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How to be a playa in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

How to be a playa in Playa del Carmen, Mexico
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  • How to be a playa in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

    Post #1 - February 1st, 2005, 1:01 am
    Post #1 - February 1st, 2005, 1:01 am Post #1 - February 1st, 2005, 1:01 am
    I. Preamble Before Breakfast

    The dusty, sunbaked, violence-riddled streets of Mexico, a place so dangerous and where life is so cheap that even the ice cream is under armed guard:

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    Okay, he was actually there to watch the jewelry store next door. Let me correct that impression right away and say that Playa del Carmen is astonishingly crime free, friendly and welcoming. Far from being something out of a Peckinpah movie, this is the atmosphere you're more likely to find walking the streets of this town an hour south of Cancun on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula:

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    Many people would say that the existence of a T.G.I. Friday's on its main street (hey, isn't being thankful for Friday kind of redundant when you're already on vacation in the tropics?) proves that Playa del Carmen is a tourist creation, not the "real Mexico," whatever that may be. Leaving aside that ontological question (quick, is Las Vegas the real America or not?), Playa del Carmen is clearly, if not a typical Mexican town, a fascinating place where hypermodern international and traditional Mexican culture collide with a noisy clang. Or to cut short the next thousand words with a single picture:

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    Man in yarmulkeh and sarape, sitting in trendy technobar in Mexican village, 2005.

    My family and I first went to Playa two years ago. I had selected it pretty randomly-- the shortest possible flight to warm water and beaches in winter was Cancun; but (this was actually right at the moment that MTV's The Real Cancun was about to be released) I guessed that we would quickly loathe being herded into a concrete encampment of hotels and discos and Planet Hollywoods, surrounded by drunken students of all ages, and about two minutes' search of guidebooks turned up Playa as a more relaxed and real-ish choice within a bus-able distance. Fine, done, book it.

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    What I found was a beach town that in many ways was like what I loved about Maxwell Street-- allegedly the fastest-growing city in Mexico at the moment, Playa is a boom town, sprouting vitality and economic activity from every crack in the sidewalk. If you don't like your restaurant or your hotel, just wait 15 minutes and they'll open a new one. Yet for all that it's growing rapidly, there's clearly strict zoning going on (only one older building has been grandfathered in at a height above three stories) and there's an agreeably international and post-hippie-turning-electronica-chichi vibe that keeps it from displaying too much of the depressing desperation you get in places like Cozumel that seem to exist only to satiate the shopping monkey on the cruise passenger's back.

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    More to the point, unlike say Cancun, which is really two places as separate as East and West Berlin, a tourist town on a little island strip and a Mexican town on the mainland that exists to service and staff it, Playa is still small and compact enough that the real Mexico exists right there amidst Touristia. You could stick to the beach and Avenida Quinta, 5th Ave., the shopping, eating and drinking street, but literally a block to the west Mexico starts, the prices drop drastically and no one would ever call out the "Fun" in Fundido on a sign. Even more interestingly, keep going north on Avenida Quinta, and you will leave America not for Mexico but for Italy. The district north of Constituyentes avenue, which just two years ago was pretty much the northern border of town, is now a flourishing Italian (or more likely, Argentinean-Italian) district (and note this, Antonius-- amid the espresso bars and restaurants there's also a single Belgian bar. I know it is the only one, because its name is... "The Belgian Bar.")

    Two years ago I was very proud that in addition to a lot of meals eaten in restaurants along Avenida Quinta, I had made some ventures out into the surrounding streets and tried that kind of "real" Mexican food. Looking back at what I wrote then, I see only how timid I was then compared to now, not in terms of what I'd try but in terms of how daring and diligent I'd be in searching for the really good stuff beyond the precincts of gringo-friendly sitdown restaurants. Of course, even at that I went beyond most guidebooks or online resources in being willing to wander and sample. 90% of the information that exists on a place like Playa is at a Fodor's level of mass acceptability and comfort-range-maintenance.

