Yucatan Food at its Finest – Day 9, The Final Hoorah in Merida
Energized because it was our last day, yet foggy because it was our second to last night, we were walking dichotomies – mirroring the country itself as it’s identity shifts from the old to the new. The crew rallied and we all headed back to Progreso to soak in the ocean one more time and to have another taste of those infamous snacks and old Mexico food.
This go-around we were on the hunt for octopus, or pulpo. Having missed our daytrip to the pulpo capital, Campeche, earlier in the trip, this was my last chance to find it, taste it, conquer it before we left. Here in Progreso, pulpo was offered in a dozen different preparations at the restaurant we chose, and, upon recommendation, we ordered diablo style and coctel (cocktail). The pulpo in both dishes was tender and incredibly fresh. The flavors, spices, and dressings used in the preparations fell a little short of inspiring.
Disappointed in the pulpo but grinning from the morning overall, we headed back.
In need of an afternoon snack, we arrived back in Merida, albeit the wrong time a day. The people of Merida and Yucatan like their afternoon siesta, a form of a rest or nap. Between the hours of 1pm and 7pm most of the restaurants in town are closed, but we were able to find one spot on our recommended list, Chaya Maya, that was open. We were pleasantly surprised to see 2 elderly woman hand-pressing tortillas to order, and the menu was full of all the local classics.
Poc-Choc, Relleno Negro and a fish dish with a Mayan name I cannot remember were recommended by our waiter. Each dish came out piping hot with sides of fresh, smoking hot tortillas placed in emptied gourds.
The Relleno Negro is a very interesting dish that we had been hearing about and were eager to try. It consisted of hard-boiled eggs wrapped with chopped meat and roasted turkey. A blend of over-roasted chilies and spices stain the sauce a pitch black color and leave an inherent gritty mouth feel. Very deep and incredibly unique flavors are the foundation of this dish. Not my favorite, but definitely unique and unforgettable.
The seafood dish was a mixture of clams, white fish and shrimp stewed in tomatoes, peppers and onions and baked in a banana leaf. The age-old preparation of wrapping food in banana leaves transforms flavors and offers an element of earthy funk so delicious it’s hard to describe.
Poc-Choc had quickly become a favorite for us after the tacos we had on Thursday night, and we could not resist revisiting another preparation. The only problem here was that there was not enough! Thin strips of marinated pork grilled and served with pickled onions and rice. Marinated in chiles and citrus, the pork offers clean, bold flavors that make it shine.
All said and done, this was a great taste of the local fair, and we were stoked as we left.
Our final evening of the trip somehow became one of the best. Apoala is in the central district of Merida and Calle 55 in between 56 and 58 and was designed with a very contemporary feel, while not sacrificing local charm. It is one big restaurant in a courtyard featuring 5 other restaurants, a chocolate museum and a boutique liquor store and bar. At night the square was jumping with life as local bands set up and took turns rocking the small stage. The vibe here was the first feeling of hip and contemporary life since we had left Mexico City.
The menu was wondrous. Every item was unique and creative, and it appeared they were verging into the trend of Med- Mex: An apparent new trend blending Mexican and Mediterranean cuisine.
Pan roasted cobia, on a bed of gnocchi with chile tarter and avocado, and tiradito of short ribs and avocado are two examples. Tacos with soft shell crab stole my heart, but the stars of the night were suckling pig tacos and ensalada verde. As I have spoken of many times throughout the week, a certain lack of vegetable is apparent when eating in Mexico. Not for a lack of them not being around, but in fear of food poisoning.
Ensalada Verde was a simple dish, yet was a perfect blend of textures and flavors. Green beans, peas, fava beans, avocado and grilled zucchini topped with feta cheese and apple vinaigrette. So clean and bright – it was so good we ordered a second one.
Suckling Pig was the special of the night, and if you know anything about me, it should come as no surprise that I had to taste it. Melt in your melt shredded pork, mixed with little bits of crispy skin filled the corn tortilla shells. I cannot say I even remember what else was in the taco as all I focused on was how amazing the pork tasted.
The food was not the only show-stopper; the drink menu rivals any drink menu I have seen. Unique craft cocktails filled pages, and it was hard not to order one of each. We tried three: A mezcal sour with a perfect blend of sweet versus sour; a mezcal pineapple drink with cilantro, agave and a chile rim; and a tequila drink with Kahlua, Frangelico, cacoa and chile. All three were top notch.
The night was not over yet, as we had been invited to check out a local speakeasy. This was a true speakeasy, as you had to know the right people to get in and it was hidden down a couple dark alleys, and through the back of a building into a door that was unmarked. We were feeling a lot of excited potential.
Upon entering, the walls were lined with mirrors. Through another unmarked door, a small intimate candle-lit room with vaulted ceilings and room for only 20 people awaited us. We later learned that this perfectly designed spot was created by the cocktail director. Beautiful and simple, and the drinks were spot on. As we were finishing up our second cocktail a 5 piece band set up on a suspended stage 12 feet off the ground. The stage jutted out 4-5 feet off the wall perpendicular to the bar and could hold max 5 people. The band was composed of a standup bass, two guitars, a violin and clarinet. They crushed it.
So unexpected, it really was the perfect send-off to an incredible day and a magical trip.