Dec 13, 2008

Cheap Dutch Beer in Merida

Check out the price of a six pack of beer in this furtively-taken cell phone photo. All the Mexican beer is prices at upwards of 45 pesos per six pack and this beer, which is not bad at all, will set you back less than 40 pesos a six pack, and it's brought over from Holland.

How is this possible?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Dec 8, 2008

La Chozita

Another one of those great finds, La Chozita is located in front of the multi-million dollar investment white elephant known as the Hospital de Altas Especialidades or something equally pretentious (isn't it great how a country as poor as Mexico can spend this much money on a first-world hospital and then not open it?!) in that newly popularized part of town known as AltaBrisa. Yes, where the mall is.

This little gem is located across the street from all that shiny new commercialism.

There is a palapa roof to identify it with; right next door is a tiny cibercafe where one can presumably check email and surf the web. Parking is on the street in front and there are 4 tables.

La Chozita is home made Yucatecan food and had been previously recommended to the Critic. The wait seemed eternal; a full 20 minutes passed from the moment the very smily cook came out of the kitchen to take the orders, carefully writing down the very complicated order of salbutes, polcanes and empanadas to when the first food actually appeared in front of the ravenous Critic and the BH.

As a friend would say... "To Die For". This was so good it was ridiculous. The empanadas were crispy, the salbutes were as well and that carnitas were tasty. Everything was freshly made, and fried to order. Unreal. The habanero and separate tomato sauces were a refreshing, biting complement to all that fried masa.

5 salbutes, 1 polcan, 2 quesadillas, 2 cokes and a bottle of water came to the even more ridiculous amount of... ready for it? $80.00. PESOS!!! Even with a $20 peso tip, this bill for lunch for two came in at under $8 USD at today's exchange rate of $13.75 pesos/1 usd.

SPECIAL NOTE TO THOSE STAYING AT THE IN KA'AN GUEST HOUSE - this is just around the corner from you!

Dec 3, 2008

Tacos de Jiba

Tacos de Jiba could be translated as 'hump' tacos, since they refer to the jiba on the backs of the local cattle, which are the hump-backed variety. If you can get over the image of eating meat carved from that bump, you can try the tacos at this taqueria located behind the Gran Plaza shopping mall.

The sign looks promising, and the location is perfect for an after-work bite.

Unfortunately, that is about all that is good about this place. There is one, hapless waiter and what seems like someone's grandmother in the kitchen (although this cannot be confirmed because you cannot see the kitchen) since the food preparation is extremely sloooooooooow.

Once you are seated, the little man comes over, leaves you a menu and takes your drink order and after some time returns with that and then will take your order. On this occasion, the Critic and his BH ordered a guacamole to start and 2 orders of tacos. After what seemed like an eternity, during which time the Critic enviously eyed the crepes coming out the kitchen next door (the tables are mixed together, some for the crepes place and others for the taqueria) and began to chew on the potted plants nearby, the first order of tacos arrived. Just one, mind you to make the meal more interesting. Half the party waited patiently while the other half said, go ahead, they're going to get cold. After some time, the waiter passed by and the guacamole was asked for. It's coming. Then it came out and after another short wait, the other order of tacos was brought to the table. There were cutlery issues as well but the over-all impression was of extreme slow-ness.

And how were the tacos? Nothing to write home about. For just over 100 pesos you can eat here, but don't come hungry or expect any kind of service. You are far better off at the million other tacos places in Merida.

Rating: 2. Don't bother unless you are totally desperate and have no car to get anywhere else.

Nov 13, 2008

El Fogon - Antojitos Revisited

note the finger - the Critic was being discrete...

Just days after visiting this place for the first time, the Critic stopped by again to pick up an order of consommé and pozole to take home to a sick Better Half. When you have a cold, a hot consommé or spicy pozole should be just as good as a hot chicken broth - or that was the thinking.

In any case, in short order the Critic was heating up both soups at home and the portions were just enough to feed two people. They came with tostadas, oregano, lettuce and radishes, spicy ground chiles, salsas; all the possible condiments you could wish for to dress up both of these broths.

Delicious was the verdict, the Better Half did not get much better but it was tasty.

Total price of this take out? $54.00. Unbelievable. That's less than 5 usabucks for 2 orders of home-made soup.

Nov 11, 2008

El Fogon - Antojitos Mexicanos - Near the Gran Plaza Mall

The other day, feeling hungry and definitely not in the mood for the usual WinFa/Trompos/BurgerKing lunch, the Casual Restaurant Critic sallied forth from the occasionally air conditioned Gran Plaza mall with his Better Half, strolled across the parking lot in the general direction of Starbucks and then veered off to the left to have lunch in the red-signed restaurant that proclaims, in an apparently Coca Cola sponsored, red-lettered sign: 'Cocina Mexicana'. Next to that, a smaller logo with the words El Fogon.

For those readers unfamiliar with the term 'antojitos' it means snacks or perhaps appetizers and is generally used to refer to food prepared in the wach style. If you don't know what a wach is, you need to find the NotTheNews Living Dictionary (it's online around here someplace or order a printed version at and look it up. Mexico City street cuisine is alive and well in Merida and there are several places where one can find typical food from the country's capital. Jardin Balbuena is one of those places. This place - el Fogon - that the Critic is writing about today, is another.

The Better Half and the CRC ordered enough food to sink a canoe, which is what usually happens when one is starving and the menu looks appetizing! The following items were ordered, believe it or not:
  • pozole de Jalisco, one bowl
  • taquitos de barbacoa, 3 to an order
  • consommé de barbacoa, one bowl
  • tostadas de barbacoa, order of 3
  • gorditas de chicharron prensado, 2 pieces
There is enough cholesterol in the above order to keep an entire African village fed for a month, but the Critic and his BH managed to finish most of it. Everything was hot and for the most part, tasty. The pozole was a little on the watery side as if the Critic had arrived at the final pressing of a large pot of soup that had been re-watered for several days to make it last a little longer. The taste of the tostadas was smothered by the heavy cream that the waches like to pour on their sopes and antojitos, along with that crumbled goat cheese, but all in all the food was satisfying.

Service was familiar ie: family style. This means that a family member is taking orders from the table and really doesn't have a clue, but was not unpleasant. The food came quickly and the table soon filled with plates and bowls. The outdoor setting on this November afternoon was cool, breezy and very comfortable. There was a view of the small street and the Gran Plaza parking lot. This would be a great place to sit and watch the Christmas madness unfold in December.

And the bill? All that food and a bottle of Coke came to a whopping 171 pesos, which at today's exchange rates is about 15 US dollars. Quite a bargain, really.

Oct 5, 2008

Laredo's - Mérida Restaurant featuring Northern Mexican Fare

Today the Critic was invited for lunch at Laredo's, a popular Northern Mexican restaurant located on Montejo. The Critic recalled that Laredo's had - on a visit some million years ago - some excellent steaks, particularly their 'corazon de filete' which was very tender and delicious.

Unfortunately, the restaurant seems to have aged rather ungracefully; from the moment you arrive and fight with the double doors (and no one is there to greet you, let alone help you get in the damn place) you are under the impression that things are not all that well in Laredo-Land.

The parrillada, a large metal plate of assorted meats (you can choose the combination you would like) served on a small portable barbecue-like anafre, arrives at your table, along with a plate of garnishes including a half-full (ever the optimist, the Critic) bowl of luke-warm and bland frijoles charros (cowboy beans), a grilled onion, a withered half-potato featuring a minimum of cream and bacon garnish and some salad greens.

The meats were not at all great, considering this is a meat restaurant and the Critic suspects that anyone from El Norte would scoff at the notion of this being typical food from northern Mexico. One of the cuts was chewy and full of gristle, the machitos were rather non-macho bland and the arrachera, while tender, was completely devoid of any flavor.

The service was unprofessional and plates were banged and crashed as they reached each diner.

The Critic could not recommend the restaurant for any reason, really, especially considering all the excellent Argentinian meat options out there now in Merida.

One to Five? One. Don't go. Waste of money, calories and time.

Oct 2, 2008

La Nao de China - Formerly Hong Kong (Merida Chinese Restaurant)

Today the Casual Restaurant Critic, with all the related Critics (Midi, Mini and Better Half) away, decided on having a Chinese lunch at the Nao de China restaurant, formerly known as Hong Kong. The Critic had been wanting to go back after a long absence, but somehow it never happened. Until today.

