Friday 3/21/2014. After 8pm. Taqueria El Poblano, Tulum Av, Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
If you like food porn, prepare to be indulged.
I could not possibly call it a trip without digging into some authentic Mexican food downtown. So we asked for directions and boarded the 1R bus to reach Mercado 28, apparently a bustling marketplace popular with locals. We must have picked a terrible time because, instead of the expected 30 minute commute up and out of the Hotel Zone, the bus coughed and rattled for a good hour before a street that remotely resembled non-touristification emerged. I woke the 3 bobbing heads on my shoulders (losers always falling asleep) and told the team to look out for any shop which may serve food, since (1) we had no idea where we were, and (2) we were absolutely starving.
As our bus turned onto a main road (later Google Maps told me this was Tulum Ave) with more street lights and hawkers, my appetite antenna went ballistic when my laser eyes sizzled in on a yellow signboard that screamed “TAQUERIA”. Angels burst into chorus and my team had to exchange but one glance before we danced off the bus and into the
sunset cozy restaurant spilling into the side of the street with its white plastic chairs, colorful LED lights, and aroma after aroma that made me break into a wide smile.
Let the games begin. And so we began taking our orders at El Poblano. And it went like this:
(Apologies, I don’t know how to insert the upside down question mark or accents efficiently.)
Waiter: Buenas noches, -asks what we would like to order in Spanish-
Me: Habla ingles?
Me: -oh [expletive]-
I spend a moment collecting myself. I didn’t take 5 years of secondary school Spanish for nothing after all (…or did I?). And this place must be legit if they don’t speak English. It was all good, because I knew my basic “quisiera…” or “un aguacate relleno de camaron, por favor.” I mean, it’s written on the menu.
Me: Un aguacate relleno de camaron para mi, por favor. (An avocado stuffed with shrimp, please.)
Awkward by awkward order, we successfully convinced our amused waiter of our wishes. Much accomplishment. Wow. But seriously, I felt kind of bad for him.
I was borrowing a good friend’s camera for the trip (shoutout to Kat if you’re reading this! Your DSLR saved many days!) and could not bear to not document the creation of deliciousness all around us during our wait. So I walked over to the grill, asked for permission in more less than respectable Spanish, received it, and began snapping. It was wonderful, not to mention a sneaky chance to sniff the salty sizzle of of the steaks, peppers, and onions up close. You have to forgive the greasiness. I literally channeled every sense possible except taste (because I’m not a fool who steals stuff off the grill… geez). Everything about the food prep process just made me immensely happy as I crouched at grill level and took it all in.
Oh my God! I almost forgot to bring up the highlight of the night: the para llevar story. So basically Jane wanted to bring her leftovers home. We should have checked whether bringing leftovers is a thing in the culture here, but nevertheless. What we could NOT remember for the sorry lives of us was how to say “to go box.” This sounds stupid but we tormented our waiter for some 15 minutes with the following embarrassing attempts…
(If translated into English)
- Do you have… a thing… to contain this food?
- Can I please have a thing… to -points at food and makes wrapping gesture-… my home?
- May I please… bring -makes rectangular box with fingers several times- for this food?
Anyway, it was awful. When our waiter exclaimed, “para llevar?” I think my brain exploded and we had all just officially put our childhood Spanish education to shame. In the next couple days, we’d say “para llevar” and start laughing.
After dinner, we strolled around the storefronts nearby, each selling generic shirts, hats, beachwear, shoes for relatively cheap prices. The streetlights were not exceptionally bright but the street remained busy, with couples and families walking about, hawkers selling food I wasn’t sold on trying, and loud busses and mini-trucks rumbling down the middle of the two-way road.
All in all, I felt slightly nostalgic because the scene strangely reminded me of China on a regular night. Perhaps not in a major city but a typical urban town usually an hour’s drive again from province capitals. There are the taxi drivers calling out to you to use their services, the dusty sidewalks and large poster-style shop signs in low-rise buildings. Random honks. We dropped by a supermarket to buy some fruits and snacks before heading back to our hotel by bus. Next time, I would love to stay in a hostel or inn downtown.
There’s the best Mexican dinner in my life for you. I highly recommend exploring the downtown neighborhood for an afternoon or evening! Our schedule was too packed for that as we had a 7:15am pickup the next morning for Chichen Itza. Wrapping up here for the next post, friends.
P.S. If you liked this post, check out its sister post of food in Venice!