Donna Cooks

(Used to Be) The Best Quesadilla Deal in Houston
February 14, 2007, 5:27 pm
Filed under: Food Travelogues

When I interned in Houston three years ago, I got off work every Friday at 11:00am. I would drive to north Houston to meet my boyfriend for lunch (who worked until 5:00pm like a regular Joe). The pickings are slim as far as good food goes in that area (Beltway 8 and I-45) but we did find a couple of deals that were just too good to turn down: the $3.50 super quesadilla and $2.50 torta at Ostioneria Michoacan, stuffed with your choice of fajita chicken or beef.

This past weekend, while we were in the area again, we decided to grab a quick lunch at Ostioneria Michoacan for old time’s sake. The restaurant (part of a local chain in Houston) had relocated from its unsightly strip mall location to a freestanding and more visually appealing building (relatively speaking) directly off of the I-45 frontage road.


The inside had received its share of upgrades as well. The place was huge inside (seats 100-150) and was filled with Hispanic patrons, chatting away in Spanish during their Sunday lunch. The tables were filled with various seafood platters and mug after mug of michelada, which is like a bloody Mary, but made with Mexican beer instead of vodka. However, upon opening the menu I was disappointed to see that the deals we had come for were no longer there, the super quesadilla was now $5.50 and the torta $4.50 (still cheap but not quite the bargain as the old location). Nonetheless, we stuck with our old orders, one beef fajita super quesadilla and one chicken torta. Since our food choices weren’t exactly adventurous, we walked on the edge of the wild side with our drinks, one horchata and one michelada.

Chips and salsas (red and green) came out quickly along with our drinks. The mild red salsa at Ostioneria Michoacan is served warm on their thick tortilla chips. It is enjoyable, but in the past I had always preferred the green salsa. However, one dip into the green salsa and I realized that this recipe had been toned down since the relocation. The salsa used to have a much stronger tomatillo and cilantro flavor, but now it is bland and reminds me of runny green Tobasco. No thanks.


The horchata tasted like Vanilla Silk Light, with a hint of almond. The michelada was interesting (it was our first time to try this drink). You get a cold, salt-rimmed mug filled 1/5 full with a hot sauce/tomato juice mixture and a cold bottle of Corona with a lime wedge. Pour the beer into the mug of hot sauce/tomato juice, add a squeeze of lime, and you get this orange-coral colored beverage:


The super quesadilla was big and greasy as expected, and with more cheese than I remembered. The torta stuck to its old roots as well, big and filling with tender seasoned chicken chunks.

Super Quesadilla (and it is super in size):


 Chicken torta (yes I found it odd that the plate was Asian-themed):


We were beyond stuffed with our greasy but tasty food. But now that the quesadilla and torta are no longer awesome bargains, I don’t think I’ll be driving to Ostioneria Michoacan for my white-washed Mexican food fix. However, the restaurant does appear to serve up some mean seafood dishes (ceviche, fried fish, grilled shrimp, blackened fish) and is extremely popular among the local Hispanic population. So maybe next time I’ll actually try out some seafood at the ostioneria.  Imagine that, eating seafood at a seafood restaurant…

Ostioneria Michoacan
50 Aldine Bender Rd.
Houston, TX 77060


Ski Trip Excursion 2 – Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, TX
January 23, 2007, 2:07 pm
Filed under: Food Travelogues

The roads on our drive back from Angel Fire to Dallas were in much better condition than driving there.  We drove through the panhandle and arrived in Amarillo for a late lunch.  If you’ve ever driven through Amarillo, you know that all the roads have billboards advertising The Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the free 72 oz steak (if you finish it in an hour).  Not exactly a chowhound-ish joint, but I still wanted to stop by to witness the madness in person.

Arriving at the Big Texan, you could tell this place wasn’t just a restaurant.  It was a mini theme park with the old-timey inn next door, the arcade games, the gift shop… even the color scheme of the exterior has a circus-like quality to it.


Upon entry, we face a podium that has an issue of Maxim magazine with the page flipped to “Top 10 Steak Houses in the US” under the glass.  Apparently the Big Texan made the list.  I had no idea that Maxim was such a definitive authority on steak, but I guess it is a magazine well acquainted with assessing the quality of meat in its own way.

Walk a little further and you see the full 72 oz steak meal (complete with salad, roll, and baked potato) in its shrink wrap on proud display.  One look made my stomach hurt.  Why does EVERYTHING have to be bigger in Texas?


