Postcard from Merida, Mexico: Cuisine branches out beyond the expected

Above, Grilled Pulpo and Camarones at Peruano in Merida

It seems way too long since the blog offered any nourishment. This first restaurant post from Merida has little to do with traditional dishes of the Yucatan (Don’t worry, we’ll serve you some of those soon.).

Since the most recent food post was from Italy, we’ll begin the transition with a visit to an Italian enoteca – Oliva. Having been spoiled so recently, we hesitated to try this high-end Italian in Merida. We were richly rewarded though. Lamb ragu, cauliflower risotto and a beautifully delivered filet of sea bass all measured up to Italy. Of course, Oliva had me hooked with a special starring one of my favorite foods in the world – soft-shelled crab.

Merida’s proximity to the coast brings an abundance of fresh seafood to the table, and Peruano takes full advantage of it. Ceviches are delivered Peruvian style. My favorite dish was the tiradito of tuna floating in an abundance of leche de tigre. If nothing else, make a point of stopping by for a freshly-shaken pisco sour.

A Lebanese restaurant was an unexpected find, but only because I didn’t at first know about the historical connection to Merida. Fleeing conflicts and domination by the Ottoman Empire, immigrants from that region of the Mediterranean fled to the Yucatan as early as the 1870s to labor on henequen plantations. The most obvious of their contributions to regional food is found in almost every food stand that springs up on the main plaza on Sundays – a fried mixture of ground meat and bulgur called kibi.

We found that and more at Pita. The unpretentious casual restaurant offers velvety hummus and crispy falafal, but also features great inexpensive seafood dishes – brochetas generously loaded with large cubes of salmon or plump shrimp bathed in garlic. An unusual side is the roasted eggplant “carpaccio” blanketed with tahini. The wine prices were reasonable (not at all the case everywhere in Merida), and Pita’s most surprising dish is an incredibly moist chocolate layer cake.

Zinc Comfort Food Merida offers a pleasant perch outdoors under tall trees on Paseo Montejo. The fried rounds of goat cheese added to a house salad make it a memorable one.

And then, there’s gelato. Pola Gelato is made like Italian gelato in Mexican-inspired flavors. The vanilla used is from Papantla; the chocolate might be infused with chile. Special blends might be clotted cream biscuit with dulce de leche; cinnamon with caramelized pineapple; or my favorite, sour orange with fresh cherries. Yes, we stopped by more than once.

I’ll offer another virtual feast soon.

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