I’m headed back to Merida soon, and I can’t wait to eat all of this. Here are five restaurants that represent a spectrum of food in the Merida area, and I’m hoping to make it a solid ten after my trip.
1. Los Frailes, Conkal – CLOSED
Skip the wimpy salbutes served at the plaza-side restaurants in Merida and take a twenty minute drive to Conkal. You’ll pass the rows of houses in the Merida suburbs stacked like cigarette boxes, through a country road that circles around the stone church built in 1549, and past the bodegas with hanging bananas and backyard smoke.
Los Frailes is built to remind you of a hacienda, with quirky outdoor artifacts (naked wood carved saints, for example) and tiled patios. The food will fade out any details though, and take you to the very essence of Yucatecan cooking: masa, smoke, sour oranges, and charred chiles. Chef Wilson Alonso is the head chef here and also the president of Association of Yucatecan Gastronomy, more on them later.
Go for the poc chuc, wood fired pork cutlets with pickled onions that look like jewels. Don’t skip on the chicharron de queso afterwards, crispy cheese with dark amber burnt-sugar and honey glazed papaya.
2. Kuuk, Colonia San Ramon Norte (in the north side of the city)
Kuuk is contemporary Yucatecan food at its brightest. Part scientists, gardeners and chefs, the team here knocked me off my feet with almost every dish. Once you try the bread made with the “essence” of cochinita pibil, tiny pillows of achiote-pink bread and dipping butter dusted with charred onion powder, you might think there’s no going back to the traditional. But that’s far from the point at this place where indigenous Yucatecan herbs and plants crawl up the restaurant garden walls, eventually sliding into a pungently fresh lemon-basil margarita. It’s no wonder the chefs are traveling the world for events with Food & Wine and the like, most people have never tasted Yucatan like this. A higher end place, with a tasting menu that in the U.S. would easily be double the cost.
3. Tacos Wayan’e, Circuito Colonias
I have learned that breakfast tacos is a thing in the Yucatan, and that Tacos Wayan’e is the king of them. Damn me for not being more adventurous when I lived here, I must have passed this place everyday on my way to school. Lesson learned, and redeemed when I stepped up to a long bar overlooking casuelas full of stewed and chopped meats. Go for the castacan, pork belly with the fat trimmed in crispy grilled squares; the juevos con xcatik, a generally spicy chile that’s sweet with a slight kick in this instance, and the juevos with chaya, the local dark leafy green.
It’s crowded from early until about noon, when things start to run out. Despite the hurried atmosphere, don’t be afraid to ask questions, the owners were quite helpful. There are a few aguas and sodas here. For four tacos and an agua it was $62 pesos (about $4).
4. Flamingos, Progreso
Some of my favorite memories of living in Merida are eating ceviche on the gulf coast near Progreso the day after an all-night party. Tired feet in the sand and my ceviche doused in hot salsa to sweat out the hangover. It’s much more civilized though to head to Progresso and sit with all your senses intact at Flamingos, right on the wharf. Get a ceviche mixto and a victoria, it’s one of the most refreshing meals possible.
5. Apoala, Centro
My hosts took me to Apoala when I first arrived to Merida, and we sat outside with a mezcal cocktail on a red and white tiled table, overlooking a plaza that ten years prior had been nothing but, well, a plaza. Now Apoala offers visitors a fusion of Oaxacan, Yucatecan and Mexican flavors fueled by Chef Sara Arnaud, a humble and talented kitchen goddess. She and her brother moved here from their native Oaxaca to open the restaurant just last year.
Oaxacan dishes make frequent appearances on Bay Area Mexican menus, but I had to laugh when I bit into my tasajo, (thinly sliced strips of beef that are salted or dried). Not like here. The tasajo flavors tingled in every corner of my mouth, the chile xcatik stuffed with melted queso oaxaca and crispy grasshoppers was a simple and tasty ode to Yucatan and Oaxaca, and the side of chilaquiles a genius addition (who doesn’t want a side of chilaquiles with everything?) Try over 30 mezcals here.