Dinner service in the jungle-surrounded restaurants of Tulum starts with a very important ritual, one often repeated a few times as the night goes on. A member of the staff walks around the outdoor dining room carrying smoking bowls of fragrant palo santo in an effort to ward off any bad spirits that may have crept in. It has the added bonus of keeping away the bugs for a minute or two. This is just one different, yet important, aspect of heading down the federal highway from Cancun to Tulum. Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula has been seducing travelers for decades with picturesque beaches and relaxing retreats. But there’s so much more, especially when you venture outside of Cancun’s hotel zone and Playa del Carmen’s resorts. Yes, you still have your tacos, nachos, and margaritas, but you’ll also find an amazing amount of seafood and Mayan dishes made over mesmerizing wood fires.
Tulum has been an open secret for a while now, as evidenced by the high-end palapas lining the coast. It does remain true to its roots with cheaper accommodations found “in town” and loads of affordable restaurants, and if you don’t live it up when you’re on vacation, when can you? Here’s a list of not-to-be-missed restaurants for your late winter, fun in the sun Mexican vacation.
Hartwood (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila @ Km 7.6) – In 2010, two Brooklyn expats carved Hartwood out of the jungle and haven’t looked back since. The menu is completely dependent on what’s fresh in the market, so no two nights are alike. As one of the most popular restaurants in the Western hemisphere, it is very wise to get a reservation day-of by waiting in line at 2PM.
Arca (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila @ Km 7.6) – Almost next door to Hartwood is Arca, I highly recommend a visit, even if just for after-dinner drinks and dessert. Chef Maya, a Mexican native, honed her kitchen skills in San Francisco before opening this space in Tulum. Relying on the daily market, everything from the cocktails to the pot de crème to the wine list is purely Mexico.
Noma Tulum (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila @ Km 8.1) – As a part of their small hiatus from the original Noma in Copenhagen, René Redzepi & Rosio Sanchez have been popping up for limited residencies around the world. This spring, from April 12 to May 28, they’ll be cooking a multi-course tasting menu with pairing ($750/person), celebrating artisanal Mexican ingredients and indigenous techniques.
La Zebra (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila @ Km 8.2) – Yes, this is a foremost hotel right on the beach, where rooms sometimes have their own dipping pools. But stop by for the beach-front bar and you may get a night where there’s sexy salsa dancing on stage.
El Camello Jr. (Avenida Tulum & Luna Sur) – After being in the heat all day, most people want to eat a light, refreshing meal in the evening, like classic ceviche. El Camello Jr. is the Tulum institution for just that. A platter of mixed ceviche is a plate overflowing with plump shrimp, tender octopus, fresh fish, and juicy tomatoes.
El Tábano (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila @ Km 7) – Yes, Mexico has a wine industry up in the north, closer to the US. Of all the places along beach road, El Tábano dives the deepest into bringing you the best of Mexico’s vino offerings. They do have nibbles and very traditional Mexican entrees throughout the day.
Taquería Honorio & Don Cafeto (Andromeda y Satelite Sur) – Between the chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, huevos divorciados, and glasses of fresh jugo, Mexico does not mess around with breakfast. Taquería Honorio is the perfect place to stop for a quick, cheap, regular Mexican breakfast, or if you’re in need of an afternoon taco snack.
Antojitos La Chiapaneca (Avenida Tulum by Calle Júpiter Norte) – Mexico and tacos. Tacos and Mexico. A love story that many Americans fully appreciate and enjoy every Tuesday. In Tulum, you’d be remiss to not stop by Antojitos La Chiapaneca for freshly grilled pork or al pastor tacos, all wrapped up in traditional corn tortillas. There’s also an option for vegetarians.
Campanella Cremerie (Avenida Tulum by Calle Júpiter Norte) – Mexican desserts, especially ice cream, are having a Renaissance. Pass up the national chain helado (or maybe don’t, chances are it’s hot), and stop at Campanella Cremerie for some light and smooth scoops in all the classic ice cream flavors.