The draw at this place is the lunch buffet, which at present runs at $82 pesos and includes a soft drink.

Besides the restaurant being a lot larger - the patio in back is now covered and air conditioned and the buffet has been moved from the entrance area to the newer part - the place is basically the same as always.

The food on the buffet steam table is still exactly the same as 5 years ago or so when the Critic was last there. The same stuff! There are spring rolls, fried chicken wings, roasted chicken, a curry dish, a chop suey, some pieces of sushi, the gelatin desserts and a watery soup. Once they were novel and tasty; now they are all really quite horrendous and completely forgettable, bordering on the inedible.

First of all, nothing tastes even remotely fresh. The spring rolls used to be flaky and crunchy, now they are thick and crunchy and rather bland. The chicken wings are lukje warm, not at all crispy; more like chewy and feel as if they have been there for a day or so. The curry and chop suey dishes are warmer, but as bland as eating a paper placemat. The roast chicken was as dry as one of those steer skulls in the desert and needed water to force it down. The gelatinous selection of desserts was not tried, neither was the soup or the plain, unappetizing looking "sushi".

A complete bust. Even if they charged $25 pesos for this unappealing and extremely limited selection, the Critic would not return.

The Critic was so disgusted that he couldn't manage another trip to the buffet. A menu was asked for and Chi Maa chicken ordered. The Critic remember that this was always good before, and he wasn't disappointed when it arrived at the table. Crispy deep fried chunks of batter stuffed with chicken and drizzled with honey and topped with chopped green onions. A huge portion, hot and tasty and served with steamed rice. Much better!

The service was fair, the hostess completely indifferent as was the person in charge of the buffet. They could care less if you were there or not.

Critic's recommendation? If you have to go, choose the menu over the buffet and watch the people stare enviously as you eat well while they suffer through the tasteless crap from the buffet. Hey it's their own fault for being so damn cheap.

Total bill was 114 pesos ($82 for the buffet and the rest for the Pollo Chi Maa). Refresco included with the price of the buffet (Pepsi products only, no Coke; even the uniforms have Pepsi embroidered on them).

You are better off at Win Fa or one of the other new Chinese places sprouting up all over Merida as the Oriental Invasion finally comes to the Yucatan.

One to five? This place rates a "don't bother" - 2.

Reader Contribution - by Jean

Casual Restaurant Critic's comment: please note: the author's first language is Dutch, before you start with your comments on any deficiencies in the writers' English. Would that you could speak and write in Dutch as well as he can write in English

A nice evening out in Chuburna. Or how the para llevar was born.

What else can you do, after a long day of teaching a foreign language to kids who not even master their own native language (what’s wrong with the education here, they don’t even know what a demonstrative pronoun is in Spanish…..), than to take your lovely wife around 9 in the evening for a nice little comida, just the two of you….

She ordered a salad, because she wants to stay at the safe side of obesity, and I ordered the usual 4 arrachera taco’s de harina, because I didn’t fought myself to the top of the food chain to eat grass…

Within 7 min after ordering, the 4 taco’s are staring at me and we wait a few minutes for the salad… After all, we are ‘out’ to have a nice comida togetherright ?.

When after another 5 minutes or so none of the 4 or 6 locals who are running around with empty hands (or taking plates away from customers who are still chewing the last bite) is willing to bring the salad, my wife urge me to start eating ‘before it’s cold’.

And because it’s not a good idea to argue with a person where you intend to spend the night with, I start, very slow, to move the arrachera taco’s from my plastic plate to my internal system.

After another 5 minutes or so, the 4 or 6 locals are still running around with empty hands, I start thinking about this system to stay in shape.

Go to a local restaurant, order food, wait a given amount of time, leave the place.....

Easy, you don’t have to say to people you’re on a diet, you still can say you visit reataurants...they don’t bring the food you ordered anyway.....

I’m at taco number 3, still no salad…still locals running.

My wife managed to capture the attention of one of the runners, who listen carefully, looked at me, my nearly empty plate, magically displays a disbelieve look, turns around and jogs to the innerside of the building, returns after nearly 30 seconds (see, they can be quick) and tells my wife a story.

My Spanish is reaching the level where only I understand it (one have to start somewhere), so the translation is: they working on it.

Duh, more than an half hour to prepare a salad ? Do they have a local schmuck driving a 125 cc motorcycle to the nearby village to get the grass so the salad is fresh ?

Meanwhile, taco nr 4 is moved from plate to internal system, beer was taking the same way and salad is still underway…

Finally, after nearly 45 minutes….tataaa…there’s the salad.

The purpose of this evening out is to be together, to eat together, to drink together…

The food has to reach the table so the people, a couple, can eat together…how difficult is that ?

So when the designated runner is putting the salad in front of my wife, she takes revenge ( it is a plate one have to eat or serve cold, and the salad is cold so this is a perfect opportunity), and ordered the salad para llevar and I ordered la cuenta.

Mind you, within 3 minutes we have a nice plastic bag with the salad and a plate with the cuenta. They can be quick after all and they just showed to the world that two things can come together at one and the same table….

From now on we do not go to Los Tacquitos P.M. on Calle 50...we go to the para llevar....

Sep 26, 2008

No Smoking Update - VIPS

The Critic had lunch at La Rueda and it has joined the ranks of non-smoking restaurants which is probably a good thing because there was no way you were going to be able to divide that tiny place into smoking and non smoking sections.

The real news is that VIPS, that Denny's clone from Mexico City (Wachilandia) still allows smoking in it's area reserved for those of us that still partake in the nasty habit.

How VIPS does this while everyone else is making their places exclusively non-smoking is a mystery to me. Perhaps it is because their food is so mediocre - with the exception of their great Caldo Tlalpeño which the Critic enjoys every Tueday night - and their service so lackadaisical that it doesn't really qualify as a 'restaurant'?

If anyone has any clues, please enlighten the Critic! Thank you.

Sep 25, 2008

La Rueda - Argentina in the Boonies

It's good to be back in Merida!

For those of us that live in Merida's norte, getting to La Rueda is a bit if a drive. But the Casual Restaurant Critic is happy to report that it is probably worth it.

On a sunny midweek afternoon which turned into a downpour by the time lunch was over, the Critic and some amigos went for lunch at La Rueda. After hearing so much about this place, the Critic had to see for himself what all the fuss was about.

The restaurant is surprisingly easy to find, and Jorgitos directions couldn't be simpler. It is a non-descript little place on a corner, a converted house, that had a large sign on top and, as Jorgito noted, a rather conspicuous collection of nice cars out front.

On this occasion, no waiting was necessary and a table - one of about 8 in total - was had in the middle of the air conditioned restaurant. The decoration is unpretentious but pleasant; nicely put together posters, photos and memorabilia related to Argentina is all over the walls.

The 3 amigos ordered a salad to share, which featured real, crisp romaine lettuce, fresh tomatos and strips of prosciutto tossed with a vinagrette dressing. Refreshing. Soft drinks were ordered and since the Critic believes that red wine is good for you, a glass of Cuné Rioja.

As for meat, one of the amigos ordered the veal, while the other amigo and the Critic ordered the churrasco steak. Once the meat arrived, which took a little while, it turned out to be delicious. The chimichurri sauce was, in the Critic's humble opinion, not needed. A little fatty around the edges, it was perfectly seasoned and cooked and came with a mashed potato garnish that was not very warm and half of a grilled sweet onion. Superb.

Suprisingly, the desserts were not only original but tasty as well! The Praline is what appears to be a homemade hazelnut and almond ice cream and the chocolate pyramid was delicous as well.

The Critic had heard that the prices at La Rueda were ridiculously cheap; one of the amigos mentioned that the menu had had a serious price hike since his last visit. Since he is of Lebanese descent, the Critic believes him, because if anyone notices these things, it's a paisano.

The bill for the three people, for the food mentioned above, was - with tip - $810 pesos. This is not a lot lower than the bill for 2 meats and a pasta at La Recova on Montejo, reviewed in August. In the Critics opinion, both restaurants are excellent in food quality and service; perhaps the Montejo version is a little nicer in terms of the actual room.

On a scale of 5, this place rates a solid 4.

On a completely unrelated side note, the Critic and amigos finished their lunch just in time, as a comandante of the local police and his family were sitting down to have lunch. With all the drug violence in the formerly white city these days, it would be unwise to remain in such a small space in the immediate vicinity of a police official, one could safely assume. Also, what caught the Critic's eye was that the officer sat with his back to the plate glass sliding door entrance, a move the Critic wouldn't have undertaken if he were a member of the police force. Of course, two bodyguards were left on either side of the door to watch for anyone that looked fuereño and suspicious, but a machine-gun drive-by could have made quite a scene...


Sep 23, 2008

The Casual Restaurant Critic on Smoking in Restaurants

The Casual Restaurant Critic would like to inform the 19 readers of this blog that Mexico - and even Merida - has joined the ranks of the cities, states and countries that have imposed upon their citizenry smoking controls of some sort.

While in Canada, the Critic noticed that not only are there no more 'smoking sections' anywhere to be found in restaurants or bars, there is no smoking outside the restaurants or bars either, and a new bylaw in the city of Vancouver for example, now prohibits smoking within '6 meters of any entrance' to the building. This means, wherever there are several small shops and restaurants together, like Robson or Denman streets for example you can't really get 6 meters away from any entrance. The Critic calculated in several areas that the 'smoking hot spot' (and it could be labeled as such, much like the WiFi hot spots in public areas) was in the middle of the street.

Of course there are ways around this; Canadians are generally very law-abiding but the smoking crowd is a little more rebellious. At many Starbucks locations, for example, smokers (or staff?) have moved one or two outdoor tables away from the other ones thereby creating a 6 meter illusion and bonafide smoking area. I mean, who can imagine coffee without a cigarette?

And now Merida has joined in in the no smoking fun. The Casual Restaurant Critic went to have a salad at Italianni's and there were no smoking signs everywhere and the place smelled of ozone. Those little injectors are everywhere it seems. Same experience at La Tradición. Also, at La Susana in Kanasin! The Critic was amazed at how civilized Merida has become.

It seems, however a little silly, all this fuss about smoking, when when people are literally losing their heads in drug wars, the land is being cemented over, every last living green thing is being chopped down, the water table is being contaminated, people still can't drive and there's no one to teach them, poverty is growing among the poor in the Yucatan's countryside at an alarming rate along with drug use and crime, wages are stagnant, and and and. But now we have no smoking in restaurants and this is progress at last.

Sep 18, 2008

Coffee Cup Café - Boulder City, USA

On the road...

Just outside of Las Vegas, on the way to the Hoover Dam, lies this charming little hamlet, which deserves a stop on it's own because it is really quite lovely. However, the reason the Critic stopped here on his way to the Dam, is because the concierge at the Palace said "stop at the Coffee Cup; it's great".

These are the kind of local, insider tips a food addict like the Critic loves and appreciates, so not stopping was not even an option.

It's a diner, it's on the main street in Boulder City and it's reeaal casual. No uniforms, no "hi I'm Madison and I'll be your server", no maitre'd, no celebrity chef photo hanging outside. It's great! Finally, the real thing!

The Critic had the Chicken Fried Steak with eggs and hash browns. Huge, somewhat greasy and extremely satisfying!

Breakfast for two here will run you about $20 or less and is a welcome break from the crowds, the plastic and the blinking, flashing lights of Las Vegas.

Lotus of Siam - Las Vegas, USA

On the road...

Do you like Thai? The Critic likes Thai.

In Las Vegas, hidden in an ugly shopping center on Sahara called (it's an original name no doubt) Commercial Center, is Lotus of Siam.

Lotus of Siam, if you do some digging on the internet, has a lot of fans! The accolades and magazine and major newspaper write-ups can be read in their entirety while you are waiting for a table, since they are posted in their tiny waiting room, where you will wait for a table as your nose starts to send urgent messages to your stomach as a result of the aromas emanating from the kitchen. "Best Thai Restaurant in North America" says one such article. Oh yeah, you say which magazine said that? Gourmet magazine that's who.

The Critic does not know if it is the best in North America or Las Vegas (or even Sahara Blvd for that matter) but it is extremely good and highly recommended. A meal here will be better, more satisfying and much more delicious than someplace on the strip or in one of the hotels.

The Critic usually orders more or less the same things: the Pad Thai, which, if you are familiar with, is a complex mixture of flavors and textures when done right and a mass of peanut-y goo when screwed up. Here it's the former. Also there is the soup, whose name once again escapes me, but it has lemon grass, coconut milk, shitaake mushrooms, ginger and is served in a pot to share with whomever is lucky enough to be sitting across from you.

Crispy duck is a must - there are three kinds, one is a little simple with Thai basil; another features a curry sauce and a third features.... something else. They are all delicious, having tried them on previous occasions, but the favorite has got to be the sauce-less one. It is such a flavor explosion in your mouth, if you include a basil leaf or two in your bite of duck, that you will think you have died and gone to heaven.

On this occasion the Critic asked for a recommendation and the waitress suggested crab salad. This was some kind of crab meat, lightly dusted and then quickly deep fried and served on a mixture of fresh salad greens that had a sweetish dressing on them. The taste of this dish was very light, fresh and delicate; have this one before the duck, definitely.

No room for dessert as usual, and the bill, with a beer or two, usually comes to under 60 dollars for two people. For that kind of money on the strip, you might get a main course for one.

Go there if you love Thai.

Sep 13, 2008

Water Street Café - Vancouver, Canada

On the Road...

The Water Street Café is another Vancouver restaurant that has been around for a long time, and while not part of a chain as far the Critic can tell, it has survived and maintained a stellar reputation as a great place for lunch or dinner.

It's located on Water Street, an original name for a street that ran along the edge of the... water, in historic Gastown. After living in Mexico and particularly the Yucatan for the last 20 years, the Critic always smiles when coming across anything 'historic' in the Vancouver area. The whole damn country is only about 100 plus years old!

There is a small but delectable menu, a decent wine list, good service and the room itself is casually elegant. The fact that it is located right in front of Gastown's main attraction, an old steam clock that blows strains of the national anthem (the Canadian one of course) every fifteen minutes and then a whole chorus on the hour, makes for good people watching while sipping on your wine. Watch the Japanese tourists jostling for position in front of the steaming, whistling clock to get their souvenir photograph. Great stuff.

Try the oysters (pictured above) pan fried and then served in this indescribably delicious sauce that will have you dragging the remains of your bread, trying to get all the gravy, because, like Ricardo Montalban used to say, it's good to the last drop.

A tradition for the Critic and the MidiCritic (not to be confused with the MiniCritic) the other dish always ordered is the Penne with BC smoked salmon in a light creamy sauce. Again, absolutely fantastic.

The MidiCritic always orders the same dish, the details of which usually escape the Critic's Alzheimer's-deluded/diluted mind. However, thanks to editing capabilities and occasional flashes of short-term memory, one can come back and edit, right? There it is right in the photo for crying out loud. It's homemade gnocchi stuffed with cheese and served in a pumpkin squash sauce and it is again, excellent.

The Water Street Café is a great place for lunch or dinner. Highly recommended.

Aug 27, 2008

The Keg - Vancouver, Canada

On the Road...

The Keg has been a Vancouver institution for over 20 years and it is encouraging to see a Vancouver restaurant chain that has lasted this long and is still doing well.

On one occasion, after work on a payday, the Critic and several co-workers of the now defunct-Sheraton Villa Inn in Burnaby visited the Keg and spent practically the whole paycheck on dinner, shots, and wine... the days of youth and irresponsibility!

The Critic hadn't visited the Keg for the same amount of time and it was a pleasant surprise to find the food still good, the ambiance friendly and a little more sophisticated than the rustic Canadiana of yore and the food was just as the Critic remembered it.

Mushrooms Neptune are STILL on the menu, as are the scallops wrapped in bacon, a perennial Keg favorite and classic. Stuffed with cream cheese and seafood, the mushroom caps are good in that comfort food kind of way and the scallops are tender morsels with the bacon giving them the needed kick, flavor wise. The Spinach and Crab dip was also tasty, again featuring cream cheese and the baked Goat Cheese was excellent, served with a cooked salsa that had just a little bit of picante.

Also (the Critic was accompanied by the MiniCritic) the Caesar Salad was ordered and a French Onion soup. The salad was so good that the MiniCritic, who detests salads, devoured half of it in record time - would that the Trotters could try it! The soup was hot, savory and covered in crouton and swiss cheese.

