Churros are the perfect way to end a meal. // © 2012 Luna Maya Restaurant
Vacationers in Playa del Carmen face a challenging conundrum. How can they possibly maintain their bathing suit figures after consuming so many calories at every meal? Playa’s restaurants and cafes are absolutely irresistible, presenting tasty temptations at every turn.
I’ve been visiting this exciting city at the heart of the Rivera Maya at least twice annually for the past decade, and I am always amazed by the abundant new offerings. Dining decisions occupy far too much mental energy. My long list of favorites complicates the problem, since I can’t spend more than a day in Playa without visiting old haunts. To help guide clients through dining dilemmas, hand over this don’t-miss list.
Yaxche. Playa’s packed with international restaurants, but precious few places specialize in the dishes Yucatecan families share for Sunday dinner. This grand two-story spot, claiming pride of place on Playa’s bustling Fifth Avenue, is recognized throughout the Yucatan as one of the finest regional restaurants on the peninsula. Appetizers include street treats like papadzules and salbutes, and entrees run the gamut from the strange yet tasty queso relleno (edam cheese stuffed with a pork mixture including raisins and almonds) and my personal favorite, cochinita pibil (pork marinated in achiote and sour orange). Add a mayini martini made with the local honey-anise xtabentun liqueur for a meal spanning the many flavors of Maya cuisine.
La Cueva del Chango. Breakfast in the monkey’s cave is worth the wait even on the busiest Sundays. Friends gather at tables buried in a palm jungle, toddlers crouch to study turtles in a flowing stream and waiters rush about with pots of fragrant coffee and trays stacked with bountiful servings of chilaquiles, emapanadas and eggs scrambled with cheese and chaya (like spinach). Papaya and orange juices are freshly squeezed, thick slices of homemade wheat toast come with sweet plum marmalade and bowls of fresh fruit are topped with creamy yogurt and crunchy granola. I’ve been stuck on breakfast for ages and only recently sampled the baked panela cheese and tamarind shrimp at dinner. Now, I don’t know which meal I want more.
El Diez. Like many travelers, I have a hard time choosing my splurge restaurant, especially when overcome with a hankering for beef. I simply can’t pay the prices “classy” restaurants charge for a juicy steak and had pretty much given up looking until I chanced upon this casual joint with sidewalk tables squeezed elbow-to-elbow on a busy Fifth Avenue corner. I ordered my favorite Argentinian feast — a simple tomato and onion salad, french fries, steak (the arrachera version here) and a hearty malbec. Chimichurri added the right flavors to a highly satisfying meal that sated my protein cravings.
La Casa del Agua. When Playa’s heat, humidity and general bustle threaten to overwhelm my senses, I retreat to this longtime favorite, opened by one of Playa’s earliest tourism supporters. The family’s recipe for Chicken Zurich with mushroom sauce and spatzle (homemade pasta) has become one of my favorite comfort meals, though I’m also fond of the crab ravioli and pozole verde. The service is top notch, and the decor is a pleasing blend of linen, crystal and candlelight. If there’s a breeze, I prefer sitting in the rooftop garden with its views of the sea and Cozumel.
Los Carboncitos. Family dinners needn’t break the bank, thanks to inexpensive taco places such as this super-friendly spot where meals are served with several salsas and plenty of napkins. Regulars rave about the pastor tacos with piles of fragrant meat, the steak fajitas, chicken brochettes — just about everything. Quesadillas satisfy picky kids, and a parrillada for two with shrimp, beef, chorizo and mushrooms can easily accommodate both parents and a toddler or two.
In keeping with a long-held vow to stay away from familiar chains when traveling, I always walk right on by Starbucks and Haagen Dazs. After all, there’s a far better option just a few blocks north on Fifth Avenue. Ah Cacoa, a small chocolate and coffee cafe that opened in 2003 on what was then the far end of the avenue, has grown into a full-scale chocolate purveyor whose rich 72-percent cacao bars are sold in shops all around the Mexican Caribbean. The original cafe, a tiny spot with a few outdoor and indoor tables and free Wi-Fi access, serves delicious brownies, ice cream and frothy hot chocolate whipped with a traditional wooden whisk. Dessert doesn’t get any better than that.