V. Comida dell'arte
Of course, all is not sweetness and light anywhere in the world, even a place as paradisiacal as Playa del Carmen. Herewith, two examples of meals where money proffered and what was provided in return did not entirely match.
• One of the places we liked best two years ago along Avenida Quinta was a brightly-colored, vaguely Moroccan looking place called Media Luna, which served a sort of all-purpose international hipster cuisine. We went back to it this time and found the menu shorter than we recalled, but figured the kids would at least eat pancakes or something. Sorry, not serving breakfast, it's lunchtime. (A bit odd since they only open at 11, which means they must serve very little breakfast in practice.) Well, the menu was now even shorter, and there was really nothing for the kids, all grownup food full of icky stuff like zucchini and pesto. One item: quesadillas. The ones on the menu were full of icky stuff, but at least it proved that they could put cheese inside tortillas. Can you make the kids plain quesadillas? They could.
A few minutes later the question comes. Do the kids want salad? Not the kind of salad you serve, I'm sure, soy-ginger blue cheese vinaigrette something or other. No, no salad, but I'm thinking, since a few minutes earlier they were making banana pancakes, maybe some fruit or-- He's gone before the thought can come out.
So the kids get two, plain, unaccompanied, quesadillas. And Mom and Dad, a few minutes later, get a bill for two zucchini pesto manchego arugula corn quesadillas with soy-ginger blue cheese vinaigrette salad, minus the zucchini pesto etc. but still at list price even though all we got was one tortilla and a handful of cheese, $6 each. Now, I'm not a hard case about substitutions and special requests, I don't ask for much very often and always with a smile, but Media Luna made a minor but tidy sum that day for not lifting a damn finger to make the slightest accommodation toward us, not taking one extra second or making the slightest effort to offer our kids something that kids would actually eat or even trying to make sure they had what kids would consider enough food to eat, and the result was that a place I left Playa the first time with fond memories of... I went away with a bad burn from instead.
• Comida, all-inclusive lunch, at a place called El Maquech on Calle 1 Sur (south of Juarez) near Avenida 10:
Between 35 and 40 pesos a person, you get a big glass of papaya juice, a bowl of sopa de lima (the Yucatan soup), here with pasta in it, a plate of something like chicken mole with beans and rice, and a stack of tortillas to stuff yourself with:
Where's the hitch? Well, the peso used to be almost exactly 10 to the dollar. So 40 pesos, 4 dollars, pay in either currency. But the peso has fallen and now it's more like 11 to the dollar. So a lot of places take mild advantage of this, to the extent of NOT changing the old system-- sure, Mr. Gringo fresh off the Carnival cruise ship, that's 100 pesos or 10 dollars. (Admittedly, since Mr. Gringo hasn't had to change his dollars, he's not really getting ripped off; the storekeeper is simply keeping what the currency exchange would make on the transaction.)
But El Maquech had the audacity
, the sheer larcenous gall, to charge a higher price in $US-- our meal of three courses, refillable papaya juice, stacks of tortillas, came to 146 pesos-- or $16 US! Four dollars per person to stuff ourselves to the gills-- what kind of an outrage is that? I paid in pesos just to prove I wasn't the sucker he expected me to be. And then, of course, left a tip that more than made up the difference, considering not only the copious food for a price that barely gets you a coffee at Starbucks in the US, but the tremendously friendly and welcoming service which had greeted and joked with my kids, beamed with delight as they said "Gracias" (or "grassy-ass") for the tortillas and patted their tummies to show their approval of a papaya drink bigger than they were.
This post will be mainly about lunch at comida-type places and loncherias, but it will finish my series with a roundup about the higher-end places on Avenida Quinta that we visited (though, since I'm less interested in those, my comments will be briefer). As the stories above show, however, the difference is not just a matter of cuisine or price (though you will spend significantly less eating in loncherias), it's that your whole experience will be different, more interesting, more charming and welcoming and friendly-- even if they are, in fact, trying to cheat you a little at the same time.
As they used to say at Maxwell Street, "we cheat you fair." Damned right.
So that was El Maquech, above. I had pretty good chicken with mole but not as good as Taqueria la Oaxaqueña in Chicago, I thought El Maquech was maybe a little too adjusted down to the mild tastes of the gringo clientele, since it is located close to where the cruise passengers and ferry boat passengers from Cozumel arrive. Better was La Caserolas, on Ave. 15 between Calle 4 and 6. This really had a feeling of being in the family's living room; very little English was spoken, but they pointed to things and we smiled, and they brought us a big pitcher of jamaica, some pasta with cheese and some green speckles on it (my youngest son, tasting something that was like the mac and cheese he'd been in withdrawal from, ate everyone else's plate as well as his own), and some enchiladas in a mild green salsa and chicken in a orangeish sauce. Not great cuisine, just happy, filling cuisine.
Another very good comida meal was at a place whose name I missed, when we went to see the Mayan ruins at Tulum, an hour down the road from Playa. The strip leading into the ruins is very touristy, so I wanted to avoid those restaurants (the fact that they mostly advertised "Fast Food" in English was a warning as far as I was concerned). So I marched us back to the highway, figuring even the first restaurant we hit would have to be better than those, since it couldn't quite depend on the captive trade. It was better, quite a bit better in sunny, casual atmosphere:
And in food, these pork chunks in salsa verde were very tender and tasty.