Good food, albeit a little heavy on the cheesy-creamy-thick side, with decent service and relaxed surroundings including several fireplaces along with a glass of Merlot made for a pleasant cool Vancouver evening.

Pappadeaux - Houston Airport

On the Road...

If you have a layover at the airport in Houston, as the Critic did just a little while ago, of any considerable time, one option besides sitting around in those uncomfortable chairs with your eyes glazed over is to have a meal at Pappadeaux, the seafood restaurant owned by the Pappas people who also run a great steakhouse and a Greek restaurant as well if the Critic is not mistaken.

The service is fine, in that chirpy I'm Ricardo and I'll be your server today kind of way and the food while expensive is very good especially when one considers the myriad and mediocre fast food options available.

The Critic had the Blackened Redfish which came smothered with a shrimpy creamy sauce and was absolutely delicious and a very large portion too. Coconut shrimp were simply alright - you can get better at La Pigua in Campeche or Merida and the lobster bisque was satisfyingly rich but you wouldnt write home about it anytime soon.

There was no room for dessert, although they all looked delicious.

A good way to spend an hour or more in a pleasant setting enjoying some good food before getting on the plane and having to eat a tasteless microwaved sandwich, if you are lucky enough to get even that these days.

Aug 19, 2008

Regarding Service

In response to the long comment on the Carreta Cubana II post, the Casual Restaurant Critic thinks it may be pertinent to answer this in 'post' form.

Service in Merida's restaurants is alright; it's just not professional in the gran mayoria de los casos and often a result of no one training anyone - there is no waiter's training program anywhere that the Critic is aware of. Too often personnel is hired with only minimum requirements: that they live close by, that they have a white shirt or something similar. Niggling details like not sticking your arm and the inevitable armpit in front of a restaurant patron while serving a plate (with the inevitable whiff of BO - really a horrible thing to have happen to you - or their Mennen Speed Stick - equally disagreeable) are rarely passed on to service personnel.

How do locals handle it? Well, in many cases people are not particularly concerned and have become accustomed to lackluster service. Merida is not Barcelona or Manhattan, so the dining options as well as the patrons do not have that level of sophistication or neuroses. Go with the flow is definitely the way to go.

To the Casual Restaurant Critic it is part of the charm of living in the Yucatan. You don't expect professional Smith and Wollensky service for the most part. (You do however expect professional service at Joe's Stone Crab and when they treat you like crap you let 'em have it and they try to make nice). Here waiters try, and usually do, a passable job. What is most upsetting to the admittedly neurotic foreigner is when hundreds of thousand of real dollars are invested in lighting, landscaping, architecture, menu printing, table linens, glassware, cutlery, kitchen equipment and advertising; and the owner hires a mediocre manager who hires even more mediocre service staff, some apparently culled from the garden staff, who have absolutely NO knowledge of gastronomy, what a Caesar salad might be, the difference between a salad and a dinner fork, white and red wine glasses, etc etc. And they don't train them either! That is unforgivable, in those particular cases.

As a foreigner thinking of moving to Mexico, one should definitely go with the flow, reduce expectations and learn to relax. It's not that important in the general scheme of things. And certainly not worth getting one's panties in a bunch.

Aug 13, 2008

La Carreta Cubana II

From the sublime to the ridiculous might be the title of this post, in which the Casual Restaurant Critic, after visiting La Recova the other day, along with the BH and the MC dropped by La Carreta Cubana II for some Yucatecan food in the form of botanas which are served (as they are in Heladios and a million other cantina crossover restaurants in Merida) along with a drink order.

This local hangout, kind of run down and a little on the dirty side is tucked away in a neighborhood between Plaza Fiesta area and Prolongación Paseo de Montejo and is not worth seeking out. It may be a local favorite (at least for some locals) and it is cheap, but the food is nothing to write home about, the service is mediocre at best and the ambience is nil, a few notches below the point where charming becomes just plain ugly.

A round of beers means that you get a sampling of botana (snacks or tapas) which consisted of the following (more or less):
  • pickled beets
  • runny sikil pak (pumpkin seed and roasted tomato dip; it's not supposed to be THIS runny)
  • salsa
  • sliced white bread aka 'frances'
  • a mayonnaise-y dip
  • boiled and possibly pickled pigs ear, chopped
  • cold tortillas
  • other mysterious little plates of things
Are you smacking your lips yet? OK, admittedly this is not Nectar but still, the whole experience was less than satisfying. The plates are the beig colored plastic ones, some with cracks and chips along with a few porcelain cup saucers.

An order of relleno negro and cochinita came but it was completely un-exceptional and the cold machine made or store bought or whatever tortillas were a complete turn-off.

There are a billion places like this in Merida where the biggest draw is how cheap it is. This lunch was about $100 pesos. Cheap doesn't have to be synonymous with this however. Look at La Susana in Kanasin. It's ridiculously cheap but is nowhere near the dumpiness of this place.

If you want to try this traditional Yucatecan lunch, go to Heladios or Los Henequenes.

On a scale of one to five, this place rates a solid 1.

Aug 5, 2008

La Recova - Argentina Meets Montejo

La Recova is a new Argentinian restaurant on Mérida's Prolongación de Montejo, smack dab in the middle of what the Casual Restaurant calls Taco Alley. You know, that part of street where you can find the taquerias El Cacique, Gabbos, Tacos PM, as well as the Yucatecan hold-outs in all their flourescent 75 watt tubular lighting splendor La Rosita and La Terracita Azul and where on a Friday or Saturday night when it's not temporada time, you can't find a parking space and traffic is crazy.

However, it is - at present - not temporada time for the Casual Restaurant Critic, since he cannot get away for 2 months just because the weather and tradition dictates it. Neither was it Friday or Saturday night and the destination was not tacos but to sample the new La Recova restaurant which looks quite modern and inviting from the outside in that new, taking-Merida-by-storm, minimalist way.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, the Critic was accompanied by the ever-lovely Better Half and of course the MiniCritic as well and although the mission was to reach Trotters for their Steak Au Poivre, it was decided - as La Recova appeared on the left - that you can't really go wrong with Argentinian beef.

If you, dear reader aka querido lector are saying "shut the hell up and get on with it!" you will have to be patient because the CRC woke up this morning feeling all inspired to write something and this is the result.

There is valet parking available for those too lazy to look for a spot themselves or to walk the distance necessary once they have found that spot. Or it's really busy and there really is not anywhere to park. Or you drive a pink Hummer and have to make an entrance.

But, on this Saturday afternoon with everyone at the beach working on their crowd management skills there was room nearby on Montejo and since the Critic as a rule does not employ the services of 'valet parkings' this time was no exception; it should be pointed out though that the guys at the valet parking stand actually acknowledged the presence of the Critic's party which was a hopeful sign being as it was the very first contact with the restaurant.

The hostesses (there were two) dressed in black were welcoming and friendly and quickly showed us to our table. Air conditioning was cold and welcome since it was extremely hot outside.

Drinks were ordered; nothing exotic or alcoholic and the Critic quickly ordered grilled asparagus with Parmesan cheese and Fontina cheese, melted. There are two options for the Fontina appetizer; smoked and regular, the Critic had the regular. These were very good; the Critic thought the asparagus was a little bitter but the melted cheese, served on a tomato slice and topped with a sweet red pepper, was outstanding.

The steaks, which was the whole purpose of the venture were ordered. There is a selection of Argentinian cuts on the menu that is actually quite extensive and incomprehensible but the waiter does a fine job of explaining everything. The Better Half was concerned that the waiter emphasized that her selection of steak had a lot of grasa, but the Critic thought he was friendly and courteous about it and it was a good idea since one can imagine the typical diner getting his or her steak and then exclaiming 'but it has FAT' like fat in beef was a bad thing. What did the Better Half order: Tira de Asado. The Critc will attempt to upload photos from a new phone. The Critic had the Bife - the quintessential Argentinian cut - while the MiniCritic ordered a pasta, the raviolis stuffed with goat cheese.