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    This time I was determined to go much, much further-- though I knew I'd eat some nice dinners (and especially with the Italo-Argentinean restaurants around, I looked forward to some good food of that sort), my real goal was to try as many things in the Mexican parts of town as possible. And this time, I found a Playa-oriented site, one might call it our Mexican Sister City site, that (adjusting for size) was as thorough in exploring the nooks and crannies of the real food in Playa as we are about Chicago's. The site is called Playa.Info, but this takes you directly to the food forum, and even more to the point, a thread called "Updating the PDC restaurant list" consolidates the key information in incredibly convenient form. This wasn't just better information than I'd found anywhere else, it was orders of magnitude better than anything that exists elsewhere, representing the real experiences of people who live there long enough to try place after place, get to know the owners, do all those things we do here to get past the usual customer-restaurateur barrier. It's really an encouraging thought, this idea that quite probably there are cities and regions all over the globe spawning their little boards (or not so little boards) which, like us in Chicago, dig into their local food scenes infinitely more tenaciously and thoroughly than any printed source, any famous name guidebooks, any resource that has existed before. (Who knows, at this rate we may even find one for Orlando.)

    Thus armed with both information and determination, as well as the sympathy of my family who only uttered the words "Doesn't pizza sound good?" or "Can we eat at McDonald's?" after a few days of eating where and what Dad picked, I set forth to find the real Mexico in Playa del Carmen. If you haven't already guessed, there are many more chapters and many more photos of things you'll wish you could go eat to come in the next few days.

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    Last edited by Mike G on March 10th, 2005, 10:46 am, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #2 - February 1st, 2005, 9:49 am
    Post #2 - February 1st, 2005, 9:49 am Post #2 - February 1st, 2005, 9:49 am
    Mike,

    Aside from the pun in the title, your post was most enjoyable. Looking forward to additional chapters.

    One little thing, isn't Liam a little young to be doing the tilt the sunglasses, check out the girls thing? :)

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #3 - February 1st, 2005, 9:01 pm
    Post #3 - February 1st, 2005, 9:01 pm Post #3 - February 1st, 2005, 9:01 pm
    II. Desayuno

    I knew the first thing I would want to do once we had settled in at our rented condo-- start walking back to the highway, to go to the market. If the picture that phrase conjures up is a dingy but wonderfully picturesque shop with a wizened, toothless proprietress in peasant dress behind the cash register, well, Playa has lots of those, but I was heading for Chedraui, a Costco-sized store with art museum-level contemporary architecture (that's one of the things you notice in Mexico-- it's still Modern down there where we've gone Mock Renaissance-Tuscan), the sort of market the French call a Hypermarché.

    It's fun to just stroll the departments and see the things that are customary grocery products for them-- the enormous crimson mound of dried hibiscus for making jamaica, the fish counter piled with slabs of white squid flesh and whole purple-edged octopi (alas, an area too well staffed to allow surreptitious snatching of pictures), the bar with Baskin-Robbins-like tubs of spices and molés--

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    I'd actually come down here with the idea that I might cook once or twice, using the local ingredients and my Diana Kennedy cookbook. Reality set in when I realized my kitchenette was just barely equipped at a level high enough for scrambled eggs and frankly I didn't really know what to do with a big slab of octopus and some molé anyway-- and, for crying out loud, there were only 5000 restaurants I wanted to try in the next week. So I gave up on that idea pretty quickly. But, there was one meal I knew I would want to be able to make rather than get everyone dressed and out the door to hunt up every day-- breakfast. So I grabbed a metal tray and some tongs and made my first stab at provisions:

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    The pastries lived up to Vital Info's dictum about Mexican pastries in America-- what they lack in French delicacy and perfection they make up in utter cheapness. I usually don't consider that enough of a recommendation to make me want to hit, say, Pierre's, but here, averaging about 20 cents each, they were welcome. The two boxes on display are both Kellogg's products not marketed here, which we liked well enough last time to bring home a couple of boxes of; Crusli is a granola-like cereal with coconut in it, and the yellow box contains pineapple-flavored Nutri-Grain bars.

