an insider’s guide to the culinary treasures of the Mexican state

As the host destination of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022, the state of Yucatán in eastern Mexico is full of yet-undiscovered gastronomic surprises. Ahead of the announcement of the new list in Mérida on November 15, local journalist and foodie Gabriela Rentería breaks down the details of must-see restaurants, dishes and experiences

Looking at a map of Mexico, located across the Gulf and the Caribbean Sea, you will find Yucatán, home to some of the most intense and provocative culinary experiences in the Latin American region. Over the past decade, its capital, Mérida, has become a hub for people from the surrounding cities and countryside, who find new opportunities, a city full of color and culture and a unique blend of old and new to the growing metropolis.

The White City, as Mérida is known (White City in Spanish, a name inspired by the reflection of sunlight off the limestone, from which many of its most iconic buildings are built) hosts a wide variety of dining experiences. From the most traditional and age-old recipes found in markets and on the streets, to fine dining establishments that bring the flavors and colors of local ingredients and Mayan techniques to the table, it’s no surprise that Mérida is fast becoming a destination for a foodie’s dream – and a fitting host for the first comprehensive post-pandemic edition of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna.
The city of Mérida in Yucatán will host the 10th edition of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America in 2022

past to present

It all started thousands of years ago: one of the oldest civilizations in the world, with the first settlements dating back to 1800 BC and flourishing monumental cities in the 4th century BC, the Maya lived in the south of Mexico and in various countries of Central America.

Monumental architecture (with well-preserved cities such as Chichen Itza), traditions handed down over centuries, and cultural empowerment are reminders of the sophistication and development of civilization today. Many of the Mayan traditions still strong in Yucatán focus on food: ancient endemic ingredients form the basis of dishes that represent the Yucatán Peninsula – flavors that have become representative of Mexico worldwide.

“We can begin to describe the gastronomy of Yucatan with a chronology that begins with original kitchen [origin cuisine]with our most basic and ancestral ingredients such as but [corn], beans [beans] And pumpkin [pumpkin]“, explains Wilson Alonzo, local chef and renowned culinary researcher.


Chichen Itza, a complex of Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

The next step was Métis cuisine (hybrid cuisine), developed after the Spanish conquest with ingredients imported from Europe to the American continent, such as pork. “Pork lard has become an essential ingredient in many traditional recipes, alongside spices and seeds that only grow in the native land of the Maya. This mixture is the basis of the soups and stews that have become emblematic of local gastronomy. For example, there is the bulb of annattothe source of annatto seeds, today the essence of our most famous traditional dish: cochinita pibil“, continues Alonzo.

“The Asian migration gave us the frying technique, another important contribution to our culinary culture, through which we developed panuchos [stuffed refried tortillas], greetings [puffed corn tortillas] And empanadas [filled turnovers]today some of the most popular Yucatan flavors in the world.

“At the beginning of the 21st century, the era of contemporary gastronomy began. Recipes combining local ingredients with those from international migration were present at this time, such as the famous small chuck [meat marinated in citrus and grilled]concludes Alonzo.

These ancient recipes and flavors are still preserved by traditional cooks and remain a key part of home cooking, markets and street vendors that make food culture accessible to locals and tourists alike in Yucatán towns every day.

From Merida with love

You can smell the delicious food and the intense aroma of chillies and spices in many corners of the White City. Tacos and cake, a kind of Mexican sandwich, filled with cochinita (slow roast pork), black fill (garnish made from turkey, pork and peppers) or suction cup (suckling pig) can be found in any neighborhood. Word of mouth, following your nose, or simply encountering long lines of hungry customers can be great ways to find family restaurants that preserve and celebrate local flavors.

As in other cities in Mexico, the markets are an essential destination to deepen the cultural roots of the region. Full of color and folklore, they are always popular with locals stocking up on ingredients or looking for great snacks for breakfast or lunch. One of the best and largest markets in Mérida is the Mercado Lucas de Galvez, located close to the city center. Next to its incredible flower market, you will find women selling messagea blend of ancestral spices that forms the basis of cochinita, as well as black fill And white fill – some of the most well-known fillings in the entire state. It’s also easy to find authentic Yucatan style tamales (corn dough steamed in corn husks or banana leaf), atoles (a traditional hot corn drink) and tacos.
Traditional cochinita pibil tacos, with slow-roasted pork and a zesty citrus filling

A local favorite is Taquería La Lupita, located in the Mercado de Santiago, famous for its exceptional suction cup And cochinita pibil Tacos. Make sure you don’t miss the chance to try their black filling cakesa local Yucatan delicacy.These snacks – a word loosely translated as “small cravings” and used to refer to savory snacks and pre-meal bites in Mexico – goes well with a good drink and Yucatán has one of the best: Horchataa concoction of boiled rice and cinnamon that has become popular across the country.

Another widespread craving has its origins in the Lebanese culinary culture. Known locally as badit is very similar to traditional Lebanese the team, made with only a different spice blend and served with other sides – Yucatans love pairing it with red onion, cabbage and habanero pepper. Sale of street stalls bread are ubiquitous in local markets and sports stadiums.

Near and far influences

Fusion is a natural part of Mexican cuisines. Each region of the country has experienced different migrations that have transformed and magnified its traditional ingredients and recipes. In Yucatán, the arrival of Lebanese forever changed the way the locals eat. “This food culture is very close to the Mexican culinary tradition: big tables, lots of different flavors mixed together, old techniques and that intimate feeling that is so important,” says Antonio Bachour, a renowned chef who recently opened Habibi, a Lebanese restaurant elegant and modern. restaurant in Merida.

This culinary rapprochement not only emanates from other countries, but also from other states of Mexico. In recent years, many young chefs have settled in Mérida, bringing new flavors, ideas and experiences that renew local gastronomy.
Chef Jorge Vallejo de Quintonil designed Ixi’im’s menu (images: Ixi’im Restaurant)

The Ixi’im restaurant, located in the Chablé hotel complex outside the city, is a fine example of this new fusion. Executive Chef Jorge Vallejo (of Quintonil fame) and Chef Luis Ronzón, both originally from Mexico City, create authentic flavors blending the best ingredients from the Mayan culture, such as oregano, sour orange, pork and local cheese, with flavors from other regions of the country and different techniques. The result is layered, eye-catching and definitely worth trying.

Other notable culinary projects include: Micaela Mar y Leña, which recreates authentic Mexican recipes from various latitudes; Pancho Maiz, a small, fast-growing new restaurant that promotes the ethical use of corn; and Cuna, run by Venezuelan chef Maycoll Calderón, who crafts seasonal menus with the region’s best produce. Merida-Yucatan-Kuuk
Chef Pedro Evia serves modernized dishes with traditional Yucatan flavors at K’u’uk (images: K’u’uk Restaurant)

All of these new places wouldn’t exist without those who started elevating traditional cuisine years ago. Nectar was the first gourmet restaurant in Yucatán, opened by chef Roberto Solís in 2003 and widely considered the cradle of the new Yucatan gastronomy, with dishes like taco al pastor black which changed the way Yucatan food was perceived across Latin America. While Nectar is still one of the city’s premier restaurants, Solís also recently opened Huniik, a more casual dining experience that conveys modern Yucatan cuisine.

Chef Pedro Evia is also among the visionaries responsible for elevating local cuisine to a super premium level: his restaurant, K’u’uk, shows how ancient flavors and culture can be reconstructed and redeveloped. Hosted in a colonial house, it represents the amazing history, nature and flavors that Yucatán wants to share with the world.

The next edition of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, will be announced on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. To be the first to know about the latest news and announcements, follow us on Instagram, find us on Facebook , visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel.