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The capital of the state of Yucatán, a jungle-swathed region of Mexico scattered with pristine beaches, hidden cenotes, or swim-holes, and crumbling Mayan archaeology, Mérida has plenty to offer visitors in search of ancient history and culture. But it’s a food-lover’s city too, with bastions of haute cuisine and a plethora of street stalls, markets and traditional dining rooms using regional produce and age old Yucatecan recipes, to choose from. Here are ten of the best.
Ask almost any Mérida resident for a list of their favorite restaurants and La Chaya Maya is certain to be in the mix. Named after the spinach-like leaf used in many of the region’s traditional dishes, the restaurant serves some of the best and most authentic Yucatan cuisine in Mérida. Housed in a colonial house in the city’s historic center, the newest of the restaurant’s two branches is the most atmospheric. It’s the place to try regional classics like cochinita pibil, pork marinated in ground achiote seeds and bitter orange juice, baked in banana leaves until meltingly tender.
La Chaya Maya, Calle 55 x 60 y 62, Centro, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, +52 999 928 4780
This neighborhood restaurant and bar is set in and around a courtyard in the house where, in 1787, Andrés Quintana Roo, the politician responsible for drafting Mexico’s post-war Declaration of Independence, was born. The menu is extensive and includes pastas, pizzas and vegetarian dishes such as curried eggplants, but the traditional Yucatecan cuisine is the highlight. Among Amaro’s signature dishes are cochinita pibil and sopa de lima, a refreshing soup of shredded chicken, tomato, sweet green pepper, onion and lime juice. In the evenings, you can catch trova acts performing beneath the flowering trees in the courtyard, testament to the musical influence of nearby Cuba on the Yucatán peninsula.
Restaurante Amaro, Calle 59 507, Centro, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, +52 999 928 2451
Known for serving faithful renditions of Yucatecan classics, Los Almendros is popular and provides an excellent introduction to the cuisine of the region. The setting is relaxed and informal, while the prices are reasonable. Among the standout dishes on the menu are poc-chuc, grilled pork marinated in citrus, served with jewel-bright slivers of pickled pink onion, and scrambled eggs with longaniza sausage. Los Almendros also offers daily specials, including pork and black beans on Mondays and pavo en salsa de alcaparras (turkey with caper sauce) on Wednesdays.
The best of Mérida’s high end options, K’u’uk sets out to celebrate the gastronomic history of the Yucatán peninsula with weird and wonderful creations, drawing on cutting edge culinary techniques in the process. Currently on the 13 course tasting menu is a dessert involving a stingless meliponin-bee honey biscuit with passion fruit and pollen cream and Balcheé (a ceremonial Mayan drink made with fermented honey and pineapple), a main course of creole suckling pig, and a ‘fake fossil’ made with ginkgo leaf, pollen, nopal cactus, seaweed and a dehydrated fish. A culinary reference to the Yucatán meteorite strike thought to have put an end to the dinosaurs, all of the ingredients used in the latter are known to have existed in the cretaceous period. It even arrives atop a genuine iron meteorite just so you know they’re serious.
K’u’uk Restaurant, Calle 30 313, San Ramón Norte, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, +52 999 944 3377
Rosas and Xocolate is a boutique hotel with a smart modern restaurant to match. The water garden and outdoor tequila bar are ideal if you’re looking to escape the heat while the roof terrace hosts live jazz in the evenings. In the restaurant, cleverly designed twists on Mexican classics are the order of the day, a philosophy that’s even applied to the aguas frescas with flavors like chaya, cucumber and lime, and kiwi with peppery hoja santa. Order the Menú Degustación, a six course tasting menu that ends with the restaurant’s signature chocolate tart, and you can try a little bit of everything.
Reviews of La Casa de Frida invariably mention the restaurant’s house rabbit Coco (which allegedly translates as ‘baldy’ in Mayan as well as ‘coconut’ in Spanish) but the brightly painted dining room (inspired by the house of Frida Kahlo) and the traditional Mexican food is worth talking about too. Among the restaurant’s specialities are mole poblano, a rich sauce made with ground chilies, spices and cacao widely regarded as Mexico’s national dish, and chiles en nogada, poblano chilies stuffed with minced meat, spices and fruit, garnished with pomegranate seeds and served with a walnut and cream sauce.