    As I say, however, this was only part of our breakfast routine, and we would try many other things over the course of the week. For one thing, we actually discovered quite a decent French bakery, a tiny storefront opposite the south end of the main plaza in the Mexican part of town, where we bought these:

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    Croissant Digression: I keep searching on this side of the Atlantic for raisin croissants filled with custard like you can find every ten feet in Paris, they're the most ordinary thing there, like a sesame bagel is here, and yet no one I know of quite gets it right in this hemisphere (including the St. Roger Abbey-- believe me, it was the first thing I checked!) This got closer than most, but it still didn't have the custard center. That aside, all this was quite tasty, pretty authentically made, and more evidence for the idea that Playa is a vacation to more than just Mexico. Among their other offerings, I didn't actually buy one of these fruit tarts, but I did like how they looked well enough to snap a picture:

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    There were also chilaquiles on the beach at the beachfront restaurant of the El Alhambra hotel (a Playainfo recommendation), and Huevos Mexicanos--

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    at a little place called Cafeteria Maru on Avenida Juarez, where the kids shared a pineapple juice and watched the world go by:

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    But Mexicans eat way more things for breakfast than just cereals, pastries and plates of eggs. In fact breakfast time finds the square near the pier filled with stands like the orange juice one I showed the picture of above, offering all kinds of tacos, tortas, tamales and such things. Those stands will be a topic in themselves, so hold that thought while we segue to another Mexican breakfast choice, tamales. One morning I went on a quest for a recommended regional specialty called Brazo de Reyna, The Arm of the Queen. I found it on the menu at a spot called Antojitos Adrian, around Avenida 20 and Calle 4:

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    (By the way, the symbol for peso is also "$", so those aren't $9 tamales-- they work out to the equivalent of about 80 cents.)

    It's a masa tamale in a banana leaf wrapper with bits of chaya leaf in the dough, and in its center, an egg-- a VERY hard egg by the time I got it. It came with two little bags, of a hot sauce and some strange, brownish spice that I couldn't place-- maybe some kind of ground nut or even something like ground breadcrumbs, I don't know, it had a very odd texture and not all that much flavor, I couldn't place it. To be honest, this didn't do a lot for me but who knows, maybe there's a better rendition of it out there, or some other tamale at the same place that is really wonderful.

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    So that's my chronicle of the first meal of the day. But before this chapter concludes, let me show you something I spotted on the way to Chedraui that first day-- in the lot next to an automotive or air conditioning or something repair place, there was a tent, and under that tent there was this:

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    An industrial sized grill, full of the previous night's ash. Make a note of that, I says to myself; something tells me these people will be back, with something to cook. And so will I.
    Last edited by Mike G on May 3rd, 2005, 6:55 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #4 - February 3rd, 2005, 12:11 am
    Post #4 - February 3rd, 2005, 12:11 am Post #4 - February 3rd, 2005, 12:11 am
    III. Playa del Carts

    Those of you who've been reading these saying "When the hell is he actually going to post about FOOD, not breakfast cereal but real food, MEAT dammit, meat," will find satisfaction at last in today's installment.

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    If you never ventured off the tourist strip of Avenida 5 and the adjacent beach, and only ate at chain restaurants, you would nevertheless pass within mere feet of incredibly authentic, delicious and cheap Mexican food every day in Playa del Carmen-- at the stands or pushcarts which appear, in different configurations, throughout the day at the very epicenter of tourist activity.

    These pictures, like the orange juice one in my initial post, are all taken at the point where Avenida 5 (Tourist Central) intersects with Avenida Juarez (Mexican Native Central). To the immediate south are souvenir stands, the ferry to Cozumel, Señor Frogs (the first and often only stop for margarita-seeking Cozumelites) and a mall with a Diesel and a Johnny Rockets; to the east is the beach; to the north, quite literally the first building you will hit is a McDonald's; and the soundtrack throughout is guys hawking tickets to Cozumel and using any imaginable gambit to start the conversation ("Hello honeymooners!" they will shout at two elderly grumps; or to a parent, "How much for your baby?")

    In other words, it is a Tourist Hell that anyone with any sense will want to pass through as quickly as possible-- except for one thing. The carts.

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    Even the most skittish don't-eat-or-drink-anything-Mexican tourists will find it impossible on a morning already rapidly growing warm to resist orange juice squeezed before their very eyes from fruit whose skin has been removed with a machete. Surely that's safe, Marge-- and of course it is.