Once seated, our glib and cheeky waiter (think Dick’s Last Resort staff, in full cowboy gear complete with country twang) took our drink orders.  He recommended the peach sweet tea, which I got in a souvenir boot mug.  As it turns out, cowgirls get red boot mugs and cowboys blue boot mugs (one of our boys got a boot full of Shiner Bock and swears that it tastes the best on tap out of a boot). 

I decided on the chicken fried steak lunch platter (all lunch specials are $13). 


I know I know, I got a chicken fried steak at a steak house.  I was just in the mood for one.  This rendition was pretty decent, not quite as good as Babe’s or Kelly’s Eastside, but better than Barbec’s.  The steak was a bit thin, but the batter stuck onto the meat well and had a pleasant crunch to it.  Gravy and mashed potatoes had a nice texture and good flavor.  Okra was crunchy and not too greasy.  A little pricey for a chicken fried steak, but it filled my craving.

Other entrees among the group include the 9 oz ribeye and the 8 oz Big Texan strip.

Ribeye with okra and baked potatoes:


Big Texan strip with cowboy beans and steak fries (corny but well-suited boot mug also featured in this photo)


I did get a bite of the Big Texan strip which was surprisingly good, cooked to the perfect medium doneness and seasoned well.  I’m starting to wonder whether Maxim is really onto something here.  The steak lunches are also $13, a much better deal than the chicken fried steak.

For dessert, we ordered the one (can’t remember the name) with three scoops of ice cream between two giant chocolate chip cookies, completely shielded in whipped cream, and topped with chocolate syrup.  It was big enough to serve all 5 of us.  Portion size is out of control at this restaurant.

If you’ve never been to the Big Texan, it’s worth it for the novelty.  You’re not going for the food (although the Big Texan strip was actually very good), but all the wacky decor, the comic relief (waiters), and larger than life quality of the place makes it worth the show.  Approach it like a theme park, not a restaurant.  And like one of my companions noted, where else can you test out the Das Boot theory from Beerfest?  And maybe if you’re lucky, on your visit you’ll get to witness someone take the 72 oz steak challenge.

Big Texan Steak Ranch
7701 East I-40
Amarillo, TX 79118

You really don’t need to map it.  There are literally billboards all over town and the place is hard to miss.

Ski Trip Excursion 1 – Blue Corn Cafe in Santa Fe, NM
January 22, 2007, 1:48 pm
Filed under: Food Travelogues

Road trips are the perfect time to find good chow, especially if you plan your stops well.  But sometimes all the planning in the world will do you no good.  My road trip to ski in Angel Fire, NM was one of those trips.

We had set aside an entire day to drive to Angel Fire, 11 hours away under normal conditions.  We even left Dallas at 4:00am so we could get there in the afternoon to have time to settle in, rent our ski equipment a day ahead, and relax. 

But weather was not on our side.  The panhandle of Texas had received two days of sleet and snow, and the Weather Channel had a big red circle over that area with the label “Do not travel, roads impassable.”  We’re young, but we weren’t that stupid (so we thought), so we re-routed our path to go further south through Roswell, NM to avoid the icy roads of the panhandle.  It would be a little farther but worth the safety.

Oh but we were so wrong.  The storm had hit further south as well.  By the time we reached Post, Texas (southeast of Lubbock), we had slid off the road into side ditches twice and seen two 18-wheelers turned over.  The last two hours of driving through west Texas were spent going at 10 mph, praying for our lives.  Morale was low, so low that I agreed to eat at McDonald’s.  Turning around and going home wasn’t an option either, seeing as how the wintry weather was traveling toward Dallas.

We changed our path to go through Lubbock, TX and Clovis, NM.  Somehow we got lucky, the roads were slightly better and we were able to manage 40 mph.  And even though we hit some dense fog in New Mexico, we made it to Santa Fe by 8:00pm and decided to wait to head up the mountains the next morning.  We found vacancy at the clean and comfortable Comfort Suites.  We asked the front desk clerk for a good place nearby for New Mexican cuisine (I was in Santa Fe last year around the same time and loved every meal I had, apparently I’m a huge green chile fan).  He recommended the Blue Corn Cafe.

We were on the yuppified side of town, covered with business-oriented hotels like Fairfield Inn, Courtyard by Marriott, chain restaurants, and endless newly constructed strip malls.  I was a little doubtful about the authenticity and local flavor of Blue Corn Cafe with its location amidst all these suburban standards.  But I was pleasantly surprised (for the most part).  I wouldn’t call this a hidden gem, but between the live music, microbrewery offerings, and ski lodge-like furnishings, we had finally found some comfort at the end of a long, rough day.

