A Chef’s Adventure in Tulum
Day 1: The First Bite
As it was, Alison and I had to fly in on the red eye to Cancun, rent a car, then drive an hour and a half south to our destination in Tulum. Let me tell you, this sounded great when we first plannd it, but it was one hell of an adventure driving on no sleep in a country you don’t know too well. Renting a car in a language you speak mediocre at best is also slightly difficult. And I highly recommend making sure you get the car rental from the place at the airport (I somehow managed to find one just outside the airport, and it was a bit tricky getting in touch with them at 6am).
Upon arrival at our hotel around 9am we found out we were unable to check in until noon. We walked straight to the beach in our clothes and fell asleep for an hour to recharge. When we woke up it was time to find some grub. Feeling pretty hungry, we walked to the closest restaurant we could find, a beach front restaurant at a hotel, no idea the name (Tia Tulum?).
We started off with 2 Micheladas and some Guacamole. Perfectly fried chips arrived at the table along with a generous portion of smashed avocados seasoned simply with salt, pepper, lime, garlic and a little cilantro and jalapeño. For me it could have been a little limier and spicier, but it really spoke of the freshness of the avocado and its true flavors. Next up was a shrimp fajita plate. Looking out on the ocean, it felt like the perfect way to start our culinary adventure. The fresh tortillas were the highlight here, as well as a smoky habanero salsa they sent out when I asked for “picante.” The shrimp were sautéed with peppers, onions and tomato—the usual fare—and the plate was seasoned nicely. Turns out this habanero salsa is one of about 4 ways they offer you something if you ask for hot sauce. Most of the time they bring out some form of habanero condiment as soon as you order food. This version was by far my favorite. They must have roasted the chilies, then blended them with a little citrus, salt and what tasted like cinnamon. It had overwhelming heat, but a great sweetness at the end. It left a burn that I loved so much I will never forget it.
Later that day we headed to town to look around. Our first stop was at Rincon Poblano, where the star of the menu is the Mole Poblano. I was very excited to try this, as I had recently fallen in love with the world of moles. This version was served very simply: chicken leg, rice, mole and tortillas. Again the tortillas were fresh, handmade sheets of heaven. The chicken was perfectly cooked and the mole was rich, very sweet and loaded with flavor. Though the sweetness was almost too much, it was a great dish. Some pickled red onions would have taken it to the next level. The Pacifico on the side didn’t hurt.
Back at the hotel, we asked our host where to eat tacos. Our new friend Carlos, the concierge, directed us towards Taqueria el Nero, where they cook al pastor on a spit. We arrived to a restaurant packed with locals. We sat down to an array of six salsas, which immediately intoxicated our senses. A quick sampling revealed bold, unique flavors with varying degrees of heat. We started off with a couple tacos al pastor and a carne asada. Within seconds of the first bite we each called for another order of the same. They were served just the way I like: shaved thin, slice of pineapple, onion and cilantro. You hardly need anything else in life, but a little of the avocado salsa and a touch of habanero will leave you wishing for four stomachs. On any normal trip I would have been back every day for at least a couple of these little gems, but in the spirit of exploration, we did not return. The price was an astonishingly low 70 pesos for five tacos and a bottle of homemade horchatta.
Special Note: the horchatta here needs an honorable mention. For those of you who have not had horchatta in Mexico, it is different, like drinking mother’s milk: pure, smooth, heavenly and the perfect non-alcoholic option to pair with spicy tacos.
Day 2: Up the coast, and a whole lot of food
We woke up early to a sky full of transcendent colors, feeling revitalized from a full night’s sleep and refreshed by the salty air coming in off the ocean. A short walk on the beach led us to a cup of coffee so enticing we returned daily.
We arrived in town for breakfast with a plan that was soon thwarted by a sign on the door: “cerrado.” Heading down a side street we happened upon a real gem. A patron outside insisted we try the chilaquillas. In we went. As it was vacation after all, we ordered two margaritas and a plate of chilaquillas with fried egg and pollo in the verde sauce. What a delight this place was! The chips, which I had come to expect to be different than ours back home, are thicker cut, with a lot of chew and crunch. This local variation of chips highlighted the true potential of chilaquillas. Baked in what seems to be a very light tomatillo salsa, they have just the right amount of tang. Thin strips of chicken breast, a perfect fried egg (bright orange, obviously local), and a little queso fresco composed the whole plate. Everything was seasoned perfectly and this still remains one of the highlights of the trip. And again on any normal trip this would have been an everyday breakfast stop.
Wandering north in search of a beautiful bay we’d heard of, we instead found the little sea town of Akumal. After an hour of exploring dirt roads for the right spot, we finally stumbled upon La Buena Vida. What a relief! The restaurant was packed when we walked in: always a good sign to me. The decor was rad, with swings for seats, driftwood for art, and some crazy pre-historic creature hanging above the bar. We sat and ordered a couple beers, ceviche and chicken empanadas. Blissfully swinging away, we waited for our food, munching on standard chips and excellent salsa. The ceviche stole the show, no more than 20 feet from the ocean. Indulging in the perfectly poached shrimp with cured white fish, I couldn’t help but think, “this is it Dakota, this where you are meant to be, eating ceviche on the water.” Simplicity at its best: shrimp, fish, pico, avocado and saltines.
