TexMex is delicious; we had been eating it by the bucketload in the United States. But now that we were in Mexico, I wanted to further explore the local cuisine. I knew I couldn’t find that on the popular and touristy 5th Avenue in Playa Del Carmen, so I found the Viator Playa del Carmen Food Tour to get the real, behind-the-scenes authentic Mexican experience we were craving.
Our meeting spot was easy to find near the bus terminal and Cozumel ferry terminal. Our group consisted of just five people, the perfect size for an intimate tour. Our friendly guide came prepared with a heat-quenching bottled water for each guest, and we were off. During the tour, we caught several cabs. There was not too much walking, which was really appreciated by our kids. The walking we did do was often over uneven surfaces, so be careful to watch your step and wear comfortable walking shoes. Our Spanish is very much lacking, but fortunately our guide took care of all communication with restaurants so we could effortlessly follow along. The food tour included five stops, and of course, the best was saved for last.
Stop #1: Quesadillas at Las Quekas
Corner of Ave 30th & Calle 14
Across the road from Mega shopping mall, we found a small restaurant with room for about four tables and a bench. Three ladies inside were cooking fresh quesadillas over a large, open, flat grill. These ladies make their own corn tortillas from scratch and use Oaxacan cheese (the authentic Mexican quesadilla cheese). We sat down at a table to try three different varieties: chorizo, cheese, and corn. And to quench our thirst from the heat, sipped a Mexican Coke, which is very different from the US version, using real cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.
Stop #2: Market at DAC
Avenida 30th between Constituyentes & Calle 20th
This stop was at a local market filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as barrels of dried spices and chiles. Our guide pointed out several different fruits and chiles that are native to the region, including the jamaica (hibiscus), which was featured in our next stop.
Stop #3: Pozole and Jamaica at Mi Abuelita
Avenida 30th between Calle 20th & 22nd
This small hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a local pozoleria fitting roughly four tables. It was here we tried jamaica. No, it wasn’t a slice of a Caribbean island, but perhaps just as refreshing. This hibiscus water is similar to a cranberry or black currant drink, like Ribena. After our agua de jamaica, we were each served a bowl of hearty Mexican stew, known as pozole. The soup is made from nixtamalized cacahuazintle corn (which involves soaking corn in alkaline solution, the first step to making corn usable for food preparation, like tortillas), better known as hominy. This soup is usually served with pork, but we tried the chicken variety. A layered stand of extra toppings was served tableside to add to the soup – lime, lettuce, and chiles. This hearty soup is filled with complex flavors that are traditionally found in Mexican cuisine. It’s usually served at celebrations, and it can certainly turn a warm day into a red-hot one if you have a low threshold for spicy food. Phew!
Stop #4: Tacos at Merchant
Benito Juarez between Ave 30th & Ave 25th
This unassuming restaurant stole my heart, or rather ran away with my taste buds. It was my favorite stop, hands down. Plastic tables and chairs gave it a very simple feel. At the entrance stood an unassuming chef chopping pork for all to see. There were no hidden ingredients here. We sat down at the back of the restaurant and were served a tray of condiments – guacamole, hot sauce, chiles, and other bits and pieces. Next up, we were given a choice of “greasy” or “non-greasy.” We ordered one of each so we could compare both. I recommend the greasy vor cochinita pibil – it was by far our favorite Yucatecán street taco. This pork dish is typically done in the Michoacán style, with selected cuts of meat (pork) that are roasted or braised at low heat in a copper pot. The pork is seasoned with salt, oregano, and sometimes crushed garlic. The tortilla was soft and light and just thick enough to hold the full-flavored meat filling. I could have done with several more of these.
Stop #5: Ice Cream @ Nieves Mexicanas Street Stall
Corner of Avenida 25th & Benito Juarez
Our last stop was at a super small stall on one of the city’s busiest streets selling house-made artisanal ice cream. Nieves is the Spanish word for snow, and is a general term for frozen Mexican treats. Everyone choose one frozen dessert, and we stood on the busy street corner licking continuously, watching the cars, pedestrians, bike,s and general comings and goings of Playa Del Carmen.
After the refreshing ice cream, our guide walked us back to the plaza near our starting point and said her goodbyes. The day after our tour we received a follow-up email with details of each place we visited. This was a great bonus, because I for one knew I was headed back for more tacos from Merchant. Mmmmm…