Mérida: Mexico's Foodie Hot Spot
Mérida has become the scene of Mexico’s gourmet revolution.
M érida, an ancient city on the western tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, has not yet given the world a dish on par with the moles of Puebla, nor can it lay claim to an ingredient like the vanilla beans of Veracruz. It has nevertheless blossomed into Mexico’s latest foodie destination, redeeming a region long marred by fruity frozen drinks and all-you-can-eat buffets. Though Cancún is just a four-hour drive east, Mérida feels a world apart—and always has.
Founded by the Spanish in 1542 on the remains of the ancient Mayan city T’ho, Mérida spent its first three centuries cut off from the rest of Mexico by impenetrable swamps at the Yucatán’s base. Instead, shipping lanes tethered the city to Europe and, later, to New Orleans and Havana, influences still visible today in everything from the architecture to the cuisine. Though Mérida is called the White City, the narrow streets in its colonial Centro Histórico district are lined with candy-colored compounds, each wrought-iron balcony and lush interior courtyard worthy of a French Quarter address. Decaying limestone mansions along the Avenue Paseo de Montejo, near the National Institute of Anthropology and History, wouldn’t look out of place on the Champs-Elysées.
Mérida’s charm is as potent as ever, thanks to its stability, security and style. I was recently lured into town by Jeremiah Tower, the godfather of California cuisine who helped give Chez Panisse its panache in the 1970s and later founded Stars in San Francisco, the now-shuttered shrine to decadence where Mario Batali received his early training. In 2005, Tower, a notorious hedonist whose lanky slouch, ruddy complexion and wry English humor recalls a tanner Bill Nighy, decamped to Mérida. “After George W. Bush’s reelection, I had to get out of New York. So I moved to New Orleans,” he says. Just in time for Katrina, which hit while he was on a diving trip in Cozumel. “In one fell swoop,” he says, “I lost 90 percent of my belongings.” His house destroyed, Tower decided to stay in Cozumel. Then came Hurricane Wilma, a Category 5 storm that barrelled into nearby Quintana Roo and caused severe devastation. “For 50 hours I was trapped on my bed, with the water lapping around the sides.” The remaining 10 percent of his things obliterated, Tower headed inland to Mérida and never looked back. Now he occupies himself buying, restoring and selling antique homes, as well as writing travel and culinary books. (He studied architecture at Harvard before donning his first toque.)
“It’s a magical place,” Tower says of the city. “When you come here, it just gets under your skin.” But food is never far from his mind, and over the course of a week we sampled the best Mérida has to offer, without a chafing dish or a blue daiquiri in sight.
Throughout Mexico, home cooks often surpass professional chefs, and the same is true here. An array of recently opened cooking schools are bringing cocina casera, Mexican home cooking, to the curious. Our search takes us to the kitchen of Aliza Mizrahi, a Mexico City native who studied environmental studies and forestry at Yale before moving back to Mérida. Three years ago she opened a cooking school on a one-acre microfarm just outside the city (from $50 for a four-hour class; 52-999/167-5500). Mizrahi is outfitting her humble patch of turf with an irrigation system, planting it with papaya, mango and citrus trees, as well as organic greens and sprouts.
While surveying Mizrahi’s spread, Tower and I stoop to inspect some flowering arugula before sampling the creamy white buds bursting with a delicate spicy-sweet flavor. “This is very similar to the roquette in Provence,” Tower says, noting the commonalities in the rocky limestone soil here and the dry, mineral-rich French coastal terroir—an auspicious indicator of Mizrahi’s future yields. Until her small Eden matures, Mizrahi stocks up for her classes by visiting nearby markets like Cholul and the one in downtown Mérida. She takes an outsider’s liberties with Yucatecan recipes, and her adjustments invariably improve upon the originals. Her version of the Mayan dish sikil p’aak (recipe follows), for example, a savory spread made with a roasted pumpkinseed paste, or recado, seasoned with charred tomatoes and habanero peppers, is nearly addictive, thanks to liberal doses of naranja agria, the wrinkled sour oranges brought here by the Spanish, and a heaping handful of cilantro. Even Tower admits it’s the best he has ever had, before reaching for another bite.