The quintessential Yucatan eating experience is attained somewhere outdoors. The view isn't great. The tablecloth (if there is one) is oilcloth atop a cheap plastic or metal table donated to the restaurant by Coca Cola. The food is dripping with sauce, hot and tasty. Your fingers and hands are covered with it and your mouth is on fire with chili de habanero. You reach for a napkin to wipe your hands and all you get is a tiny, wafer-thin servieta. But you have to do it so you can hold that cold glass of Coca Cola or agua-de-whatever long enough to quench the fire inside for just a moment. You glance up briefly from your plate and everyone is pretty much doing the same thing, concentrating on their own ecstatic experience.
We've just described a typical meal at Wayan'e, arguably the best taco stand in Merida (well, actually, there are two of them). When we first arrived in Merida, we were introduced by friends and now that's what we do, too. We take our friends who are new to Merida to lunch at Wayan'e. We make sure they remember how to get there. We tell them what they need to know to get the most out of the Wayan'e experience. And then they are on their own. It's like an initiation.
First of all, the name: Wayan'e is pronounced "why-en-AY". When we first saw the name, we thought it was Balinese, but no... it's Mayan and it means, "here we are". Great name for a taco stand, don't you think? So what *is* here, exactly? It's a family-owned place, of course. The older couple who own it are always behind the counter. They don't cook, they supervise, platicando (chatting) with the customers, many of whom have apparently been coming here for years. They supervise about ten workers, most of whom are chopping, cutting and squeezing. Everything is cooked fresh every morning. When the food is gone, the place closes down for the day, usually by 2:00 pm.
Most Yucatecos eat a big breakfast, which is a tradition around here. In fact, one of our friends who grew up here says her abuela (grandmother) used to say, "eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper". It's not unusual to see locals sitting down to big breakfasts of poc-chuc or pavo en relleno negro at the local mercados. So if you go to Wayan'e at about 9:00 am or so, you'll find a crowd. If you're like us and used to eating heavier foods later in the day, you might think of going to Wayan'e for lunch. We used to show up about 1:00 pm until we realized that we were only seeing the xix (pronounced "sheesh"...it's a Mayan word for the very last little bits) by that time. So we started getting there about 11:30 am at least, advice we always pass on to our friends.
Often, it's standing room only. And then you have to lean over someone eating at the counter, order directly from the cook and get your plate handed to you over that poor someone's head. Sometimes, there are little plastic tables with plastic chairs and someone who actually serves the food. This is a mixed blessing. It's nice to sit down on the sidewalk next to the parked cars (such ambiance!), but when the mesera (waitress) comes and starts rattling off the different choices for that day, a normal gringo begins to wish for a printed menu. The only menu is up on the wall inside the taco stand... and it's never comprehensive. So you have to listen carefully and catch what you can. Here are some things to listen for: poc-chuc, pollo poblano, pollo con chorizo verde, fajitas de pollo, huevos con chaya, huevos con longaniza, castacan and carne asado.
We usually order cuatro tacos (four tacos) with some assortment of those different fillings listed above. ("Cuatro tacos. Dos con pollo poblano, un huevo con chaya y un castacan, por favor, con frijoles y cebolla.") (Translation: Four tacos. Two with chicken with poblano chiles, one with scrambled eggs with chaya, and one with grilled pork, please, with beans and onion.) You can also order these as tortas, or sandwiches served on a french roll with cheese. We keep saying we are going to try something new, but those tacos are so good, we can't get past them.
Before the mesera leaves, we always order a drink. If we aren't too late, there is still a selection of three or four fresh aguas de frutas (fruit juices): Agua de sandia (watermelon), agua de piña (pineapple), agua de mamey, or guayabana or guaya (they're local tropical fruits), agua de cebada (barley with cinnamon)... they're all delicious! If there are no more aguas left, we'll settle for horchata, iced tea or even una coca. But we'll be sad about it.
In less than five minutes, all the tacos arrive. They're like little round drink coasters made of corn and filled with heaps of tasty bits. On the table are three choices of salsa: roasted chile salsa, it's flavorful but not very hot. Avocado salsa, it's light green and a little spicier. And lastly, the ambrosia called salsa de habanero... it's hot. Oh, it's hot. Wonderfully, blessedly, ecstatically hot. Our favorite strategy is to go straight to the habanero, spoon it (don't sprinkle!) all over the tacos, and then proceed. Usually, after the first taco we don't talk much anymore. Our mouths are burning, our noses are watering and we're starting to see colors more brightly. The aguas come in handy to momentarily douse the flame, but the only thing that really works is to eat more tacos with more habanero.
You can find this little slice of taco heaven by going north to the Burger King circle on Paseo de Montejo, turning right and driving past the Chapur department store to the stoplight next to the big pink house. Turn right and continue todo derecho (straight) for about three blocks. This is how a Yucateco gives directions, and since you are going to eat like a Yucateco, you might as well drive like one, too.