Note to reader: The following blog contains content not suitable for all audiences: There is Food Porn and descriptive language; however, the word yummy has been restricted from use.
The sound of corn tortillas sizzling on the large grills couples with the smell of coconut oiled vegetables and meat frying. The hot sun encourages the passerby to stop and soak in the production. This is Mexico; the Mexico I expect with fish tacos, lime squeezed ceviche, burritos stuffed with spinach, peppers, and sauce that drips down your elbows. But after a few weeks in the Yucatan Peninsula it is not the traditional fare that draws me in and and makes me dizzy with options as blinding as the brightly painted buildings. Rather, I am entranced by creative cuisine that combines ingredients dating back to Mesoamerican times with practices more associated with the new age health scene. A combination that catapults food from tradition to transcendence.
This is what I call Clean Food which fulfills the body but does not stuff it. Clean food helps process out the toxins while offering antioxidants and balancing minerals and vitamins. It is the food that the Mayan people used to heal the sick, fortify the strong, and remain vibrant for centuries. It is the food to be discovered and enjoyed today in Tulum, Mexico.
Many places on the planet tout health conscious menus, providing smoothies, juices, kombuchas, and raw foods. Tulum, the area two hours south of Cancun, is a formidable contender to this scene and has a distinct advantage with their access to fresh and varied fruits along with a long growing season.
Coconuts drop from the trees, limes hang like ornaments, and the jungle spills forth a plethora of plants not found many other places: dragon fruit, mangos, papaya, chayota, and my newly discovered mamey fruit. And, of course there is the beloved cacao bean, the indigenous gem of the Yucatan. The dark bean is considered the food of the gods and part of the creation theory of the Mayan people. May we all agree that any culture that identifies chocolate as part of its basis for existing is worthy of admiration and, of course, investigation?
The first stop on my culinary trail was a path that lead along the beach to La Eufemia, a taco stand which is a gathering spot for the locals and a very inexpensive way to get by in the resort zone of Tulum. It has a hole-in-wall kind of ambiance but there are no walls, only a planked floor, thatched roof and a few painted tables and chairs. Most everyone sits out on the beach and shoeless waitstaff scurry back and forth with plates of tacos and cold beers or chilled whole coconuts. For less than seven American dollars, you can partake in three tacos and a drink. I’ve enjoyed both veggie varieties—a saute combo of carrots, zucchini, and onion and the other a mushroom and onion with a slight spice of peppers. The tacos are served straight forward with no accoutrements but several sauces are offered at the bar—from a chipotle fire sauce down to a refreshing tomatillo salsa with lime.
Veggie tacos done, I desired a little more of the cooling fruits and veggies to combat the heat and humidity. That is how I stumbled upon Raw Love. Tucked between the rooms of the resort Ahau Tulum is a small wooden hut with a window that appears to peak forth like something found in Christopher Robin’s Hundred Acre Wood. Their menu makes decisions difficult and thus, on my first visit I introduced myself to Sofia and said, “You choose.” She set me up with the Healthy Belly, a smoothie of papaya, passion fruit, banana, turmeric, and ginger. This anti-inflammatory and digestive aid drink is perfect for the traveler acclimating to the spicier ways of Mexican food.
Raw Love became a regular stop during my visit where I made my way down the menu with Sofia’s endorsements. Her patient manner with all my questions and curiosity about how this raw food is made with no cooking, no wheat, no sugar, and all organic ingredients. Her soft Argentinian accent made the food sound as magical and peaceful as it tasted.
In the vain of research, I tried the Chia Pudding which are chia seeds soaked in coconut milk and sweetened with honey, vanilla, and laced with bananas, goji berries, and whole cacao beans. Brilliant and beauty in a bowl and for the equivalence of six American dollars, you are satisfied and not burned out of pesos.
On my lunch visits, I tried both the Pad Thai and Zucchini Alfredo. Raw? Heck yes! Bring out the spiral tool and watch these traditional hot, carb loaded, and wheat ladened foods come to a new delight with swirls of zucchini and carrots. Pad Thai adds red cabbage and red peppers with green peas and a peanut dressing that is slightly sweet. Zucchini Alfredo…how about top zucchini noodles with a sauce of pureed avocado, garlic, basil pesto, apple cider vinegar and decorated with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts? Even if you really enjoy the traditional cream sauce, you will change your mind with this flavor boost and as a bonus, you’ll boost your health! What creativity!
Create is exactly what the chefs are doing at Co.ConAmor, a backyard cafe that I pedaled by many times on my way to the center of town. One day, the hand-painted signs nailed to a fence caught my eye. A circuitous route through a hallway and past a staircase opened up to a walled garden which appears to be someone’s backyard. It is the backyard of Co.ConAmor where trees provide a shaded canopy and metal chairs, wooden tables, and various plant beds and terrariums are scattered throughout. Someone has artistic abilities offering vibrant colored walls to accent the greens and browns of nature.
