Musings: My Eats in the Yucatan (Mexico)

During my time in the States earlier this summer, my family and I went on our first family vacation in years. Growing up, my parents were always big on going on trips together as a family and some of my most vivid childhood memories are the various long car trips we took through different states and even countries.

For this recent family trip, my parents went a bit bigger, choosing Cancun, Mexico, and surrounding areas to spend our vacation together. 

In between the snorkeling, beach activities and sight seeing, one of the major highlights was partaking in all the delicious Mexican eats with my family. Those who have lived for years away from the States will understand just how terribly difficult it is to find good Mex joints so being in the home country of the glorious cuisine of Mexican eats came as a wonderful respite. 

Mexico!


Our eats didn't start off so promising at first actually though. The first night we spent in one of those all-inclusive hotels in Cancun's tourist strip which, despite the numerous buffets and restaurants that one could eat as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted in, the food was obviously catered towards tourists and often times, far from fresh.... 

Flashbacks of college dorm food....

The drinks were terrible as well. I didn't even know there could be such a thing as a terrible mojito but as soon as I saw the blue plastic cups they had been served in, I knew it was bad news.

Ruining a mojito should be considered a capital offense

For dinner, I persuaded my family to go for the in-hotel Mexican restaurant which was a step above their buffet but was definitely underwhelming.

Uninspired shrimp

Salty beef and... stuff...

Dry chicken

Starting from the second day, however, we escaped the tourist-filled hotel zone of Cancun and made our way south to the area of Playa Del Carmen. Though this area is also touristy, from here, we mostly ventured out from the tourist strips and to eat where the locals ate. From then on the food was nothing short of amazing. 

To say Cancun's a bit warm in June is a major understatement so when we were venturing around the island of Cozumel on our second day, sweating our butts off, coming across a little beach shack right by the ocean was a welcome oasis for all of us. 

The ocean view by the beach shack

Feeling hungry and thirsty, we ordered a few bites to eat as well as some cool drinks while taking in the ocean breeze.

 Big old mug of beer on tap. Foamy nectar of the gods in the hot and humid weather 

Fish tacos!

In Tulum, we hit up a really awesome local joint called Charlie's with its quirky decor and awesome food.

The restaurant's outside seems ordinary but...

Inside the walls are lined with colorful and fun masks

And other neat stuff above

On top of a number of ice cold Mexican beers by the bottle, they have cocktails and juices made fresh to order which were lip-smacking good stuff.

Chilled beverages

In-house chips and salsa

Their homemade salsa was like crack

We finished the basket of chips and even asked for more because of this salsa

For the main dishes, we ordered a myriad of dishes to suit our different tastes and everyone was left more than satisfied.

Chicken Mole

Mole is one of those sauces that has definitely begun capturing my imagination and taste buds in recent years. It's like a new fascinating discovery I've made as I work to unravel the secrets and mysteries of this sauce. Here, the mole didn't disappoint with complex flavors and choco nutty flavors though a tad bit on the saltier side. On its own, mole sauce seems so heavy tasting and like it would mask whatever ingredients it comes in contact with but it somehow manages to work with seemingly most proteins thrown at it. Would love to attempt making it one day! 

Ceviche

I can't begin to adequately express how much I love ceviche. Ceviche done right reflects everything I love most about a perfect dish- fresh, high quality ingredients given minimum seasonings and allowed to have its flavors shine on its own. The ceviche here had juicy bits of shrimp, octopus, fish all nestled between a potpourri of tomatoes, onions and other seasonings. And the avocado. Just look at how perfectly ripe that avocado is. A perfect creamy contrast to the lemon juice seasoning. 

Stuffed poblano pepper 

I think peppers in general as a holding "base" for meats and cheese is rather under appreciated. Structurally and taste-wise it's such a nice sturdy base for what it holds. The stuffing was so moist too. Also highly recommended.

Chicken tacos

I didn't sample these simple chicken tacos that my brother ordered but he ate it all up which is a good sign!

Vegetarian Tostadas

My sis, a vegetarian, commented she really liked this dish. The crumbled queso franco on top was a nice touch.

Off the beaten path of the touristy downtown Playa del Carmen, our fam hit up this completely unassuming joint called HC de Monterrey by random one night for dinner and was (for the most part) very impressed. The place specializes in arrachera, or grilled skirt steak, which are grilled on spot in these huge black grills. 

Not a fancy place by any means but getting REAL in Mexico!

The special family plate was an awesome deal coming out to around 30 USD for this huge plate of arrachera, grilled onion, potato, tortillas and sauces. 

Sauces

Carnal perfection

I can't even begin to tell you how delicious this was. The steaks... oh my Lord... the steaks. So tender and cooked just right. So juicy, so flavorful... I'm literally salivating as I'm typing this. I don't know what it is they do that gets something like flank steak done so right here. Is it the grilling? Some sort of marinading and tenderizing pre-grilling process? Seemingly not a drop of the juice and flavor escaped through the cooking process. Talk about melt-in-your-mouth....  

Can you believe the price of what you're getting too? I think it was like over 2kgs of beef with all the fixings for that incredible price. The onion and potato was cooked to perfection and the corn tortillas came warm and ready to house these morsels of carnal beef glory.

I. am. not. worthy.

After demolishing the stack of tortillas, our family was stuffed to the max but we still had steak leftover! We took the leftovers and kept it in our suite fridge which was promptly demolished within the next 24 hours.

