Cantina Palacio Offers Sampling of Contemporary Yucatecan Cuisine
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Mexico’s southeastern Yucatan Peninsula has always been distinguished for its native Maya culture, isolation with the rest of the country and incredibly delicious cuisine, a cultural fusion of indigenous, Spanish, Caribbean, African, French, Dutch and even Lebanese dishes.
What sets Yucatecan food apart from that of the rest of Mexico is the fact that over the centuries it has assimilated both ingredients and cooking styles from the many cultures that have, for various reasons, settled in its territory.
Rooted in the native Maya tradition and drawing on an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables and regional livestock — from wild deer to plumed pheasants — the gastronomy of the Yucatan is constantly evolving as it still continues to assimilate both ancient and modern influences.
One of the top chefs in the region — Mérida, Yucatán, native Alex Méndez — is helping to propel traditional Yucatan cookery into contemporary haute cuisine by drawing on his pedigree French training and a stint in both Brazil and Ensenada, Baja California, to place the peninsula’s emerging new gastronomy among the world’s most sought-after delicacies.
It is Méndez’s commitment to preserving ancient Maya cooking styles while incorporating international modern-day visions that the Cantina Palacio, inside the Palacio de Hierro department store in the luxury Mítikah shopping mall in Mexico City’s Colonia Coyoacán, commissioned him to offer a monthlong festival of some of his most iconic culinary creations.
The festival, which runs through the end of October, includes 10 different Yucatecan dishes, all prepared under the strict supervision of Méndez using quality regional ingredients brought in from the peninsula.
During a press preview of the festival’s menu on Wednesday, Oct. 4, Méndez spoke about each dish while underscoring his passion for Yucatecan cuisine.
First up at the tasting was a spicy fried octopus in a x’nipek sauce (similar to pico de gallo, but composed of finely chopped tomatoes, grilled onions, charred habanero chilies, cilantro and sour orange juice) served on a bed of freshly made guacamole.
“Seafood is and always has been a vital part of Yucatecan cuisine,” Méndez said. “Many people sometimes forget this, but the peninsula is surrounded on three sides by water.”
At the same time, Méndez presented a deliciously tangy ground pumpkin dip blended with ripe tomatoes, bitter oranges and chopped coriander, all sprinkled with pine nuts and served with a basket of piping hot tostados.
Each of the courses presented were accompanied by a choice of either a premium Charro Ambar beer (an artisan brew produced in the State of Mexico) or a selection of Hacienda Florida wines (a relatively new Mexican estate located in the northern state of Coahuila), each selected by the Cantina Palacio sommelier to specifically accompany Méndez’s dishes.
The octopus and pumpkin dip were served with a heady, fruit-forward 2023 Hacienda Florida rosé, a blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon that was definitely dominated by the sweet black Grenache.
Next up were polcanes de chamorro negro, strips of braised and blackened pork shank stuffed into plump little tortillas and topped with diced hard boiled egg. The polcanes were accompanied by a fiery habanero chillie sauce made on the spot by Méndez.
The dish was pungently flavorful with a touch of achiote seasonings, and a plate of four of these mini-tortilla sandwiches could easily constitute a meal in themselves.
The 2022 Hacienda Florida red blend of Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz — again, very heavy on the Grenache — that was served along with the polcanes was full and robust enough to hold its own against the hot and peppery pork shank dish.
Just as potent as the polcanes but far more sophisticated were Méndez’s next culinary formulation, crusty pork belly tacos bathed in a delicate marinade of bitter oranges with slithers of radish and cucumber on top. The dish virtually melted in the mouth.
A more stately and formidable 2021 Hacienda Florida Malbec accompanied the tacos, offering a hat tip of refinement to the pairing.
No Yucatecan meal would be complete without a pan de cazón — a layered dish of corn tortillas, fresh tuna and tomato sauce from the peninsula’s northwestern state of Campeche — and Méndez outdid himself with his interpretation of this classic, adding cumin-packed refried black beans and savory epazote (wormseed) to give it an unexpected kick.
A tannic-y Bodega Hacienda Florida’s 2021 blend of Malbec, Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre served as a crowning finish to the dish, accentuating its earthy epazote undertones and subtle seafood base.
For dessert, Méndez served warm coconut cookies with homemade lime sherbet, a light and tasty finalé.