Cactus, tongue and cacao 

Venture in Mexico reveals unique ingredients and delicious, authentic plates

Note to chefs: Pomegranate garnish looks and tastes great. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER

I tried to eat cow brains, but the cheap taquilera whose red plastic Coke chairs we'd just slid into had run out. So I settled instead for miniature tongue-meat, corn-flour tacos, garnished with fresh onion and cilantro and spicy red and green chili sauces. A little chewier than other cuts, but not bad.

I also tried a few other beef tacos that a painted-cinder-block-wall menu described as "a little of everything." What the hell? Why not?

That's the best part of eating in other countries: trying the stuff that most hot-dog-eating Americans tend to avoid. As celebrity chefs are quick to remind us, cheeks, organs and spare parts are often the most delicate and delicious, particularly when it comes to seafood.

While traveling mostly about the Mayan Riviera for the past two weeks on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula (sounds much more exotic than saying "south of Cancun," doesn't it?), I opted for as much authentic, locally styled and new-to-me food as possible. With limited menus that often included Italian pastas, American burgers and Tex-Mex items, it wasn't too hard to identify true Mexican dishes and even a few Mayan dishes. (Many menus point right to them.)

Here's a roundup of some dishes worth seeking if ever traveling southward, or even just to local restaurants:

Firstly, locate a real mole sauce (made from cacao, chiles and cinnamon, sometimes nuts and more), not from a jar, laboriously stewed. We were directed to a superb one in Tulum at a rare alta cocina (haute cuisine) place named Cetli. The chef, Claudia, from Mexico City, told us she's studied inside communities all over the country to perfect regional tastes. Aside from her mole, which she said had 32 different peppers in it, her beef-, pineapple- and raisin-stuffed poblano under a white nut cream sauce, garnished with plump pomegranate seeds (a non-traditional fusion dish), proved to be the single most creative, complexly flavored and wonderful dish we ate.

There are a variety of spiced egg dishes available at breakfast, but I'd recommend trying a plate of chilaquiles, fried corn tortillas under salsa or mole and topped with some combination of eggs, cheese, chicken and queso fresco or crema (rich sour cream).

Eat as many types of ceviche (citrus-marinated raw fish) as you can find. Try a clay-pot-boiled seafood soup. Have nopole (cactus) tacos, chicken or cheese empanadas, and pastor, moist marinated pork meat cut from a gyro-like rotisserie log and served on mini corn tacos. Wash down your food with beer or a bright green chaya drink, a tree spinach that's toxic when raw, but a cold treat when cooked, juiced and paired with sweeter fruit juice.

Of course, a key to all of this is distinguishing great eateries from mediocre tourist dives.

My best advice: Poll more than a few locals about their favorite spots and cross-reference their answers. Also, be leery, but not entirely afraid of, street food and places entirely populated by locals, whose open, rustic kitchens clearly would give any U.S. health inspector pause, but likely won't put you down for a few days. And for insurance after questionable meals, take digestive enzymes and charcoal and chlorophyll tablets and drink a few drops of grapefruit seed extract with your bottled water.



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