Where to Eat in Tulum, Mexico

René Redzepi is bringing Noma to Tulum this month — but that's not the only reason foodies should visit.

April 2017

Gary James

This February, René Redzepi, the culinary savant behind the two-Michelin-starred Noma, packed up his knives, pickling jars and foraging bags and temporarily shuttered his famed Copenhagen restaurant. A month later, Noma’s entire 90-person team left for Tulum, Mexico, the jungle-canopied strip of rustic boutique hotels along the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Tulum, far less developed than Cancun and Playa del Carmen, is the last stop before Mexico’s pristine Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Its beaches, coral reefs, Mayan ruins and charming thatched-roof retreats have made the town a popular playground for the young and the well-off, but there would be little R&R for Redzepi’s team. Instead, they prepped for this month’s launch of a Noma pop up (April 12 to May 28) on the “jungle” side of Tulum’s single road.

The seven-week spinoff is an outdoor restaurant with a sand floor and primitive wood grills. The $600 tickets, for a 2.5-hour tasting menu, went on sale last December and sold out in a day. And while Redzepi and his team are bringing their utensils, they won’t be bringing their recipe notebooks—no crispy reindeer lichen this close to the equator. Instead, they’ll be pairing their imaginative methods of cooking, smoking, fermenting and foraging with the panoply of fruits, spices, leaves, seeds and insects of the region, along with local staples like pork and seafood.

Redzepi’s done pop-ups before, in Sydney and Tokyo, vast cities with sophisticated culinary scenes. So why attempt to plate the most heralded food in the world in a jungle-y outdoor restaurant that sits beyond Mexico’s electricity grid?

The rustic little town has charmed Redzepi. But more than that, Tulum is having a moment—specifically, a food moment. The destination is at a key point in its development: It has enough infrastructure (just) for good sourcing; its affluent global visitors attract talented chefs, creating a competitive environment; and though the coastal soil is poor, the peninsula’s interior produces guava, pineapples, avocados, potatoes, mangos, zapote fruit and myriad chilies and useful seeds. Basel, mint and cilantro thrive all year. And then there’s the sea—the shallows of Sian Ka’an and the nooks of the offshore patch reef teem with life.

When Redzepi visits Tulum for his family getaways, he often stays at properties owned by the Colibri Group, and has become chummy with the owners. Redzepi’s obsessive pursuit of singular flavors and textures seems to have rubbed off: the group has been courting a number of hotshot chefs to work their magic on the beach.

Pelicans plunge into schools of baitfish just off the rocky shoreline of El Pez, one of Colibri’s properties. Part of Tulum’s allure for notable chefs in Mexico is the international clientele, who take their experiences home with them. Here, Colibri has tapped rising Mexican star Francisco “Paco” Ruano to run the culinary show. Ruano rose to prominence at his celebrated Alcalde restaurant in Guadalajara, and has worked in such vaunted destinations as Spain’s Mugaritz and with Redzepi at Noma. At El Pez, he focuses on seafood, bringing to life the flavors of the Yucatán Peninsula, but serious carnivores do not go away disappointed.

We have short rib tacos with local beans, marinated onion and topped with a weird looking green stem—a succulent plant named verdolaga marina, which grows 20 feet away among limestone crags. “Paco and me, the first time we came to Tulum, we were walking around the beach and trying all the plants you can find here,” says chef de cuisine Luis Gonzalez, who worked with Ruano at Noma. “And we thought, ‘Wow, this is cool.’” The succulent is beansprout-crisp and briny, tempering the fat of the rib. “We try to find weird things to play with,” says Gonzalez, a line that could just as easily have been uttered by Redzepi.

Another dish they’ve played with here is the octopus, which is served on a potato puree with a nub of smoky local cheese, regional mushrooms sautéed with chili oil, and topped with bonito flakes that flutter in the breeze. Gonzalez and Ruano experimented with various permutations of boiling, cooling and slow cooking the octopus before pan frying it for the sear. The formula—a complete success—was something that neither chef had tried before.

Tulum’s initial food scene grew up out of foreigners opening hotels, and offering whatever food they knew best—typically not Mexican. La Zebra, though, has gone the other way. Its chef, Eleazar Bonilla, grew up in the highlands of central Mexico, where his father owned a tortilleria. His Chef’s Table menu draws from his grandmother’s recipes and the Mayan heritage of the kitchen crew. Bonilla brings out tortillas with various toppings, including chapulines (grasshoppers) marinated in chili and lime and roasted into a smoky crunch fit for a Super Bowl snack. Another winner is a dipping sauce of cuitlacoche, a fungus that grows on ears of corn. Though considered a blight in the States, locals here covet the “Mexican truffle” for its earthy flavor.

There’s also a standout “black ceviche”: shrimp sopped in a mysterious dark sauce where high citrus notes get a ballast from the dark depths of three different types of charred chilies. We end with a dessert of decadent churros topped with ice cream made from charred tortilla and corn.

