It seems that I spend an inordinate amount of time and space in this magazine writing about food; nevertheless, here I go again. There is, after all, nothing better when traveling than sampling as much of the local cuisine as you can. Yucatán has some seriously great culinary treats in store for you, all of which I absolutely adore and miss enormously every time I’m abroad for any length of time.
There are towns in Yucatán that are synonymous with certain dishes or foods, and the mere mention of them can activate your salivary glands and make you want to drop what you are doing and eat that delicious food. Right now.
Here are five destinations and their food musts.
Maní for Poc Chuc
This is a classic Mérida-based day trip for locals and visitors alike. But don’t think you’re going to score a table quickly for Sunday lunch at one of our state’s favorite Poc Chuc destinations, El Principe Tutul Xiu. The parking lot overflows quickly around 1 pm and yes, there are lineups.
This well-known eatery, expanded and improved on over the years, has come to open branches in Mérida, Ticul, and Oxkutzcab. In Maní, it is located just steps from the now-yellow and partially standing former convent where nasty Fray Diego de Landa, threw a hissy fit of inquisitorial proportions and burned most of the records of Maya civilization, claiming that they were works of the devil.
But don’t let that thought spoil your appetite. Last month, the town was added to the list of Pueblos Mágicos for its historic, cultural, and of course, culinary importance.
Order the restaurant’s deliciously famous Poc Chuc or mix things up a little and try their smoky Relleno Negro, or the sadly unphotogenic but exquisite Queso Relleno. It shouldn’t be hard to remember these, as the three dishes make up the bulk of the offerings on hand. Afterwards, drive back at your own risk as you may fall asleep with all that goodness in you; a better idea is to take a stroll around the town and see the magic for yourself.
Tixkokob for Relleno Negro
The town is a little more relaxed now, but still of considerable size and boasts a thriving hammock industry. Interestingly, many a transvestite call the place home, as the locals are accepting and not as judgmental as in other, more conservative Yucatán towns. It’s also home to several bakeries, one of which dates back to the early 1900’s, and a cantina called El Paraíso, which means Paradise (or Heaven if you have a religious bent).
One of the reasons to go to Tixkokob now, is chef Silvio Campos and his traditional Maya pit (Pib) cooking. Now installed as chef of the gorgeous Pueblo Pibil restaurant (he used to have a stall in the market), he creates the most luscious version of Relleno Negro that will ever grace your tongue. Beautifully set before with a Lec full of hand-crafted corn tortillas, you will never see this classic dish the same way again.
Valladolid or Temozón for Traditional Smoked Meats
You’ve seen Longaniza on restaurant menus in Mérida and even on signs affixed to homes in town. Longaniza, followed by the words “de Valladolid” is the typical chorizo-colored, seasoned dry pork sausage that is sublime when grilled and stuffed into a fresh tortilla with pickled onions and some roasted tomato salsa.
While it comes from Valladolid, there are some fine examples of this smoked sausage along with smoked cuts of pork including ribs, in the village of Temozón, on the road to Ek Balam. My favorite stop is Carnes Concepción, where you can, if you ask nicely, pop into the massive smoker room in the back, where the fragrance of meat will blow up your sensorial capacity.
A taco lunch there will set you back little if anything and the food is truly exceptional. A trip well worth it, especially if you are visiting Valladolid and/or the Maya site of Ek Balam.
Yaxunah for Cochinita (Pelón) Pibil
Another fabulous day trip is in the general direction of Chichén Itzá. Skip the over-crowded site for another occasion and instead, veer right (if coming from Mérida) off the highway before getting there and follow the signs to Yaxunah.
There you will find many ladies offering home cooked Cochinita Pibil, made with the now famous Box Kekén or hairless pig, a variety of pork we covered in previous issues (see October, 2020). The difference between the commercial pork usually served up at roadside stands on Sundays, and the Cochinita prepared with this variety is notable.
The most famous of the ladies who cook up this delicacy in Yaxunah – and you may have seen her on Netflix – is Chef Rosalia Chay. She and her family are featured alongside smokers and wrinkled barbecue types from the United States in a special season of Chef’s Table dedicated to the smoked cooking of meat. Her Cochinita is outstanding, but good luck trying to get in touch with her as the Internet in Yaxunah is spotty at best, and cell phone reception is only available at the top of the Maya pyramids which are a short walk from town.
Celestún for Pescado Frito
For many locals an ideal trip to the beach, any beach, involves devouring an entire freshly fried fish, with the requisite pickled red onions, corn tortillas, and a chilled – ahem – beverage. When I have taken visitors to a beachfront restaurant, some are squeamish about seeing that it is in fact a whole fish, complete with head, tail, and even beady little eyes.
If you can get over your initial reaction, you will be rewarded with an absolutely spectacular dish: perfectly golden fish, crispy around the edges, and its white meat juicy and flavorful. Personally, I like to eat it with my hands, although one does need to be careful when lifting one’s beer glass, as that beer might slip through one’s greasy fingers.
In Celestún, I usually eat at Los Pámpanos, but really all the oceanfront restaurants are laid-back, have the same menus. and identical casual service. Pick one that has a table right on the beach and enjoy!
Editorial by Ralf Hollmann
Author of Modern Yucatan Dictionary
Founder of Mayan Xic
Director of Lawson’s Original Yucatán Excursions
Photography by Yucatán Today and Hacienda Ochil for use in Yucatán Today.
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