Habanero surprise: I love Mexican food!


It’s no secret that I am not the biggest fan of Mexican food. Growing up in SoCal, I was surrounded by Mexican eateries–taco stands, Tex-Mex chain restaurants, and countless mom-and-pop establishments–but I never really embraced the food and I’m not sure why.  I never really embraced Spanish either, leaving the signs and menus even more foreign, which is odd considering most of SoCal is littered with Spanish billboards and advertisements.

Like many other Vietnamese-American families, my family kept their distance from the Mexican-American community, preferring to think that Asian-Americans were a step above (or maybe even two) on the social ladder.  Though I didn’t agree with this perspective, I did little to challenge it. In school I was learning about racism, social justice, and the inheritance of colonialism, but I seldom brought those lessons home.  Instead, I was concerned with the usual teenage issues: college preparation, social cliques, boys, and gaining independence.  So why bother challenging family values when I was trying so desperately trying to get away from family?  And when I finally did gain said independence, it took me to New England (and not South of border, which was only 2 hours away), where good Mexican food is actually harder to find than good Vietnamese food.

And so with a pretty strong fear of refried beans, burritos and enchiladas, I was more than a little apprehensive about the food as we planned our spring break to Tulum, Mexico, some 100 kilometers south of glitzy (and over-touristed) Cancun.  I had fears of heavy meals full of meat, cheese, and beans.  But I was wrong, so very wrong.

We ate gloriously in Tulum. To my utter surprise, I found the food to be very fresh and light, not at all heavy or greasy.  Given the proximity to the sea, there is an abundance of seafood and we had everything from grilled fish and shrimp to octopus and ceviche.  Ummm, ceviche.   I think I had ceviche every day, which, really isn’t such a bad thing.  My favorite kind of ceviche was the mixto, which usually consisted of fish (probably grouper), shrimp, and octopus.  The most memorable ceviche was the one at Chamico’s on Solimon Bay; in addition to the fish and shrimp, this one also had sweet, crunchy chunks of sea conch.  It was heavenly–and the view wasn’t bad either.  In addition to the seafood, we also had excellent meat dishes, including juicy arrachera (flank steak), carnitas, pollo la plancha (grilled chicken), pollo Maya (chicken with tomatoes and onions), and pulpo la plancha (grilled octopus).

But ultimately, the hot sauces sealed the deal for me. I now dream of habanero peppers!  Every meal (even breakfast) was accompanied by freshly made salsas and hot sauces.  If we were lucky, the hot sauces were house-made and featured smoky, roasted habanero peppers.  We had greens hot sauces, red, orange, tamarind, cilantro, etc.  And it was all fantastic and complemented the local cuisine beautifully.  The sweetness of fresh grilled shrimp and red snapper were perfectly enhanced by the tart and spicy sauces.  Be still my stomach!  The caretakers of our villa grew habaneros in the garden (which I had to warn the kids to not touch) and to their amusement, I asked if I could pick some.  I crushed the fresh peppers with sea salt and sprinkled some on chilled watermelon and pineapple–so good!  With all the spiciness going on, I was also in need of some refreshing drinks–and boy, did we ever indulge!  We had beer and gin and tonics at the house, and then margaritas, caipirinhas, and mojitos when we dined out.

Feast on the photos below:

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