We ordered salsa and chips and drinks once we sat down.  I’m used to complimentary salsa and chips, but am not completely unaccustomed to paying for them.  However, I was a little put off when informed that refills on the salsa and chips were also at an additional charge.  Having said all that, the salsa was excellent, fresh and just the right of amount of spicy.  The chips (including the blue corn ones) were greaseless, a nice change of pace from the almost transparent grease drenched chips you find at typical Tex-Mex places.

I didn’t have much of an appetite, having sat in the car for the last 15 hours, so I ordered the green chile stew, which is pork simmered with green chile, potatoes, and pozole, served with a flour tortilla.  The stew was excellent, perfect amount of seasoning with just a few chunks of tender pork (I don’t like a lot of meat in my soups/stews unless it’s chili).  The tortilla, on the other hand, tasted directly out of a package.

My companions mostly stuck with typical New Mexican entrees, enchiladas and tamales covered in green or red chile (everyone went for green chile).  My almost vegetarian (she tries to eat mostly vegetarian, but will eat meat) friend was disappointed that they were out of calabacitas (squash) as an option for filling and had to resort to chicken.

A couple of combo plates:



I had a few bites off of these dishes.  In particular I remember the beans having a surprising but enjoyable mild smokey spiciness to them. 

The one friend who didn’t order a combo plate went for the tortilla burger covered in red chile, described on the menu as featured in Gourmet Magazine.  It was disappointing.  The burger was past well done even though he requested medium-well.  There’s just nothing too appealing about a chunk of super-done ground beef inside a store-bought tortilla covered in red chile and cheese.  In fact, the only thing that had any flavor on that burger was the red chile.

Tortilla burger:


Drink-wise, we enjoyed Blue Corn Cafe’s home-brewed root beer and one of the microbrews (I believe it was the End of the Trail Brown Ale). 

Total for dinner for 5 (technically I had a soup), chips and salsa (with one refill), drinks, tax, and tip was about $75, which is pretty decent for Santa Fe, not exactly a bargain town.

Service was extremely friendly, especially considering we were in terrible moods when we first walked in.  With the exception of the burger being overcooked, there weren’t any major mishaps from the kitchen.

I think there are better restaurants in Santa Fe for New Mexican cuisine (I had a memorable meal at La Choza last January).  However, Blue Corn Cafe seems like a trusty option for a good time (microbrews and live music), especially for what seems like an otherwise generic, suburb-like part of Santa Fe.

Rating: 3 / 5

Blue Corn Cafe
4056 Cerrillos Rd
Santa Fe, NM 87507

Riviera Maya – Days 6, 7 & 8: Cancun
January 17, 2007, 2:08 pm
Filed under: Food Travelogues

Having had such luck seeking out dinner in Piste the night before, we did the same for breakfast the next morning on our way to Cancun.  To our surprise, we saw no open eateries this early in the morning.  There were several street vendors out and about, with one particularly busy stand selling cochinita pibil by weight.  By the looks of it, this little Coca-Cola themed stand does have a permanent location in front of a farmer’s market with scarce seating.


We ordered two tortas with cochinita pibil and two Cristals (one lemon-lime and the other strawberry) for $3.00.

Torta de cochinita pibil:


It was definitely worth more than the 50 cent price tag.  The torta was large and easily filled me up.  The pibil was similar to the one we had in Valladolid, fattier than at Yaxche but tender and juicy.  I was convinced that these cochinita pibil stands are the best places to fill up for cheap in the Yucatan, and they’re more common than hot dog stands in New York City.

Zooming down the toll road to Cancun, we arrived at the world famous resort town with almost no trouble.  Note to other travelers who choose to drive, follow the south diversion of the toll road to Cancun Island which takes you right by the airport.  We took the north route through downtown Cancun with the intention for some quick sightseeing from the car, but ended up with one edgy driver and one very nervous passenger.  The crazy driving in Cancun is not worth it.  It’s like National Lampoon’s European Vacation without the comedy.

Cancun feels like Florida.  You literally could not tell you were in Mexico with all the signs in English and all the chain restaurants (Outback, Hard Rock Cafe, Rainforest Cafe, Ruth’s Chris, etc)  The beach is lined with resorts and condominiums, lacking the charm of Playa and the privacy of Tulum.  However, the water in Cancun was more brilliant (perfect turquoise) than any other beach we visited on this trip. 


