Cancun is not just about Zona Hotelera. Twenty to thirty minutes away, depending on which hotel you’re staying at and your mode of transportation, lies Centro or Downtown Cancun where most of the locals live. It’s a fun place with a lot more food options than the Hotel Zone, but it’s guaranteed you’ll get lost there. Roads are windy and circular intersections are the norm, so even if you have precise, detailed directions, at the end, you might as well have thrown them out the window on the way. But as long as you persevere, tasty food can be had.
The first night my mom and I arrived in Cancun, we dumped our bags at the hotel and jumped into our rental car in the search of Labna, a Carribean and Yucatecan restaurant in Centro, the online forums were raving about for lobster. Well, after doing a complete tour of Centro (we got lost for one hour), hungry and tired we finally found the restaurant. Unfortunately, I have to say, Internet, you steered me wrong. While I liked the mashed Yucatecan pumpkin seed paste that came with the chips, and also liked the generous amount of beef on the beef tostadas, my mom’s broiled Caribbean lobster was extremely overcooked. My mom kept saying eating it was like eating a piece of wood. My chiles rellenos weren’t any better. One pepper was stuffed with ground beef that tasted off, most probably because it was old, and the other pepper which was stuffed with cheese might have been better if it hadn’t been sandy as was the beef pepper. It was disappointing to say the least, and we headed back to the hotel where I immediately drowned my sorrows at the beach bar. The total cost of the meal at Laba with two sodas was MXN $669 (USD $50.83).
A few days later, when David arrived, we headed to Centro for lunch. By then, I’d become somewhat familiar with the area. In fact, David didn’t believe me when I told him navigating Centro was difficult, so to prove my point, I gave him the address to where we were going and had him try to find it. After he stopped two times to ask for directions, I finally told him how to get there. BELIEVE ME NOW?!
This time in Centro, however, instead of heading to a fancy restaurant, we went for street food, coincidentally right near Labna in Parque de Las Palapas. In the center of the park, next to the plentiful concrete tables and umbrellas…
there’s an outdoor food court of sorts with lots of stalls selling tasty Mexican fast food.
David decided to get something at Tortas y Tacos, but didn’t order a torta or a taco. Instead, he got a get huge plate of nachos (MXN $60 / USD $4.60) with beef, chicken, cheese, tomatoes, and buttery avocado slices. Surprisingly, the beef was really good, very flavorful and well-seasoned. However, David wasn’t so excited about the cheese which tasted more funky than typical Oaxaca cheese. Personally, I thought it was fine. It did taste more like sheep’s milk cheese as opposed to cow’s milk, but cheese is great no matter what in my opinion. I don’t discriminate.
The nachos were big enough for both of us, but I also ordered a panucho (MXN $12 / USD $0.92) from the stall next door at Quesadillas de Javier. Panucho, a Yucatecan specialty, is a deep-fried tortilla that’s been split and filled with a thin layer of mashed beans. It’s then topped with a variety of meat, usually chicken or turkey. I decided on pork (natch), or cochinita pibil to be exact, which was then topped with crema, shredded lettuce, and Cotija cheese.
It took a bit of time as the panucho was fried to order, but the wait was worth it. The panucho was hot and crunchy, and the shredded pork was juicy and moist. Tacos are great, but filled with beans and fried, it may hurt your heart but definitely not your taste buds.
The path to deliciousness in Centro was marked with a few pitfalls, but eventually perseverance paid off.
Food Stalls at Parque de Las Palapas
10 Margaritas 22 (map)
Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico