The other night, we played host to two new friends from out of town with the very New Age names of Zora and Gaya. We wanted to take them somewhere to eat that had good local Yucatecan food, somewhere they hadn’t been before (Zora had been to Merida more than once) and somewhere WE hadn’t been before. Sure, we could have taken them to Trotters or Nectar, two ritzy restaurants where the gente descente (decent people, literally with the connotation of the upper crust of society) go to eat and be seen. But what fun is that? OK, it can be fun… but we were in the mood for local color and hot sauce, not valet parking and wine lists.
So off we went in search of Tacos Arabe, a place that had been suggested to us by our good friend, Joseph, a native Yucateco and a food aficionado. Tacos Arabe is most easily found by turning right at the Burger King circle (known to some as the intersection of Paseo de Montejo and Circuito Colonias), and continuing past the Rocket corner (more on that later) to the really big glorieta (traffic circle). You circle to the right around the glorieta, and at about 10 pm on the glorieta clock, there stands Tacos Arabe, gleaming in the night (in our case) like a beacon of gastronomic delight.
Tacos Arabe is built on a triangular corner, abutting the glorieta. It is two stories high. As we drove up and parked, Working Gringo said, “This place reminds me of something. It looks like… like…” “…the Flatiron Building in New York City?” chimed in Working Gringa. “Yeah, that’s it!” he exclaimed. “Uh… no, not really”, Working Gringa thought to herself. But maybe that little tidbit will help you recognize Tacos Arabe when you get there, so we’ll pass it on. It looks like the Yucatecan version of the Flatiron Building, if you can imagine such a thing. And we won’t be surprised if you can’t.
The first thing you might notice about Tacos Arabe, besides the crowd (almost no empty tables at 8:30 pm on a Tuesday night), is that the walls look dirty. On further inspection, you’ll be relieved to see that they aren’t dirty, they're just written all over. Every square inch of the walls that can be reached by the public has been scribbled on in a mixture of Spanish, English and other languages by the patrons. Mostly it’s about the food. One truly insightful norteamericano even wrote, and we quote: “Tacos Arabe – better than Taco Bell!”. We are sure they meant that as a glowing endorsement but it turned out to be rather obvious and a bit self-incriminating.
After perusing the walls, we decided to sit outside, though it was more of a choice of con techo (with roof) or sin techo (without roof). A bilingual waiter brought us the menu, which includes many kinds of tacos, nachos, guacamole, grilled onions, arrachera (marinated, broiled skirt steak) , and something called carmelos, which we were told are a sort of unrolled burrito.
We ordered Tacos Arabe, their specialty, which are homemade handmade just-made flour tortillas about the size of a Mayan woman’s palm topped with grilled beef, chorizo (a kind of sausage), cheese and a choice of other things, including onions, poblano chiles, tomato salsa or mushrooms. We ordered four different kinds. We also ordered tacos with chopped chuleta de cerdo (pork chops) that had been grilled, chopped and topped with fresh onions, again on those same flour tortillas. Additionally, we ordered an arrachera plate, that came with tortillas, guacamole, grilled onions and a pile of perfectly-cooked, spicy arrachera. And we added a side order of grilled cebollas cambray (cambray onions… like big bulbous green onions). Drinks were either cold Coca Cola or cheladas, lemonade poured over beer on ice.
The food came quickly, accompanied by three sauces: a mild habanero salsa, a salsa de tomate (fresh tomato salsa) and crema de ajo (a creamy garlic sauce). Upon tasting the habanero, we realized it just was not that hot, so we asked the waiter if he had something hotter. Oh, yes he did as a matter of fact. He brought out whole, pickled habaneros in oil.
First of all, let’s talk about the flour tortillas. You don’t get flour tortillas much in the Yucatan. Traditionally, its all corn, all the time. These flour tortillas were so fresh, like little powdered pillows of perfection. Edible white clouds. Yum! And just the right size to hold a handful of grilled meat and assorted vegetables and sauces. Once the grilled onions and salsa de ajo were layered on top, it was a bit difficult to wrap it up, hold it and fit it in your mouth. But we managed.
The salsa de ajo was a pleasantly soothing accompaniment to the spicy meat and onions. The guacamole had bits of tomato and onions adentro (inside), just the way we like it. The totopos (chips) were actually fried flour tortillas - again not corn - and made great spicy and crispy guacamole elevators. The grilled cebollas were grilled within an inch of nirvana in unrecognized oils and spices. And the pickled habaneros in oil gave each bite a bite of its own… those habaneros bit back! At one point, Working Gringa (the chief habanero inspector) was crying and sniffling as if she was watching a Lifetime movie. She looked around and noticed that no one was noticing, as they were all too engrossed in their own taste adventures. No importa… she was too high on habaneros to care about being the center of attention. Word to the wise… don’t try those habaneros in oil unless you have had practice!
Our friend Gaya from Sri Lanka, who had groaned at the size of her plate of arrachera, managed to eat the whole thing without a word of complaint (and we didn't even get a taste!). We assure you that no tortilla was left behind. The dinner was a complete success, despite the fact that we left without writing on the wall.
To cap off the evening, we went to a perennial favorite, Villa Maria, for cappuccinos and postres (dessert). Villa Maria is one of the few places in town where we can get a real cappuccino… cappuccino en tasa (in a cup). For some reason, whoever introduced cappuccinos to Merida a few years ago (and it was only that recently), decided that norteamericanos and other extranjeros (foreigners) like their cappuccinos in a tall glass Irish-coffee-style cup. Maybe they think we prefer quantity over quality. In any case, when you order a cappuccino in most places in the Yucatan, you get a large glass cup with a lot of milk and some espresso… more of a latte than a cappuccino. But Villa Maria will give you a true Italian-style cappuccino if you ask. We like that about Villa Maria. We also adore the mousse de mocha and the Pear Dali (poached pear in a berry sauce, stuffed with a dried fruit compote and served with ice cream… yum!). And as the perfect end to a perfect evening, a caballito (little horse… ) of Xtabentun, the locally-made anise-flavored liqueur, derecho (straight up).
p.s. What about the Mexican Rocket, you ask? Here’s what we’ve heard (again, from our friend, Joseph, who apparently called the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) to get the real story from a local historian. Years ago, a local man named Omar Diaz found a rocket floating in the water as he walked along the beach near Progreso and Chelem, where he had a house or two. It was 1980, and he told people that it was a NASA test rocket that had fallen into the sea. There are those who think he might have been pulling someone's leg, but we digress. Sr. Diaz was a developer and he erected this rocket in a new development that he was building. When that got too crowded, he moved it to another of his projects, Fraccionamiento Montecristo. (Yes, he was a wealthy developer who apparently owned a lot of land around Merida). With some minor moving from corner to corner, it now stands in Nueva Aleman, and is a tribute to...uh... the Mexican Space Program?
All that to say that it now serves as a Yucatecan roadsign, sort of like the corner plaques on Merida's streets. As you are driving towards Tacos Arabe, you'll pass the Rocket Corner, and then you know you're almost there.