Cancun introduced me to my first all-inclusive resort experience at the Golden Parnassus.  I know that it makes little sense for a food fanatic like me to settle for average quality resort food over local gem perfection, but I had read over and over again on web forums that Cancun Island (Zona Hotelera) simply doesn’t have much to offer in the way of authentic or unique local cuisine.  A short 2 night stay at all-inclusive seemed like a good way to go after the first 5 days of exhausting adventures.  I’ll go through the food quickly since it wasn’t anything spectacular (but it wasn’t terrible either). 

We pampered ourselves with breakfast in bed every morning since that was offered as an included option.  Breakfast offered a good selection in terms of variety, but the French toast was always soggy and the bacon too greasy.  I learned to stick to items like yogurt and the fresh fruit plate.


Lunch options were limited.  You could either eat at the main cafeteria/buffet style restaurant with slightly better than Luby’s quality food that offered Chinese, Mexican,  Italian, and American fare or eat at the pool side grill that offered hamburgers, sandwiches, and nachos.  Nothing special here. 

The all-inclusive dinner experience was better than I had anticipated.  We visited Shangri-La (the only restaurant at the resort with a dress code with fusion cuisine) and Sumo for Japanese.  The dinner at Shangri-La was surprising good for resort food, a nicely varied menu with a not too terrible glass of house red wine.  The food all had good flavor, but you can tell most of that is not due to the quality of the ingredients but rather because everything was covered in some kind of sauce. 

Appetizers: shrimp and lobster vineyard style & mushroom in phyllo pastry



French onion soup (where’s the cheese???)


Entrees: lamp chop with potatoes & balsamic glazed duck breast (mashed potatoes had peas in them to give them that green-ish color)



Dessert: white chocolate mouse in dark chocolate cone & creme brulee (the creme brulee was my favorite dish this whole meal, it can actually match the quality of most good Italian restaurants in the US)



Considering the options in Cancun (chain restaurants), Shangri-La wasn’t a bad choice.

We didn’t fare quite as well at Sumo the next evening.  The sushi was at supermarket grade (the smoked salmon was not edible) and the dumplings were curiously deep fried instead of pan fried.  Sometimes the most obvious things are just that, obvious truths.  Trying to get sushi at an all-inclusive in Cancun felt like a bad idea, and it was.

Dumplings and spring rolls:


Spread of uninspired and unexciting sushi (the eel roll was the best one, but that’s not saying much):


I’m not sure if I would do the all-inclusive again in Cancun.  It is a good value for what you get (best service I’ve ever experienced, variety of food) but for the most part the food is just average.  But what are your other options in Cancun?  Outback Steakhouse?  I’m not a fan of that either.

Food-wise, Cancun takes the cake for being the low point of the trip.  But the town itself is something to see with all the upscale shopping and luxury resorts.  Cancun is also a convenient base for day trips in the Yucatan due to the large number of tour guide services. 

At the end of my 8 days I was satisfied.  I had experienced food in the Yucatan through high end restaurants, local cafes (still not sure if the chicken place in Piste was even a restaurant), and street vendors.  I had eaten quite a bit of local cuisine (lots of cochinita pibil) and even discovered some surprising exotic flavors (outstanding Thai food in Playa).  I had drank my share of fresh tropical fruit licuados, Mexican sodas, and way too many margaritas (with real lime juice!) 

And even though I was starting to crave chicken fried steak on the drive back to the Cancun airport, I couldn’t wait to come back to the natural beauty of the Riviera Maya.

Back to Day 5

Riviera Maya – Day 5: Tulum to Coba to Chichen Itza
January 10, 2007, 1:33 am
Filed under: Food Travelogues

After watching the spectacular sunrise over the ocean from our ocean front porch, we had a light breakfast at Tierras del Sol’s restaurant.  All the patrons were guests at the hotel (and there are only 4 or 5 cabanas) and the restaurant was run by two hotel staffers.  Service was a bit slow due to the small size of the kitchen (you can see them preparing your food) and the limited staff.  But hey, you don’t vacation in Tulum because you’re in a hurry.  We ordered the huevos Mexicanos, natural yogurt, and two glasses of juice (one orange, one mango). 


The eggs were served with a simple side salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper) and multigrain bread and some butter.  I haven’t had eggs this good since my dad’s egg and tomato scramble with homegrown tomatoes from his garden.  I think that’s what made this whole meal great, everything was simple but really fresh.  And the peaking view of the ocean through the windy path by the cabanas wasn’t too bad either.  Total for breakfast was $14, and well worth it.

