A culinary revolution is sweeping the Yucatan Peninsula from Playa del Carmen to Cancun. A new wave of chefs, most of whom are not from here, are reviving the Mexican and Mayan traditions of a region that not too long ago was widely panned – and rightly so – as a culinary wasteland.
“What are these things?” I ask, stabbing my fork into a strange-looking leaf at La Marea, a restaurant on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen. The salad is the second of seven courses in chef Jorge Ildefonso’s Mayan-inspired tasting menu.
“Chaya,” says the waiter. “Grown here in the Yucatan.”
Chaya leaves are rich and aromatic, somewhat minerally, like spinach. But they are chewier than that, like a leaf plucked from a tree.
Fitting for a seven-course meal, the salad is small: two slices of roasted beet (another Yucatan tradition) and two grapefruit segments layered like dominoes with three chaya leaves, a single wisp of frisee and a shard of pumpkin-seed praline. It is an extraordinary composition that speaks to the young chef’s mastery of flavors, a wisdom of restraint and passion for heritage.
More than 20 years ago, when I lived and worked in the Yucatan Peninsula, great Mexican food didn’t exist here, at least not in restaurants. Agriculture was dead. Even as recently as 10 years ago, the area’s best restaurants were Italian, not Mexican. (That’s a story for another day.) There were, of course, decent joints at which to eat tacos filled with cochinita pibil, and tons of places to drink cheap tequila.
Good chefs came and left over the years. But it wasn’t until 2008, when Grand Velas opened and debuted its signature restaurant, Cocina de Autor, that the seeds of a revolution finally took root.
Cocina de Autor is an offshoot of Biko in Mexico City, one of the best restaurants in the world, founded by visionary chefs Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso. The pair tapped a former apprentice, Xavier Pérez Stone, to helm their entry into the Riviera Maya, and together the trio radically altered the dining scene in Playa del Carmen.
Chefs have flocked to the peninsula since then, including Ildefonso at La Marea, Bladimir García at Ramona and, the most recent arrival, celebrity chef Richard Sandoval, who recently partnered with Fairmont Mayakoba.
While most of the excitement centers around a few luxury resorts, the awakening has not been lost on the local taquerias. Here are my 10 favorite Mexican restaurants, high and low, between Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
1. La Marea
The rustic spirit of Robinson Crusoe lives large at the Viceroy. At the resort’s candlelit La Marea restaurant, long white tablecloths flutter in the ocean breeze inside an open-air palapa surrounded by palm trees and spider monkeys. Ildefonso joined the Viceroy last January and launched an exquisite, Mayan-inspired tasting menu. He stuffs local xcatic chilies with sushi-grade tuna tartare. He wraps Mexican goat cheese into a taco with pumpkin-seed pesto and corn sprouts. He serves crisp-skin pork belly in a puddle of black bean sauce with banana blossoms and avocado cream. And for dessert, he stuffs a mulato chili with cinnamon-infused chocolate and serves it with sweet corn ice cream. Viceroy Riviera Maya, Playa Xcalacoco Frac 7, Playa del Carmen; 52-984-877-3000