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You didn’t get into Noma Mexico? Don’t worry. The Riviera Maya beach town of Tulum has long afforded visitors and locals plenty of wonderful cuisine and a robust dining scene long before René Redzepi temporarily traded Copenhagen for the Caribbean. Tulum’s vibe is beach breezy and most restaurants on the laid-back hotel strip enjoy ocean views, but the oft-overlooked inland town also has a few gems of its own. Whether it’s the wood-fired cooking that defines Hartwood, the handmade pastas that originate in the kitchen of Posada Margherita, or the cochinita pibil breakfast tacos in town, Tulum boasts plenty of options that might be as good as anything you’ll find on René Redzepi’s temporary menu.
Casa Jaguar exudes a sort of Lost World vibe with stone walls and wooden beams strewn with hanging lanterns and plants that seem to creep closer and closer as the night goes on. The highly recommended whole fish, glazed in smoked butter and cooked in a wood burning oven, is the star here. Fresh juice cocktails are created by the buzzing bar, most infused with agave spirits such as mezcal, tequila, and raicilla. If you just feel like drinking, you can hit the spot sister bar in town, Todos Santos. casajaguar.com.
Not feeling Mexican-inspired? Book a reservation at Posada Margherita, inside the hotel of the same name. Set in an indoor-outdoor space that encompasses multiple, multi-level decks overlooking the ocean, this long time favorite embodies a good vibe and caters to both couples seeking romance and, on the earlier side, families. Pastas are the standout here, with popular plates ranging from a standard pomodoro to zucchini and shrimp linguine. Local fish specials round out the menu and gluten-free pastas are also available. Cash only. posadamargherita.com.
There’s a glass case filled with whatever fish is fresh that day, mostly imported from the Pacific coast (Kumamoto oysters, bluefin tuna, chocolate clams from Baja), as well as local seafood including sustainably sourced lobsters from Punta Allen at chef Ricardo Zapata’s Simple. Pick your fish and the able chef (who has had stints at world class kitchens like Arzak) will bring it back to your table grilled, as ceviche, as tiradito, or a handful of other preparations. Thirsty? Quench it with solid margaritas and ancho chile laced cocktails, and if you need a place to crash, there’s a handful of rooms available for rent just off the beach. www.simpletulum.com
Set between the palmy jungle and the white sandy beaches, this campfire-like experience is anchored by a small dining room, a fire-pit, and a kitchen working out of a 1971 Airstream. Opened in 2015 when chef Luis Aguilar (ex-Tacombi) returned from New York City to Mexico, the menu focuses on fresh, local ingredients, inspired by traditional Mexican recipes. The tacos get high marks, from beetroot to crispy fish, shrimp mole verde to al pastor, and are to be washed down with local Pescadores craft beer. Facebook Page.
Mis-matched colored wood tables and chairs dot the patio of this sunny garden spot near the beach where a daily changing menu focuses on local, seasonal ingredients. The all-day offerings can be overwhelming (occupying a whole wall of floor-to-ceiling chalkboards), but peek into the open kitchen of and you’ll find anywhere from one to five abuelitas, or grandmas, carefully watching moles simmer and steep, kneading masa for tortillas, or piling tostadas high with ingredients, making your selection even harder. The shaded bar offers a great spot for afternoon cocktails, but in addition to the many cocktails, the wine list features beautiful Mexican wines from regions like Valle de Guadalupe, Coahiula, and Querétaro which shouldn’t be missed. Cash only. eltabanorestaurant.com
If you only have one meal in Tulum, it should be spent at Hartwood. Utilizing an open-fire cooking, this no electricity, open-air restaurant on the jungle side of the beach road is where New York trained chef Eric Werner and Mya Henry pair fresh fruit cocktails (many with mezcal) with locally sourced produce (chaya, nopal, jicama) and fish for brilliant plates like agave glazed pork ribs, local fish ceviches, and grilled octopus. The chalkboard menu changes daily and while Hartwood now takes some online reservations, they equally weight walk-in dining, so during peak season the wait can be long. Plan accordingly. hartwoodtulum.com (*Editorial Note: All Hartwood-related photography within this piece credited to Gentl & Hyers from Hartwood. Copyright © 2015.)