Best of all, not long before we left, two guys pulled up on motorcycles. Check out the T-shirts:
The one in front: the inevitable Che T-shirt (with Fidel no less). In back-- an American flag and the words "July 4, 2003." Thus Mexico's conflicted attitude toward the behemoth to its north, in a single photo. (Regardless of T-shirt, by the way, each had a pleasant smile for the blonde gringo kids in Cubs hats. Not surprisingly, a lot of people knew what that red C on blue stood for. More than once a conversation started with something like: "You from Chicago? You know... Schaumburg?")
The Playainfo site mentioned a butcher shop that grilled its own meat for lunch, but got both the name and address slightly off, so we wandered the street for a bit before we decided the place that matched the description fairly well had to be it. It's called HC de Monterrey, it's located on 1st Sur between Ave. 20th and 25th, or you can just look for this:
The standard lunch is 70 pesos, for which you get arrachera, a big piece of flank steak hot off the grill, plus all the other goodies you see here:
How was it? Phenomenally good at any price, amazingly tender and hot-off-the-grill tasty, a totally satisfying beef experience. I would have ordered two, except that would have been insane, but I did give serious thought to returning the next day-- and when I saw bright red chorizo go by hot off the grill, I asked for one of those, too. I'm not even sure I was charged for it, by the way. (Maybe being a butcher shop, they regarded it as a free sample.)
Speaking of American T-shirts by the way, bizarrely, under his white waiter shirt our waiter was wearing a T-shirt from Waffle House. (You know, the black letters inside yellow squares.) I didn't get a picture of that, but here are the guys who came by to play music for tips (and since you can see one of them spotting me snapping his picture, we certainly tipped that time):
And here's where the miracle of arrachera happens:
Another recommendation from Playainfo was of a little place on Avenida 20 at Calle 6 that seems to be officially called La Madrina, though the poster also called it Delia and Ramon's, which are the owners. Neither name may help you when it's closed, since there's little signage and the building shuts up so tight you can't even tell a restaurant's there. When it's in operation (maybe only into early afternoon), however, it's a real find:
Another family place, Delia and Ramon hustling to keep the food moving.
Unlike a lot of the comida places, which spoon up food which is already cooked, they make things fresh on the fryer-- and in the process, they use masa and cook it fresh on the griddle, which as we all know from Maxwell Street, is only about one billion times better than a premade tortilla, no matter how good the latter is, and would make a taco de Gravy Train with salsa de Listerine into something noble and delicious. Happily, the beans, onion and spicy salsa on my picada were quite a bit better than that, and this probably tied the arrachera above for the best thing I ate on this vacation.
I actually just stopped in there for a mid-morning snack, but after my picada Delia asked me something in Spanish which I didn't understand; then she went back into the kitchen, and returned with a bowl into which she had fished out some of the fresh vegetables which were in the process of flavoring the soup she was making that day, and which she hoped I would return for. Impressed and touched as I was by her obvious pride and her earnestness in trying to win my business, I couldn't that day, and we left the next day. But clearly I owe her one, so if you go to Playa, do both Delia and yourself a favor, and make it up to her for me. I do not think you will be disappointed in the least.
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I'm much less interested in writing about a bunch of professional restaurants in the tourist district, but for the sake of the database-- and because there will be times you want to eat a little more upscale amid the scene of Avenida Quinta-- here go some capsule comments:
La Bodeguita del M-- apparently a chain Cuban place, with a nightclub atmosphere, in the chichi mall near Playacar. Compared with the couple of upscale Cuban meals I had in Orlando last year, pretty decent and authentic seeming, but I've had better than all for less money in Chicago. Mojito didn't compare to the one at the Orlando outpost of Columbia (the venerable Tampa Cuban restaurant), that's for sure-- dammit, I want sugar cane and I want to be able to see the mint you mashed.
La Tarraya-- beachfront fish place with a biker bar atmosphere does competently unimaginative fish dishes, but as this photo shows, you're there for something other than the food, so the fact that the food is any good at all is admirable....
Bruno's-- this Italian restaurant sure smelled good last time, so it was one of my first upscale choices this time, pretty authentic and well executed Italian seafood dishes, good fresh pastas. Service was maybe a bit bored with life in paradise, and pizzas looked too bready, more American than Italian.
Il Barrato-- Italian cafe north of Constituyentes with sandwiches and light pastas that seemed to draw a clientele of actual Italians who seemed happy with it. Unlike...
La ---teria Specialita Italian (sorry, my photo of the sign isn't entirely readable). This Italian place also north of Constituyentes was okay, made mainly tolerable because the hostess, an ethnic Italian freshly arrived from Argentina (she said this was her 15th day), was so vivacious and friendly, dancing with one of the waiters when the music got going, chatting up the customers... meanwhile, at one point the restaurant filled up with Italian retirees, who proceeded to dislike everything about everything, ennnh, Giancarlo, it's not like they make in Napoli, these Argentinans, what do they know about farbonelli di gnocchicino (I translate freely based on the thoroughly unsatisfied expressions they made all through dinner), the guy in the red shirt actually sent his entree back with detailed instructions on how to make it better this time... in short, who was paying attention to the food with a show like this?
Sur-- Pretty good woodburning oven pizzas, maybe a little too buttery in the crust but perfectly fine. Apropos of the above, when I took one son upstairs to the bathroom I saw the old signage laying in a corner, which admitted it was a South American Italian restaurant. The new signage claims only to be Italian....
And of course, if you're going to visit a hot place, well, you're granted permission to have ice cream at least once a day. My wife was partial to Haagen Dazs (insanely expensive here, more than many of our comida meals), but I liked this little gelato stand on Quinta, Ciao Gelato, especially a tart, wonderfully light green apple gelato. I think everyone else liked theirs too.