So how was the food? The Tira de Asado, besides being so huge that it lounges self-confidently on the plate like Tony Soprano in a bathtub with a cigar and scotch, is in the Critic's opinion a little chewy but that is the nature of that particular cut and there isn't a whole lot to be done about it. The Better Half was in heaven as were the dogs back home when the bone arrived! The Bife was outstanding, extremely tender and cooked perfectly. Accompanying both steaks was a garnish consisting of a zucchini slice, grilled, topped with some mashed potato, a cherry tomato and a sprig of romero. The raviolis came in a large bowl, in a generous portion that would make the Trotters blush and the sauce was so very delectable that the Critic had to savour it to the last drop it after the MiniCritic had devoured her pasta.

In spite of better judgement, desserts were offered and two were chosen, all in the name of research for this blog. Tiramisu, a gigantic cheesy concoction (made with real mascarpone cheese, the party was informed) that would have easily fed an entire refugee camp in the Sudan; and Flan Napolitano. There are photos of these two desserts, hopefully you are seeing them and not reading this! The Tiramisu lacked ladyfingers which the Critic believes are part of the original recipe and was just toooooooo much. Mascarpone or no, the cheese was too cheesy and the party of three soon had their arteries screaming in protest and could not be brought to finish it. The Flan was excellent and received a warmer reception from the party's cardiovascular systems. After dinner, the manager, whom the Critic knows, offered a dessert wine which was sweet, chilled and refreshing; much like a German Eiswein. Excellent.

Other notes: Service throughout is friendly (without being overly familiar - ie: Nectar where the waiter unfortunately feels the need to talk about how your business is coming along) and attentive (think Campay on those occasions when the waiter feels the need to prove his efficiency by pulling the plate from under your chopsticks as you pick up the last piece of sashimi).

Bread on the tables is warm and made in-house. Crisp white tablecloths throughout. Great air conditioning.

Large spaces set off by smaller spaces for groups and a great bar featuring a zillion types of alcoholic concoctions, a view of Montejo (the view is nothing to write home about but the Critic suspects that the idea is to be seen, rather than to see anything) and Mercer cigars as well as an ozone machine that sucks up the cigar smoke for those who just have to be there but are allergic to smoke... (hellooo?)

All in all, the Critic gives this place a solid 4.5. It could become a new all-time favorite!

Link: if you read Spanish, this will explain about Argentinian cuts of beef

Jun 23, 2008

Guru - Lebanese Restaurant Revisited

Being as it was the weekend, the Critic's BH decided that the family should attempt to make a dent in the Guru restaurants Saturday buffet.

The buffet is a home made affair with the steam table ware a little haphazardly placed; as a result it's not easy to get to the food in some cases, which is also affected by the lack of readily visible serving spoons.

But the food is wonderful and everyone raved about it. There is a modest selection to choose from at the buffet but since it is Lebanese food, it is extremely filling and you really can't go nuts unless you are of course well-endowed in the digestive department. In the salad department, there is only one, a tabbouleh. The Critic assumes it is good, since the rules of engagement surrounding the preparation of a tabbouleh are beyond the scope of his knowledge base. There are two types of filled savory pastries; the one stuffed with leaves (grape?) and the other with meat. There is kibi crudo and bola. Garbanza and labne as well as berenjena aka eggplant. Rices abound. Cabbage rolls and little grape vine rolls stuffed with meat and rice.

It's all good! Tasty and homemade!

At $150 a head (not including drinks) it seems reasonable enough for the level of satisfcation that can be achieved for that amount.

Jun 21, 2008

Guru - New Lebanese Restaurant

Guru is a new Lebanese restaurant that the Critic and a party had a chance to visit last night. You may have seen this restaurant, lit up at night with a bar right on the street in front of the Mouriño Pemex gas station, beside the Famous All Star restaurant which the Critic hopes never to have to visit, near the Golden Island casino, Merida´s largest. Hopefully that whole spiel will help you locate the Guru restaurant!

Since it was raining, the party sat inside, a large, extremely noisy room since it is completely furnished in all hard, sound-rebounding surfaces. Conversation was difficult and at times it was easier to just ignore the conversation since it took a real effort to read peoples lips across the table.

Service was great, the waiters were friendly, funny and always there to take away plates and/or bring things. The food was good; appetizers were ordered al centro which means the center of the table and everyone helped themselves. The arrachera plate was full of tender beef and loads of grilled sweet peppers. The kafta, a lamb skewer was delicious and the party raved about the kibi crudo, a raw meat dish famous in Lebanese food that is prepared by the individual with olive oil, raw onion, mint leaves, salt and pepper and eaten with soft Lebanese bread. Kibi bola was delicious, as were the empanadas.

A few glitches: flour tortillas were asked for to accompany the arracheras, but they were out. At dessert time, the popular pay de datil - date pie - was ordered but the party was informed that it also was no longer available either. At that moment, the owner, a friend of one member of the party, showed up and when she heard about the pie shortage, informed the party that she would go to her house and pick a few pies that she had in the oven (she is the chef). The pies arrived a short while later and if you can imagine a pecan pie, but made with dates, then you have the general idea. Warm and tender and extremely flavorful, the pie was out of this world. And the fact that the owner went out of her way to get it was unheard of!

The Critic would give the restaurant a 4, based on the food and the service, and will be back to sample the menu! The restaurant also features a Lebanese all you can eat buffet on the weekends, so that is another reason to return!

Jun 13, 2008

The Casual Restaurant Critic in Miami

Florida that is.

Sometimes it's nice to get away and last weekend the Critic did just that, with his better half, and to get away they went to nearby Miami. The upside of Miami is that it is under 2 hours flying time away, a plus for the Critic who hates planes and the merest suggestion of turbulence. There is something unnatural about being at 30,000 feet, bumping around in a cloud bank, moving along at hundreds of kilometers and hour.

In Miami, besides the usual stops at shopping centers and malls, as well as just hanging out, there was some great restaurant sampling!

Shorty's BBQ - South Dixie Hwy, Dadeland Mall area

The Critic loves barbeque and this is a down and dirty, high volume restaurant complete with long wooden picnic tables, concrete floor and paper bags for your bones. Fingerlicking good ribs and the corn on the cob hot ans sweet and drenched in something resembling butter. Mmm good!

Latin Café

Another standout was the Latin Café - a chain of restaurants - serving Cuban food in a Cuban atmosphere complete with supercharged mojitos and friendly/surly wait staff. If you are in the mood for a torta cubana this is one of probably a million in Miami where you can get a good one. Slabs of roast pork, Spanish chorizo, Virginia ham and melted swiss cheese in a crispy toasted pan cubano is unbeatable here. It's the Latin 2000 and it's a sodium bomb so make sure you have access to liquids later on, because you will need them.

On a second visit, the Critic tried the masitas cubanas, which are marinated and fried chunks of pork, succulent, chewy and oh so good. Served with pickled white onions, a huge helping of congrí and tostones (crispy fried bananas) these were absolutely scrumptious. Highly recommended for those days when you need real sustenance and a serious shot of bad cholesterol.

Latin Café locations are all over Miami - the Critic visited the one on LeJeune near the airport and another location on Biscayne Ave, near Bayside Market.

Sushi Samba - Lincoln Road, Miami Beach

Another place that is well worth a visit is Sushi Samba on the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. While the rest of the party had some OK rolls, the Critic opted for the waiter's suggestions, called Moqueque or something along those lines, which was a delicious seafood stew/paella/oriental combination, piping hot and featuring everything from shrimp and mussels to cashews and sprouts. All kinds of spices and condiments and then there is a luscious tender rice in the middle to soak up all the goodness. The photo hardly does the dish justice.

The green tea also deserves a mention, since they serve it with a bit of crushed fresh mint which gives it a real refreshing kick.

The Critic's Better Half had a lemonade which was so much better than a regular lemonade that everyone at the table had to have a sip.

Try this link to see pics of the restaurant!

Nothing like a little trip out of town to refresh the palate and inspire one to write good things about food and restaurants. Enjoy.

May 25, 2008

Chili's Altabrisa

The Casual Restaurant Critic is deeply aware of the fact that no one wants to read reviews of this American chain restaurant. But since it is the only restaurant visited lately and something must be said about all the available options in Merida, here goes.

Chili's Altabrisa (in the new Altabrisa mall) is a notch above the Chili's located in Liverpool, where the Critic was amazed at how bad the service was. Here, in the sparkling new mall and across from the already reviewed Fogoncito taqueria, the service is a little better while the food is the same gringo fare found at the other locations.