As much as I hated to leave that little slice of oceanfront paradise, we headed inland for Coba.  Due to its location, Coba isn’t as popular as Chichen Itza or Tulum for tourists.  The ruins area is large and spread out, and hasn’t been reconstructed to the degree of Tulum or Chichen Itza.  Coba is almost impossible to explore on foot due to its large size, but there are many bikes for rent as soon as you walk through the main gate.  This was my least favorite out of all three ruin sites due to the lack of signage (and therefore, explanations).  We also didn’t expect it to be so large, so we didn’t set aside enough time to explore the entire site.

As we drove further east to Chichen Itza, we stopped in the small city of Valladolid for lunch.  Valladolid is a pleasant and colorful town, with a festival going on in the main square when we dropped by.

La Parroquia de San Servacio in the town square:


Festival performers:


Colorful pastel buildings down one the streets extending from town square:


Amongst these pastel buildings we found a place for lunch, Taqueria La Principal, adjacent to a crafts market.  We ordered two tortas (one carne asada and one chicken) with two cokes.  Valladolid doesn’t get much tourist traffic so there was a lot of pointing and half-sentences involved in ordering.

Torta de Pollo:


Neither meat was especially outstanding (a little dry by my standards, but decent flavor), average to slightly above average by DFW taqueria standards.  Still, the meal was a bargain at $3.80 for two tortas and two cokes.  We were still just a little hungry after the tortas, so we went back out on the streets to find our next course.

Outside the church on town square, a street vendor waved at us, pointing to his bags of what appeared to be fried plantain chips.  During my half-sentence inquiry to him about what they were (“platanos,” my instincts were right), a little boy and his father coming out of the church bought all 8 remaining bags the street vendor had left.  My opportunity to try this little snack disappeared before my eyes in a matter of seconds.  We walked around the town square at least 2 blocks in 2 other directions in search of these fried plantain chips, but had no luck.  Couldn’t the man have at least spared one bag for us poor tourists?  Oh well.  Then we ran across this:


A street vendor selling tacos, tortas, and some sort of thick masa shell (like a gordita, but smaller) of cochinita pibil.  This time, my companion was feeling adventurous and decided this was going to be the second course to finish our lunch.  He pointed to the thick masa oval thinking that it was like an empanada, pre-stuffed.  We had convinced ourselves that street food is safe when the product is fried in hot oil that kills the germs, so things like empanadas from the street vendor in Playa were not risky.  The street vendor smiled at my companion, picked up the masa shell, sliced it open with a knife, and began to tear off tender shreds of meat off of the main roast with his bare hands and stuffing it into the shell.

We turned to each other, mutual looks of fear.  Oh how we missed those thin plastic gloves they use at Subway, even if they’re only for show and are completely ineffective at guarding for germs.

50 cents and a topping of fresh chopped red onion later, we had ourselves a small cochinita pibil gordita.


All worries aside, it looked really good.  I threw caution to the wind and gave in to my food-loving weakness.  The pibil was juicy and flavorful, a little fattier than at Yaxche, but not enough to ruin the texture.  My companion would not be shown up by a girl, he took the second bite, then proceeded to finish the whole thing because he liked it so much.

We never got sick. 

We finally arrived at Chichen Itza mid afternoon.  Chichen Itza was my favorite ruin site on the trip.  It is fully restored, just small enough to explore on foot, and absolutely breath-taking.


The only downside to Chichen Itza is the number of pushy souvenir vendors due to its popularity.  Oh well.  The site closes at 5:00pm then reopens at 7:00pm for the light and sound show.  We headed back to the hotel to grab some dinner since we weren’t going to eat the $3 hot dogs at the snack shop at Chichen Itza.  To our disappointment, the hotel restaurant menu didn’t look that much better, with unpromising generic Mexican fare for more pesos than it was probably worth.  Instead, we headed into the town of Piste, 10 minutes away from Chichen Itza. 

The only strategy we relied on for finding dinner was to stop at a restaurant that looked crowded.  We drove through the main street cutting across town a couple of times and only saw a handful of places that were at least half full of patrons.  Most of them were a taquerias and the other was a woman cooking whole chickens on a grill in an open air space, no sign.


The chicken smelled delicious.  But we weren’t sure this was even a restaurant.  There were 3 or 4 shabby tables set up with randomly arranged chairs, but no indication of a menu or waitstaff.  There was a large family dining there, but were they patrons or relatives?  It couldn’t hurt to ask.  “How much?”  “50 pesos for a chicken.”  “What about half?”  “30 pesos.”  Of course the actual  conversation was in Spanish, and went about half as smoothly.

