The fourth course of Chef Carlos Gaytán’s pop-uptasting menu is his version of elopozole, a kind of pozole made with fresh corn that’s popular in his home state, Guerrero. Heavy and labor-intensive, many pozoles, a Mexican hominy stew prepared with pork, often look like…well…kind of like what you see when you open a can of Dinty Moore. But at Ha, the new fine-dining restaurant in Hotel Xcaret on the Riviera Maya, executive chef Gaytán’s elopozole is a masterpiece – a fish and saffron broth; baby zucchini; in lieu of pork a piece of black sole, its skin separated from the flesh, crisped up, and seasoned with lemon zest; a single stalk of charred baby corn. This is the first of four pop-up dinners that former Top Chef contestant Gaytán will be hosting this year at Ha to celebrate Mexican cuisine. Which, ironically, is a pretty unconventional thing to celebrate on a resort in Mexico.
Historically, Mexican resorts, especially the all-inclusives on the Mayan Riviera, which receives millions of visitors per year, have been a gastronomic wasteland. Think sneeze-guarded buffets, a guy in a tall white chef hat slicing roast beef off a spit, basically any ingredient or detail that could white-wash local culture and convince guests they’re anywhere or nowhere. That seemed to be what people wanted: wrist bands and bottom-shelf whiskey by day, lip-syncing shows and ice cream sundae bars by night. But that’s changing. And Hotel Xcaret, Ha, and Chef Gaytán’s quarterly pop-ups, where he invites different Mexican chefs to cook with him each time, are emblematic of the shift.
What accounts for the change? Well, Instagram, for one thing. The Food Network, for another. People are interested in food in a way they weren’t in the years before they were seeing constant photos of their acquaintances’ avocado toast, before they could flip on the TV and see yet another celebrity chef making yet another version of eggplant parmesan or camarones a la diabla. Today travelers are interested in boarding a plane not just to sprawl on the beach sipping a margarita (which, let’s be honest, is more of an American craze than a Mexican one), but to learn about the destination, to taste the regional cuisine, to have at least some semblance of an authentic experience, and of course to post photos that will make their friends and exes die of envy.
Xcaret is certainly not the only new hotel on the Riviera that’s honoring Mexican gastronomy. At Chable Maroma, where another Mexican celebrity chef, Jorge Vallejo of Mexico City’s Quintonil, writes the menus, you’ll find clams straight from the sea, prepared at the table; sopa de lima; nopal and watermelon salad. Vallejo spent time in the region before the restaurant opened, meeting fisherman, hanging out with locals who invited him to eat in their homes, ensuring that his menus would be representative of his surroundings.
At Kasa Hotel Parota, a new hotel in Tulum where about 90% of the workers hail from the local communities, the restaurant buys produce from nearby farmers and serves Mexican wine, as well as a variety of tequilas and mezcales. Beloved Playa Mujeres isn’t new, but in response to the trend, they keep adding amenities, dishes, and experiences. For example, they’re planning their first “Mexican Kermés Night,” during which guests can experience a traditional Mexican fair with games, folkloric dance, and live mariachi.
But it’s one thing to showcase Mexican cuisine in a boutique hotel and quite another in an all-inclusive resort that plans to have 6,000 rooms by 2021. That is, the huge all-inclusive resorts historically served uninspiring food because uninspiring food is cheaper. Now that food and beverage programs have to stand out, resorts will have to find other places to cut corners.
The last course of the pop-up dinner at Ha is a dessert that turns everyone at my table into Meg Ryan in the fake-orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally: It’s a corn-ice cream-chocolate concoction made by Chef Paco Méndez, a Mexican chef who works in Spain. All of the wine pairings are Mexican, and with this course we’re drinking Casa Madero 2V, a chardonnay-chenin blanc from the oldest vineyard in the Americas, located in Parras Valley.
Even though the restaurant is situated on an all-inclusive resort, a Ha dinner costs extra. Guests pay $126 per person on a regular night (it’s also open to people who aren’t staying at the hotel) and $180 for one of the pop-ups. The restaurant is classy with dim lighting, the whole wall behind the bar showcasing high-end liquor, each bottle displayed alone and surrounded by plenty of space, like the summer cabins of celebrities who refuse to have neighbors. Ha’s menu, written by Chef Gaytán, the first Mexican-born chef to receive a Michelin star (for the now-shuttered Mexique in Chicago) will change seasonally and showcase local ingredients and dishes from all over Mexico, including Guerrero, where Gaytán’s mother still has a restaurant. She runs it out of her house. It was his mother who taught him how to make elopozole. The first time he tasted it, he said, he thought, I need to take this to the next level.
And he did.
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, of the New York Times column Going Off, and of a forthcoming nonfiction book from Crown Publishing. Her work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Afar, Travel & Leisure, Wall Street Journal, Saveur, Bon Appetit, and many other publications.