The Critic's better half ordered her usual hamburger which was good enough (Carls Jr. is better), the MiniCritic ordered her favorite, cream of broccoli soup which she enjoys, and the curmudgeonly Critic ordered baby back ribs. All the food arrived without utensils of any sort and the party had to resort to hissing and whistling and finally just grabbing a bus person walking by to get some forks n knives. The burger was good, the soup was good, the ribs were OK (Friday's has better ribs). Basically they were dry and the extra sauce asked for when the food was brought to the table took an eternity to arrive.

An on the rocks "Top Shelf" Margarita was served without any of the problems and difficulties encountered at the Liverpool location and was delicious and refreshing as usual.

The bill was asked for and once the money had been placed in the little bill-thingie, it took another eternity to get the change back. Finally the party's waiter approached the table with the bill holder tucked under his armpit. However, he was distracted by the bus station and stopped to help roll up cutlery elegantly in wrinkled paper napkins (do not use the wrapping napkin to wipe your mouth - trust the Critic on this one). The Critic assumed he was going to do two or three to take to a table, but after watching him complete his seventh roll, he realized that the waiter had forgotten the change and bill holder in his armpit and so the waiter was called by name and he promptly came over with the bill at that point.

Please keep in mind that a Chili's hostess will attempt to sell you a 'membership card' that is good for 10% off your bill at any of the participating restaurants. There are about 8-10 listed of which one is in Merida. The rest are in the D.F. You decide if it is worth your while.

Again, nothing that Chili's did here made the Critic change his mind about the fact that this chain should be - with the notable exception of their great margaritas - near the bottom of your out-to-dinner list when in Merida.

May 6, 2008

Walk the Wok

Merida has a new restaurant that you might want to check out if you are in 'el Norte', that part of town where all the action is.

The Casual Restaurant Critic first heard of this place in Plan B, that information-packed, Thursdays-only supplement in the local Diario de Yucatan newspaper. There was a catchy ad, and lo and behold, a whole page dedicated to the restaurant, which has, apparently, two locations on the entire planet: the first one, located in Amsterdam (Holland aka Netherlands for those geography-challenged, Left Behind readers) and now Mérida.

Amsterdam and Mérida share little else (understatement of the year, perhaps?) but now they share this cute little restaurant idea where the signage is funny, the food is interesting and they even have those little oriental food take out boxes complete with chopsticks.

It works like this - you pick your base, which can be rice or noodles, the latter of the rice or egg variety, which come with a bean sprout-y mix of basic veggies. Then, you add ingredients according to the contents of your wallet, the size of your appetite or your delusional thinking that you are a great chef and will invent something new. There is everything from shrimp to peanuts to choose from, each with it's own price. Finally, you have a choice of about 7 salsas or sauces to bind it all together. Black bean garlic, Thai curry and coconut, that sort of thing. The cashier takes your money while the cooks whip up your concoction right there and then in one of two enormous woks being slaved over behind a protective sheet of glass.

The result? Before you can finish a cigarette outside, your little boxes are ready to go. The
food itself, the Critic found a little bland. Of the three combinations ordered, the Shanghai sauce was the only one with enough kick to make it tasty. The other two were rather bland, in the Critic's humble opinion.

What about price you ask? Well, since you add your choice of ingredients and the prices are all over the map, you could probably eat cheap. The Critics meal, three orders for three people, two with shrimp and shiitake mushrooms, ran $250.00. Pesos of course.

On a scale of 1-5, the Critic rates this one a 3 for now. Take it or leave it.

Mar 25, 2008

Trotters Revisited

The Casual Restaurant Critic has reviewed Trotter before (in 2005 and 2006) and so it's about time for an update.

Last night the CRC and his BH (you should know what the initials stand for by now) had a late, after work dinner at Trotters.

Turns out that Mondays are pretty quiet and you can get a table quickly and the waiters aren't rushed and... there is a wine special on. You get a discount of $200 pesos on any bottle of wine on their 'regular' list, which has some good ones, and $500 off per bottle on their short 'Gran Cava' wine list, which contains names like Chateau Jenesaisrien and others that are completely unfamiliar to the uneducated palate of the Critic.

In a nutshell, dinner was very good. A bottle of shiraz; cooked-to-perfection Steak au Poivre with hot, seasoned pommes frites; a refreshing watercress salad; steak medallions with an espresso crust (interesting but not as good as the steak au poivre) with creamy broccoli and roasted asparagus.

Desserts were of the oversized, cakey, heavy variety and after a steak dinner, it would have been just too much, so no desserts this time. Besides, on the one occasion when the desserts were sampled, they were not at all up to par with the rest of the menu.

A great night out in a spectacular room for $90.00 Not cheap, but a very agradable way to spend a couple of hours with someone you enjoy being with.

Mar 24, 2008

El Fogoncito - Altabrisa Mall, second (and third) visit

Friends called up and said 'hey let's meet at Altabrisa mall for dinner and gossip - we can have dinner at Chili's'. With much trepidation, hesitation and consternation (considering the Critic's only-too-recent frozen experience with Chili's Liverpool) the Casual Restaurant Critic accepted, only for the chance to catch up with friends he hadn't seen in a while.

Lo and behold, upon arriving, the gods smiled on the group in the form of a darkened Chilis! But then the Critic realized that the gods have a sense of humor and that the smile was sarcastic, because directly in front of Chili's, the Fogoncito was all lights.

The Critic had been to the Fogoncito on a previous occasion or two and was still willing to give them the benefit of the opening-blues doubt. On this visit, the group of 7 was looked after in a timely fashion by a friendly waiter who seemed earnest, as did one of the managers who inquired as to how was the service, were orders taken, that kind of thing.

The food at the Fogoncito, as the Casual Restaurant Critic's 17 readers know by now, is in the Mexican taco genre, with meats, melted cheeses and red and green tomato salsas. Try the Sopa Azteca, which is a thick, savory, tomato-y broth with melted cheese, sliced avocado, crispy fried tortilla strips and a poblano chile floating on top. Bite into this chile at your own risk. It is by no means a challenger to the King of Chiles, el habanero yucateco, but it can be spicy. The Fogoncito's guacamole has been consistently excellent; fresh, green and chunky - the only caveat is the freshness of the tortilla chips that accompany the guacamole. There are always two (or more) chips that are noticeably soft and as the Mayans would say, sat's. Again, for a taco restaurant, soft tortilla chips that are supposedly crispycrunchy is unforgivable. The Critic had, on this occasion, something whose name escapes him at this writing but was a tortilla made of fried cheese, wrapped around a chopped pork chop with bacon. After eating this the Critic popped a vein and had to be taken to the Star Médica hospital nearby for a thorough artery cleansing. Kidding.

The margarita - on the rocks, not frozen - came in a highball glass, about two thirds full but was extremely heavy on the sweet syrup and the Critic couldn't finish more than a swallow or two. A Michelada (Sol, Tecate etc . no Coronas at the Fogoncito) was ordered instead, and that was very refreshing. Their horchata, with a dash of cinammon on top, is also the best in town.

So far so good. And it was. There was nothing to bitch about on this visit and the Fogoncito seemed well on the path to redemption in the Casual Critic's aging eyes.

* * * * * * *

But alas, all is not well in the land of the soft tortilla chip and the excellent horchata.

Another visit, a few nights later after a hard days' labor, resulted in a backslide for the Fogoncito, the Critic and his better half decided on a quick taco there. The table was greeted with a half-covered yawn by an exhausted waiter who commented that he was working a double shift. Nice of him to share that tidbit of information. The service went downhill from there. The food came out in shifts, with the arrachera accompaniments served along with the other people's main dishes, with the actual meat appearing several minutes later. Salsas were running low at one point and another waiter took the entire salsa structure (the multiple little bowls contraption), never to return. After much hand waving and trying to get the attention of a hearing-deficient head waiter (you can tell the difference by the color of their shirts) another, different waiter was convinced to provide fresh salsas, all the while the food waited since you can't enjoy a taco without salsas, right? Terrible service and again, the Fogoncito slipped down a couple of notches in the Casual Critic's humble opinion.

Mar 12, 2008

Speaking of Refried Beans

The Onion, that online newspaper, had a funny headline the other day. You can read it here.

Mar 10, 2008

Chilis - Galería Liverpool Mall

Oh what fun, it is to find, such a lousy place to trash!