    But we know better than to stop there, don't we? When we see a whole hunk of roasted pork bathing contentedly in its own grease, we know this is something we were born to eat:

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    The pink stuff is onion that's been soaked in red wine vinegar-- and if that's not vinegary enough for you, try this bright fuschia salsa:

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    This was the best thing I ate on my last trip. It was almost the best thing I ate on this trip. And it cost about 40 cents. Did I mention that it was eight in the morning when they serve these things? These particular carts are out first thing in the morning, and the locals wolf down these pork tacos (or the same meat put on a roll) by the dozens. Then, by lunchtime, just when you or I would think of having another half dozen, they're gone. So if you want one, you have to adjust your head to the idea that you want them at a time when your body is saying you want bran cereal or a grapefruit half.

    The pork taco is clearly the most popular item at this hour of the day, and last time I said that I found it frustrating that all the stands seemed to sell identical offerings at that time. They must have read my post on that other board because there is, finally, a little more variety at this hour-- chicken tacos, and also at least one cart offering a variety of fish tacos, most of them ceviche-based:

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    That was a ceviche marlin taco. Very strongly fishy. Really pushing my idea of how much I can stomach at breakfast. But nevertheless, it was something different, so I respected that.

    By lunchtime the carts are gone. In fact there are few carts at all in mid-day, for reasons unknown to me-- just a few elotes or ice cream vendors. Then in mid-afternoon, appear the fruit vendors-- dozens of carts, all staffed by women this time, selling plastic cups full of spears of melon, canteloupe, pineapple, papaya, again skinned with a machete before slicing to reassure the nervous tourist:

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    A little later, closer to dinner time, a churro cart, also selling plantain chips (which I liked better than the unfilled but admirably fresh churros), turns up. But that's really it for the square at that hour, as the gringos head off for serious drinking and the action shifts further up Juarez-- tacos, empanadas, elotes, even hot dogs (which I turned up my nose at, though I must admit, they smelled more than respectable, especially with onions grilling alongside).

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    But by that hour there's better action to be had on Juarez, so we'll save that for my next installment. I'll just end with two notes:

    • Try to imagine how proud I was when we'd enter the square each morning and my son, standing in the very shadow of his beloved golden arches, would say, "I want a taco." (Okay, he doesn't really like breakfast at McDonald's. But still. That's my boy.)

    • After turning up my nose at the hot dogs, on the flight home I was listening to a Splendid Table episode on my iPod. David Rosengarten was the guest, talking about great hot dogs he'd had in Iceland-- and said at one point, "But they have great hot dogs in many countries-- Japan, Spain, Mexico...."
    Last edited by Mike G on May 3rd, 2005, 6:56 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #5 - February 4th, 2005, 11:54 am
    Post #5 - February 4th, 2005, 11:54 am Post #5 - February 4th, 2005, 11:54 am
    IV. The Perpendicular Universe of Avenida Juarez

    In Siena, Italy, every night around 9 o'clock, the citizens leave their homes en masse and wander up and down the main street, the Via di Cittå, saying hi to neighbors and sipping coffee and shooting the breeze. This doesn't sound extraordinary, but it's a remarkable sensation when an entire town pours out into car-less streets at night, turning the darkened city into a social center. It's a strangely unnerving feeling-- you are, after all, surrounded by strangers in the dark-- and yet at the same time welcoming, like the whole city has become a backyard party.

    It's a feeling you don't get much in America, because even when you're on a street at night with lots of strangers it's one (like Michigan Ave.) where cars set the atmosphere; it's their street, we're just walking along it. But it's what it's like to walk up and down Avenida Quinta, day or night, cars almost completely banned (though trucks abuse the privilege here and there) and, most noticeably, the sounds all human-based, not car-based. And that constant human vitality, day and night, is why that main tourist strip keeps drawing you back, even if your first glance (which is almost certain to be near the ferry dock, the McDonald's and all the street hawkers) makes it look more like one of those invented plastic environments, like Citywalk in L.A., than a real street.

    However, there's one thing you notice is missing from Avenida Quinta after a while-- Mexicans. They're there selling things, but they're not strolling around looking for a chance to pay tourist prices, that's for sure. In fact, the locals have their own main drag, one might call it a parallel main street except for the fact that it is actually perpendicular to Avenida Quinta. Especially at night, it comes alive with the local population, strolling and shopping and eating and talking, the same way Quinta comes alive with the visitors. It's Avenida Juarez, marking the south end of downtown, and though most tourists will travel it in a car or bus to get from the highway to the beach at some point, it is not an exaggeration to say that one night as I walked it, a few blocks in I saw more drag queens than gringos out and about.