With that we were lead to one of the folding card tables covered with a vinyl table cloth.  We ordered our soft drinks, two Manzanitas (tasted like carbonated apple juice) and a large bowl of spicy salsa with hot tortillas were brought out while we waited for our chicken to finish on the grill.  We were pleasantly surprised. 


Open fire grilled chicken atop mildly seasoned rice, all for the equivalent of $3.  Chicken and rice, just the kind of comfort food we needed after a long day of driving and sightseeing.  This was seriously some of the best chicken I’ve ever had (and my companion whole-heartedly agreed).  BBQ, rotisserie, whatever, this chicken was better.  The skin was crispy from the open fire grill and the meat tender and moist.  The seasoning was just right, enough to seep into the meat without being overpowering.  $5 (half a chicken plus 2 soft drinks) bought us the perfect familiar yet exotic meal.  The sad part is I still can’t tell you the name of this place (I didn’t see a menu or a sign the whole time).  I can only tell you that it’s located next door to a restaurant called “Los Pajaros” (which would’ve been a suitable name for this place since it appeared to only serve chicken, if this place was a restaurant).

Stuffed full, we headed back to Chichen Itza for the sound and light show.  I would recommend spending the extra money on getting a headset in your language if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker.  I was able to pick up words here and there, but was clueless for half the content.  My companion was even worse off, having elected to take French as his foreign language elective in high school.  The sound and light show itself was a little tacky, it tries to draw drama to the structures (and does so somewhat with the dramatic lighting) but repeats the lighting patterns over and over again throughout the narration. 

We were exhausted after a long day of traveling and adventurous dining.  Tomorrow we would head back toward the coast.

Onto Days 6, 7, & 8

Back to Day 4

Riviera Maya – Day 4: Tulum
January 8, 2007, 1:42 am
Filed under: Food Travelogues

On the morning of our fourth day in Playa del Carmen, we were sitting down and having sweet breads, coffee, and juice in the lush back garden of our hotel for breakfast when a couple from Vermont sat across the table from us and started munching on empanadas they had brought with them on paper plates.  Even though I was enjoying the freshly baked sweet breads, I was enviously eyeing those empanadas, especially since I just had those wonderful chicken empanadas the day before at Rancho San Felipe.  The couple kindly explained to me that they found a street vendor outside the Banorte at 10 Avenida and Calle 6 with an enormous line and decided to try out the empanadas themselves.  The Vermonters couldn’t stop praising the empanadas so I knew I’d have to visit the stand myself (I know, I couldn’t believe I was taking advice about Mexican food from northerners either).  A short two block walk later, I had found my target.


For 50 cents I got a ground beef empanada (they were out of the potato ones).  And boy it was delicious.  It was a bit greasier than the ones from the Mayan village but they were also more flavorful (some sort of spice in the ground beef mixture?  Tasted like bay leaf but I’m not certain).  My first official encounter with street food in Mexico (Senor Tacombi doesn’t count since it has a permanent address and seating) caused some concern on the part of my companion, who offered me the pink stuff as a preemptive strike.  I was feeling brave (and satisfied from greasy, delicious, deep fried goodness) and refused. 

We headed south for Tulum.  Many travel guide books say that the Tulum ruins aren’t worth visiting because they aren’t as grand in size, large in area, or have as much historical significance as some of the other ruins.  After visiting three Mayan ruins on this trip, I would disagree.  The Tulum ruins are unique because they are built right on the coast.  The ruins offer some fantastic scenery contrasting the gorgeous colors of the ocean, sky, tropical lush, with the texture of the stone pyramids and structures.  The small size and proximity to Playa del Carmen makes it a manageable day trip without feeling overwhelmed (though we did stay in Tulum on this trip).  Besides, would you really want to miss out on seeing this in person?


Dying of thirst on the way out of the Tulum ruins, I stopped for a coco frio (cold fresh coconut) from a man waving a sign in front of his cooler.  $2.50 bought me quite the show and refreshment.  The man pulled a fresh coconut out of his cooler, wacked away with his machete, and presented me with a heavy coconut with two straws.  I’ve never been a fan of canned coconut milk (too sweet and too rich) so I was skeptical, but fresh coconut was surprisingly refreshing.

We continued to drive into town and decided to have lunch at Don Cafetos right on the main highway through Tulum.  Don Cafetos is another Frommer’s recommendation and offers sidewalk seating (though I have to say the street scenery along the highway in Tulum is not quite as appealing as Quinta Avenida in Playa).