Chili's with the Mini-Critic. She was hungry, the Critic was not. The Critic asked for a Margarita, not a regular one mind you, but a "Top Shelf Margarita". The photo showed a frosty glass mug, salt rimmed and the margarita with ice. Perfect for thirst quenching after a nice MSG-infused lunch at Win Fa in the Gran Plaza!

The waiter came back after an eternity with the naranjada for the Mini-Critic. A while later, the margarita appeared, slushy as a 7-11 Slurpy. Not what he ordered, the Critic took one sip and then called the waiter. You can't quench your thirst with a slushy, thick Slurpee.

The Critic waved his arm to get the attention of the waiter who was busy talking to one of the eight other waiters and waitresses in the barely-occupied restaurant. "I wanted this on the rocks, like in the photo. Not 'frozen'"

A puzzled look came across the waiter's face. "Asi vienen" he said. (this is how we make them). No, the photo indicates otherwise and the description reads 'frozen or on the rocks'. So he took the drink and was gone for a while before he came back, with the same drink and said that that was how they were made (yes, already said that) and if the Critic wanted another one, he - the waiter - would have to pay for that one.

So whatever. The Critic, still thirsty ordered another one, on the rocks, and said to charge him or not, whatever. "Can I take this one then?". "Yes, please do." A long while later, another margarita appeared, this one on the rocks and delicious.

More hand waving to get the order for food.

The Mini-Critic's sandwich arrived; unfortunately the fries were from earlier as demonstrated by their soft texture and luke warm temperature. The Critic had already given up on Chili's by this point, so no further complaining was in store for the absent minded, nervous and completely clueless person masquerading as a waiter.

He then had a flash of inspiration gleaned perhaps from a moment when he was paying attention during the training process and came to the table to ask "Is everything alright with your sandwich, Miss?". This was so contrived that the Mini-Critic almost lost her mouthful of food, trying not to laugh outright.

More hand waving for the bill. The bill one gets at the table has a space for adding the tip, before they take one's credit card and that bill to run it into the cash register. This is different and since the letters are so small, the blind Critic can no longer read and so was told by the waiter that if he wanted to leave a tip then that was the time and the place to put it was on the bottom of that little bill. He waited patiently at the Critic's side while a 10% amount was filled in. On this bill is a note regarding comments and an email address. Great! The Critic can write to someone about the wonderful service!

Off he went and soon the receipt was on the table and the ordeal was over. On the receipt that they leave you, there is mention of comments and no email address, that bill stays in the restaurant. They must really be interested in your opinion, so be sure to whip out your laptop in the time you have between them taking that bill and you getting your other receipt.

And yes, they charged the Critic BOTH margaritas, although they did take the frozen one away.

Clueless waiters (they can however, spin menus and bill holders on one finger, always impressive), formulaic gringo food that is served lukewarm and a terrific policy on handling waiter's screwups (charge the client!!) makes Chili's a place to avoid. The Critic gives it a solid 1.

Mar 9, 2008

Casa de Piedra restaurant - Hacienda Xcanatun

After a long hiatus, the Casual Restaurant Critic had the opportunity to re-visit the restaurant at the luxurious Hacienda Xcanatun, located in the village of, you guessed it, Xcanatun, just off the Merida-Progreso highway.

The restaurant is still beautiful, the chef is relatively new (at least since the last visit by this Critic many moons ago) the food is both exciting in it's combinations of flavors and textures, and the service is still hugely deficient, taking into consideration the quality of the room and the cuisine.

Why is the Critic such a rag on service? Because it seems that it is that one elusive detail that restaurants in Merida just can not get right. The owners of many a Merida restaurant spend good money on decorating, menu-planning, lighting, getting a great chef, even hiring valet parking in some cases. Then, when it comes to probably the most important (ok for some neurotic people like the Critic) detail, the human interaction between everything just mentioned and the guest, there is little or not enough effort made to ensure that the concept comes full circle.

In the case of this visit to Xcanatun, the Critic's lovely better half had arranged a reservation asking for a nice table. Upon arrival, one of the wait staff consulted with the reservation book at the entrance and there was indeed a reservation; however, no table was offered. Instead, the waiter asked 'where would you like to sit?' which, when the table was chosen, turned out to be a table that was not ready and so the party stood around the table as the waiters changed tablecloths and set the table. Imagine this happening in a good restaurant someplace else? You make a reservation and then are told to sit wherever you like? The Critic doesn't think so.

Service throughout the meal was adequate, but the lack of professionalism was further highlighted by the truly spectacular food promised by the menu and delivered by the chef and kitchen staff. On the one hand you have food truly worthy of accolades and groans of satisfied pleasure, while on the other you have to suffer the distraction of inferior service; service that could be found in any where in Merida, from Friday's to El Fogoncito.

The Critic would like to stress that the service is not horrendous, but it is at a a level so much lower than the food that this creates a real clash. Of course, there are people to whom this is not important, but it seems a shame that Merida can not seem to boast at least one completely first-class restaurant. Another great and innovative restaurant, Nectar, suffers the same problem, as does the showy Trotter's, the other night's Casa de Frida, and these, along with Xcanatun, are among Mérida's best culinary experiences.

But the food! Still reeling from the delectable duck with mole sauce at La Casa de Frida, the Critic asked for Magret de Pato, which was a meaty duck breast, crunchy, succulent and sliced and, as a friend would say, to die for. Accompanied by perfectly sauteed onions that still had their bite, a sweet fruity reduction and some shredded meat which the Critic cannot place (was it duck or pork?). Blame it on the wine.

Before that main dish, there were some appetizers ordered, of which the Critic sampled and can highly recommend the deep fried won tons and their accompanying dipping sauce (a special that day), the ceviche de atun with sweet potato chips adding crunchy texture, and the chicharrón soup with a hint of tequila, which was like sipping the delicious gravy of the best roast leg of pork you have ever had; thick, savory and satisfying.

The desserts were also very good, the pay de limón was refreshingly balanced between tart and sweet and the apple pie was delicious.

If you enjoy exquisitely prepared food, and can put aside the distraction of the service, you must try the Casa de Piedra restaurant at Xcanatun.

Mar 6, 2008

Casa de Frida - Mexican Food in Merida´s Centro

The Casual Restaurant Critic has not eaten anywhere in downtown Mérida for eons it seems, and there is mention everywhere about the wonderful-ness of the Casa de Frida restaurant, on 61 between 66 and 66a in the formerly white city, so it was exciting to be able to try this restaurant with some Canadians who wanted to try the "chiles en nogada" that the restaurant is famous for.

After a 15 minute delay trying to find parking - the lot mentioned in Yucatan Today had a large 'Solo Pensionados' sign which the Critic obeyed without question, respectful of authority as he is known to be, and forgetful of the mention of a buzzer - a spot was found on the street, about 2 blocks away, and the Critic and his ever-more-lovely Better Half was seated comfortably under a starlit sky with a boisterous group of Canadians from Quebec. The couple at the next table were assured that their quiet dinner was going to be a bit louder than they had perhaps expected.

The Critic's overall impression of the restaurant was that it is a comfortable, welcoming ambience with details alluding to it's namesake scattered throughout with lots of bright blue and yellow paint everywhere.

There was far too much gossip going on for any inspection of the menu, and when everyone at the table ordered the 'chiles' the Critic just had to try something else. No appetizers were ordered. A quick look at the limited menu items available as main courses, the duck and mole option caught the Critic's eye.

After a few copas of red Chilean wine and much chatter, the dishes arrived, not before several orders of camarones al mojo de ajo (garlic shrimp) made their sizzling and overpoweringly fragrant way past the table, making everyone's tastebuds tickle with anticipation.

The chiles en nogada are exceptional. The Critic's Better Half was in heaven and declared them the best she has ever tried, anywhere, including Puebla, from where the dish originates. The Canadians too were rapturous and cleaned their plates contentedly. Meanwhile, the Critic had before him a breast of duck, covered in rich red/chocolate colored mole sauce, served alongside a small bed of steaming white rice, perfectly cooked. It is hard to describe mole but one could start by pronouncing it correctly (MOH-lay) because when you read it in English, it sounds like a rodent thing. The Critic was blown away by this exquisite home-made mole, it's sweet, spicy, thick smoky flavor - and the portion size was perfect. Of course the Critic shared the duck and managed to obtain in return, a bite size morsel of the chile and it was fabulous.

