La Riviera Maya, Mexico: Eat Better Than You Do at Home
The Yucatan jungle may be the last place you’d expect to find one of the world’s most exciting restaurants, but that’s the improbable setting of Hartwood, which was founded in 2010 by a pair of Brooklyn transplants and has garnered raves worldwide. Using only native ingredients — such as chilis, jicama, dragon fruit, and nopales — the restaurant has created a cuisine that, while undeniably Mexican, is unlike any you’ve ever tasted. And it’s all cooked over an open fire; the only electric appliance is a single blender powered by a generator. Guests have been known to wait two hours for a table. The good news is that most say the food is worth it.
Equally good news is that Hartwood’s success has lured ambitious chefs from throughout Mexico. Arca, which opened in 2015, brings a design aesthetic to the area, with its black-and-white-tiled floors and reclaimed woodwork; offerings include bone marrow spiced with morita chili and hibiscus-infused mezcal cocktails. Gitano serves tapas and cocktails in a jungle setting lit by, of all things, a disco ball.
But there are also simpler ways to eat well here. Ask Sam Shendow, co-owner of Casa Las Olas (a Tulum hotel that hosts cooking workshops with Hartwood), where to go and she’ll send you to Antojitos La Chiapaneca, a humble taqueria in downtown Tulum, for the al pastor. “These might be the best tacos I have had in Mexico,” Shendow says. Or head to one of the open-air shacks along Carretera 307 on your way back to the Cancún airport. Shendow’s favorite: the shrimp tacos at La Floresta, located on the southbound lane near Playa del Carmen. She says that these dives have a lot in common with Hartwood. “There’s no sizzle, no glamour,” Shendow says. “Their bottom line is the quality of the ingredients being served to the local people.”
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