Postcard from Merida, Mexico: Sampling more traditional dishes of the Yucatan

Above, Mural by Jacobo Roa at El Catrin 47

Sopa de limon loaded with a mountain of shredded chicken; slow-cooked suckling pig flavored with sour orange, chiles and achiote – cochinita pibil; and panuchos, fried tortillas filled with black beans and topped with shredded turkey, are among the well-known traditional dishes commonly found throughout Merida. Most places offer multiple salsas. Even if you are from Texas, you need to respect them before ladling them onto your food. They range from mild to fiery habanero hot.

The stands at the markets and the stalls that pop up on the Plaza Grande on Sundays definitely are the bargain propositions for sampling these. Delivery is fast and efficient, and the food is made the way natives like it. Chefs always rave about the authenticity at the family-run El Manjar Blanco, particularly the cochinita pibil, which we found flavorful.

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Postcard from Merida, Mexico: A trio of restaurants for dining well

Above: Micaela Mar y Lena crudo de atun

Grilled seafood is the specialty at Cocina de Mar y Lena, a contemporary restaurant that seems a magnet for an upscale crowd of fashionable Mexicans arriving by the Uber-full, at least they were pre-COVID. The grilled shrimp and octopus were wonderful, and the refreshing raw tuna (above) just melted in your mouth.

Chef Sara Maria Arnaud Gomez combines the flavors of Oaxaca with those of the Yucatan at Apoala on the prime people-watching park of Santa Lucia. From ceviche and fried zucchini blossoms to dessert, everything was beautifully plated. Loved their mezcal mule cocktails with a smoky charred chunk of caramelized honeycomb riding atop the rim.

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Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Flavors to rouse the dead

Levanta muertos (awaken the dead). The spicy hot seafood soup at Cabuche hooked the Mister simply with its name, and it lived up to it. Two years ago it seemed as though Cabuche was a cloned offspring of La Biznaga, but now the restaurant has asserted its own distinctive character. Cabuche’s offerings are more diverse than its menu might indicate at first glance because of the ability to customize tacos, tostadas and tlayudas with selections from a long list of house guisados. Oh, almost forgot to mention: great margaritas and generous pours of wine are offered in the small cozy interior or patio.

We know the photo of El Olivo Gastrobar‘s arroz negro is unappealing, but look closely. Cloaked in the inky black sauce is a rich array of seafood. Wearing black definitely is recommended for consumers of this dish. Lazier than the Mister, I much prefer the plump, pre-peeled shrimp topped with jamon in a flavorful Pernod bath. These dishes are ample enough for sharing and pairing with a shared salad or tapas.

An unusual amuse bouche of what they call “fish meal” gets dropping into Zandunga Sabor Istmeno off to a good start, particularly if accompanied by a hibiscus mezcal cocktail called La Llorona. Watercress and roasted peanuts add interesting textural dimensions to Zandunga’s guacamole. The ceviche is fresh, and the pork falling-off-the-bone tender. The vegetable-starved can find a mountainous platter of simply prepared vegetables on the menu.

We had resisted the call of a French-style bakery, Boulenc, in prior years but now find ourselves huge fans. We first stopped by for loaves of incredibly good breads, and I was particularly pleased to find “chunky” peanut butter for my apples at breakfast – particularly as the ingredient list for the peanut butter reads simply “peanuts.” The pizza oven beckoned us next, but the spinach focaccia and vegetable bahn mi are among the best sandwiches anywhere. Never walk out of Boulenc without treating yourself to an affogato made with espresso poured over savory rosemary gelato.

We had trouble locating the new home of El Morocco but were rewarded with the same wonderful caramelized onions topping the couscous. The stacked eggplant, roasted sweet potato and herbed goat cheese that arrived under the title of moussaka was unexpected, but a lighter innovative approach.

The main reason to visit Mezquite is the pleasant rooftop patio. The food presentation is attractive, and I wonder if anyone has ever been able to consume the entire enormous tlayuda with cecina unassisted. Staff seemed to struggle with the logistics of the two-floor set-up, and delivering a spoonful of salsa at a time to a table of Texans meant a multitude of extra trips.

The patio is beautiful and service old-school-formal perfect at Las Quince Letras. The Mister loved his meat platter there and would gladly have returned. The pescado en papelote (foil?) left me disappointed though. Maybe next trip we will return, and I will switch my order to their famed chile en nogada.

Other featured photos are from Casa Taviche and La Popular.

Oh, and the surprise bonus on the trip: a bowl full of unexpectedly good plump shrimp with garlic and chiles snagged at the airport restaurant just prior to our always-too-soon departure from Oaxaca.