The empanadas were cased in a light fluffy masa dough that was divine. Too bad the filling and mango sauce missed the mark. I take from this dish that masa dough is an amazing option for empanadas.
Onward we traveled to the next recommendation, Oscar & Lalos, sitting right off the highway, with a huge billboard reading “Stop In.” I was immediately skeptical. As we walked in, we were drawn to the huge patio jungle with sun streaming down through the growth. At this point we were hardly hungry, but thought we would give it a go knowing it was out of town and we would not be back. Maybe we didn’t order the right thing, but the baked chile relleno in a bland red sauce and 2 steak (aracharra) tacos missed the mark.
Back at the hotel we luxuriated in the sun. After some much needed rest, we headed back to our shady jungle oasis for a couple margaritas as we prepped for our night out.
As evening fell we chose to check out a few places on the north end of Tulum Beach claiming to have “the best fish tacos.” On our quest for inspiration we chose two locations: first Mateo’s (pictured below), then Puro Corazon next door. At Mateo’s we tried the tacos and Caesar, and at Corazon we ended up trying a pescado-dilla.
I doused the tacos at Mateo’s with the three sauces provided—a bright citrusy mayo, tamarind glaze and another version of habanero salsa—and my taste buds were jumping with joy. The accompanying Caesar was a bit of a letdown though, since we had hoped for a tableside preparation.
At Puro Corazon we listened to a great local band, playing some funk-jazz-middle eastern jams. The drinks were killer and the pescado-dilla was interesting but not memorable.
The mescal concoctions our bar tender whipped up were some of the highlights of the trip. Pictured is the Mezcal Peño. My favorite was the Rojillo. The dark, smoky habanero salsa at Puro Corazon—reminiscent of the salsa we’d had on day 1—left me mystified once again. I’ll be on a quest to recreate those flavors for a long time.
The band was a lively mix of keyboard, bass, drums and vocals. As is so often the case, when they took a break, Alison struck up conversation with them and we got to chat with them for a little while. They hailed from France, Argentina and Mexico City, and their styles played so well together.
Day 3: Beautiful Sunrise and Tuna “Nachos”
The day started with a memorably beautiful sunrise. I so rarely am awake for this event, but when staying on an eastern coast, I relish the opportunity to catch the sun rise over the ocean. Each morning we strolled up and down the beach and the sunrise was always breathtaking, but the light on this particular morning was exceptional.
For breakfast we headed back into town. The urge to repeat and have the chilaquilas again was overwhelming, but calling upon our sense of purpose and responsibility to our mission, we went across the street to a little café. A simple breakfast of huevos rancheros for me, and toast and bacon for Alison was good, but nothing to write home about.
Back to the beach for some much needed time in the sun. We relaxed and played in the ocean for most of the morning until it was time for lunch. Choosing to stay nearby, we walked up the beach a little to Ziggy’s, a beautifully decorated beach resort, with a large bar, offering more swing seats. We ordered a couple drinks and tuna “nachos.” Amazing! The tuna was cut in nice size pieces, dressed in a poke style dressing, and tossed with large chunks of avocado. Instead of regular chips, it was served on fried wonton chips and topped with pea shoots for garnish which provided a really nice “grassy” note. The spicy aioli on the side finished the dish perfectly. I would eat this again a million times, and I am sure I will recreate it in some form or another.
On this night we decided to take a break and try something different. We had heard of a restaurant called Hartwood, home of Chef Eric Werner. Unfortunately, I was not aware of how crazy popular this place is. To get into Hartwood, you have to show up the day of at 3pm sharp and wait in line to get your name on the list for either the 5pm or 8pm seating. Here is an article you should read if more interested in the amazing food culture Werner is creating.
Eventually we ended up at a place down the road called La Famiglia. A beautiful restaurant focusing on Italian food. We grabbed a seat there at a little bar tucked in the front corner. Our bartender Leo was very friendly and helped guide us through a wonderful dinner. We started off with an incredible carpaccio, followed by pesto gnocchi and a formaggio fettuccini. All of the noodles were made fresh in house, and it was a really nice change of pace from the Mexican fare. The drink menu added a special touch, including a fantastic passion fruit mojito.
Day 4: The Final Hoorah!!!
It was a somber feeling waking up the last day. It was hard to believe, as is usually the story, that our trip was already coming to end. While it felt like we had accomplished a lot, a few more days would have been perfect. Before setting out, we prioritized our to-do list, with things for this trip and a long list of ideas for next time. Then we took our morning sunrise walk.