We started off with two licuados to cool down on a hot day.  I had a watermelon licuado (with water) and my companion a papaya licuado (with milk).  Both came in very large cups, and that was handy.  Don Cafeto’s salsa, with large chunks of habanero pepper, was some of the spiciest I’ve ever had, so I drank all of my licuado in no time to calm my burning tongue.

We were feeling lazy so we just asked what the waiter to bring one appetizer and one entree platter that he recommended.  The appetizer was queso fundido, served with flour tortillas.  The queso was really greasy.  I didn’t enjoy this appetizer much except for the few chunks of chorizo in the queso.


The main entree was called the Mexican platter.  It was basically a combination plate of various Mexican specialties: enchiladas with ground beef in red sauce, enchiladas verdes with chicken, chicken flautas, and cheese quesadillas, with a scoop of guacamole.  In my opinion, nothing on this plate stood out, it all seemed very average.


Perhaps our waiter just made safe recommendations because he saw that we were tourists so we were not able to enjoy the Don Cafetos the way everyone else seems to rave about, but other than the extra spicy salsa and the large refreshing licuados, I didn’t find this meal particularly memorable.  And at $22 for the entree, appetizer, two licuados, and tip, it was very average in price as well.

After lunch, we drove down Boca Paila to find our oceanfront cabana.  The beaches in this part of Tulum were my favorite on this trip (and perhaps favorite of all trips).  The beach is kept natural with the exception of small beachfront hotels.  The area provides the feel of a private beach since there are so few people.  The sand is the softest here.  It was shell-free, jellyfish-free, and even seaweed-free to an extent.  It felt like you were running your toes through 6 inches of baking flour, amazing. 


Strolling along the breathtaking beach, we noticed a sign advertising happy hour at Posada Dos Ceibas.  We couldn’t resist.  Oh, to have an extra limey margarita on the beaches of Tulum every day, that would be the life.


Since Boca Paila is such a narrow, dark road with so many speed bumps, we decided against venturing back into town for dinner.  The restaurant at our hotel only serves breakfast and lunch, so we drove half a mile to Zamas for some ocean front dining under a giant palapa roof.  My camera’s battery was dying at this point (and all the hotels in this area only have electricity during restricted hours since they operate on their own generators) so there were no photos from this meal.

The atmosphere at Zamas was lovely, a live reggae band jamming with the crash of the ocean waves in the background. You can run your feet through the sand while enjoying your dinner at the candle-lit table.  But Zamas is overpriced, and the food is only average.  We started out ordering a pineapple licuado and a chaya water (tasted like grass) and they were tiny, about one third the size of the ones from Don Cafetos.  As there’s no concept of refills, these tiny 8 oz cups didn’t last through the meal well.  The salsa at Zamas was bland and flavorless.  I think it was just diced tomatoes with a few chopped up onion pieces thrown in.  The entrees were better.  I had the Chaya crepes, filled with shrimp, spinach, and seaweed.  It had a buttery garlicky flavor that I enjoyed.  My companion had the grilled tequila fish, which we thought was passable but not spectacular.  I think our $45 could’ve been spent better elsewhere. 

Tulum, the most scenic part of our trip, didn’t offer us much luck in dining.  Maybe we followed bad leads, maybe there just isn’t as much good food in Tulum since it is not as developed as Playa or Cancun.  Even with the average food experience, I wouldn’t trade sitting on the porch of that ocean front cabana watching the stars in a perfectly clear sky (practically no pollution or lighting near us) and falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean on the hammock.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relaxed.

Oh, and I never got any digestive discomfort from those empanadas from the street vendor.  This “survival” opened new doors for dining options in the next couple of days.

Onto Day 5

Back to Day 3

Riviera Maya – Day 3: Nohoch Nah Chich Cenotes and Punta Soliman Bay
January 4, 2007, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Food Travelogues

We booked a jungle crossing tour packed with activities with Alltournative for our third day in Playa del Carmen.  I would highly recommend Alltournative’s guide services for ecological tours.  They were eco-conscious about using organic suncreen to snorkel in the cenotes and the ocean for protection of the natural resources (spring water, coral reef, etc.)  For around $100 per adult, we got an action-packed day full of unforgettable adventures.   

Our hotel didn’t serve breakfast until 8:00 am, but we were scheduled to be picked up at the Banamex at for our jungle crossing tour at 7:45 am.  We decided that picking something up en route to the bank would be the way to go, and we ran across this:


Senor Tacombi, on Calle 12 between 5 and 10 Avenidas, serves tacos out of an old (but spiffied up) Volkswagen van.  Is there a better way to soak up Playa’s eclectic culture than ordering at the driver’s seat of a hippie van and watching the cook prepare your breakfast in the hollowed out interior?  Ok, so it’s not a taco van in the traditional sense since the location is permanent with a few small tables and stools under the awning, and I don’t believe the van is still mobile.  But just the concept of the restaurant alone has its appeal, and the food wasn’t half bad either.