Things weren’t always this elevated. Colibri CEO Brendon Leach first came to Tulum as a backpacker in 1996. “It was like a little truck stop,” he says, adding that local cuisine amounted to “a grilled chicken shop on the side of the road.” He pitched his tent on the beach and stayed for two weeks, returning in 2003 to run hotels and restaurants. Though Leach credits the quaint beachside Italian Posada Margherita, which opened in 2001, as being an early pioneer in Tulum’s cuisine, he says a turning point came around 2009. “This little scene started to evolve on the jungle side in the evening. Cenzontle and El Tábano opened. It was great. They started to really bring a focus to the culinary scene. And Hartwood was definitely one of those players.”

Hartwood, which opened in 2010 with no walls and an earthen floor, has become legend. The lanky bearded co-owner, Eric Werner, is a refugee from the brutal New York restaurant race, where he toiled at Peasant, among other eateries. He first came to Tulum 15 years ago, with his wife Mya, and a few visits later they stayed. Now a foraging pal of Redzepi’s, he didn’t try to do Mexican, but did tap into the potential of local resources.

Diners today line down the block to get in, but success hasn’t come easy. Eric has been stung by scorpions and bitten by spiders, and the couple didn’t have hot water for the first two years. At first, they used generators for electricity, but have since converted to solar, which powers only a blender and lanterns above the tables. Everything else is done with wood fire. The results are stupendous: a vibrant jicama salad—the sweet tuber and mint crema easing the salt off roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds; pork ribs cooked overnight, glazed with honey and agave, topped with pickled red cabbage, grilled pineapple and chicharrón.

Hartwood raised the bar, and others have followed suit. “We’re all playing off each other and improving the quality,” says Charlie Stuart Gay of The Real Coconut, an airy eatery on the beach at the Sanará resort. Owner Daniella Hunter suffered debilitating asthma as a child, and designed a menu that’s helped her heal, with no gluten, grain, dairy or refined sugar. There is animal protein—beef and chicken that is free-range organic, and rich eggs with dark yolks.

“When we arrived in 2012, there was nothing available for me to eat the way I wanted to,” says Hunter. Now, with the local food scene diversifying, more growers are providing organic ingredients. The Real Coconut has done so well that they’re opening two spots in L.A., and launching a line of coconut chips.

Like Hartwood, Casa Banana—a jungle-side restaurant that opened in 2009—is all about fire. Argentine co-owner Daniel Navazzotti was working at the groundbreaking Posada Margherita with a friend and thought, “Why don’t we start our own fire? We are Argentinian!” He and his Mayan chefs use local wood and an Argentine-style asado grill. “The fat on the meats drips on the coals and comes back in the smoke, so you’re getting fat and smoke, fat and smoke, and that makes the steak different, really tasty,” he says. “You don’t have parties or clubs in Tulum, so going to a resto is the main entertainment.”

The restaurant scene here is booming, but obstacles remain. Wild, which opened last December, has clusters of tables under leaf-like canopies and a menu that combines Mediterranean, Caribbean, Lebanese and Yucatán influences. Owner Karen Young used to produce music festivals in Asia and Eastern Europe, and figured launching a chill restaurant in a chill beach town would be relatively easy. “Little did I know,” she says with a theatrical sigh. “When I was buying the generator, I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m not buying shoes anymore! I’m getting excited about buying a new generator!’” Young’s shoes now tend to be flip flops, her Louboutins in storage. “I wonder if they’ll see the light of day.”

Mexican ownership is lacking on Tulum’s boho-chic beach strip, but ask folks who work here where they like to eat, and you’ll hear the name Cenzontle again and again. It’s hard to pronounce and easy to miss, its entrance resembling an overgrown pathway to a hidden garden. Inside, you’ll find a welcoming hodgepodge of antique and hand-made furniture under vine-laden trellises. Mexican owner Ivan Angeles worked in a bar in Mexico City and at Zoo Project in Ibiza before settling in Tulum 11 years ago. The name comes from his favorite bird, cenzontle (mockingbird), and the eclectic menu reflects a philosophy. “It’s not egocentric,” says Angeles. “There’s dishes from three different people on that menu. We’re running a mole special based on a recipe from one of the dishwasher’s grandmothers.”

Cenzontle’s most frequently ordered dish, the pork ribs, draws from various parts of Mexico. They’re slow braised, seasoned with vanilla from Veracruz and a chili pasilla sauce (dried chilaca pepper), and served with apple compote and cinnamon. As for the vibe, Angeles is proud that people tend to camp out here for hours on end. “We want to deliver the original Tulum energy,” he says.

The only question now is, how long that energy might last.

As you drive to Tulum from Cancun, you pass the more commercialized Playa del Carmen and new gargantuan golf communities creeping down the coast. But the challenges of this jungle town might just be its salvation. “It’s difficult,” says Angeles. “It’s off the power grid. Even when you know what you’re doing, you have to bring your own water, you have to treat your own waste water, you have to generate your own energy. That’s an extra challenge.” Additionally, much of the area just inland from the strip is protected mangrove habitat.

“Boutique owners care,” says Gay. “Guests that come here also care. They’re not the people that just wanted to go stuff their faces and drink margaritas at an all-inclusive.” This ethos might keep Tulum special, but recent murky land seizures have businesses owners looking over their shoulders. “I’ve been here 11 years. Clothing gets holes in it. Everything can waste away,” says Angeles. “The biggest lesson from Tulum to me is the nowness.” An apt notion for a place having a moment.


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