Afterwards, the out of towners were treated to Xtabentun, an almond tart (the sliced almonds on top were toasted and still warm as they rested atop the smooth, not too sweet tart) and got to meet the chef, Gabriela, who received a round of enthusiastic applause from the table.

As for the rest, the service was, in the Critic's humble opinion, a little slow on the uptake; not keeping their eyes on wineglasses and the table in general. When something was needed - another glass of wine, another Xtabentun, the bill - one had to get the attention of one of the 3 or 4 waiters working the three tables occupied at the time.

The overall experience was very good and the Critic will be back, with more time to actually look at the menu, sample some appetizers and perhaps another main course. Stay tuned! Meanwhile, the Critic gives Frida's Casa a solid 4.5 which is almost perfect. The food certainly is!

Mar 5, 2008

Sushi Itto - Second Visit Confirms First

Whatever doubts the Casual Restaurant Critic had as to the impression received from his first visit, these were dispelled by a recent second attempt. Again, the service was lackluster, the food - salmon sashimi, some rolls - was good but not excellent and the overall experience was, in a word, eeeh.

Or is it ehh. You know the sound you make, lifting up a corner of your mouth and shrugging your shoulder as if to say 'whatever'.

That's it!


Feb 12, 2008

Cuban Grill - Gran Plaza Mall

There is a new place to eat in the Gran Plaza (actually, there are several new ones, but the Critic has a limited budget and who wants to spend it all on mall food, even if it is for research) called Cuban Grill, specializing in, you guessed it, Cuban food.

Tired of Win Fa (reviewed earlier on this site) the Critic and his Mini Critic visited the Cuban Grill for lunch the other day. What was found was a rather un-Cuban employee who stared back at the Critic with boredom, then offered some samples. Un-Cuban because you imagine a Cuban to be a little more lively. It was rather disconcerting to receive, from the naked hand of this sallow-faced employee, samples of their dishes placed precariously on toasted banana chips. Who knows where those hands have been...

They have Congrí, the traditional black beans and rice (or rice with black beans, depending on your point of view), which in this case is rather tasteless. The Critic had this, along with the garbanzo beans fried with chicken or pork, the Critic was unable to tell, and the afore-mentioned banana chips. The employee took great care to accommodate it all on an optimistically over sized Styrofoam platter, spreading the garbanzo dish carefully like peanut butter to make sure it covered the area it was supposed to and looked like more than it actually was.

All in all, it was a lackluster choice; the garbanzo dish was quite simple, which means it didn't really taste like much and the rice n beans was no better. That, and the lackluster attention received from the fellow behind the counter, made for a truly unspectacular lunch. The price? Under $40.00 for one person, which includes a can of soda.

From 1 - 5, this new place receives a solid 1. A waste of time, calories and money.

Feb 10, 2008

Fogoncito - Altabrisa Mall

There is a new taqueria in town, El Fogoncito, and it is yet another chain from Mexico City. They have a few locations around town and their newest one, the most ambitious in terms of actual real estate occupied is located at the entrance to the brand-smacking new Altabrisa Mall, located in, um, Altabrisa.

For those of you not from the area, Altabrisa is the newest area to be developed commercially in Merida, and it's all new. There's some higher end residential areas, the Altabrisa Mall built by the Gran Plaza people, the Star Medica hospital, the huge IMSS hospital and more. Car dealerships have all built spectacular outlets along the Altabrisa route, which is the street that winds its way from Plaza Fiesta (remember that mall!!?!?!) to the periférico and eventually Cholul.

A lunch at the Fogoncito on opening day left much to be desired. While the tacos are good, they are tacos and you can get a great taco anywhere, really. The 'chiste' or what makes or breaks a taco place, is the service, the salsas and the location. Here the Fogoncito, on their first day open, fell flat on their face. Service was spotty, with one section of the table (there were 10 people) getting their food order taken and actually getting their food before the other half even got the waiter's attention. The food came out in spurts (sounds disgusting, sorry) and everyone got something different from what they ordered which turned out to be a simple case of the wrong dish for the wrong person. Once that was cleared up, everyone got what they ordered. Wait staff (lots of different people) came and went, reaching across people to pick up dirty dishes and used paper napkins, setting down drinks beside the coaster that was waiting for the glass to be set on it. Much confusion all around in spite of the fact that there were about 30 to 40 wait staff people in the whole restaurant; it seemed that only 3 or 4 actually had any training before the doors opened.

The salsas? Completely unremarkable, most tasted like something you might get by opening a bottle or a tin. The food was alright, nothing to really write home about. The Critic had a selection of tacos on a platter, all of which were fine, but again, nothing special. The grilled cheese (a crispy flat roll - it's supposed to be that way) served as an appetizer was indeed crispy but besides salty, devoid of flavor. The guacamole was good but some of the tortilla chips were soft, and mixed in with others that were crisp, which makes one suspect all kinds of unpleasant things involving leftover tortillas chips and... Soft tortilla chips is a deal breaker in a taco place. I mean, really.

One thing that the Critic found really delicious was the horchata. Served with ice and with cinnammon sprinkled on top, it was, ITCHO (in the Critic's Humble Opinion) the perfect consistency and flavor.

On a scale of 1-5, the Fogoncito, this one at least, gets a 2. Don't bother wasting your time, calories or pesos here just yet. Let's wait a few months and see if things improve.

Las Gordas de Doña Gorda - Gran Plaza Mall

A newer option for a quick lunch at the mall is Las Gordas de Doña Gorda, which recently opened in the space formerly occupied by Crazy Pizza. That place served pizza that was so crazy that they didn't sell enough to warrant paying such a high overhead.

Anyway, if you are not familiar with the concept of gordas or gorditas, a word usually used to affectionately describe the wife (it means chubby, fatty and really is a term of endearment here), these are fat corn tortillas, cut in half, heated on a grill and then split so that they are hollow and can be stuffed. Fillings include things like cheese and roasted poblano chile strips, chorizo and potato, pork etc. The success or not of your gordita eating experience depends on who cooked those fillings and their degree of proficiency in making them extremely tasty.

The gordas in the mall are good, without reaching mouthgasm inducing levels of lip-smacking goodness. What makes them attractive is that they are very cheap. At about 10 pesos a pop, you can eat 3 or 4 of these and be very satisfied. Beware that the chile salsas that accompany the gordas are hot and that, in combination with the fact that the fillings are pre-cooked and kept at room temperature while they wait to be stuffed into the corn tortilla, can make your stomach have a violent reaction between 12 and 24 hours later.

Open during regular mall hours, from 10 am to 9 pm, next to Burger King in the food court on the second level of the Gran Plaza.

Jan 5, 2008

Sushi Itto - Another Sushi Option

Sushi has, in the past few years, become very popular among Yucatecans and Mérida now boasts several restaurants catering to fans of Japanese food. The one caveat you should be aware of is that the predominant feature of Yucatecan sushi is not so much fish as it is cream cheese. The newly opened Sushi Itto, a chain restaurant based in central Mexico, is no exception.

Located on the Prolongacion de Montejo, in a space formerly occupied by a tanning salon that for some strange reason didn't take, Sushi Itto is a modern-looking minimalist room with high ceilings and lots of red and black.

The sushi here is a hybrid and has been extremely successful throughout Mexico, mixing traditional japanese preparation methods and ingredients with food items more readily identifiable as Mexican, like chiles, arracheras and the like.

The Casual Restaurant Critic went for lunch on a warm day, shortly after their opening, and found the restaurant full, even with no air conditioning (it was apparently experiencing some malfunction). The Critic and Co. tried some of their signature dishes whose names escape him at the moment, but one of them was a roll with beef arrachera which unfortunately featured a large piece of unchewable gristle.

Portions were medium sized, not particularly large or small. The soya sauce is the kind mixed with lemon juice so you will have to ask for 'normal' soya if you don't like the sour kind. The food was tasty, but the Critic didn't see what all the fuss was about. Nothing special.

The service was, as usual for Mérida, average at best. Managers strolled about imperiously; interacting with the clients was obviously not part of their mandate.

Would the Critic return? Not any time soon, nothing stands out that would make a return trip likely or desireable.

On a scale of 1 - 5, this Itto gets a 3. Take it or leave it.