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

2. Ramona
After nabbing a chef and sommelier from Rosewood Mayakoba, the beautiful Ramona at Nizuc has absolutely crushed the restaurant scene in Cancun. García draws inspiration from his peers, he says, but also from his mother and grandmother. The latter’s mole de olla, a rustic short rib stew, was the inspiration behind García’s magically elegant beef-bone consommé with sous-vide short rib and tortilla ashes. He makes a broth from xcatic chilies that he pours atop local grouper and garnishes with pomegranate seeds. Ramona has the best wine list in the region. Nizuc, Boulevard Kukulcan, Km 21.26, Zona Hotelera, Cancun; 52-998-891-5700

3. Axiote
Pérez Stone branched out from Cocina de Autor in April to open a restaurant of his own, Axiote, in downtown Playa del Carmen. Located just off the popular Fifth Avenue promenade, the new restaurant is a minimalist, cinder block affair capped with a tall palapa roof. The chef’s breathtaking artistry belies the casualness of Axiote’s breezy, beach-shack vibe. Pork and beans never looked or tasted so good. Hand-pressed tortilla chips arrive inside a hollowed-out gourd reminiscent of the famous amuse-bouche at Mexico City’s ultra-chic PujolCalle 34 between avenidas 5 and 10, Playa del Carmen; 52-984-803-1727

4. Brisas
Fairmont Mayakoba recently announced a new partnership with Sandoval, who has completely revamped every aspect of the resort’s several restaurants. The most impressive transformation is that of Brisas, the towering beachfront palapa where Sandoval has installed a wood-burning grill for cooking achiote-rubbed snapper and fresh local lobsters. And if you find yourself in the mood for a great steak while in the Riviera Maya, this is your best bet, hands down. Just make sure to save room for dessert. The sweet corn cake with coconut ice cream is exquisite. Fairmont Mayakoba, Carretera Cancun 298, Playa del Carmen; 800-540-6088

5. Cocina de Autor
Granted, it’s not traditional Mexican. It’s molecular, an offshoot of Mexico City’s famous Biko. It’s inspired by the modernist movement that began in Spain and swept the world’s most exclusive restaurants. Although everything might appear at first unfamiliar, the flavors and ingredients are distinctly Mexican, like the tuna crudo served with cactus paddle, avocado puree and tomato granita. Every dish is an exploration of the senses. Grand Velas Resort, Carretera Cancun 62, Playa del Carmen; 866-230-7221

6. Frida
Grand Velas’ Frida counterbalances the avant-garde of Cocina de Autor by focusing on old-school Mexican glamour with a fresh, local, farm-and-sea-to-table perspective. Chef Ricardo de la Vega pairs lobster with cactus pear for a salad that’s as beautiful as it is delicious. Duck tacos are scented with anise. Black bean soup is served like cappuccino with a foam made from cotija cheese. A bartender roves the dining room with a margarita trolley. Grand Velas Resort, Carretera Cancun 62, Playa del Carmen; 866-230-7221

7. La Laguna
The most traditional of Sandoval’s new restaurants at Fairmont, La Laguna overlooks a tranquil canal in the Mayakoba mangroves. Guacamole is mixed tableside. Skirt steak is rubbed with chili powder and coffee, then grilled and painted with a mole-inspired demi-glace. Carnitas are served on a blue-corn tostada with Mexican ricotta and spicy citrus salsa. That brownish-black powder on the rim of your margarita? Crushed grasshopper salt. Fairmont Mayakoba, Carretera Cancun 298, Playa del Carmen; 800-540-6088

8. Coral Grill
The casual sibling to Viceroy’s La Marea, the beachside Coral Grill takes advantage of a wood-burning oven and grill just steps from the sand. Ildefonso smokes local marlin for tostadas. And he barbecues octopus, al pastor style, which he serves with taro root chips and avocado. Viceroy Riviera Maya, Playa Xcalacoco Frac 7, Playa del Carmen; 52-984-877-3000

9. Los Aguachiles
The original Aguachiles opened years ago in a shoebox-size space with only a few stools. That place is gone, but chef Hugo Orozco has since built a small empire, the flagship of which is this ultra-casual, full-service restaurant that opened in 2012 with a greatly expanded menu of aguachiles, ceviches and tostadas. The biggest draw here is the barbecued local octopus, which is cooked and served whole (about the size of a tennis ball) with tortillas. The scallop tostada is also sublime. They sell beer by the bucket. Additional locations in Cancun, Tulum and just a few blocks away in Playa. Calle 34 at Avenida 25, Playa del Carmen; 52-984-142-7380

El Fogon, Playa del Carment (Photo by Brad A. Johnson)

10. El Fogón
This no-frills taqueria is the newer, larger offshoot of an old locals-only, taxi drivers’ favorite. (The original still exists a few blocks down on Constituyentes.) The wood-fired tacos al pastor are among the best in the region, and the beer is always ice cold. Avenida 30 at Calle 6, Playa del Carmen; 52-984-803-0885

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter