Hidden Gourmet In Yucatan
Somewhere in Mexico’s Yucatán lies a restaurant that blends traditional Mexican recipes, hospitality, and atmosphere with gourmet quality, artistic presentation, and farm-to-table freshness. All served by gracious hosts that make you feel as if you are part of the family.
By now, if you have traveled to the Yucatán before, you are likely filing through your memories of every restaurant you visited in Mérida. After all, where else but Mérida could such a restaurant be?
Welcome to the coastal hidden gem of a village named El Cuyo! Home to El Chile Gordo, which is unquestionably one of the finest dining experiences you will have in this part of world. I know what you are thinking, where is El Cuyo? Is El Chile a fast food chain from America? Is this guy crazy?
Well, the answers are that this village and restaurant are on the Yucatecan Coast within the National Park of Ria Lagartos. No, this is certainly not a chain restaurant. And I am not certifiably crazy, although some who know me may beg to differ. Now that we have answered these pressing matters, let’s move on to the real subject at hand, which is a truly wonderful story of how a great restaurant ended up in this remote village of 1,500 people.
Arriving in El Cuyo on the two-lane dirt road does not lead to extreme confidence of a gourmet restaurant experience. Rather, as we arrived, we quickly began to scope out the taco stands and local cafes to determine who was eating and if they were smiling or frowning. Once we settled into our hotel, the inevitable next question of where we are eating was immediately the topic of discussion.
A bit of research led us to El Chile Gordo. I proceeded to send a WhatsApp message to them requesting a reservation. The response was prompt and detailed that they were open but not in traditional Ala Carte style and with only one large table in the room. Diners were limited to four (possibly more if families) and they sit on opposite ends of a large table, as a Covid-19 protocol.
The menu is updated each evening and nine dishes are served based on what is fresh and available. If you want to book a reservation, and we were lucky enough to call on an evening with availability, you need to stop by and deposit 50% of the meal price prior to dining. What? Well, ok! It is a small town so it can’t be that difficult. We looked it up and off we went to take the five-block walk to the location Google Maps directed us to. Upon arrival, we knocked on the door, met the chef and made our payment, leaving to look forward to our evening's dining adventure.
Here is where I would normally tell you about the meal, service, atmosphere, wine, etc. But before I do that I want to jump into the restaurant's story as I believe it is as wonderful as the cuisine itself.
The Chef/Owner of El Chile Gordo is Oscar Flores and his Hostess/Partner extraordinaire is Cathy Sissens. They moved to El Cuyo and opened the restaurant in December 2018. Oscar is from a restaurant family, having grown up with a mother that was a chef and working in his formative years at various restaurants. Cathy, on the other hand, is from Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England. And you thought the story couldn’t get stranger!
Cathy and Oscar met at a local Playa Del Carmen bakery, Chez Céline, in 2018. She was seeking the ultimate almond croissant at this popular and completely full spot and he was sitting alone and kindly offered his extra seat at the table to her. Five hours after this coincidental meeting, and lucky for future visitors to El Cuyo, the two were still together eating tacos at yet another local hot spot. As Cathy stated, "It’s all about the food!”.
Oscar and Cathy obviously hit it off and decided to “travel Mexico” together. One of the first stops was the village of El Cuyo. It also happened to be the unexpected end to “travel Mexico” as they decided to settle into the community and open El Chile Gordo in December 2018.
Early days yielded excellent online reviews and repeat customers, but the pandemic hit in early 2020, forcing closure. Fortunately, Oscar and Cathy were able to stick it out by offering takeout service. Now, as the world works back to normalcy, they have reopened just in time for our recent visit. In fact, our Thursday evening dinner resulted in such a wonderful experience that we opted for a Friday night reservation as well.
Upon arrival we were met at the door by Cathy and seated at the head of the large table with a couple seated at the opposite end. Our evening started with introductions and then proceeded with a wonderfully generous Mezcal Margarita that Cathy whipped up for all of us. I should mention that this was an off-the-menu personal offering of welcome from Oscar and Cathy. The restaurant does not offer bar service at this time.
After having an opportunity to relax, the meal began with the first of nine delectable plates. While all of the dishes were outstanding, a few stood out to us, including the fresh Ceviche of local Langoustines, which provided just the perfect amount of lime to not overpower the fresh seafood.
We also loved the unusual traditional dish of a Huitlachoche, which is a fungus grown on corn and caused by the disease Corn Smut. This mushroom-like fungus was prepared on a thick freshly made Blue Corn Tortilla and topped with a traditional Mole Sauce. It delivered both a unique texture while being amazingly flavorful.
For. our experience, the other memorable dish was the Mole Verde con Verduras. This was a
beautiful green mole sauce served over a grilled quartered zucchini and topped with toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds). The depth of flavor was true to the mole traditions while not being as heavy as a traditional chocolate mole recipe, while the pepitas provided just enough crunchy texture to the soft dish. Our meal finished equally as tasty as it began with a Mexican style vanilla Crème brûlée.
When we booked a trip to off-the-beaten path El Cuyo, we did not envision having world class cuisine. Lucky for us, and hopefully many other diners in the future, Oscar and Cathy have chosen this spot to deliver such an experience. Who would have imagined that the chance meeting of two people in a small Playa Del Carmen bakery would result in the ongoing deliverance of such a wonderful dining experience in a tiny Yucatecan village? Sometimes fate is truly stranger than fiction.