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Escape from New York?

I like to think that my ideal living arrangement/lifestyle would be eight months in New York City, three months in Europe, and one month in the Caribbean.  I measure my success by the approximation to that goal.  So far this year, I have been late to travel, and only managed to squeeze in a week in Cancun to satisfy the “beach” element to my program.

It almost felt unnecessary to leave NYC, given the spate of warm weather, but a beach is still a beach.  I was warned about late January weather in Mexico, but found this to be a true bonus.  It rained the Friday I got in, and was cloudy the day I departed.  In between, however, sunny to partly cloudy skies, a fabulous constant breeze and mild temperatures.  The kind that allows for tanning without scalding, sleeping and reading on lounge chairs without sweating, encouraging for late night starry walks without the company of mosquitoes.

The other piece of advice I received was to stay in Playa del Carmen, a newer, less touristy, hipper part of Cancun, but because of the deal I sought out, Cancun it was.

There are two main problems with staying in Cancun.  One is that most of the hotels are all inclusive, which for a person looking to sample local cuisine, is a death trap.  Eating the same hotel food day after day is boring, often inedible, and not adventurous.  I chose a hotel with no all-inclusive, Le Meridien.  There are two buses that travel directly to the center of Cancun (R-1, R-2) which are inexpensive and run frequently.

After reading countless reviews on Trip Advisor and spending some time at the Barnes and Nobles travel library, I jotted a few places to try and decided to wing it.  Instead of being my usual obsessive self about the food, I decided to not to sweat it.

After establishing that the food at the hotel was inedible, the strip of the Zona Hotelera revealed various pitfalls as well, but I got a little lucky.  A small cafe at the back of a touring/rental company served a basic menu of eggs, tacos and sandwiches with drinks  with a view of the laguna.  Fred’s House, seafood restaurant, sister of the more expensive Harry’s Grill, did a great job with ceviche and grilled fish.  The chocolate (named for the shell color) clams were pristine, and oysters on the grill meaty and good.  The chef prepared the local hogfish with a 7 chili rub and various habanero sauces.  I struggled through a bottle of sauvignon blanc fom Mexico, but more on that later.

At Captain’s Cove, also on the strip, there is a Sunday buffet with omelettes and tacos to order.  They served cochinito pibil and rajas, but the stars of the meal were the hominy and pork crackling soups, deep, earthy, and hangover relieving Yucatan specialities.

A big blank was drawn at an attempt for sushi at Katsu ya, which prepared barely edible rolls, and were out of sushi grade tuna and hamachi.  I know what you’re thinking, but I just had an obviously non brilliant thought that fresh fish equaled good sashimi.  Not.

The saving grace to all of these establishments were their proximity on the laguna.  There is something to be said for dining at tables waterside, feeling the breeze, listening to the waves, and watching the sun or starry skies.

Then there was the afternoon of trying to find bars with working satellites to watch sports, (more Knicks games televised here than in NYC) which was responsible for drinking at Maragaritaville (ugh, during a kids party), and Champions outlet bar (double ugh).  Some satellites worked, others didn’t.  You can’t follow your sports team in Mexico unless its Chivas.

But, among those bad experiences good decisions were made too.  A romantic relaxed evening at Habichuelos complete with garden and tableside Caesar’s salad preparation made for a memorable meal of soft shelled crab, ceviche, mole, whole snapper and banana chocolate crepes. Behind the Parque de las Palapas, there is a plaza with street vendors selling tortas to tacos  of all varieties.  Mexico at its best.

On the bustling Avenida Tulum, a great show can be caught at La Parilla, a Tex Mex stalwart with giant drinks, flaming food, and a theatrical circus waiter who balances everything on his bald head.   Mariachis swing from table to table while the waiter climbs a ladder to perform a pyrotechnic Mexican coffee.  Pictures secured by camera phones and safety disregarded when it sure looked to me like everything was going to come crashing down on the patrons.

Very nice Oaxacan cuisine at Calenda, in case you missed out on your chapulinas (grasshopper) fix.  Moles, and stuffed peppers round out the menu.  And don’t forget the mescal.

More mescal and proper tequilas can be had at the Plaza de los Toros, in the bars surrounding the bullfighting ring.  There’s a style for every one, just make sure it is your style.

After the thirtieth margarita, my palate leans back towards wine.  I found that virtually every wine list had the same list of wines on the menu, only changing the price according to the type of restaurant.  The choices were awful, and overpriced as if I were in Venice.  I tried to taste some local wines, but could not stomach the alcohol content, and the oak.  Apparently, there are just two importers in the area, and they dictate the wines to be sold.  Oh well, back to mescal.

I found my appetite to be somewhat diminished and tame.  Perhaps the limited options did not inspire, or maybe the sun provided enough nourishment, but after seven days of eating in Cancun, I couldn’t wait for my 9:00 pm res at Mas La Grillade in the West Village.

Postscript:  Mas La Grillade was great, smoked romaine salad!  Thanks to Shiraz and Galen for a memorable evening and welcome back to my home town.

By Chef Mateo

Just a man in pursuit of all things delicious. Eat and Drink life!