Friday, June 15, 2012

Magical Tulum

The turquoise waters and white Caribbean beaches of Tulum, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, appears to be a magical place.  Not unlike Lake Wobegonin Tulum all the visitors fall in love, friendships are formed and time stands still.  And the freshest handcrafted food can be found everywhere, from the taco truck in Tulum’s central square to the tiny restaurants frequented by locals to the ‘eco-chic’ resorts lining the beach.   

A wedding took Elie and me to Tulum in May.  Scarlett and Diego met and fell in love while working at Amansalafamous for its bikini boot camp.  Now living in California, they returned with their gorgeous baby, Onyx, and dog, Sierra, to officially begin their life as a family in the place that brought them together.  On a sun-drenched afternoon, their closest family and friends, all dressed in white, gathered on the pier at La Laguna for the ceremony.

By this time, we all felt like family.  Since we all hailed from different phases of Scarlett and Diego’s lives, few of us knew each other when we arrived four days before the wedding.  Our bonding began the first morning, with Scarlett’s mandatory (*smile*) 7 a.m. beach walk.  Elie and I happily threw on bathing suits (and a little sunscreen for myself) and joined the group at the water’s edge. 

Over the next few days, we formed friendships as we explored the Mayan ruins at Coba...

Swam in the Gran Cenote and underground cenote…   

Relaxed on the beach…

And shared many meals together.  Great meals, I might add.  You can’t find bad food in Tulum, which is a testament to the power and beauty of incredibly fresh food.  Fresh food, lovingly prepared, tastes good.  And is good for you. 

Here are some of my favorite Tulum food finds. 

Mateo’s Mexican Grill calls their fish tacos the best in the world.  That might be a stretch, but they are good—grilled fish in a corn tortilla with a mango salsa.  Simple and very satisfying, especially if eaten sitting in the sun with a Negro Modelo (for me) or a fresh fruit smoothie (for Elie).

At La Zebra, Elie and I shared the chicken mole, fall-off-the-bone tender and tasting the way you imagine mole should—dark, rich and slightly spicy. 

We ate breakfast at Posada Margherita after a few of our beach walks, sitting in the sun on the low benches of the deck and enjoying an Americano or fresh juice with a Mexican scramble.  Dinner at Posada Margherita begins with a gift from the kitchen—a rustic wooden board layered with homemade foccacia and a bowl of warm pistachios.  The red snapper cooked in sea water is their specialty and is quite good.

On the main street in Tulum, you’ll find Flor de Michoacan, serving homemade paletas, or Mexican popsicles.  They have dozens of flavors to choose from, from the sweet and fruity to creamy or spicy.  The pistachio paleta was very good—creamy, crunchy and not-too-sweet, studded with whole pistachios.

The best corn tortillas of the week—and perhaps the most interesting tacos—were found at an un-named off-the-beaten path restaurant.  We stumbled upon the restaurant—which looked more like a picnic area with a cooking shed in the back—after an unsuccessful hunt for street tacos.  After taking our seats at tables lined with bright red plastic picnic cloths, we ordered fish and shrimp tacos.  For $4 US, we got three tacos.  The corn tortilla—thicker and more rustic than others we’d eaten that week, with a flavor of freshly ground corn meal—held freshly fried fish and shrimp, hot and crispy, topped with slices of avocado, tomato and pickled onions.  We topped them a drizzle of salsa piquant made from habanero peppers—a kind of hot pepper oil found in many of the restaurants in Tulum.  Really good. 

Our favorite restaurant of the week was El Tabano, a slow-food place with a charming jungle garden dining room where everything is made from scratch.  If you sit near the kitchen, you can watch women hand-roasting granola for breakfast, slow roasting pork or rolling and griddling corn tortillas. 

My favorite dish of the week was their egg casserole, a clay pot with two eggs baked in a spicy sauce of black beans and roasted poblano peppers.  When I scraped my spoon through the sauce, I pulled up a string of melted cheese hidden in the bottom.  Scooped into homemade corn tortillas, it was the most satisfying and nourishing dish.  Stay tuned, because I’ll definitely be recreating this dish at home, and I’ll share the recipe with you when I do. 

For lunch or dinner, El Tabano also has a great wine list, which is not necessarily easy to find in Mexico.  Lunch and dinner are just as delicious.  And I love the chalkboard menu. 

Unfortunately, Hartwood—which had been on my list of must-try restaurants in Tulum—closed for a brief vacation on the day we had intended upon eating there.  We’ll have to catch it next time around.

While in Tulum, every single day I continued to be delighted at the variety, availability and affordability of the homemade, fresh and healthy food.  Tropical fruits, avocados, black beans, spicy peppers and tomatoes are abundant at almost every meal.  At breakfast, the bright orange yolks of the eggs obviously came from free-roaming chickens eating a wild and varied diet.  And in every restaurant, including ‘fast food’ taco stands and roadside eateries, the ingredients are fresh and the food is handmade.  It’s a great model for good eating.

In Tulum, we certainly practiced our (non)diet advice.  We ate real food with people we love.  Thank you to Scarlett, Diego and Onyx for bringing us there. 


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