The Riviera Maya on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is more traditionally thought of as dead space for the adventurous foodie. Most assume that, like Cancun, it’s filled with American chain restaurants and overpriced resort food. To some extent that’s true, but there is also some excellent street food, regional restaurants not aimed at tourists, and a growing group of internationally trained chefs that are utilizing the products of the Yucatan.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN
Yaxche: A longtime favorite in Playa though they recently moved locations, Yaxche’s specialty is rescuing Mayan recipes and giving them a contemporary facelift. The restaurant is a little bit gimmicky (there’s a flaming coffee), though the current chef lived in a Mayan village and studied their recipes for a total of 5 years and is helping the restaurant set up support programs where they’ll buy their produce direct from the villages in the Yucatan. mayacuisine.com
Marisquería: Inside theHotel Basico – from Mexico City’s excellent Habita group – Marisqueria serves coastal Mexican street food right from a replica mobile food cart on the second level of their building on Quinta Avenida. Ceviche, stuffed crab, and the best shrimp tacos I have ever eaten. CLOSED for renovations.
Indigo Beach Club:Playa’s Italian community is the second largest in Mexico after Mexico City – a population of some 10,000 people. Wood fired pizzas, true Italian style – topped with gourmet ingredients like shrimp and pesto are the specialty, though the contemporary menu serves a little bit of everything from Thai to Mediterranean to Mexican. indigobeach.com.mx
Mosquito Blue: Inside a sleek boutique hotel in the heart of La Quinta’s pedestrian strip, this is the place everyone wants to be seen at. Italian chef Vito Semeraro prepares hand made pastas, steaks, and lobster, yet the prices are not over the top like many of the other restaurants in the neighborhood. mosquitoblue.com
Origenes: Part of the newish cluster of dining and hotels in the northern part of Playa del Carmen on Calle 38, Origenes is refreshingly Mexican. There are stuffed nopales, rib-eye tacos, enmoladas, and ceviche. restauranteorigenes.com
Alux: This restaurant that is set out in a massive cenote, an underground cave system, and named after the mythical leprechaun like creatures that the Mayans believed inhabited the region. The food is standard, pricey international fare. Show lighting and faux leopard fur seats in some areas bring the cheesiness factor off the charts here, though where else would you find this atmosphere? aluxlounge.net
Ah Cacao Café: A lot of people love this place on 5th & 30th and other locations now in Playa and Cancun. It feels like a Starbucks for Chocolate drinks, ice cream, chocolate bars, and various other chocolate products. ahcacao.com
STREET FOOD & RESTAURANTS FOR LOCALS
Taqueria El Fogón: An open-air grill with one large horno a la leña, wood fired oven, that sits on one side of the restaurant. Lechon Al Pastor, a Shawrama like cooking style brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants, is the specialty. Try the Alambre Beef, Chorizo Quesadillas, and Tacos and Tortas of various fillings. Three bowls of hot sauce on every table. Beers are served michelada, with hot sauce, limejuice, Worcestershire sauce, and a salted rim. Constituyentes and 30th.
Taqueria La Taraya: Slings out Yucatecan plates like ceviche, octopus tentacles in chipotle sauce, and fish tacos right from the beach front, not far from the ferry dock.
La Bamba Jarocha: Several locations of this authentic local restaurant are scattered about Playa del Carmen and Tulum. It’s national Mexican fare with a focus on the Yucatan. Dirt cheap.
Push carts at the bottom of Juarez next to the church and 5th: There are half a dozen street carts clustered here, not far from the plaza and ferry dock. One sells Shrimp tacos. Another sells Cochinita Pibil, a Mayan preparation of pork baked inside of a banana leaf, which can be eaten in tacos or as a torta (sandwich). Other vendors sell cut up green mango and other fruits sprinkled with salt and chile powder, while yet another sells styrofoam cups of hot elote kernels topped with cheese, chile, and mayo.
ELSEWHERE ON THE RIVIERA MAYA
John Gray’s Kitchen This respected restaurant on the Puerto Morelos beachfront serves innovative Mexican fusion cuisine like Pan-roasted roasted duck breast with tequila, honey, and Chipotle reduction and Soy Marinated Tuna with Asian cole slaw. Local ingredients are prized here. Gray was once the chef at the Ritz Carlton. Now in Playa del Carmen as well.
Ambar: The beautiful design of this restaurant space makes the most romantic spot on the Riviera Maya, though chef Ignacio Granda Del Gallego’s Asian-Mediterranean dishes don’t disappoint either. The jungle-clad lagoon that the restaurant overlooks is paired lovingly with Tom Yam Goong Risotto and Kurobuta Pork Chops. mandarinoriental.com
Fairmont Mayakoba: Executive Chef uses only sustainably caught lobster from the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and has his own kitchen garden right at his four restaurants at this luxe resort. He uses sustainable and organic ingredients whenever possible and the result comes out shining at the AAA Four Diamond and El Puerto restaurants. Fairmont.com/mayakoba
Banyan Tree Mayakoba: Like the neighboring Fairmont, the Banyan Tree’s collection of restaurants is superb. Saffron, their lagoon side Thai restaurant, is headed by chefs from Phuket. The stunning Tamarind is adults only and mixes Mediterranean dishes with Mexican and other international influences. banyantree.com/en/mayakoba
El Tacoqueto: Tulum is full of great rustic dining spots with home cooked meals, but El Tacoqueto is one of the best. The menu is based on what’s fresh and available and changes daily, though it’s never written.
Hechizo: A cozy little beach place with chefs that trained at five star resorts in the area is only open from December to April. Locally caught seafood dominates the menu. Dishes are far more contemporary and haute than most of what’s available in Tulum. hechizotulum.com
COOKING SCHOOLS ON THE RIVIERA MAYA & YUCATAN
The Little Mexico Cooking School: In Puerto Morelos, this is the most complete cooking school on the Riviera Maya. Five hour classes ($99) are held from December to June and include the preparation of a rotating menu of 5-7 Mexican dishes from various regions of the country. thelittlemexicancookingschool.com
Los Dos: It’s in Merida, not exactly the Riviera Maya, though this is the only cooking school in Mexico that specializes in Yucatecan cuisine. Classes range from Full day Taste of the Yucatan that includes market visits to shorter tours of Yucatecan street food and tastings of regional specialties. Other experiences at the school specialize in weeklong slow food tours of the Yucatan, 3-day culinary workshops, and a Four-Day Day of the Dead workshop. los-dos.com
Ambar Restaurant: The Mandarin Oriental Hotel restaurant holds cooking classes three days a week from 10:30am to 2pm. Mondays are traditional Mexican dishes, Wednesdays are a Taste of Spain, and Fridays are the Art of Asian Cooking. The cost is $250 per person and reservations are required 48 hours ahead of time. mandarinoriental.com
Fairmont Mayakoba: Executive Chef David Andrews offers cooking classes to both children and adults at this eco-friendly property in Mayakoba. Guests will take a tour through the hotel’s main kitchen and will learn everything from how to wash their hands, handle foods, cut, cook, to how to serve properly, and prepare certain recipes. Fairmont.com/mayakoba
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.