What is about traveling in a car that makes road side food taste so darn good? Oh to unlock the secrets hidden deep within this crazy world.
Two weeks ago Udi and I returned from seven epic days traveling around the Yucatan and Quintana Roo parts of Mexico and we could not believe our mouths. We chowed down on chewy tortillas, cochinita pibil, panuchas, and empanadas with the best of them. Embracing all that we could in such a short amount of time we ordered what locals told us to order and tried not to squeal obnoxiously at every delectable bite. From everything we tried, it was the simplicity of Yucatecan food that felt unique to the region and the people who inhabit it.
We were in Mexico as a sort 1 year anniversary ‘honeymoon’ to our already honeymoon-like existence. While we relaxed and vacationed to our hearts content, we also adventured our way through this trip. Landing in Cancun (ew, barf, seriously the most terrifying place I’ve seen in a long time), we quickly rented a car and zipped our way out of town. Driving on small local roads we entered the dense jungle of the Yucatan’s tip, full of wild vegetation and banana trees. Our very first instinct was to find food (as is natural upon entering the jungle, right?), and food we did find.
This small side of the road eatery was a husband and wife team; she did the cooking, he did the shmoozing and boozing, of course. We ordered a couple of quesadillas, each made lovingly on a cooktop, over burning chunks of wood. The tortillas were warm and crispy from fire, the fillings of pulled chicken and cactus were bright and had a great slow cooked smokiness, oozing with melty cheese and hit with a dollop of hot sauce – these are the simple things in life.
Want a perfect vacation? Start off in a perfectly desolate, charming, laid back island like Isla Holbox. It is a gem of a place. Equipped with crystal green waters, white sand, wildlife abound, and small beachside eateries, it has largely remained a place where mega hotels and even paved roads don’t exist, yet the locals know that the peaceful secrets to island living can only last so long. Development of such a place is seemingly innevitable.
We were lucky to be there and enjoy the incredibly unique experience of this island. It treated us to gorgeous fresh ceviches and ice cold beer filled halfway with lime juice and rimmed with salt. I loved every meal we ate on this island, and I couldn’t have imagined a more sensational setting to be eating them in.
When I say ‘fresh ceviches’ I mean we literally watched as fisherman, (shirtless and barefoot, looking remarkably happy), drove their boats ashore with a big beautiful catch of fish (not the tiny fishies pictured below) in hand. We watched from afar while they cleaned the fish on the back end of their small boat. Then, as if it were no big deal, the fisherman picked up his catch by the tail and proceeded to walk from restaurant to restaurant selling a cut here and cut there. This took ‘fresh’ to a whole new level. The visual of seeing this unfold was matched by the flavor of each fish dish we tried.
Traveling is a great luxury, and I am often overwhelmingly consumed by all of the food there is to experience. When traveling we try to follow the lead of those around us, to eat something we can’t pronounce, or to buy something in the market that looks as though it came from another planet. It is a surefire way to walk away from a trip with a memorable food narrative. This experimentation however, could never replace the tried and true guacamole found at each and every place we went to. Guacamole served in huge, heaping mounds of avocado mashed effortlessly with diced tomato and poked with tortilla chips forming a city skyline of salty crunchiness.
I had some preconceived ideas of the food we might be eating, but all of that went out the car window the more we ate. Fresh coconut on the side of the road in between villages? Don’t mind if I do. Oh, what’s that? You want to hack the meat of the coconut effortlessly and then douse it in lime juice and chili flakes? YES PLEASE! It was these tiny surprises that kept my tastebuds on the edge of their seat from place to place.
After our lazying about in Holbox we road-tripped our way through more small towns and jungly landscape until we reached the city of Merida. What a city! We had no idea what to expect, but Merida is a city that I want to hide away in my pocket so that no one else can have it. A vibrant culturally rich place, Merida sits as the cultural capital of the Yucatan, which is evident for many reasons. This part of Mexico was cut off from trade with the rest of the country leaving them to do much of their trading with Cuba and Europe, creating a dynamic melding of sorts. The region is 60% Mayan adding to the incredible cultural history of the city.