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    That's a disco along Juarez, still displaying in late January the traditional Mexican idea of "Navidad." All along Juarez there are clothing shops (both conventional and, notably, service uniforms), little groceries, repair shops, a squat, cinder block Policia station, and, it will come as no surprise, places to eat. Lots of places to eat.

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    During the day carnitas and barbacoa are a big draw-- order some tacos from the counter, then sit down at the plastic patio furniture inevitably bearing Coke or Pepsi logos and eat.

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    These were pretty good, unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of the signage so who knows which stand it was. After I took his picture he picked up a chunk of something and offered it to me to try. "Buche," he said. I knew I was being tested with something he thought would gross me out, so I ate it unhesitatingly. Salty, roasted, actually better than my pork taco. Later I looked 'buche" up. It was maw. Best I ever had!

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    Here's another pork taco I had, actually liked this better, green salsa was scaldingly hot. This place has a painted sign on the front of the glass that says "Estilo de Michoacan," and it would be well worth seeking out. Here's a rare photo of rather than by me while eating:

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    I really liked that they chopped the meat on this hunk of tree. Now that's atmosphere.

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    Roasted chicken is a big thing here too, and a more convenient takeout food than many. I didn't actually eat at this one, just liked its decorations.

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    Instead we tried a place just off Juarez and just east of the Chedraui, in a strip mall and advertising Sinaloa style chicken with a secret recipe. I took that as a recommendation, not realizing that half the Pollo Asado places in town claim Sinaloa style. If the secret recipe had anything other than salt, I didn't taste it, but it wasn't bad. (The bottled horchata, however, was bad. Learned to only go places where they made it themselves.)

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    The best Pollo Asado I've had there was still at a place called Pollo Rojo, maybe around Calle 4 and Avenida 20 or so, two years ago. Anyway, remember the industrial sized grill full of cold ashes I saw, just east of the highway in the lot of a repair place? I finally got back to it one evening (they're only open at night) and picked up a bunch of taco de res and pork tacos hot off the grill to take home. Here's the grillman at work:

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    For toppings they set out literally a dozen or more tubs, I would have liked to have had RST there to tell me what they all were, or maybe just another couple of dozen tacos to try some of each. I especially liked a creamy guacamole and this stuff at the front, which was sort of like Guatemalan or Salvadoran cortida, but with more green and less vinegar mixed in. I never saw it anywhere else, so I'm not sure if it's from another region or what.

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    Another big thing you can only get at night along Juarez is tacos al pastor. Indeed any place that makes them has the meat roasting right out front, to attract the evening stroller. This place, El Sarape, looks like it might be a chain, but if so it seems to be a chain built on outstanding tacos al pastor, because it really was-- good smoke flavor, nice hint of pineapple sweetness (some cones of meat have a pineapple half that sits on top as it roasts):

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    I tried another one that same night-- this was, by the way, after already eating dinner with the family-- returning to my spot by the highway for the pastor I'd seen just beginning to roast with real coals when I'd gotten the tacos. If El Sarape's was sweet and gringo-friendly, this was primitive pastor, as red as Tandoori and as chili-hot as Arthur Bryant's sauce. Here, much more than the tacos from the other night, was something that needed a topping from those tubs to balance it out, cool it down. Which was better? I wouldn't have missed either one.
    Last edited by Mike G on May 3rd, 2005, 6:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #6 - February 5th, 2005, 7:26 pm
    Post #6 - February 5th, 2005, 7:26 pm Post #6 - February 5th, 2005, 7:26 pm
    I'm a Playa regular, been coming down since 1997 (and for Playa, that means I remember the dirt streets and dogs fighting on the beach - it has grown that fast) and this is without a doubt the best trip report I've ever read. I'm glad that I was able to lead you to some of my favorite places, though disappointed that you didn't fall in love with brazo del reina tamales. The crumbly stuff is ground pumpkinseeds, by the way.

    I look forward to hearing more bite-by-bite reporting! And if you ever want to stay in a place with a decently equipped kitchenette, let me know - we rent ours out.
  • Post #7 - February 5th, 2005, 8:48 pm
    Post #7 - February 5th, 2005, 8:48 pm Post #7 - February 5th, 2005, 8:48 pm
    Thanks for the kind words, I read that there was pumpkinseed in the brazo de reyna but didn't see it in the tamale itself, that explains everything.