Though one often almost secretly wishes for rain to ease the transition, it was another day of sublime beauty. We had heard of an incredible place in town that serves traditional German fare for breakfast. “Interesting”, I thought. Azafrans is right off the main drag in downtown Tulum. We had actually tried to go there the day before but it was closed. The hours on the door read Wed-Sun 8-3. Finally, on our last day we got in, though just barely since the entire restaurant was full except for one table inside. Surprisingly, they only seated one table after us, at around 10am, before they announced no more tables, they were going to run out of food. “That’s interesting too,” I thought, again perplexed: it’s 10am and the sign clearly says “we close at 3pm?” Anyway, we ordered what they called the “ultimate hangover breakfast,” consisting of 2 eggs, homemade rye toast, homemade sausage, bacon, mashed potatoes and some good mustard. We also requested a homemade bagel with brie and salami. Both breakfasts included fresh squeezed OJ and coffee. The coffee was fresh from Veracruz and it was “to die for” (although I much prefer the French expression “to live for”). After enjoying our coffee for a while I glanced at the clock, only to realize that 30 minutes had gone by without any suggestion of our food coming any time soon. That said, it’s always been the case that everything is slower in Central America, so why not just take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the scenery, no matter where you are? When our food finally arrived 45 minutes later, it was quite tasty, though not worth a 45 minute wait at breakfast. I would go back, however, and just hope for slightly faster service.
After breakfast we headed to one of the many local ruins. Entering in the back way, I was stoked to find out that we had avoided the parking fee. For a mere $5 entry fee we were able to wander the ancient Mayan Ruins, which rest right on the edge of cliffs overlooking the beach and a tortoise sanctuary. We thoroughly enjoyed our hour and a half stroll. Next time I will check out some of the other ruins, but these were pretty cool.
After the ruins it was time for some more fun in the sun, which didn’t last long as we had at this point in our trip gotten used to a lot of food and drink and were already getting hungry again. So off we strolled. A beautiful walk ensued, down the Tulum Beach road, which is kind of in the jungle. Finally we’d had enough and headed out to the beach where we happened across a little beach bar bumping some reggae. The sign out front read “ceviche and 2 cocktails for 280 pesos” (about $16) which we couldn’t resist. I am very thankful we stopped, as it turned out to be incredible. As you can see in the picture it was a huge helping. The fish had just hit the lime juice and they gave us instructions to wait about 10 minutes before digging in. I prefer ceviche a little under cured, so we didn’t wait at all and it was divine. A massive piece of avocado on the side, and some fiery habaneros tied it all together. Paired with a couple of cuba libres and the location, this was a slice of heaven. Just as we were finishing, the couple next to us ordered the lobster, and WOW! was I ever disappointed that I had missed that. A huge Spiny lobster about 1.5 feet long, back torn open, all the lobster had been cubed and tempura fried, served with tortillas and some other accoutrements. That might have been one of the only times in my life I said, “Damn, I wish I ordered the lobster.” But there is always next time.
After relaxing at the hotel and packing, we headed into town for one final meal. We had been told about an amazing “fish for 2” platter at a restaurant called “La Barracuda,” which is on the far end of town. But first we had to visit one last taco shop that all the locals had been raving about. All the locals you ask? Yes! Every time I was at a bar or in a taxi, I asked, “where is the best taco?” Of course I said it in Spanish, and 95% of the replies said Tacos Chiapaneca. A tiny hole in the wall almost at the end of town, I had walked past it twice early in the week and did not even realize what we were missing.
That was our first stop, where we shared 2 Al pastor, 1 carne asada & 1 chicken panucho. All quite delicious and for an amazing price of $4! If you ask me, I would say El Nero is better, but it’s close.
After all that, we had to walk it off a bit, buy some gifts for the kiddo and check out a little Tequila shop. I was anxious to bring back a special Mezcal that we can’t get in Colorado. The first one they poured me had a worm and scorpion in it, and tasted incredible, but it was too expensive. After 2 more delicious but expensive tastes, I found a reasonably priced bottle and we moved on. Come see me in the office some night and I will give you a taste (if you are 21).
We did finally make it to La Barracuda. After a little confusion in ordering, we found the “fish for 2” platter and it was fantastic. A half sheet tray filled with roasted octopus, squid, shrimp and perfectly cooked white fish, along with roasted veggies, rice, and tortillas. To top it off they served it with 3 habanero condiments. One of them was the dark roasted version I had loved so much from day one. The plate of food was enormous! We only ate three quarters of it but it only cost about $18. A great place for those who love seafood. I would highly recommend this as a stop for a hungry set of travelers.
Our adventure was at an end—almost. During the early morning drive back to the airport, I almost killed us on one of the insane speed bumps leaving town. It was pouring rain (be careful what you wish for) and the speed bumps in and out of Tulum are seriously extreme at 2.5’ tall. We had rented a tiny little car and I was driving too fast between the bumps. Luckily I realized the danger right before we hit it and slammed on the breaks. We flew over the bump as if in slow motion. Hearts racing, bodies intact, we carried on. It was an exciting end to a phenomenal trip, which could have had a much worse ending.
Until next time, Adios, and Buenas Dias!!