Right away we were swept off our feet by the people and places of Merida. One such resident was enjoying a pastry in the same INCREDIBLE bakery our first early morning in the city. He heard us speaking English and immediately took it upon himself to show us around the center of the city. Pointing out all that this place has to offer: free museums, great food, artisans selling hand woven cloth, he was also quick to mention that the center square of Merida is equipped with free wifi AND discreet outlets placed near park benches for all of your mobile device charging needs. A truly modern city with a refreshing appreciation of both the modern and historical aspects of an urban center.
I need to talk about that bakery for a second. THAT bakery was out of this world. Warm buns filled with sweet cheese, ham and cheese pastries, cinnamon and raisin thingies, this place made everything fresh each morning and we could not help ourselves from partaking in their sweets every day we were there. We were told it’s one of the oldest bakeries in Merida and that this family owned place is one of the few that still bakes everything in-house. Lucky us!
This torta was one of the best things I have ever eaten. And I wish, from the bottom of my heart, that we had ordered two.
Have you tried mezcal? If not, get thee to a place that carries it and sip on some. This smoky agave based drink is my new favorite thing. Served alongside orange wedges dusted with chili, salt, and a sprinkling of crushed worm (yep, like the worm you find in tequila this too has a worm and they even go as far as to dry them and turn them into a powder). This is one of the best ways to end a day – high in alcohol content, it takes the edge off, but tastes great.
We couldn’t spend a week in this area without visiting the ruins of Uxmal, considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Mexico, and located just an hour or so drive from Merida. Once a city of roughly 25,000 people, we were able to explore many excavated buildings and pyramids (as well as some un-excavated structures hidden in the jungles on site). I was left speechless by the intricate stonework and craftsmanship of these structures- each more complicated than the next. The whole place was riddled with giant lizards sunning themselves on the ancient stone carvings and birds that had taken to living inside the roofs of these incredible buildings.
We left Mexico with a small selection of spices and hot sauces to take home and play with. Had we known we were bringing another bag I would have brought A LOT more stuff home with us. While camping on the beach over the weekend we whipped up some pork tacos to remind us of our trip and to continue savoring those rich salty seasonings that make the food there so special.
1/2 kilo pork shoulder or butt cut into 3″ chunks
1 onion chopped
1 carrot chopped
1 bell pepper chopped
4 cloves garlic smashed
1 1/2 cups beer
1/4 cup coke
1- 2 cups water
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoon recado para pastor; a spice mix made specifically for pork found in Mexico (or dried achiote if you can find it)
1 tablespoon chile molido (or ground red chiles)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 cinnamon stick
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons veg oil
In a heavy bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium high heat until just before it starts smoking. Salt and pepper your pork pretty generously and add it to the pot – give it a healthy browning on all sides (3 or 4 minutes). Remove the pork and keep off to the side.
Toss in your onion, carrot, pepper and garlic. Stir the pot with a wooden spoon, making sure to scrape up the brown bits of golden pork stuck to the bottom, and cook until softened (5 – 7 minutes). Add your pork (and any juices left in the bowl) back into the pot and add all your dry spices. Stir to combine.
Add your liquid leaving the lime juice out until the very end. (Add enough water to cover the pork but not so much that it is overly diluting the overall flavor. You can always add a bit more water as you go if you see the liquid is reducing/evaporating too quickly). Stir and let the whole thing come to a boil. Once it is bubbling drop the heat (or in our case, move the pot to a less intense part of the fire pit), and place a lid on it.
This should cook, covered, for around 2 hours until the meat is tender and falling apart. At this point remove the pork from the pot, add the lime juice, and let the liquid that remains in the pot reduce to create a thicker sauce. While the liquid is reducing, shred the pork to your preferred size. Once the sauce is nicely reduced (6-10 minutes on a low heat) add your pork back in to coat it in the sauce.
Serve with corn tortillas, chopped tomato, cilantro and beer.