The Yucatán peninsula, along with the mountainous state of Oaxaca, is perched at the top of the list of culinary destinations and gastronomy in all of México. There is no comparing the simple foods of northern México – let alone the Tex Mex offerings in the southern USA – with the complex blend of flavors and exotic ingredients and time-consuming preparation methods passed down from generation to generation in these regions.
The most popular dishes have moved from being prepared at homes both humble and fancy (but always by the same indigenous hands) to upscale linen-tablecloth restaurants with snappy Maya names, exquisite decor, and pulsing lounge music. Here are a few favorites!
This is the popular tamal baked in family-size options for Janal Pixan celebrations. Mukbilpollos differ from regular Yucatecan tamales by its color and crunchiness. Popularly known also as “Pibes” (not to be confused with Argentinian youth) in reference to their having been cooked in the underground earth oven of that name, the corn-masa tamales are colored and flavored with condiments like annatto/achiote, and are usually made with chicken and/or pork. Manteca (pork lard) is also a major ingredient, as is banana leaf used to wrap the finished product before it’s cooked.
As mentioned above, this dish is usually served only around the local Day of the Dead celebrations, at the end of October and through November. That time of the year, you can order Pibes at most of the classic Yucatecan restaurants like Los Almendros, Manjar Blanco, MUGY, and Chaya Maya if you prefer to eat them with a knife and fork and sit at a proper table with air conditioning and bar service. However, if you’re visiting outside those dates, you can try a Tamal Horneado. Tamales Horneados are similar to Pibes and are available year-round on street stands or even the highway; in particular, the Mérida-Cancún highway, in the town of Libre Union where a group of women prepare and cook these each and every day, pulling them out of the ground around 11 am or so. Be prepared to beat back truckers, tour operators and other drivers using the libre or non-toll road as this stop is a highlight and everyone buys a couple of these to enjoy enroute or back home with the family. In my case, driving through the town and NOT stopping to buy one for the house is grounds for divorce. Don’t forget the little bag of roasted tomato sauce with a touch of habanero—delicious!
You can enjoy a great Relleno Negro in nearby Tixkokob at the excellent Pueblo Pibil restaurant, as prepared by chef Silvio Campos. Chef Silvio was featured in the Taco Chronicles special on Netflix and it is worth the 30-minute drive from Merida to eat at the dining establishment where he rules the kitchen. Here, you will enjoy the dish (and see it pulled from the ground if you are there around noon, but do call ahead to verify this) in an atmosphere of sophisticated lighting, wall treatments, a wine list, and excellent service that must be experienced.
Less fancy, you can also enjoy this dish on Sundays, in the Tixkokob market. There, Chef Silvio carries on a family tradition dating back generations with a simple stand between the Cochinita Pibil vendor and the Mondongo lady. If you’d rather stay in the city, you can experience a superb Relleno Negro, on tortillas or fresh rolls, at La Lupita in the small, friendly Santiago market.
Arguably the most popular dish of them all is the world-renowned Cochinita Pibil. Traditionally cooked underground in a Pib or earth oven, the succulent pork, roasted in banana leaves and basted in achiote/annatto seed paste is an early morning weekend staple sold on every street corner in every urban center, large and small. From Conkal to Celestún, Mérida to Maxcanú, you will find Cochinita served up in tacos and Tortas (sandwiches) from large rectangular tins under what look like overturned aquariums, their glass stained by grease, prepared by skilled hands softened by years of immersion in pork fat. With an ice-cold Coca-Cola, you have a most excellent and heart-stopping breakfast.
Away from the hustle and bustle and fumes of the street, you can try this flavorful meat tucked into hand-made ravioli, thanks to local celebrity chef Roberto Solís, at the high-end Teya Viva restaurant in the Paseo 60 entertainment complex/ADO station. Maya de Asia offers a few options that are just as innovative, such as in Bao Buns or served with habanero Sriracha sauce. In both cases, the result is much better than you would imagine and highly recommended.
My absolute favorite Yucatecan dish, the lesser-known but equally distinguished Queso Relleno is the go-to for evaluating any establishment serving Yucatecan food. Because of the preparation involved, it is not as readily available on street corners or food stalls, but there are places where it can be found for a pittance. One of these is the Doña Tere restaurant at the Valladolid service island on the Mérida-Cancún highway. There, Maya servers will serve up this delicacy in tacos and tortas.
On a more formal note, a truly spectacular Queso Relleno (in my never humble opinion, of course) that sets the bar for all the others, is to be found at the Izamal must-visit Kinich. Here, smiling staff will happily set before you a bowl/plate of Edam-cheesy goodness that, when accompanied by thick handmade corn tortillas, will make your tastebuds sparkle. Notice that owner Miriam hires only local ladies as servers, a nice switch from this traditionally male-dominated field and a positive choice for those interested in helping make the Yucatán restaurant scene a little more equitable for women.
Sopa de Lima
The most humble of these five dishes, the local staple Sopa de Lima, aka lime soup, is often missing the very thing that gives it its name: lime. Made with local lemons, as the lime is considerably more expensive and often scarce, this is not the only missing ingredient. Cheaper and more readily available chicken often takes the place of the traditional turkey and the crunchy corn tortilla strips are simply broken up bits as opposed to julienned. And so, while the basic concept is the same, a poultry-based consommé made sour by the addition of citrus, the care in the method of preparation and strict adherence to the original recipe is what makes the difference.
You can have excellent Sopa de Lima in a market stall at La Reina Itzalana in Santiago for cheap. You will be sitting practically in the street and can watch the Viene-Vienes (parking attendants with the red cloths) while you savor the flavor.
If you’re up for a scenic trip, you can also try a delightful version in Ya’axche, in Halachó, on weekends, or try your hand at making it yourself guided by their team if you take one of their workshops, available on weekdays.
The five foods mentioned here by no means make up a complete list of Yucatecan specialties. Do get out to visit markets, local restaurants, and eateries in small towns sprinkled around the peninsula and find your own favorites. There are so many to choose from and each has its own take on what is the “correct” version of any particular dish.
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
A Yucatecan born in Germany and raised in Canada, with a degree in Hospitality and Tourism from the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Ralf has experience in leisure tourism, journalism, research, editing, writing, and creative writing. He’s also a musician.
Photography by Cassie Pearse, Kinich, La Lupita, and La Reina Itzalana for use in Yucatán Today.
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