Mayan Street Food and Taco Tour with Cozumel Chef in Playa del Carmen
I have been travelling to the Mayan Riviera for years but must admit that I have never stopped to eat at street food carts and although we do eat at local restaurants, only a few serve mostly local people. Now before you dismiss me as a food elitist, please consider that, first, you can get authentic local dishes even at high end restaurants and hotels, you just pay more for them, and second, street food is made up of almost exclusively pork, beef and chicken, while I have preference for vegetarian foods. In any event, I decided that this is the year to explore the truly local food scene and what better way to do this than with a walking food tour designed and operated by a local chef.
I was invited by Emily, the chef behind Cozumel chef to join a walking tour of Playa del Carmen local eateries to learn about and taste real Mayan food made by locals for locals. What could be more authentic than that?
Emily is a mechanical engineer turned professional chef with classical training from the French Culinary Institute in NYC and apprenticeship at a number of French and American restaurants in New York. She now lives in Cozumel operating as a private chef, cooking for locals and visitors who want a unique cultural food experience. Chef Emily cooking combines classical Mexican cuisine with French technique and has the reputation of creating memorable culinary experiences for her clients.
Emily leads the food tours sometimes but not on the day I was participating. We met our guide Alejandra on the scheduled day in front of the little white church on the south end of la Quinta (5th Ave, the tourist promenade in Playa). She had a cold bottle of water for each of us (there were 6 on the tour) and it was refreshing to have this along as the day was turning to be very hot.
After a quick introduction we walked up the street and stopped at a small park off Benito Juarez where a number of food carts were stationed, their operators busy serving a large number of hungry locals. Alejandra said that if you see police officers and medical doctors stopping at the food carts it is usually a good indication that the food would be good. There were several police officers there so this must be a popular spot among locals.
Benito Juarez park
The first on our menu was the quintessential Mayan dish cochinita pibil, a traditional Yucatan dish influenced by Hispanic occupation of Mexico, using Spanish pork with local Yucatan seasoning. The dish consists of baby suckling pig marinated in the acidic juice of bitter orange and annatto seeds paste (achiote) that gives the meat its golden orange hue. After marinating the pork for a few hours it is wrapped in banana leaves and slow roasted in the earth over hot stones (Pibil means “under the ground”).
Achiote (aka Annatto) trees grow all over the Yucatan. The spiky achiote pods grow in clusters and contain reddish colour seeds that are ground into a paste and used in cooking, lending their reddish colour to rice and meats. Once cooked, the pork meat is shredded (at the food cart by hand) and offered with tortillas and a few condiments. Alejandra assured us that this dish was indeed cooked in the earth in the village somewhere and brought here to be served.
There were three or four sauces to choose from to go with the tacos, at least one was habanero salsa, spicy but tolerable, another was pickled red onions that go with most dishes in this area. Vegetarian leaning or not, of course I tasted the cochinita pibil taco with a little habanero salsa on top. The pibil was not spicy on its own but rather mild, sweet and earthy with a pleasant smoky aroma and a touch of tang from the bitter orange in the marinade. It was definitely an experience to have a dish so rooted in history and tradition offered on a street side and so easily accessible.
Corner of Ave 30th & Calle 14
From there we piled into two taxis and were dropped off in front of Mega, the giant food store resembling a Walmart where you can find all kinds of foods and other household needs. I shop there sometime and it’s hard to leave with just a few things. Temptations temptations. If you are a foodie visiting Playa, by all means check it out.
However, Mega was not our destination this morning. We crossed the parking lot and the street in front and entered a quintessential local eatery with three Mayan ladies making white corn tortillas from scratch, rolling the dough into cylinders and pressing them in an elongated tortilla press (not round). I was fascinated and found it hard to contain myself. I love this sort of thing and although I have seen it before it was so authentic and unpretentious I could barely drag myself away.
The cook who was pressing and cooking the tortillas had a half onion stuck to the end of long fork, the cut side of the onion lightly dipped in oil and she used it to rub the surface of the griddle where she then cooked the tortillas. It served the triple purpose of cleaning the griddle of bits of dough or filling, lightly greasing it and adding flavour as she did so.
Once the tortillas were cooked and puffed she stacked them in a pile, then filled them with your choice of filling before being put back on the griddle to finish cooking. The price is 15 pesos per quesadilla, equivalent to 1 Canadian dollar or less than one USD. She was working with the grace of a conductor leading an orchestra, pressing, cooking, filling, folding, shifting them around the pan and serving. There was a beautiful flow to the entire operation and they were wondering what was I so excited about, leaning to see what was on the camera screen. They do this every day, but for me it was magic. I am not always hard to please. Surprisingly this little place is part of a national chain but you couldn’t tell, as everything was made from scratch in front of you.
Here the quesadillas filling we tried consisted of chicken cooked in spices and shredded with the traditional queso Oaxaca (cheese) added, served with a few salsas to spice things up. Definitely a place I will return to, maybe they have some vegetarian options like refried beans, I didn’t ask.
El Mercado – DAC
Avenida 30th between Constituyentes & Calle 20th
30th Avenue in Playa del Carmen is a central street running north and south and is lined with restaurants and shops and home to the local produce market known as DAC. We walked over to the market after sampling the quesadillas, giving our guide slight heart attacks every time we were crossing the streets. She was concerned about our safety in the heavy and somewhat unruly traffic but I actually find the drivers here quite polite as long as you do what is expected, yield to oncoming cars. Just kidding.