Opened in 2015, under the steady hand of Valle de Guadalupe’s esteemed chef Diego Hernández Baquedano (currently #39 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list), MurMur Tulum infuses the flavors of Baja into local Yucatecan and Caribbean ingredients. This “jungle-to-table” spot serves nuanced dishes like local catch with oxtail mole and octopus with black recado sauce to more simple snacks like tacos, the twinkle light and cozy al fresco vibe begs diners to stay a while. Pop-ups by Mexican chefs happen often, and the brunch will help chase away the stiffest of hangovers. www.murmurtulum.com
A departure from much of the fare offered off the beach, Mezzanine, which resides in an upscale hotel of the same name, is a spot conceptualized by Thai chef Dim Geefay and overseen by Garn Surasak. Trading in the traditional flavors of Thailand, the restaurant serves a menu of salads, curries, and favorites like pad thai, as well as daily breakfast, and a beach menu focused on tacos and quesadillas. The cocktail menu creates a complementary profile of drinks with Asian accents. mezzaninetulum.com
The best way to make a healthy start to the day on the beach is at the vegan Raw Love. Coffee drinks and lattes of all sorts, as well as superfood smoothies, acai and other bowls, and a killer zucchini alfredo (zucchini noodles, pesto avocado sauce) make for repeat, daily visits to nourish body and soul — after a yoga class on the beach, of course. Facebook Page.
This jungle-set mezcal bar and lounge that opened in 2014 now features a menu designed by Noma co-founder, Mads Refslund, who was retained as a consultant after a run of pop-ups in early 2017. Using local ingredients and cooking with fire and ice, resulting dishes include tuna sashimi tostadas, fire-roasted cauliflower with red mole and local cream, grilled avocado with toasted almonds, ponzu, and worm salt, and slow-roasted pork belly with sweet and sour pineapple. Mezcal dominates the cocktail menu (and sexy bar); we like the Gypsy Disco (mezcal, anejo rum, lime, house basil grenadine). www.gitanotulum.com
For tacos al pastor, no one does it better than Antojitos La Chiapaneca. Located on the Highway/Avenida Tulum, this two-room taqueria opens daily at 6PM, and quickly fills up with a variety of locals and tourists. The spit-roasted pork, crisp on the edges and succulent on the inside with the a slight tang of citrus from the dripping pineapple atop, needs no condiments, but should you want some, a row of molcajetes filled with spicy salsas and toppings awaits. Avenida Tulum beside Weary Traveler Hostel. Facebook Page.
At this divey, no-frills taqueria, the owners bring heritage breed pigs from their own farm, bury the meat in the ground, and are ready to serve cochinita pibil, or Mayan style pork, tacos each morning. Sold for breakfast (starting at 6AM), Taqueria El Paisa calls it quits when the day’s quantity is sold old out, usually by 11AM. A few blocks off the main drag, it’s a spot favored by locals, and in addition to the tacos, tortas, relleno negro, and escabeches are also popular. Corner of Calle Sol Ote and Calle Satelite S.
Oaxacan and Poblano moles are the specialty of this restaurant from chef Claudia Pérez Rívas set in a converted old house off a residential street in the center of town. Great care is taken to make dishes as authentic as possible and the chef regularly meets with indigenous communities throughout the country, foraging for wild ingredients. During Dia de los Muertos they go all out, plus they bottle their own moles, chapulines, and maguey worm salt, which make a great souvenir to bring brave souls back home. Corner of Calle Polar Ponte and Orion Norte. Facebook page.
For seafood, El Camello Jr., at the end of the main drag in town, is the place. You’ll know it by the volume of wooden four-top tables that spill out onto the sidewalk. With whole fried fish that costs a third of the price of the spots on the beach (and tastes better!), this is a place where delicious affordability is the theme. Great coconut shrimp and huge plates of ceviche and cockteles also get our vote, along with cheap, cold beer and tasty micheladas. Corner ofAvenida Tulum and Luna Sur. Facebook Page.
On the main drag, this pollo asado, or roasted chicken, spot is easy to overlook. But once found, the price point and moist main dish will make you you want to return. The open-air oven spits out chicken after chicken from 9-7 PM, served with tortillas and accompanying salsas, which we think make for a great beach picnic takeaway. Facebook Page.
Seasonal fruit, smoothies, and more importantly, a long list of freshly made paletas with flavors like guava and chile make the hot, sticky days of this tropical paradise a little more bearable at this casual dessert spot. Avenida Tulum.
To keep hydrated, start your day (or load up for the beach) at Frutería Jupiter, a very simple fruit and vegetable stand with fresh juices including carrot, pineapple, chaya, and mango. Avenida Jupiter s/n.
Photographs by Gentl & Hyers from Hartwood. Copyright © 2015.