Eating our way thru Merida
I have just returned from a week end in Merida, taking my girlfriend Marie Suzanne who is visiting from France. Driven by Terry, who has no interest in this city, but who wanted to come along for the ride anyway, we started with a quick tour of Plaza Grande looking for somewhere to have lunch. We were starving, and on a mission to find authentic yucatecan food. There is no shortage of eating places in the Yucatan capital, from the cheap street side vendors to upmarket white linen-clad tables restaurants. After being accosted by a local, advertising his grandfather’s genuine yucatan restaurant a few bocks “that way”, taken to a Mayan’s artisanal store to see “the best hats”, we escaped to the quietness of X’CATIIC, a mid-range restaurant, overlooking the Plaza in full view of the Cathedral on our left and the City Hall on our right. While we waited for our meals, we watched families, couples strolling in the park, horse drawn carriages waiting for tourists (there were virtually none!), old men playing chess…
Then the food arrived and the action was on the table: mixto ceviche, pork pibil and papadzules, it was pure yucatan on a plate!
The ceviche was delicious, with not too much lime as some tend to have. Papadzules are tortillas stuffed with hard boiled eggs and topped with a sauce of pumpkin seeds: not as heavy as you’d think, and a very mild subtil flavour (until you drop some habanero chili sauce on it, then look out!!!) The pork pibil made up for the mild flavours: wrapped in banana leaves and spiced with achiote (annatto seed paste), garlic, sour orange, salt and pepper, it certainly tickled the tastebuds, though it was not spicy hot. Washed down with limonada natural, we left stuffed and ready to tackle the walk up to the Paseo Montejo, scouting for a restaurant suitable to take Terry later on. Dinner was only 3 hours away after all!
The Paseo is a wide boulevard, modelled on the Champs Elysees in Paris, albeit on a much smaller scale: it is a lovely swath of green open space, especially appreciated after experiencing the hustle and bustle of stone and concrete downtown Merida! Late afternoon (5pm) was quiet time: most shops had closed for the day, the restaurants had not quite yet opened for the night, and empty stalls were waiting for vendors to set up. The most activity we found was around the dulceria HELADO COLON, where Marie Suzanne could not resist sampling the lemon ice cream (“to help digest lunch” she said). I was too full to take another mouthful of anything, in fact, I was obsessing about the hotel swimming pool where we’d left my husband when we arrived. Which is where we ended up, soaking our sore feet after miles of walking in the searing Mexican heat.
In the evening, we took Terry to our new find, CASA SAN ANGEL, a restaurant part of the hotel of the same name, at the very beginning of the Paseo. Saturday night happens to be “Noche Mexicana”, a celebration of Mexican culture, thru songs, dance and stalls, and the restaurant is located right next to the stage. You’d think the show is made for tourists, with the colourful dance groups and the mariachis, but we were amazed to find very few gringos around. Instead the place was packed with locals, families, young and old. Unlike any outdoor public event I’ve witnessed before, everyone was dressed to the hilt, sitting quietly on the chairs provided, listening to the performers and genuinely enjoying the show. Just as if they were watching opera. We commented on how well the kids behaved and if it were in Australia or France, they would be running everywhere, people would either be talking to each other or texting on their smartphones. More incredible for us, was the fact that despite alcohol being sold and consumed publicly, there were no signs of drunken behavior or fights ( Terry reckons the audience was too proper for that, the rowdy were probably in the club nearby!)
Anyway, on to dinner: we sat on the footpath in full view and earshot of the musicians, whose loudness was made bearable by ordering a couple of margaritas and beers! Marie Suzanne had her heart set on trying Chicken Mole which she found here. Terry adamant he didn’t want to eat Mexican was left with a choice between pasta and (of all things) Iranian food. The chef/owner being Persian, the menu featured dishes like Iranian spiced rice with chicken or Aubergine with beef, probably unique in Merida. That was a nice change to the usual tacos and bean soups! We should have stopped eating after that, but strolling past HELADO COLON again (doing a roaring trade at 11pm!), Terry could not resist trying their chocolate ice cream. And ended up disappointed as chocolate was only in the name, it had more cinnamon and ice than anything else!
The plan was to go back to the Paseo on Sunday morning and join the thousands of Meridanos (Merida residents) who take advantage of the streets being closed to vehicle traffic, to ride their bikes, enjoy the sidewalk art shows and live music. But I woke up with the realisation that the Food Market was near the hotel, and maybe we could sneak in a quick visit there first. It didn’t take long to convince Marie Suzanne (she’s as mad about food as I am), ditch the terrible hotel breakfast and walk down the 2 blocks to the Lucas de Galves market. What a place! It is a mass of small businesses, with stalls selling everything, from panuchos ( a handmade tortillas stuffed with black beans, fried and topped with chicken and salad) to live animals and hamacs. Different buildings house specific products: we started in the vegetables and spice section, mixed with cooking hardware stalls offering dozens of tortilla making devices, juicers, pans…then came across the poultry area, complete with fresh chicken and turkey hanging down (some were opened with eggs and entrails still attached, I am still wondering why), and trays of different parts. Just as we were commenting favorably on the lack of smells, we crossed over to the meat section, and were hit by a mighty whiff. I don’t think the meat was bad, it was just strong smelling: pork and beef were the choices, heads to tails and everything in between. To my disappointment I could not find the fresh sausages I spotted a few months ago in the San Cristobal market ( must have been a Chiapas specialty). I had come equipped with a freezer bag, but since the meat was not refrigerated, I doubt it would have lasted the 4-hour drive back to the boat (that’s if Terry allowed it in the car in the first place!) The fish, on the other hand, were kept on ice (thankfully) and compared to the meat, didn’t smell much at all. Fresh prawns from the Gulf of Mexico, baby sharks, octopus, ready mixes for ceviche, …all beckoned. Marie Suzanne and I were in foodie heaven, and as we walked past cheap taquerias (taco joints) and coctelerias (seafood shacks serving shellfish cocktails as well as ceviche), where you sit on a stool at a narrow counter, we agreed to come back for lunch.
First we had to drop off our loot of fresh veggies, so cheap and tasty, I still kick myself for not buying more (think, a bag of 16 fat and juicy limes for 10 pesos, that’s A$1!!!) and visit the City Museum, one of the many things on my to-do-in-Merida list. It was such a nice reprieve from the hustle of the market, that neither of us wanted to go back to the confined and noisy environment of the eateries as inexpensive and authentic as they were. Instead we opted to walk a few hundred meters back to the Plaza Grande, which had been set up with food stalls as part of “Merida on Sunday”. I was only too happy to help Marie Suzanne cross more Antojitos Yucatecos ( yucatan snacks) off her list, so ordered Sopa de Lima (chicken broth, with shredded chicken, strips of fried tortillas and lime juice), Chicken Tamales (shredded chicken rolled in fresh masa (ground corn soaked in lime) then wrapped in banana leaves and barbecued) and Torta de lechon ( Suckling pig in a bread roll). Very light compared with lunch the day before (both on our stomach and our wallet), this meal was a perfect ending to our culinary safari.
By then, we didn’t feel like returning to the Paseo, particularly after finding out that we had only walked half way the day before, and the more lively and interesting section was another 6 klm further north! We toyed with the idea of taking a taxi there, but it was getting late, we knew Terry didn’t want to drive back to Puerto Aventuras in the dark and we also had Anne to collect from friends who had kindly agreed to look after her during the week end. So we headed back to the boat, with heads full of memories and stomachs full of food!