One of the many amazing things about Playa del Carmen is the amazing selection of food from the hundreds of unique restaurants that line the streets. The vast selection includes everything from small ‘hole in the wall’ that might otherwise be overlooked if not for a top 5 rating on Trip Advisor, to the many high end and mid range restaurants that cater to every taste. For the most unique experience and finest quality of foods, try to avoid any ‘chain’ type of restaurants and go for the locally owned establishments, and make use of the Trip Advisor recommendations from locals or the Playa.info forum. Angela and I have had a great experience researching some of the best spots in Playa del Carmen and are excited to share some of our favorite places with you.
The predominant cuisine is of course Mexican, but with a ‘Mayan’ slant, far from what you see here in America. Most absent is the abundance of cheddar cheese that seems to so typically cover American Mexican meals. Rarely you will see the typical ‘melted’ cheese smothered dishes, instead there is occasionally queso fresco or oaxaca cheese, roasted meats, fresh guacamole, pico and corn (not flour) tortillas. Angela has a gluten intolerance but had an easy time finding Mexican dishes that were gluten free. While the ingredients are different, some of the dishes are the same (enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tostadas), but also it is great to get to know many of the other dishes that are less common in American-Mexican cuisine.
Chilaquiles are tortilla ships with either chicken or eggs, then smothered in a red or green chile sauce with a light queso fresco cheese and crema (similar to sour cream but thinner in consistency) and garnished with guacamole or avocado. Often times leftover tortilla chips are used, the dish is put together and baked then the sauce poured over prior to serving. This is a traditional Mexican dish is typically at breakfast or lunch.
Ceviches are a popular dish in south and central America made with fresh fish or shrimp that has been marinated (cooked) in citrus juices for a tangy flavor. Ceviche can be prepared with a variety of ingredients including onions, cilantro, lemon or lime juices, chiles, salt and pepper and other spices. In Playa, ceviche dishes are typically served with tortilla chips.
Cochinita pibil (also puerco pibil) is a traditional Mayan slow-roasted pork dish from the Yucatán Península. Preparation of traditional cochinita or puerco pibil involves marinating the meat in strongly acidic citrus juice, coloring it with annatto seed, and roasting the meat while it is wrapped in banana leaf. This dish is served with corn tortillas to wrap and create a taco or can be used to top various appetizers such as a tostada.
Tacos Al Pastor are made with a slow roasted pork on a spit (similar to how gyro meat is cooked) with various chile spices. The meat is thinly cut onto a corn tortilla and garnished with cilantro, onion, salsa, guacamole and pineapple. Tacos al Pastor can often be ordered ala carte for cheap (15 pesos at Carboncitos or 90 pesos at El Fogon) making it a very cheap yet filling and delicious meal or appetizer.
We also found a great variety of South and Central American foods that are not unique to the Yucatan peninsula from some of the many great restaurants in the area:
Cachepas are a Venezuelan dish made with a corn ‘pancake’ then topped with a variety of ingredients such as plantains, shredded and marinated beef, oaxaca cheese or queso de mano, beans or vegetables. The pancake has a sweet flavor which mixes well with a salty ingredient, best of all it is great for gluten free diets. The batter is made with fresh ground corn and then the cooked pancake with the ingredients is folded over to make a sandwich.
Arepas are another Venezuelan appetizer or meal made of a flat, round, unleavened cornmeal patty which can be grilled, baked, boiled, or fried, steamed ect. The characteristics vary by color, flavor, size,and the food with which it may be stuffed, depending on the region. Arepa is a native sort of bread made of ground corn, water, and salt which is fried into a thick bread. It can be topped or filled with meat, eggs, tomatoes, salad, cheese, shrimp, or fish depending on the meal. Breakfast egg or cheese are the most common arepa fillings. Empanadas are a South American appetizer that is a fried or baked turnover stuffed with cheese, beef, beans, vegetables, plaintains or other choices.
Paella is a rice dish that originates from Valencia, Spain, however we have tried it a few times in Cuban restaurants. The Cuban version of Paella that we have had is made with a delicious flavored and spiced rice, vegetables and shrimp. The dish somewhat reminds me of a ‘fried rice’ but the rice retains more moisture similar to a Pilaf and a buttery taste.
Traveller’s tips: These are some of our favorite recommendations for dining in Playa Del Carmen.
El Fogon - Calle 6th & 30th Ave., Playa del Carmen 12345, Mexico. El Fogon is a great place to get Arrachera (marinated skirt steak) and Tacos Al Pastor. This restaurant has 2 locations in Playa, the menu prices are very reasonable and one can eat extensively at a great price. If you are a steak lover, make sure to try the Arrachera Especial, comes with a baked potato, guacamole, a bean soup and some great grilled vegetables!
