Riviera Maya – Day 2: Playa del Carmen

30 Dec

On the second day in Playa del Carmen, we spent our morning taking an introductory course to scuba diving from a couple of PADI certified instructors at Tank-Ha Dive Center. One of the instructors was born in Japan and raised in Boston before moving to Playa while the other was from Germany. That’s just one of the many examples showing Playa’s diverse population despite its relative small size. After spending a couple of hours swimming around in a hotel pool strapped to all my scuba gear, I had worked up a healthy appetite for lunch.

Carboncito’s was the destination. I had heard good reviews of this sidewalk cafe/taco place (on Calle 4 between 5 and 10 Avenidas) on several web discussion forums. A block and a half away from the ocean, the view from our little umbrella shaded table was perfect for a sunny day in a beach town.

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I decided on the namesake plate, El Carboncito, which is al pastor with bacon and cheese with corn tortillas and a side of beans.

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This was awesome al pastor, some of the best I’ve ever had, made even more flavorful with the addition of bacon. Even if this wasn’t the most authentic Mexican fare for this region of Mexico (as the use of cheese is typically sparse), it suited my gluttonous Texan ways. The beans were flavored by some sort of smoked/cured meat, either bacon or some kind of ham, and also had great flavor. My one complaint is that this dish is really greasy. The bottom-most corn tortilla on the plate was drenched in grease and I didn’t dare to subject myself to that. If they would just drain the meat from the grease a little better so that the grease didn’t coat the entire plate, it would’ve been just perfect.

My companion had the Alambre, carne asada with bell peppers and onions served with rice. It was also a very flavorful dish but without the grease overload of my Carboncito’s plate.

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Each plate had enough meat to make 4 to 5 tacos with the corn tortillas (which are smaller than what we’re used to in Texas). Total for the two plates, two bottles of purified water, and tip was $18, not bad at all for a very filling meal so close to Quinta Avenida. Service was a little lacking since we were there early (noon is not a popular mealtime, 2:00pm is more common for lunch, but our diving course schedule decided the mealtime that day) and there was only one waiter.

In the late afternoon, I strolled up and down Quinta Avenida and some surrounding areas for shopping and people-watching. I found some little things for friends, some home decor, and some beautiful hand painted tiles at a shop near Carboncito’s. I also managed to spend a little time on the beach to sneak a peak of the laid-back atmosphere.

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Dinner that night was at Yaxche, arguably the most famous restaurant in Playa del Carmen with recommendations from just about every travel guidebook and website.  Yaxche offers lovely sidewalk dining along Calle 8 (near 5 Avenida) and courtyard seating in the back garden.

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The menu at Yaxche is Mayan, Yucatecan, and European fusion.  Yaxche also offers a fairly extensive wine list (for Mexico), and we settled on two glasses of Mexican Merlot (sorry can’t remember the name) which exceeded my expectations.  Upon delivering our wine, we were also presented with a basket of French bread with a creamy garlic sauce and a tomatillo sauce, a representative start to the restaurant’s unique fusion style.

Both of us stuck with traditional Mayan dishes for dinner.  I had the tikin xic, a fish fillet marinated in achiote paste and sour orange juice, then grilled over a banana leaf.

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Achiote paste is a popular seasoning in Mayan cuisine consisting of ground achiote, wheat and corn flour, cumin, cinnamon, salt, onion, garlic, and oregano.  The ground achiote itself is near flavorless but gives the paste its distinct red coloring.  Achiote is also used by the Mayans for body paint, especially for the lips.  The combination of the mild earthy flavor of the achiote paste and the sharply tangy flavor of the sour orange was a delight of contrast and complement. 

My companion ordered the cochinita pibil, the quintessential Yucatan dish of pork wrapped in banana leaves pit-baked in a pibil sauce (achiote, sour orange, and other spices).

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Like the tikin xic, the combination of the flavors in the pibil was new and fascinating to our tastebuds.  The pork was tender, well-seasoned, and not fatty.  Both plates were of large portion sizes (the pork more so than the fish, as expected).  Even though Yaxche is a tourist-oriented restaurant, I think the atmosphere, exceptional service, and explanatory menu makes it a fit destination for getting acquainted to Mayan and Yucatecan cuisine.  Total for two dinner plates, two glasses of Merlot, and tip was $50.

We took a long stroll up Quinta Avenida that night, and found a chocoholic’s delight at the end of our walk at the intersection with Constituyentes.  Ah Cacao sells real chocolate products that emphasize the complex and long lasting flavor of chocolate over the sugar buzz.  As someone who has always preferred dark chocolate to milk chocolate, I had found my inner chocoholic’s heaven.  I ordered a chocolate frio, which is powdered natural chocolate blended with iced milk.  It had the consistency of a Frappuccino and the taste of a sugar-less/low-sugar milk shake.  A $3 slice of my slightly bitter, rich, earthy, creamy chocolate paradise.

Onto Day 3

Back to Day 1

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