The market here is not a large formal mercado (the one in Cancun is much larger) but still fun to visit and I do make it here sometime if I am in Playa during the day or early evening. The produce selection is not bad with local and seasonal ingredients and a few things to please the tourists but their dried chile pepper variety is excellent. The peppers are stored in covered wooden bins with the name marked on the lid. There are also all kinds of dried beans, rice, spices and local cheeses.
POZOLE – MI ABUELITA
Avenida 30th between Calle 20th & 22nd
From the market we continued walking north on 30th and stopped a couple of blocks up the street at a local restaurant Mi Abuelita (“my grandmother”). We came here to have a bowl of pozole, a traditional and celebratory Mexican dish featuring white hominy corn in broth, traditionally served with shredded pork or sometimes shredded chicken.
The pozole was being prepared at the back in a large clay pot and served in traditional clay bowls. There are a few garnishes that come with it, including shredded cabbage, chopped radishes, cilantro and of course the indispensable lime wedges that make everything better.
The broth was simply delicious, slightly smoky with just the right level of spice, brightened with a squeeze of lime. Sometimes pozole is made “verde” with green ingredients such as tomatillos, epazote and cilantro, but this one was pozole rojo (red), made with a few different chiles and tomatoes.
There are many types of corn in Mexico, hominy being one variety. The large white kernels that you cook result from soaking whole corn kernels in a lye or lime solution that soften the outer layer. The kernels are then washed to remove the soaking liquid and what is left are large white corn kernels. If you wish to make a pozole you can buy the hominy all ready to cook in specialty Mexican shops.
CARNITAS – MERCHANT
Benito Juarez between Ave 30th & Ave 25th
Just in case you thought this was the end of the food tour, no, there was more food to try. We walked back to Mega and piled into a couple of taxis that took us back to Benito Juarez to try a local taco place filled with locals eating mounds of shredded pork sold by the weight and served with stacks of corn tortillas and delicious looking salsas. I have passed by this place many times but never ventured inside. My loss.
Their specialties are these carnitas, meaning “little meats” and made with pork cooked a long and slow over low heat in a drum or copper pot. The pork is traditionally seasoned with salt, oregano and garlic.
Near the front where they were portioning out the pork they had plastic bottles filled with white pork fat, available for sale and they also do a brisk take-out business, piling shredded pork into styrofoam containers to take home.
Alejandra ordered our carnitas and we settled at the back around a table waiting for our order while observing the scene. Before the food arrived Alejandra took us to the back to see the drum in which they cook the pork. It would have been interesting to see it in the process but it was not operating at that moment. Note to self: stop by there next time I am in the area. There were stacks of pork fat bottles lining the side wall at the back.
The carnitas were simple and flavourful and I particularly liked one of the salsas: avocado and tomatillos with cilantro that had a fairly runny, saucy texture. I have not had that one before and it is now on my to do list.
We had an interesting drink here they call horchata. Horchata is a name that covers a variety of similar drinks that I have across in our travels. In Mexico it is a refreshing white drink made with rice, water, milk, cinnamon, sugar and perhaps vanilla and served over ice. There may have been almonds in the mix, not exactly sure.
ICE CREAM! – LA PURHEPECHA
Corner of Avenida 25 & Benito Juarez
What’s a food tour without ice cream? we were not disappointed.
Our last stop was just down the street from the last at an ice cream shop that left nothing to be desired. They had a large selection of ice creams on a stick made with all kinds of exotic fruits combined with delicious extras.
I had the guanabana, a local fruit that is not in season at the moment. It was good but lacked a bit of a tang against the sweetness of the fruit. Next time I’ll try the one with the hot chile peppers.
Pepitas and Xikil-Pak
Since you have read this far you deserve a bonus and I have asked Emily to provide a local vegetarian recipe to share with my readers. She sent this recipe for Xikil-Pak, a special Yucatan dip made with pumpkin seeds and roasted tomatoes and popular in this region. I have come across this dip in cooking classes in Merida and have made the recipe below and can say it is delicious. I did not have the ground seeds the recipe calls for so I ground mine a food processor.
Pepitas are pumpkin seed from the Yucatan Xtop, a variety of pumpkin with particularly pronounced flavour. They are longer and more slender than the pumpkin seeds we get at home but the recipe will work fine with the accessible variety we have. The pepita seeds are available here whole or ground and they form the basis for this traditional Mayan dip popular throughout the Yucatan peninsula.
EMILY’S XIKIL-PAK – PUMPKIN SEED DIP
The name of this dish is derived from two Mayan words; Xikil means pumpkin seeds and Pak means tomatoes in Mayan It is also the name of a snake here in Mexico. This dish is typically consumed with a cold cerveza as a mid-day snack.
• 1 cup Pumpkin Seeds, roasted and ground with the shells
• 2 red Tomatoes, boiled 10 minutes with skin (although I like to char my tomatoes, adds a bit more flavor – blister them under a broiler, or grill)
• 1 Tbsp of chopped white (or Spanish) Onion
• 2 Tbsp of fresh chopped Cilantro
• 1 peeled Garlic Clove
• Salt & pepper to taste
Directions: Blend tomatoes and garlic in a blender. In a bowl, add the rest of the ingredients. Mix well. Season to taste. Serve with tortilla chips.
Disclosure: I was a guest on the food tour but the opinion and descriptions are independent and my own.