Two shredded chicken tacos (one with cheese, one without) simmered in a tomato-chipotle sauce with tender large slices of cooked onions on a blue corn tortilla for $2 served as breakfast for us.  The flavorful moist shredded chicken tasted even better standing next to the Volkswagen van.  We were ready for a day of adventure.

We spent the morning off-roading in a Mercedes Unimog at Rancho San Felipe (a small Mayan family community) and snorkeling in the cenotes (fresh-water filled limestone sinkhole unique to the Yucatan) of the Nohoch Nah Chich underground river system.  Below is a picture of formations inside the “Heavens Gate” cenote.


We were also introduced to several native plants while at the ranch, including the achiote tree which supplies the coloring for the achiote paste used in Mayan dishes (such as the tikin xic and cochinita pibil we had at Yaxche the night before).

Achiote fruit on tree:


Opening one up to reveal the reddish-orange seeds:


Lunch was prepared by the Mayan ladies of Rancho San Felipe and consisted of a simple tomato-based vegetable soup with carrots, onions, cabbage, and squash, chicken on the bone simmered in a mildly spicy tomato-achiote based broth in a clay pot, black beans, rice, tortillas, and perfect, almost greaseless, shredded chicken empanadas with an assortment of salsas (ranging from the mild pico de gallo to the fiery habanero sauce).


It was amazing to watch all the women prepare this food in their outdoor kitchen under a thatched roof.  The food was more bland and lighter than what we had eaten in the restaurants thus far but satisfying in a comforting way.  I guess that whole “restaurants use more seasoning and grease” theory is universal.

After lunch, we departed for Punta Soliman for kayaking and snorkeling.


Underwater scenery:


And after we exhausted ourselves kayaking and exploring the coral reef, we rested ashore with fresh papaya, cantaloupe, pineapple, and chaya water to this amazing rainbow over the ocean:


We were shuttled back to our hotel in the late afternoon after a very active day.  I picked up a refreshing pineapple-coconut licuado on 10 Avenida (basically like a virgin pina colada with fresh fruit) to quench my thirst before taking a nap (does it still qualify as a siesta at 5:00pm?)

We spent the evening again strolling Quinta Avenida (trust me, the people watching never gets old with the diverse crowd) and stopped at Media Luna at the Calle 12 intersection for a light dinner.  We were seated along the sidewalk so we could enjoy the street scenery during dinner (mariachi bands, Santas greeting children, street vendors, etc).  We decided to split a meal (one appetizer, one entree) to save room for dessert at the appealing Glass Bar across the street.  Media Luna’s menu is basically New American/fusion.  We were presented with a basket of French bread with an herbed butter upon seating and our drink orders arrived quickly (one mai tai, one purified water).  We ordered the chicken satay for appetizer which wasn’t served with the traditional peanut dipping sauce, but rather drizzled with a soy-peanut reduction and topped with sweet/sour/spicy mango relish.


An interesting combination of flavors that made the chicken satay more exotic and tropical.  The farfalle pasta was our entree of choice, with mushrooms, spinach, sundried tomatoes, garlic, and bacon.  A solid pasta dish with a wonderful combination of varied textures and flavors in the ingredients.


Dinner was $18 for the entree, appetizer, two beverages, tax, and tip, very reasonable for a restaurant with atmosphere right on Quinta Avenida.  My one complaint about Media Luna is that the waitress seemed short with us.  I’ve been in restaurants before where the waitstaff seemed put off by my choice of splitting an entree with a companion, but at Media Luna everything was kept on one plate so I don’t think that’s a good reason for a terse and unenthusiastic waitress.  Then again, maybe she was just having a bad night.  One thing to note is that Media Luna’s menu is very vegetarian friendly, all the pastas come vegetarian and you have the option of adding meat.

Across the street at The Glass Bar, we ordered cannoli for dessert.  It turned out to be more about looks than taste.


Disguised in its gorgeous costume of fresh fruits and colorful sauces, the cannoli itself was really just an average rendition, and smaller than the one you get at Macaroni Grill.  It was a bit overpriced, too, at $8 ($10 after tax and tip).  At least our waiter was friendly enough to bring out an umbrella for the table when it started sprinkling.

Onto Day 4

Back to Day 2