    I have also been informed that the cortida-like stuff at my place by the highway is actually nopales de escabeche-- so that wasn't cabbage, as in cortida, it was cactus.
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  • Post #8 - February 5th, 2005, 9:14 pm
    Post #8 - February 5th, 2005, 9:14 pm Post #8 - February 5th, 2005, 9:14 pm
    Great photography and writing Mike. The wife and I have been considering a Carribbean vacation. This may be just the place I'm looking for.
    Bruce
    Plenipotentiary
    bruce@bdbbq.com

    Raw meat should NOT have an ingredients list!!
  • Post #9 - February 6th, 2005, 11:37 pm
    Post #9 - February 6th, 2005, 11:37 pm Post #9 - February 6th, 2005, 11:37 pm
    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:

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    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:

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    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.

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    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:

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    And in food, these pork chunks in salsa verde were very tender and tasty.

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    Best of all, not long before we left, two guys pulled up on motorcycles. Check out the T-shirts:

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    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:

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    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:

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    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):

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    And here's where the miracle of arrachera happens:

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    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:

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    Another family place, Delia and Ramon hustling to keep the food moving.

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    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.

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    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.

    * * *

    Addendum

    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....

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    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?

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    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.

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    Last edited by Mike G on May 3rd, 2005, 6:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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  • Post #10 - February 7th, 2005, 9:43 am
    Post #10 - February 7th, 2005, 9:43 am Post #10 - February 7th, 2005, 9:43 am
    Mike G wrote: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.


    Just wanted to add my huzzas of appreciation. This may settle the "if I ever vacation in Mexico where should I go" question for me as well. Wonderful descriptions, wonderful pictures. Thank you so much.
  • Post #11 - March 27th, 2008, 12:01 pm
    Post #11 - March 27th, 2008, 12:01 pm Post #11 - March 27th, 2008, 12:01 pm
    I went to Playa in February of this year (2008), and had a great time. This was our first trip with our new baby, so we were a little limited with how far I could go in search of good food, but my parents and brother, along with his wife, were able to help out somewhat. My brother and his wife are flexitarians, so we had to accommodate a little for them, but nevertheless had some excellent meals. Mike G helped some with his report, and we did rely heavily on the Updated Restaurant listat www.playa.info. So here is a brief summary of our eating experiences, for any future Playa traveler. Please refer to the Updated list for any specific addresses (and to make sure the restaurant still is around - things change fast in Playa).

    La Tarraya – GREAT location, right on the beach, and near the bus station and ferry. Good whole fish, especially the Xni-Pec style. Interesting sangria (carbonated soda with wine?). My brother liked the seafood soup quite a bit.

    The place formally known as H & C Butcher Shop – Amazing grilled meat. We took it to go, and 3 kilos was enough to feed 6 people for lunch for 2 days. I did not see any sign at all for the restaurant (I had to ask where it was), not even the Super Carnes sign some people have mentioned on playa.info. Perhaps they are about to get a new sign? Regardless, for people staying in a condo, this was an amazing deal and really good meat – tender, juicy and seasoned just right.
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    Pizza Pazza – Had a couple of slices in Tulum. Really liked the shrimp pizza, and thought the blue cheese and spinach slice was pretty good (a little too salty, though, and I really like salty things). If you need a quick bite, there are a lot of these stores throughout Playa.

    El Sarape – Good tacos, very good mole enchilada. Did not think the posole was very good at all, but maybe it was an off-night.

    Asadero el Pollo Estillo Sinoloa – A grilled chicken place, and well worth the walk. The flavor of the chicken was excellent, and I loved the hot sauce they provided with it, but our chicken was a little dried out (probably just sat too long on the grill).
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    Los Burritos Del Gordo - I think that this restaurant no longer exists, so cross it off the Restaurant list.

    Food Carts at the Zocalo – I ate breakfast there about 3 times. One of my favorite places we ate at. Every taco I had there was excellent, especially the chicharones! They leave my 11am, so you may have to adjust what you consider breakfast, but since we went to several places early from the bus station, I actually looked forward to getting up early to eat here. The nearby fruit carts are also good, and I had excellent recently squeezed grapefruit juice at one cart as well.
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    100% Natural - My brother and his wife ate here. They thought it was pretty good, but I don’t know anymore than that.