Carboncito’s - 4th Street | Between 5th and 10th Avenues, Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Carboncito’s is right off 5th Ave on the South end of the strip. This place has excellent service and a great menue. Make sure to try their ‘Salsa Wheel’ as an appetizer, which has 5 different salsa’s including a pumpkin, cilantro, pico and two other spicy variations. Tacos Al Pastor are 15 pesos, and four will fill you up. They also make great margaritas.
La Bodaguita del Medio – 5th Avenida esq. con 34 Norte, | Cond. Bosque de los Aluxes, Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Fine cuban food in a great location on 5th Avenue towards the north end. A great atmosphere and amazing food, excellent service as well. The walls indicate how busy this place has been as they encourage you to ‘autograph’ the walls after you eat, we had a hard time finding a place to make a small inscription!
La Vagabunda - 5a Avenida entre 24 y 26 | centro, Playa del Carmen 77710, Mexico. Just a great little restaurant on 5th Ave towards the center to get some breakfast or lunch. Nothing too distinctive, but if your hungry for something to eat to get you going try their breakfast burrito. The chilaquiles are good but not the best (the ones at La Cueva Del Chango are better)
Curry Omm - 10 Ave. Sur | Plaza Antigua (Immigration Building), Playa del Carmen 20.620864,-87.077861, Mexico. On the south end of Playa past the mall, you’ll find a small Indian restaurant called “Curry Omm” ran by a very nice couple. The owner was a very successful IT Consultant that ended up moving down to Playa where he met his wife and they opened this great establishment. The food is amazing as is the service!
Xulam (the Mayan Fisher) - v 10 # 1 esquina 3 sur Plaza Antigua | Before enter at Playacar Palace, Playa del Carmen 77710, Mexico. Read the reviews on Xulam and you will be impressed! This was a gorgeous establishment that at first sight may remind you of the typical “Mayan” theme restaurants, but this one is much more beautiful and distinguished. The decor is amazing, as is the service and food. You will also be delighted to see the many parrots greeting customers at the entrance. My favorite parrot would greet customers by saying “Hola”! The Pibil is excellent, as is the chicken “arrows” (skewers). There are both traditional mayan dishes as well as more classic mexican dishes, and you will also find ‘bug’ tacos on the menu with ants, grubs, worms and crickets in a guacamole on a corn tortilla! Not for everyone, but don’t let that take away from the so many other great dishes!
La Cueva Del Chango - Calle 38, Playa del Carmen 77710, Mexico. This establishment is on the North end of the strip, just off of 5th Avenue. This place has such a distinctive architecture, a wide open building with beautiful walls and grounds, and unique bottles molded into the plaster of the roofs and walls. There are also some beautiful ponds, one of them is filled with Koi and Turtles in the covered section. There are two outside sections of the restaurant as well. This restaurant serves up some delicious crepes for breakfast, both savory and sweet. My favorite was the Sweet Crepes with yogurt, granola & fruit. I have to admit I ate both a full serving of chicken crepes and split the Yogurt crepe. This establishment serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Kapaxa Factory - Av Constituyentes, betwen 10 and 15 avenues, Playa del Carmen 77710, Mexico. This may be my favorite establishment, and one of the cheapest. It was a very small restaurant just off 10th Avenue with room for no more than one table on the inside and four on the patio (driveway). The service was excellent and the employees were so nice. This place has the best Kaxapas (Cachepas) and Arepas, two Venezuelan street dishes.
Luna Maya - 5ta Av. Norte esq.38 Mezzanine, Playa del Carmen 77710, Mexico. This was a very high end Mayan restaurant with unbelievably tasty dishes. The service was ok, I would like to say it was better but some how we got served a bottle of red wine that tasted literally like swamp water. I am sure this was just a fluke so I have to be level headed enough to give it a pass on everything else. Then again, the whole reason we wanted to go there was to try the Conchinita Pibil - but they did not have any that evening. That was very disapointing – so we tried the fish of the day which was grouper and the duck entree. Both were good but not what we wanted. We tried a couple of appetizers, tostadas and chimichangas, these aren’t any chimichangas you have ever tasted before (or tostadas for that matter). The apps and soup were very tasty but they did not make up for the swamp water wine and the missing conchinita pibil. Next time we’ll skip this place and go to Xulam for Mayan food. They had excellent food, service and more options on the menu.