One of our favorite things about Mexico is the food. It’s certainly not for everyone, as Mexican food is notoriously spicy, and has the potential to exact ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ upon those who aren’t used to it – but for us it’s a huge reason to go to Mexico in the first place.

A Brief Culinary Background

We both grew up in New England which is more of a ‘meat and potatoes’ type place. My Mom is a good cook, but most meals in New England require salt and butter to taste like much, and I don’t think I ate something even as spicy as a Jalapeno until I moved to California.

Salsa Verde and Salsa FrescaThe first time I experienced ‘real’ Mexican food was when Kathy and I moved to California back in 1998. Of course New England has Tex-Mex restaurants, and Taco Bell is everywhere, but if you’ve never had real Mexican Food then let me tell you it’s night and day different.

For me the first few times I ate it I simply didn’t like it. I wasn’t used to the flavors – Cilantro certainly takes getting used to. I also was taken aback by the raw onions, the spice, and the soft-shell tortillas. Where were the crispy shells like at Taco Bell?

I was especially bewildered by fish tacos. I mean who puts fish in a taco? Of course fish tacos are everywhere in Southern California so I had plenty of chances to try them – but it took me a couple years to get on board with the idea.

Fast forward to today and I love Mexican food – including fish tacos. Kathy can tell you that I light up like a christmas tree when I have a hot plate of fresh Mexican food in front of me. Yummy!

This is one of the advantages to being in one place for a while. Repeated exposure to something can completely change your impression of it. This is why I tell friends and family to keep trying new things – because you never know when you’ll find something you absolutely love – even though you hated it the first time.

I think Kathy can attest to this, as when I met her she wouldn’t even eat fish – and now she loves fish tacos even more than I do!

What Makes Mexican Food Taste So Good?

Alhambres De VegetalesIn my opinion the difference between Mexican food and standard American food is flavor. In the United States when you want to make something taste good you add fat – usually in the form of butter – salt (lots of salt!), and sugar which is in everything these days.

Mexican food is flavored by hot peppers, salsa, onions, garlic, fresh-squeezed lime, and cilantro. Of course there’s some salt in there too, but you’d be surprised by how much less salt you need when you have the flavors of freshly diced green onions, garlic, limes, and spicy peppers!

The wide variety of peppers, and the variety of spices used in Mexican food can challenge your palate at first, but after eating if for a while you begin to appreciate just how much flavor each mouthful of food can contain. What makes it even better is that it’s not just a bunch of salt and fat – there’s real veggies in there.

Our Favorite Restaurants in Playa Del Carmen

playa-5th-ave-restaurantsMost tourist in Playa Del Carmen eat at the restaurants on 5th Ave. This makes sense as there are lots of places to eat and you can find all different varieties of food here – everything from Pizza and Burgers to Mexican, Italian, Chinese and so on.

The problem with this theory is that while there are certainly some good restaurants on 5th, there are also plenty of substandard places too – and all of the places on 5th are overpriced for what you get.

If you never leave the tourist area you may not know the difference, but if you come to Cancun or Playa I strongly recommend you follow my lead and break out of the box! Your mouth and your wallet will thank me.

The first night we arrived in Playa Del Carmen we ate at a restaurant down the way. We had a couple of celebratory drinks and a mixed plate of standard mexican food – enchiladas, fajitas and so on. We left the place $50 lighter and the food was pretty substandard.

El Fogon

El Fogon CooksA week later we found El Fogon. El Fogon is up near the Mega grocery store on 30th ave, 5 blocks from the tourist zone.

At El Fogon you’re served piping hot food that was just taken off the grill with very spicy salsa and ice cold beer. The food is wonderful – and Kathy and I can eat and drink to our hearts content for around $25 there. If you’re conservative you can easily eat a great meal at El Fogon for less than $20 – and I mean a GREAT meal!

They have Tacos al Pastor for 8 pesos each (about 70 cents), Alhambras de Arrachera – or Kathy’s favorite Alhambras de Vegeterianos – which are stir fried veggies and meats or just stir fried veggies with pineapple served on a plate with hot sauce and tortillas on the side.

Kathy gets a Papa al Carbon – that’s a Baked Potato, and mixes her veggies on top with some crema (sour cream) and salsa. I alternate between the Tacos al Pastor and stir fried veggies with either steak or chicken.

For those who don’t know, al pastor is the large stack of meat you see in front of some Mexican restaurants. It’s usually layered slices of meat with a pineapple on top, and rotates in front of burners or hot coals. The pineapple juice drips on the meat and flavors the whole stack, and the chef slices thin layers of meat off the stack as it cooks on a big spit, and places the meat on soft tortillas with onions, cilantro, and a slice of pineapple.

El FogonThe resulting tacos are VERY tasty – and for all intensive purposes are probably junk food. At the very least I eat mine with lots of salsa fresca and hot salsa on top – and the picture at the top of the article is a Taco Al Pastor.

We’ve found several similar local places – including our favorite fish taco joint Las Pescadillas – that have wonderful food for cheap prices. Most of them will bring you a bucket of beer (5 cervezas in ice) for 100 pesos ($8.50) and have great food – and yet very few tourists eat at any of these restaurants.

Trust me when I say that they (and you if you’re one of them) are missing out big time! I know the menu is in spanish and most of the waiters don’t speak english, but break out of the box and enjoy some real Mexican food!

Magnum Bars

Magnum Ice Cream BarsRejoice America! Unilever has finally decided to bring Magnum Ice Cream Bars to the United States. I first discovered Magnum Bars in Mexico, and if you like ice cream you will absolutely LOVE Magnum Bars!

Not a week goes by that Kathy and I don’t buy Magnum Bars and bring them down to the beach to be enjoyed. They have the quality of a Haagen Daaz bar, but cost considerably less – and somehow Unilever has figured out how to make ice cream and chocolate that is smooth and creamy at any temperature.

I’ve read that the Magnum bars in Mexico have added vegetable oil – so I’m sure they’re not very good for you, but wow do they taste amazing. I believe the new bars released in the US are all ice cream, so it will be interesting to see if they taste the same or not. In another week I’ll be finding out.

Well, enough talk about food as I’m making myself hungry. Time to go to El Fogon for one last meal. I wish that I could bring El Fogon with me back to the United States, but I’ll have to settle for trying to duplicate their food on my own. Not sure if my family will like it or be able to handle the spice, but I’ll give them the chance to try.

Until next time, keep on trekking!


Hi, I'm Rich - Perpetual traveler, photographer, writer, and web designer. Thanks for reading, and happy trekking!