Cancun: Taco Tour

Things have been busy around here.  School ends really early in UT and E finishes next Friday (!)  Our schedule has been crammed with end-of-year stuff along with soccer games and gymnastics.

Before I moved on to other things I wanted to do one more post about our trip in April to Mexico in April.  We went on a taco tour in Cancun which was one of my favorite things from the trip.

I found the Taco Tour on TripAdvisor.  It seemed fun, it was only $15 a person for the tour plus a little extra for the tacos and tips, and the reviews were good.  So I submitted our info on the website and waited to hear back from them.

Merak, the tour guide, emailed me back within 48 hours to confirm and gave me his cell number if we needed to reach him and we (N, me, and 3 friends from N’s company) were set to meet him the following evening in front of a grocery store in Cancun.

Merak demonstrating how not to eat a taco (with your pinky in the air–you want to use it to hold stuff in)

Merak was a great tour guide–friendly, knowledgeable, helpful, and passionate about Mexican food and tacos.  We set off on foot from the supermarket and arrived at our first stop for tacos al pastor.

Merak told us that al pastor was invented when Arabic immigrants came to Mexico and brought shawarma with them.  Locals adopted the method of cooking meat on a spit but incorporated local flavors and used pork instead of lamb and al pastor was born.

Merak recommended only ordering tacos al pastor if we were at a restaurant and saw their al pastor on a spit.  N0 spit–don’t chance it! He also said that tacos al pastor normally come with chopped onion, cilantro, and pineapple.  Our tacos were SO good (pictured at the top of this post)  I liked the pineapple.

After that we set off walking to our next stop.  We walked through town and saw locals out enjoying the evening. At one point before we walked down an alley Merak pulled us aside and said that they were remodeling the building on the side so the alley was especially dark right now but not to worry, he wasn’t leading us into an ambush and we we weren’t going to get mugged.  And we didn’t, the end.

Men playing chess in a park. The chairs and tables were made out of painted tires.
Hipster food trucks. Merak said they are just starting to appear in Cancun and haven’t really caught on yet.

The next place was a taco cart in another (better-lit) alley.

Merak giving us his recommendations.

This taco cart was across the street from a modern, upscale restaurant which is where Merak said a lot of taxi drivers would take you if you said you wanted good tacos.  He also said that the driver would usually give you a card for a free margarita and then when you redeemed it he would get a kickback because the card had his referral number on the back.

As we walked past the restaurant he told us to look inside and see how many Mexicans were eating there.  There were only a few (mostly eating with tourists) but we went across the street and the tables by this taco cart were PACKED.

20160411_0090Merak listed his favorite tacos from this stand: chorizo, steak, and tripa (tripe).  As soon as he said the tripe taco was good I knew what I was having!  It was crispy and a little smokey like bacon and really good.


Various tacos.
Various tacos.  I think those are the tripe tacos in front.

The next place we went was a seafood restaurant.  Merak said because the Cancun is only about 40 years old and developed as a tourist area there isn’t a fishing industry.  People realized they could make more money using boats to take tourist snorkeling and whatnot rather than fishing for a living–you can take tourists out to look at the same fish day after day but if you catch them to eat then that’s it.

Merak said that people also know that the tourists expect to be able to eat seafood in Cancun–so most restaurants bring it in frozen.  Just a few places get it fresh like the one he took us to.

When Merak described this as a "big jalepeno popper with shrimp" I knew what I was ordering. It was DELICIOUS.
When Merak described this as a “big jalepeno popper with shrimp” I knew what I was ordering. It was DELICIOUS.

We finished our tour by walking through town to a big town square.  There was a big thatched roof called a palapa over a stage where a singer was entertaining a crowd.  Merak said that people gather every night to hang out as families and enjoy the cooler temps.

Balloons for sale
Balloon seller
The couple is letting their little girl ride in a car they are driving by remote control.
The couple is letting their little girl ride in a car they are driving by remote control.  People rent them for 20-minute sessions.
I love street food vendors.

Merak told us which vendors to avoid (he had eaten at one of them and gotten sick the week before) and which to consider for dessert.  Everyone ended up getting ice cream at this stall he recommended.  It was all made fresh and there were several local flavors that Merak tried to explain…”it’s a green fruit about this big…the inside is salmon-colored and it tastes kind of a melon but not as sweet.”  The vendor was happy to give everyone lots of samples and everyone ended up with something they liked.

Papaya ice cream with this spicy salty stuff on it. Really good!
Papaya ice cream with this spicy salty stuff on it. Really good!

It was such a fun experience.  Merak was a fantastic guide and such good company.  I felt privileged to be able to eat such delicious food and to learn more about locals lives and eat in Cancun.  Everyone in our group was so happy afterward and agreed that we would have paid more than $15 USD for the experience.  Merak said he knew he could charge more but that he didn’t want to, that he felt blessed to get to eat good food and share his love of Mexican food with tourists.

If you go to Cancun, please try to go on Merak’s taco tour!  You won’t regret it.


Thanks for the memories, Merak!

And no, I didn’t get food poisoning.  Even from that tripe taco 😉

Cancun: Cooking with Felipe

After we finished shopping for produce and chicharrón (fried pig skin) at Mercado 23 with Felipe, we went to his restaurant to cook our 3-course lunch with him.  I was impressed with his restaurant.  While small (it’s in a converted apartment) it was bright and modern and the kitchen was well-organized and impeccably clean.

The first thing Felipe did was make a drink by blending the chaya leaves he had bought at the market and mixing it with sugar water.  The resulting punch was a bright vivid green, herbaceous, and very refreshing.

