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BEYOND TACOS AND MARGARITAS

When I lived in Mexico, I worked at a four-star luxury hotel. Almost every guest upon arriving immediately exclaimed, “Where are the tacos and margaritas?” Of course, I would promptly point them in the right direction. The hotel, El Dorado Royale, did have very good tacos and margaritas. After all, it is a gourmet inclusive hotel. However, eventually the guests that stayed for more than a week would hunger for other gastronomic delights. At this point, I would immediately exclaim, “Oh I have just the place for you!” Because after all, there is more to Mexico than tacos and margaritas!

Some of the most amazing restaurants in Playa del Carmen are under the proprietorship of Rodrigo Hernandez Cabrera. Mr. Hernandez is originally from Mexico City, but he now calls Playa del Carmen home. And Playa, as the locals call it, is grateful to have him. The culinary artistry of the dishes and the ambience of each of his restaurants speaks to the palettes of locals, expats and tourists. While his natural and unassuming manner make him approachable. Once he created a whole new pizza at one of his locations on the spot because a diner wanted specific ingredients. He joked that he was going to name it after her and put it on the menu.

Mr. Hernandez’s affable disposition toward Playa del Carmen and its residents is also present in his ‘dine arounds’. He invites employees of the surrounding hotels to come on a special night each month to sample the food and beverages at his restaurants. It is a complimentary service that educates the hotel staff to be able to speak knowledgeably about the restaurants to guests. However, it also creates a bond among the participants and enhances their relationship to the restaurants. I have been on one of these ‘dine arounds’ and was completely impressed with the level of service, food offered and knowledge bestowed. Fortunately, it was not the first time I had been to one of Mr. Hernandez’ restaurants. I have been a loyal follower long before my ‘dine around’ experience.

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La Azotea happens to be one of my most favorite places to dine in Playa del Carmen. I have long held this information secret along with all the other locals, expats and some tourists in the know. I was afraid of the whole world finding out about this beauty! But I can no longer keep quiet. I must shout from the rooftops and tell everyone! Incidentally, La Azotea means roof or rooftop in Spanish. It’s location on the fourth floor of Hotel El Punto on Quinta Avenida may explain how it acquired its name.

La Azotea has a fantastic view of Cozumel and the Caribbean, which is especially nice during sunsets. The contemporary décor and great music selection add to its cosmopolitan vibe. But it is best known for its creative drinks such as ginger martinis and cucumber martinis plus its signature pizzas cooked in a wood oven. My favorite is the Pizza El Punto with arugula, prosciutto and Parmesan cheese. The restaurant also serves tapas, salads such as pear and goat cheese and pasta dishes such as lasagna. La Azotea is also the best place to go for a birthday party (and I have!) because it makes a sweet dessert pizza from nutella, bananas and strawberries! Yummy!

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My second favorite restaurant in Mr. Hernandez’ repertoire is Aldea Corazon which literally translates to Heart Village. Facing the restaurant from Quinta Avenida, the restaurant seems likable but not all that remarkable. However, once you step inside and ask to sit in the back, Aldea Corazon becomes singularly breathtaking. The back of the restaurant is situated in a dry cenote with banyon trees. Cenotes are deep natural pits usually containing fresh water and they are found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. The cenote in Aldea Corazon has lanterns strung along the tree limbs evoking the most romantic and ethereal ambiance. Though I have gone with friends – it is best to go with a romantic partner!

Aldea Corazon is a Mexican restaurant at its heart. You can find tacos and margaritas there, but you will also find many regional dishes from throughout Mexico. Some of my personal favorites are shrimp fajitas, chicken mole and jicama tacos. But the fresh fish really stands out especially the pescado de Yucatan, which is fish wrapped in banana leaves while it is cooking. The pescado de Veracruzana is also lovely cooked with olives, capers and jalapenos. Don’t forget the chocolate crepes for desert!

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Restaurant Sur, or South restaurant, is actually the first restaurant I ever went to for dinner. It has continued to remain one of my favorites even though other restaurants have arrived on the scene. El Sur continuously offers exceptional service, quality dishes and great people watching on Quinta Avenida. I always brought friends to El Sur when they were visiting because it perfectly combined all the best components of dining in Playa. El Sur is an Argentinean steakhouse; so of course, the best thing on the menu is the meat. The steaks – ribeye, flank, filet, etc – are all delicious. I also recommend the tomato soup, four-cheese penne pasta and grilled octopus. The best dessert is the cheese stuffed crepes with wild berry sauce, but there is also chocolate ganache and warm chocolate soufflé.

Mr. Hernandez’ restaurants also include three more concepts. Mi Pueblo serves authentic Mexican fare, such as taquitos and molcajetes. The stuffed green pepper, chicken mole and tortilla soup are also excellent. You can also watch fresh tortillas being made from the open kitchen. Last year, they opened Mi Pueblo Parrilla, which extends the menu to include grilled meat dishes. Finally, there is Lateral, which is a steak and seafood concept. They have the most scrumptious warm crunchy bread at this location with different salsas at your disposable. The Rockefeller oysters and French fries with truffle oil are exquisite and go beautifully with the steak and seafood options. But really you cannot go wrong with any of the dishes at any of these wonderful restaurants. So the next time you find yourself in the Riviera Maya, I encourage you after a few tacos to try out these culinary delights! Provecho!

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