only my DNA but my voracious round-the-clock apetite, really nailed it when she suggested them. Unlike pupusas, I’ve eaten tamales my whole life and still eat them in New York. (Thank you Trader Joe’s for your variety of ethnic eats.) But the tamales we had at El Atlacatl were some of the best I can remember. First we had a tamal de gallina, a wonderfully plump, steaming hot tamale stuffed with tender, juicy hen meat, like pulled pork. Every bite was subtly sweet from the corn dough used in the tamales and savory and hearty from the delicious meat inside.

Tamal de elote

But as good as that one was— and let me tell you, it was GOOD— the other tamal was far and away my favorite.  Unlike the hen-stuffed tamal, this one didn’t have a filling of any kind, and was made with a slightly different sweet corn masa, so that it was considerably sweeter than the other one in an earthy, not sugary way. With the tamal came a small serving of tangy, bright sourcream, and really, I can’t think of a more perfect combination of flavors and textures. Perfectly moist and soft with the earthy sweetness of corn, everything that was good about the tamal was made even better with the cool, creamy tang of the sourcream.  

Only thing now is that I’m not sure how I’ll go back to eating the frozen Trader Joe variety…