I got off to a shaky start with food in Mexico. My usual (and now I think of it, flawed) strategy when arriving in a new country is to go to a local restaurant, point to a menu item that has the most fun-sounding words in it and see what turns up. It’s the least stressful thing to do when I haven’t yet learned the language, and it usually means I get something more adventurous than if I actually understood what I was ordering.
However, for my first full week in Playa del Carmen, I somehow ended up with meat tacos every single time. It didn’t seem to matter what I ordered: Sometimes the meat was in the tortilla, sometimes the tortillas came separately in a basket, and sometimes the tortillas were delivered on top of the meat. But invariably, there was meat… and there were tortillas. And that’s about it.
For a while, I was in danger of turning into a taco (or at least getting scurvy), so it felt like a real breakthrough when I finally discovered what Playa really had to offer; I’m talking salbutes, ceviche, pozole, marquesitas… and enough exciting twists on international cuisine to keep any true foodie happy.
I could wax lyrical about every great meal I had in Playa, but instead I’ve included a few tastes that stood out as delicious introductions to the food in this country.
As the Mexicans say: Provecho!
Although I still can’t even look at a meat taco (taco fatigue is real, people), I could eat these fishy versions all day. The catch of the day is coated, fried and then piled onto three small, soft tortillas. Each one is garnished with a slice of sweet tomato, a slither of avocado and the obligatory squeeze of fresh lime. I added the spicy pink onion from one of the little bowls of sauces and pickles that come as standard in Mexican restaurants and it was so hot it made my eyebrows sweat. I think we can all agree that any food that makes your eyebrows sweat is a great result.
You can get fantastic fish tacos all over Playa del Carmen, but these little fellas were my favourite. The crunchy batter and soft, delicate meat held together a lot better than some other freshly made versions I’ve had, and the tortillas didn’t have that peculiar, slightly bitter taste that has turned me off tacos in general.
I used to think of raw seafood as an expensive luxury, but the ceviche here is fresh, delicious and CHEAP. The beautifully arranged prawn ceviche tostada pictured above is great for a snack, but when we just want to fill our boots with as much fresh seafood as humanly possibly, it’s El Pirata all the way – raw mahi mahi, octopus and prawns is ‘cooked’ in citrus juice and mixed with fresh tomatoes, coriander and diced onion to make a dish that tastes super fresh and light. We’d order one huge plate and use saltine crackers and totopos (tortillas cut into triangles and deep-fried) to greedily scoop up the seafood.
Oh ceviche. How I love you.
I had never even heard of salbutes before I arrived in Playa, but was happy to find them being served at the little open-fronted restaurant next door to our apartment – that’s the salbute at the back with the upturned ends. The base is soft and puffy and you can use it to fold up all the meat, white cabbage, avocado and onion and shovel it into your mouth.
I chose ‘chicharron’ as the meat topping just because it sounded interesting, and I was not disappointed – the meat was flavourful, soft and a little chewy, and I just knew it had to be bad for me because it tasted so good.
And I was right. A quick Google search identified chicharron as pig skin. Delicious lardy-fried pig skin. It’s basically just a heart attack waiting to happen. But what a way to go.
I would usually order anything but soup in a restaurant – especially after a few minutes of walking in the heat and humidity of Playa – but there were two soups I to try: pozole and tortilla soup.
Pozole is centred around hominy – kernels of field corn puffed up to twice its size thanks to a long soak in an alkali solution. The texture becomes similar to water chestnuts, and they really help to add substance to the thin broth the hominy is cooked in. As with a lot of dishes in Mexico, just add the meat of your choice, garlic, onion, spicy sauce and some white cabbage. Place a few arty slices of radish on top and you’re done. Simple, but so, so good, and very filling once you add a basket of totopos into the mix.
Likewise, this creamy tortilla soup was real comfort food. Similar to cream of tomato soup, but with a chipotle twist, it came with a side plate of dyed tortilla strips, avocado, crumbly Oaxaca cheese and dried poblano chillies. I think you’re supposed to add each flavour to taste, but I just tipped the lot in and went nuts. I would NEVER think of putting cheese and avocado into soup, but it really worked. Mexico wins again.
Al pastor and carne asada
These two types of meat are the heroes of meat tacos, but (luckily for me) they’re used in plenty of other dishes too. The bright red meat you can see above is Al Pastor: it’s basically the same idea as shawarma or giros, something I still associate with a dirty kebab after too much booze… but that’s a British thing.
In this instance, a marinade of chiles, spices and achiote give the pork that red hue. It’s then cooked on the spit and served with slithers of pineapple.
Carne asada, on the other hand, is simply grilled marinated beef, but in Playa it always seemed to be fried on a hot plate before it’s served. Either way, it’s delicious.
Chimichanga is one of those dishes that I’ve tried at home, but has turned out to be nothing like the real thing you find over here. This chimichanga is simply carne asada and fried onion wrapped in tortilla parcels which are then deep-fried and topped with sour cream and avocado. Not the healthiest of meals by a long stretch, but it’s another example of Mexican food that works because it’s fresh and unfussy. And at least they threw in some tomato to make me feel better about the (lack of) fruit and veg content.
Tortas are Mexican sandwiches made with bolillos, a specific type of bread roll that’s crusty on the outside and fluffy in the middle. You can have pretty much any filling you desire in your torta, but our favourites have been made at home with packets of meat found in a supermarket. Yes, I know, it sounds awful but stay with me on this one! We were given a tip about this stuff by a British guy married to a Mexican lady, and since then these tortas have become a go-to staple that we can make at home however tiny a kitchen we end up with!
Jen’s torta recipe (serves 2/3):
1 Chata packet of meat, preferably the Conchita pibil (slow-roasted pork marinated in achiote)
1 avocado, sliced
1 small onion, diced
1 packet of stringy Oaxaca cheese
1 lime, halved
Method: Pop the packet of meat into the microwave for 30 seconds. Split all the ingredients between the bolillos and then finish with a squeeze of lime. Eat. Rub tummy. Burp.
A marquesita is a street food dessert that you can only really find in the Yucatán. A thin circular wafer is made by pouring batter onto a heavy black iron press, and then topped with something sweet – I chose Nutella – rolled into a flute shape and pressed again.
The fun thing about marquesitas is that the sweet filling is always accompanied by cheese! Despite the odd combination, it tastes surprisingly good. The nutty saltiness of the cheese really brings out the sweetness of the Nutella, and the wafer stays crunchy without collapsing once you bite into it.
This cross between a shandy and a Bloody Mary is made with cerveza (beer), spices, lime juice and, in this instance, Worcestershire sauce. It looks and sounds gross, but it’s actually very tasty and refreshing… at least, this one is. I’ve tried michelada in several locations across Playa and Tulum and this one is the only one I’d go back for again and again. So if you want to try this particular taste of Playa, get yourself to Popol Vuh!
So that’s it – a brief tour of the distinct flavours that will always remind me of our first stop in Mexico. I can’t wait to see what the rest of the country has in store!
Ps. If you’re looking for recommendations for places to eat in Playa, I’ve put together a map of our favourites. Enjoy!
Pozole shot by Eric Molena