Virtuoso Life March 2019 Tulum's Thriving Culinary Scene

Tulum's Thriving Culinary Scene

A rib eye with grilled onions at Gitano.
A rib eye with grilled onions at Gitano.

Due respect to the lauded kitchens of Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Puebla, but these days travelers will find some of the country’s most exciting and downright delicious dishes coming from wood-fired ovens and grills in Tulum’s primeval Yucatán jungle. The first time I visited the area was roughly 15 years ago, when, like many tourists, I made the two-hour journey south from Cancún to explore the ancient Mayan ruins of the same name. Back then, there was just one lonely stretch of road, Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila, that separated the jungle from the white-sand beach, where a handful of eco-friendly posadas offered stressed-out urbanites the chance to unplug and practice yoga on the beach.

Soon, celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, and Justin Bieber started to come, and the party was on. But it wasn’t until 2017, when René Redzepi chose it for the fourth installment of his Noma pop-up concept – London, Tokyo, and Sydney preceded it – that Tulum became synonymous with good eating. You’ll still find the laid-back inns, the no-frills taco stands, and the yogis perfecting sun salutations on the beach, but now both sides of the carretera are lined with designer hotels, independent boutiques, and restaurants where chefs whip up big flavors in tiny jungle kitchens. On your next trip to the Riviera Maya’s boho-chic escape, arrive hungry.  

Cenzontle’s ribs.
Cenzontle’s ribs.

Hartwood

When it originally opened back in 2010, this carbon-neutral, open-air restaurant’s concept was to blend into the environment, as if it had been there forever. Little has changed over the years: Diners sit at candlelit tables, and the daily menu – ceviche, jicama salad, and grilled octopus served on banana leaves are recurring items – features whatever chef-owner Eric Werner sources from local fishermen and nearby farms. “There are so many newly explored fruits and vegetables of the Yucatán,” says Werner. “It’s our life’s work to understand them and present them to our guests.”

Cenzontle

This popular Mexican-owned restaurant is often credited, along with Hartwood, with launching Tulum’s culinary scene. If you don’t know where to look, you might miss the entrance – an overgrown meandering path that leads to a hidden garden. The vibe is easygoing, and the line for a table is often long, but the wait’s worth it just for the pork ribs, which are slow braised and seasoned with Veracruz vanilla and pasilla chili paste.

Arca’s roasted prawns.
Arca’s roasted prawns.

Arca

Chef Jose Luis Hinostroza, formerly of Chicago’s Alinea and Copenhagen’s Noma, moved to Tulum to spearhead René Redzepi’s pop-up in 2017. Cooking in a wood-fired oven with Yucatán spices, produce, and seafood suited him so well, he stayed and soon became a partner and chef at Arca. Plan on a rotation of shareable small plates that go from fire to table as they’re ready, and make sure to try “The Whole Squash,” a roasted celebration of the local zucchini-like tatuma, presented on a bed of its sautéed greens and sprinkled with its flowers and toasted seeds.

Gitano

Cooked in a wood-burning oven or over an open flame, Gitano’s shareable dishes fuse the culinary traditions of its staff’s diverse corners of the country. The cochito horneado, for example, is a Chiapas specialty featuring roast pork slathered in a sauce made with lettuce, onions, and spices such as oregano and ancho chili. Nightly live music or DJs, plus disco balls, chandeliers, and twinkling lights that dangle from the forest canopy, lend it a nightclub ambience – wear your dancing shoes to dinner.

Wild’s snapper with mole <em>verde</em>.
Wild’s snapper with mole verde.

Wild

Burned out from producing music festivals around the globe, Karen Young moved to Tulum four years ago to try something new and ended up opening a restaurant in the jungle. She recruited friends to help create a place that blends modern design and local Mayan craftsmanship in the form of sculptural wood and concrete structures that rise from the ground like palm trees. The internationally inspired menu draws on Yucatán produce and fresh fish and seafood from Punta Allen for hits such as snapper with mole verde and braised and grilled octopus on a squid-ink sofrito.
Tilapia ceviche, corn <em>esquites</em>, a fish taco, and a Ruby Road cocktail at Safari.
Tilapia ceviche, corn esquites, a fish taco, and a Ruby Road cocktail at Safari.

Safari

A 1971 Airstream trailer parked next to a small fire pit serves as the kitchen for owner Luis Aguilar’s “campfire food.” Grilled fish, ceviche, tacos al pastor, truffle yucca fries, and chilled Pescadores beer are always on the menu. Hungry locals and visitors, often with kids in tow, arrive early to score one of the handful of tables in the open-air dining room. Go on a Saturday, when the specialty is lamb barbacoa marinated in a rustic adobo sauce and served two ways: as tacos or a rich soup. 

Easing into evening at Mur Mur.
Easing into evening at Mur Mur.

Mur Mur

Baja native Diego Hernández Baquedano first earned fame at Valle de Guadalupe restaurant Corazón de Tierra, which landed on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. At his Tulum jungle outpost, the chef explores his roots while working with indigenous Yucatán ingredients. Baquedano succeeds with a menu of beautifully plated rustic dishes, such as snapper seasoned with recado negro, a Yucatán paste of charred chilies, garlic, cumin, oregano, and vinegar.

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