Maybe the Cancun area is what the Mayans had in mind as the end of world in 2012? Then again, maybe that message was misinterpreted. Yaxché (pronounced jag-shey) is one of the oldest restaurants in Playa del Carmen. Unbelievably, Mayan food is the focal point of the menu. Sure it might be a little bit gimmicky: there’s flaming coffee that I’m fairly certain that the Mayans had no part in. Yet, apart from Cochinita Pibil, Mayan dishes aren’t really utilized in high-end restaurants anywhere in Mexico. Rather than become more gimmicky though, the restaurant is increasingly working with Mayan communities in the Yucatan.
The current chef lived with a Mayan community for a year to master their culinary methods, then continued studying with them for another 4 years. The restaurant has begun working directly with several communities in rescuing and spreading the Mayan culture by encouraging their produce, teaching them new techniques and purchasing their products. Villages such as Tzuncacab have been supplying Yaxché‘s fruits, vegetables, and spices.
On a recent visit to Playa del Carmen, I sat on the sidewalk of their new Quinta Avenida location, watching the Mayan Riviera town’s stylish passerbys. The two level restaurants is, like most everything else in Playa, cool and modern. It’s nothing like a grass shack in Mayahuel, but if it were it probably wouldn’t survive the picky foreign tourists that visit the town. The menu is only partly Mayan, maybe a third of it. The other dishes are national Mexican plates and contemporary international ones. I came for what was Mayan unless you want just a standard semi-Mexican meal like those served at every other nearby restaurant; I suggest you do the same.
The Xa’k Hanaj, an appetizer sampler, is the beginner course of Mayan food. There’s Tsotobilchay, a type of Mayan tamal with chaya, boiled eggs and pumpkin seeds wrapped in a plantain leaf. Panuchos, are rolled tortillas stuffed with cochinita pibil, avocado and onions. The Codzito’s are a sort of fried taco with chaya and potatoes and covered in a salsa verde. It’s all hearty, filling, and not overly spicy or flavorful. Though, true to form, that’s Mayan food in a nutshell. The range of entrees is varied and they’re a little bit pricey – though almost every restaurant in Playa is. Cochinita Pibil is always a good choice, as is the Tikin Xic, a tender white fish marinated in achiote and sour orange juice just like cochinita pibil and grilled over a banana leaf.
Margaritas and Bacardi share space in the cocktails menu with drinks made from Chaya and the anis and honey flavored Mayan spirit, Xtabentun. Then there’s that flaming coffee…
5th Avenida (La Quinta) and Calle 22
Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya
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.