Yet again I would have deferred to the professional to help me make a choice because everything was paralyzingly desirous, but I persevered with my own discernment. That and the fact that my Spanish was possibly worse than my server’s English which is no small feat. With the noon day heat gaining on me, I cooled off with a flavored water of which there are many to choose from. I went with a chilling cucumber and mint blend that was delivered in a chilled glass and frothy head. The meal was spilling off the plate with a combination of spiraled beets and carrots, sprouted lentils with brown rice and quinoa, and dressed with tangy lime and sesame oil sauce. This was topped with pumpkin seeds and avocado. The red, orange, and green made for psychedelic food feast.
The protein packed lunch set me for the rest of the day. The rest of the day which did include a late afternoon stop back at Raw Love. Anyone who knows me, knows I am a pie girl all the way, but raw carrot cake had me curious. Would it taste just like raw carrots? Would it be sweet? Heavy? Or fall apart with the first bit?
Bugs Bunny might stop eating carrots straight up if he every tried this phenomenal cake. I am not the person to typically hype food as an outer-body experience, but this cake is the exception. In very small bites, between sips of the organic Mexican coffee, I ate this carrot cake with a date crust and lemon coconut icing in that deliberate fashion you might walk the beach or sit upon the ridge of a mountain. I wanted to savory it completely and I never wanted it to end.
Aside from the healthful and sublime discoveries, there is Ki’Bok which provided one of my life’s staples: good strong coffee. Ki’Bok, translates to good smells or aroma, and is near the main street of city of Tulum on Centero Sur. An open air counter with barstools and a bike rack are where locals and visitors saddle up to get their daily caffeine allotment. The owners are American, but decidedly entranced by Mexico and seemingly well accepted by the locals.
Joel along with his four sisters, parents, and a family friend run the business that sports the usual java offerings but with the care and commitment that speak to my discernment for a good product and good service. The espresso blend, which they have created with a Mexican grower, has the strong and smooth combination that brings out the freshness of the bean with a tanginess that settles on the tongue and allows the flavors to linger.
The owners play with some signature drinks including the Hemingway—a shot of expresso sandwiching a hint of sugar and spice. The Mexican chocolate latte or cappuccino is enough to make a trip back to this tropical peninsula where the scared cacao is swirled with cinnamon and perhaps another secret spice or two.
The family is not stopping with coffee. Perhaps that is just the juice which is fueling their industrious future. As I drank my coffee, saws ran, hammers slammed, and workmen came to and fro. Next up is expanding the back side of the cafe into a garden restaurant, a wine bar and lounge on the second floor along with four rooms for guests. Yet more reason to make your way to this family affair.
Pedaling around the corner from Ki’Bok to Orion Sur, I came upon Suculenta, a Tomaleria. Squeezed between the post office and pork shop, the space is akin to a garage stall, but the food is anything but greasy. And, definitely a bargain. For 30 pesos you can choose from several tamale varieties. I went with mole on my first trip—a combination of the pureed starchy plantain with peppers topped with the dark mole sauce and pumpkin seeds. A friend tried the frijol, a solid creation of black beans and peppers steamed in a banana leaf.
Moving after one of these fortifying tamales is not readily available so either a siesta is advised or just settle back and watch Karla, one of the partners in Suculenta tell you about the flavors she likes to work with which she does both at her tamaleria and at Restaurare whose sign along the hotel zone caught my attention: Vegan cuisine. Fresh Juices. Happy Bar. I was not sure if they meant there is a happy hour at the bar or if indeed the bar is happy.
On the jungle side of the hotel strip, I made my way over large stones and underneath the oversized palm fronds. It appears at first, the owners found a little clearing in the jungle and pulled in a grill and set up a few tables. It is simple but with a deliberate touch of elegance. The elevated kitchen is open on three sides and looks out on the eight or so tables.
On two visits I worked my way through the menu as best I could. Fortunately, a friend joined me so I had an excuse to try both an appetizer and entree. We shared a lettuce wrap filled with crushed pumpkin seeds and minced vegetables and laced with a thai influenced sauce of peppers, peanuts, and cilantro. My friend had the mixed vegetables which sounds straight forward enough, but was this side of ecstasy. It arrived in a bowl made of pureed beats and sweet potato which contained perfectly roasted zucchini, eggplant, and carrots that shot a myriad of flavors through the palate that I can still not completely identify. It’s one of those dishes that leaves you dreaming and scheming for return.
Before I left the Caribbean Coast, I investigated a few others spots along the way and an honorable mention would definitely go to The Raw Coconut a restaurant right on the beach just a few steps away from La Eufemia, the taco bar, and a part of the high-end Sanara Resort and Spa. The Heaps of Kale salad was as beautiful as it was delicious and the Hemp Burger in a lettuce wrap was very hearty.
The trip reminded me that when traveling food does not have to be an evil indulgence of fat and sugar. Rather it can, and definitely is in Tulum, an indulgence of real clean food—a fulfillment for all the senses.