On our last evening in Playa del Carmen, we dined at a restaurant called Xuläm the Mayan Fisher (tripadvisor link). We’ve passed this place many times as it is at the south end of Fifth Avenue at the gated entrance to a quiet, upscale neighborhood where we stay. Several domesticated parrots hang out in front of the restaurant, and we’ve also spotted many agouti nearby. The menu is full of traditional Yucatecan dishes, but the appetizer that caught our eye was the pre-Hispanic tacos.
Mexico has a long history of insect cuisine, bugs being a ubiquitous source of protein and vitamins for the indigenous peoples. In Oaxaca, where European conquest arguably had the least impact, Juliana and I sampled salty, fried grasshoppers. They also make a salsa of chicatana (Tzicatana), flying ants that come out during the first rains of the season. And of course, maguey worms are famously at the bottom of mezcal bottles. Our friend Klaudia was quite excited at the prospect of eating Mexican bugs, so we all agreed to share the pre-Hispanic tacos at Xuläm.
For my share, I divided a tortilla into four quadrants to sample each taco: grasshoppers, ants, ant eggs, and maguey worms. Klaudia thought that the ant eggs tasted like bone marrow, but I have to admit that I didn’t chew and savor these so much as gulp them down followed by some cold beer. The ants had a nice charred flavor though, enhanced by a squeeze of lime.
We stuck with more ordinary fare for our entrees. Juliana ordered the cochinita pibil, perhaps the dish that the Yucatan peninsula is most famous for. Pork is marinated in citrus juices, usually from bitter oranges, and achiote (annatto seed) is added for color. Then it is wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked until tender and juicy. It’s usually served with pickled red onion.
I ordered the chicken mole, a dish so labor intensive (if you make your own mole, of course) that I only make it once a year at most. The best moles have a long list of ingredients, and each ingredient goes through an elaborate process of preparation. Anyway, this mole was rich and subtle and I enjoyed every bite of it.
Xuläm is a bit on the pricey side, but the food is distinctive, well made, and beautifully presented. The service was excellent. You should note that the restaurant automatically adds the gratuity to the bill. Our server pointed this out to us and, in the course of proposing that we consider giving him an additional cash tip, explained that the gratuity gets split among several employees.