Then we got started on our guacamole appetizer.

guacamole with chicharrón
Our first course, guacamole with chicharrónes (I took the picture before Felipe added fried crickets which were as crunchy as you might expect).

Felipe told us about a traditional snack he would have with his family when they went to the market when he was a kid: they would buy ripe avocados, roll them around to mash the insides, slice them in half, and then use chicharrónes (fried pig skin) to scoop out the avocado.  Delicious!

Next we worked on the pork dish.  We cut a pork loin into thirds and then marinated it in oil, garlic, salt, and Mexican oregano. We put the scraps from the loin into a pan with oil and I browned them on the stove to make a base for the sauce.

Me browning pork scraps for the sauce
Working on the creme brûlée so it can simmer while we work cook the pork

Then Felipe put a plancha (a traditional griddle) on the stove to toast ingredients for the pippin mole sauce.

Toasting torillas, onions, and dried peppers on the plancha.
Toasting torillas, onions, and dried ancho peppers on the plancha.
Felipe toasting pepitas on the plancha--once they warmed up a few popped right off the stove!
Felipe toasting pepitas (pumpkin seeds)–once they started popping a few jumped right off the stove

Then Felipe put all the sauce ingredients into his fancy Thermomix and it blended everything up.

We browned the pieces of pork loin on the stove and then Felipe put them in the oven to finish.  And then he plated it up and N and I ate what was probably the best pork dish I’ve ever had.  The pork was so tender and juicy and the pipian sauce was bursting with flavor.  The powder on top was ground toasted tortillas which added a nutty flavor.


In between working on the other dishes we had also been working on a rosemary creme brûlée for dessert.  It seemed like a normal creme brûlée receive but we added rosemary and scraped half of a vanilla bean into the egg yolk/cream mixture.  After simmering it on the stove Felipe strained it twice before pouring it into small mason jars (which are apparently beloved in restaurants worldwide).

N and I working on the rosemary creme brûlée
N and I working on the rosemary creme brûlée

After the little pots of cream mixture were finished simmering in their water bath on the stove we used a torch to carmelize sugar on top.  And then Felipe picked up pieces of rosemary with tweezers, lit them on fire and then blew them out, and then held the smoking rosemary inside the mason jar, shutting the lid to trap the smoke inside.   So when we opened the mason jars you got this whiff of smokey rosemary before you started eating.  It was SO GOOD!

Our rosemary creme brûlée–there’s rosemary smoke inside that lid! 😉

I love creme brûlée in general and this was the best I’ve ever had.  It was so creamy and smooth without any air bubbles because Felipe had strained it twice and the rosemary added this slight herby savory note so the sweetness was even more noticeable in contrast.  Yum.

We had a great time cooking with Felipe.  It was fun to see a professional chef at work.  I noted how he was always cleaning and tidying as he worked and am trying to pick up the habit myself at home.

Our Spanish isn’t very good and while his English was a little better it felt a little awkward at first since it was just N and me, Felipe, and a guide. But as time went on it became easier and easier to understand each other. Funny how that happens 🙂

Selfie with Felipe
Selfie with Felipe

Felipe told us about how he met his wife when he was the chef at a prominent vineyard in Mexico and she was a sommelier there.  About how he learned to love food from his grandmother and how the name of his restaurant Lu’um means “earth” in Mayan and about how he hopes to share his love of creative food with people through his restaurant.  After a few hours together we swapping pictures of our families on our phones and listening to one of N’s K-pop mixes through the speakers in the kitchen.

It was warm in the kitchen and while it didn’t seem to bother N or anyone else I got hot and sweaty (as I am prone to be–it’s my curse to bear) and Felipe kept aiming the air conditioner at me and pouring me more and more cold chaya to drink which was super refreshing.

My only regrets about the experience were that we didn’t get the recipes written down and I’m already getting fuzzy on the pipian mole ingredients, and that it was our last day in Mexico so we didn’t have time to come back to Lu’um for dinner.  Felipe does a 6-course tasting dinner that sounded fantastic and we would have loved to tried it.  It is now one of my biggest reasons for wanting to go back to Cancun 😉

You can follow Felipe’s restaurant Lu’um on Instagram and Facebook.  If you’re going to Cancun and love food I wholeheartedly recommend eating at his restaurant or the market tour/cooking class we did.  It was one of the highlights of our whole trip.

Cancun: Mercado 23

A few weeks ago N and I were able to spend a week at a lovely Mexican resort on the coast between Cancun and Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya area.  N’s company had invited us on the trip and graciously took care of the resort and airfare.  That, along with my mom coming down from WA to stay at home with the kids, made it a real treat.

We mostly just wanted to relax on this trip so we didn’t tour any ruins or go to the big amusement parks.  But we did go on two great local Cancun tours.  They were both aimed at letting you experience the local food culture  🙂

We booked this combination market tour/cooking class.  It was one of my very favorite things from the trip.  I’ll post more about the cooking class but here are photos from when we met the chef, Felipe Morales, at Mercado 23 and shopped for lunch ingredients together.

Fruit market Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Shrimp for sale. Mercado 23 Cancun MexicoChicken butcher. Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Herbs for sale. Mercado 23 Cancun MexicoFood court Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico Habanero peppers Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Chicken butcher. Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

Bananas at Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico Butcher Butcher Mercado 23 Cancun Mexico

The market was fascinating!  It was mainly locals doing their grocery shopping.  When I travel I love getting a look at how people really live in a place.