I've had some awesome street tacos in LA but... I don't know. Dare I say the meat alone from this homely joint really gave me the best taco experience of my life? I'd take more time and effort to contemplate on that question if it wasn't for my stomach already rumbling like crazy at just the memories of the beef here.

Sigh. These are the kinds of food moments I live for.

I should add, that for all the wondrous gastronomical experience this was for most of my family, my poor vegetarian sister wasn't quite as happy of a camper. It was completely our mistake from the beginning, as we entered the joint not even knowing this was a meat grilling place but my sis was a trooper and obliged with an uninspired salad for her meal. So, if you're a veggie eater, this is definitely not the place for you.But if you're a meat lover, do yourself a favor and get your butt over here. You won't regret it!

Not all meals were spent eating out. Playa del Carmen has a huge Walmart as well as the original local grocery shopping center, Mega. My Korean parents in all their ingenuity not only packed Neoguri ramen for our Mexico trip but microwaveable rice, roasted seaweed and such. Knowing the seafood in the area was cheap and fresh compared to the states, one night we had a seafood feast in our suite! 

Fresh octopus and crabs

It's a seafood ramen party y'all!

The crabs were steamed and the octopus blanched. Served with some rice, seaweed and a bit of soy sauce and wasabi, it was some good seafood eatin' for everyone.

Fresh, fresh fresh

In addition, we reserved some of the seafood to add to the ramen broth during cooking. The result? A rich and hearty ramen that wasn't your run-of-the-mill Neoguri! 

Nestled in, within and under are bits of seafood.
Oh and some killer ramen broth

Fruit was also cheap and oh so delicious.... we ended up buying fruit almost everyday and everything was delicious.... watermelons... mangoes...papaya...etc.

Mangoes are one of my favorite fruits and these were definitely some of the best I've ever had. I probably easily ate half my weight in them.

Fresh fruit, so cheap and so good....

Coconuts are, however, not as much of a favorite of mine but the fresh coconuts off the streets sure did the trick to relieve our parched states.

Coconut man

On our last day, we had time for a quick brunch before we had to make it back up to Cancun to catch our returning flight and we stopped by a brunch place recommended to us by our suite manager called La Cueva del Chango (Cave of the Monkeys). 

A mostly open-air area surrounded by tropical trees and plants, the quaint atmosphere made for a nice brunch spot and was surprisingly not too hot.

Aside from the open air tables, there's also areas available underneath huts

On top of their large breakfast menu, La Cueva del Chango is well known for their various juices which are juiced fresh and without additives. The list of fruits available for mixing is extensive to please anyone's tastes.

Don't remember which blend of fruits this one was but all the different juices we ordered was excellent

For the entrees, I ordered a green chilaquiles with a red and green tomato and xcatic chili sauce (with eggs and shredded chicken)

Chilaquiles with red and green tomato and xcatic chili sauce

Chilaquiles are made by taking fried cut tortillas, simmering them in salsa (or mole) and then with eggs or shredded chicken added to them and topped with cheese or other toppings. 

A number of chilaquiles are available on the menu and you can choose to get them with eggs, shredded chicken or even both! I chose the last option and was not disappointed. Soft with a tangy, savory flavor, the runny yolks from the fresh eggs really took the dish to the next level while the myriad of salsas and spices on the table helped seal the deal. Highly recommended!

Salsas and other spices. Some of these are very, very spicy!

Another chilaquiles variation we ordered was the one with the "achiote" sauce and habanero chili peppers. Achiote sauce, or recado rojo, is a blend of spices that is common in Mayan cuisine and usually includes cumin, clove, cinnamon, annato, etc. The special thing about this dish was the inclusion of habanero peppers, which at one point, was considered the world's hottest chili by the Guinness Book of World Records. 

Chilaquiles with an achiote sauce and habanero peppers

For this chilaquiles we ordered just shredded chicken. The spices were flavorful and bold and the peppers definitely hot but manageable for a Korean like us. The dish was a bit on the salty side however and we agreed a little less sodium could have been used. 

My vegetarian and sweets loving sister went for the sweet crepes. You can choose between the flavors of fruit, yogurt, granola and honey or you can choose them filled with your choice of nutella or honey or plum marmalade and topped with amaranth seeds. Whichever you choose, you get three big crepes.My sister chose the latter with the plum marmalade and asked for fruit inside as well.



 The amaranth seeds on top gave it a definite visual appeal while the colorful filling was gently nestled within the warm and thin crepes. Taste-wise it was good but a tad bit sweet which even my sweet toothed sister agreed. Of course, she did eat it all without issue though! :P

With that, came the end of our awesome family vacation. I definitely got my fill of Mexican food in while developing a bigger curiosity for the diverse and wide-ranging Mexican cuisine.

I have to say, I'm not sure if it's always been like this but cost of living in the Yucatan area was not as cheap as I thought it would be. Eating out especially can sometimes be easily comparable to prices in the States. However, buying groceries isn't too bad so mixing between eating at your lodging (if you have a kitchen) and out would be a good way to help you budget. 

Not too long after I returned to Korea, I had a dinner meeting at a Tomatillo's (a local inferior copycat chain of Chipotle from the States) and was left already sighing at my uninspired "Mexican" burrito. It's safe to say I'll be long dreaming about the foods in Mexico while I'm here in Korea! 

Om nom nom

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