    Yaxche – A place that specializes in Mayan food, but honestly, it was the only place I was disappointed with. Seemed over-priced, and probably the least flavorful of all the places we went. It did say something about a “special chef” last week in the front of the restaurant, and someone behind us said that the menu was different, so maybe that had something to do with the food being unexciting. I would definitely try one of the other places that may have a few dishes of local Mayan food before coming here again.

    El Asador de Manolo – Another one of my favorites. This is an Argentinean restaurant (there are several in the northern part of town, due to a small Argentinean population there). Simply amazing grilled meats and empanadas. The grilled sweet breads were perfect, all of the condiment sauces were excellent (my sister-n-law couldn’t stop eating the chipotle butter) and unlike what you would typically get in an Argentinean place, and the short ribs were extremely moist and flavorful. I would come back in a heart beat.

    El Oasis – Reportedly acclaimed for it’s spicy green sauce for the shrimp tacos, but changed hands and reportedly suffered. Recently there were reports it has improved again. I do not know what the former green sauce tasted like, but the present one certainly has tons of zip by my taste – just a drop left you numb for 1 minute! The shrimp tacos were very good (as long as you like them battered and fried, and who doesn’t), and the octopus with garlic was one of the most tender preparations of octopus I have ever had. I would NOT get the seafood soup (tasted like water with some fish in it), but the coconut sauced fish was quite good, although very sweet.

    Pesca – My wife’s favorite place. Really good shrimp tacos and shrimp empanadas. The shrimp “casserole” was good, although certainly not a casserole in the American sense of the word. The conch was also nice. It is located by the giant Mega store, so I would definitely think of eating here if you planning a stop at the shop (or perhaps the nearby El Jurado - Mixiotes and Huaraches, which also gets great reviews).

    Place just east of Asadero el Pollo Estillo Sinoloa (with red awning and poster mentioning huaraches) – I wanted to eat at El Jurado, but since we were staying at the far south end of Playa, we never had the chance. So I picked this random place for a huaraches, and I thought it had just the right amount of fried masa texture to set it off from the coolness of the crema and lettuce and the meatiness of the chicken.
    "My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people."

    -Orson Welles-
  • Post #12 - December 28th, 2009, 11:38 am
    Post #12 - December 28th, 2009, 11:38 am Post #12 - December 28th, 2009, 11:38 am
    We stopped at Oasis for fish/shrimp tacos while on the way to Tulum. They have three salsas on squeeze bottles on the table--a spicy, creamy green one, a tamarind salsa and what appeared to be straight mayo. I didn't realize the green one was mind-numbingly hot so I squirted it all over may plate of tacos. Once the tears dried up...I enjoyed these. It's hard to go wrong with deep fried anything, but...I thought these were a little heavy handed with the frying and the shrimp quality was just so-so (which seems a shame when you are vacationing on the Riviera Maya). I wouldn't necessarily seek this place out again.
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  • Post #13 - November 24th, 2013, 10:21 pm
    Post #13 - November 24th, 2013, 10:21 pm Post #13 - November 24th, 2013, 10:21 pm
    Not much going on with Playa del Carmen in LTH.... at least that I could find. I'd love to get some direction on some eats as I'm very close to booking a family trip here.
  • Post #14 - November 25th, 2013, 12:01 am
    Post #14 - November 25th, 2013, 12:01 am Post #14 - November 25th, 2013, 12:01 am
    Just got married there in May, sorry this is vague I'm pulling this off of memory and you can look up more info online for pictures from the places I mention.

    We hit up El Fogon for some me al pastor and tacos, plus it is right next to HC Monterrey. It was located a few blocks away from 5th avenue, and worth the short walk.

    It is right next door to HC which is mentioned above.

    Los Aguachiles opened up a spot right on 5th, and was great seafood.

    Carboncitos is good, and if you move off 5th you will hit more local spots.

    There was this breakfast place we had with really fresh fruit, smoothies, and food. Need to go hit the pictures to remember.

    I stayed at Playacar Palace and was right by 5th. Not sure what part of Playa you will be I'm, but there are plenty of food options... Especially if you head north there are more European influences.

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