By Leah T. Sakata

I remember coming to Playa del Carmen for the first time in the winter of 1997 when it was a quaint fishing village with the odd local seafood restaurant on the sand and la Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue) was practically non-existent; a dirt road with a few street vendors under palapas, alongside the odd taco stand. The brilliant white sand seemed to go for miles and eventually led to the translucent magnificence of heavenly bath water. I stayed at a ridiculously cheap bed and breakfast for 20 bucks a night; a couple of blocks from the beach with the cutest architectural design in the shape of a tree house where Coco Bongo now resides. 
Today, Playa has a bustling commercial centre and la Quinta Avenida, a cobblestone walkway that leads to block upon block of enticing retail therapy, a foodie's haven of delights and live entertainment that keeps even the most distracted individual focused and mezmorized. There is a ‘chispa’; a kind of inexplicable, omnipresent energy force that aligns with the majestic Caribbean Sea and every time I go, no matter how busy it gets this kind of ‘jale’ [halei] or pull keeps me coming back for more. I have been living in and out of Playa del Carmen now for almost 4 years and feel very much a part of this special community. There certainly isn’t a shortage of places in which to socialize and the culinary diversity is frankly impressive, even coming from the city of Vancouver that is known for its foodie haven and endless places to indulge. 

Having grown up in a multicultural background, my family gatherings were always centred around delicious concoctions of Asian and European/Canadian fusion flavours. I loved my Nana Rhymer’s ridiculously delicious shepherd’s pie and second to none oatmeal cookies just as much as my Grandmother Sakata’s incredible New Year’s spread of futomaki (my favourite sushi), Japanese chow mein and herring roe. I come from a long lineage of gardeners, fishermen and parents who were both excellent cooks and loved to entertain, so I am, by nature, a foodie and one who enjoys experimenting with good eats of my own creation as well as those inspired by my ancestors and of course, a decent meal out in great company. 

 

Here are my top breakfast/brunch and cafe stops in Playa del Carmen (and not necessarily in this order) based on quality for the peso: 

 

1.) Serendipity

This is a gem that I found while strolling along on la avenida 28 de julio close to my place in the neighbourhood called la Toscana. I first went in for one of their refreshing juices, un rejuvenece (the rejuvenator) which I ended up ordering often to beat the heat and from there, I experimented with a number of their incredibly delicious brunch items. Not only is the food out of this world yummy, the presentation is always a work of art. The huevos motuleños are the best I’ve had to date with their salsa verde and platanos machos (plantain) as well as their huevocate which is essentially poached eggs inside avocados with a extra savoury hollandaise sauce. For those on a keto diet like me (occasionally) and gluten free, both of these options are perfecto! The service is friendly, efficient and the americanos, ultra potent! I recommend ordering an americano chico to start as speaking from personal experience, the grande will honestly not allow you to rest for 24 hours! Haha. Another great feature about this place is that for high quality fare, the prices are extraordinarily reasonable for high caliber of cuisine. I don’t usually pay any more than about 120 pesos ($ 8.40 CDN) for a full meal deal. Hours of operation: Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (8:00 am to 11 pm) Tuesday (8am to 6pm) and Wednesdays (closed). 
 

2.) La Vagabunda Fiesta

I’ve been to three of La Vagabunda’s locations which are situated on la Quinta, la 28 de julio and at 38th near the beach. The one on la 28 de julio, my favourite location, hosts an enormous space that is ideal for families with an adjacent swimming pool that you could literally jump in to pre or post dining from your table. Breakfast is served from 7 am to 1 pm from Monday to Saturday and on Sundays from 7 am to 3 pm. Their menu has a large variety of traditional Mexican combo breakfast delights including the Saludable (mixed fruit, granola and yogurt), the Ranchero (fried eggs on a corn tortilla with red sauce beans and cheese), The Campesino (Chilaquiles verdes o rojos) and the list goes on. Their smoothie and drink menu is equally extensive and their freshly pressed juices are all fabulous! The service is always cordial and efficient and the prices, reasonable. A typical breakfast combo runs about $140 pesos ($9.75 CDN). Hours of operation: Monday and Thursday (8 am to 5 pm), Tuesday and Wednesday (8 am to 5 pm but hours may vary) Friday and Saturday (8 am to 2 pm).
 

3.) La Jungla de la Riviera 

This funky spot is situated in the North end of Playa de Carmen on 10th Avenue between 68th and 70th streets in a neighbourhood called The Colosio which in certain parts of its demographic, considered to be a rather seedy part of town. On the other hand, it is also an up and coming community with a lot of new property developments and has its cool eateries like this one. The Jungle of the Riviera (its literal translation) certainly lives up to its name for its unique ambiance: exterior dining on unique dark wood like picnic benches under foliage that sometimes sheds nut like seeds that will randomly decide to knock you awake when you least expect it. Haha. The menu has a variety of options for vegetarians and those on gluten free and lactose free diets. I love their omelettes, huevos motulenos and their juice combinations are gorgeous! The service is very chill and admittedly a tad slow so don’t go there if you’re in a hurry. The place is excellent on your pocket book and typically costs about 80 pesos ($5.50 CDN) for a very decent breakfast/brunch. Hours of operation: Sunday to Monday, 8:30 am to 5 pm with variable hours over the holidays.
 

4.) La Cueva del Chango

This popular brunch spot is located on Calle 38, my favourite street in Playa del Carmen and especially as you reach La Quinta, as from there, it is aligned with jungle foliage, singing birds, sea breezes and illuminating sunshine. The restaurant unto itself is an oasis and surrounded by the sound of running water and a magical, tropical ambiance. Their variety of chilaquiles is impressive and super tasty as are their huevos rancheros and their quinoa bowl is delish! It’s a bit pricier than other mentioned breakfast spots but its close proximity to the beach makes it worth it as you can go for a dip post brunch or take your meal to go and have a picnic on the beach. Hours of Operation: 8 am to 10:30 pm with variable holiday hours. 
 

5.) Oaxaca Mio

This is a little diamond in the rough that I found over 3 years ago on Avenida Petempich right across from Punto 115 when it first opened. The name itself stood out immediately for me as coffee from Oaxaca and especially a variety called cafe pluma that I tried for the first time while on a coffee tour in Huatulco, is one of the best I’ve had to date. It is ultra smooth, full bodied and revs you up like no other. The variety of coffee frappes here is also impressive from cookies and cream to mochas and this special place’s quaint and charming ambiance is what keeps me going back there. Ok, well, their amaranth gluten free cookies that came in chocolate chip, coconut, pineapple and raspberry flavours that are unfortunately no longer available, always made a loyal patron out of me too. Their americanos are always potent, smooth and never bitter. The quiet atmosphere is a perfect spot for a writer and educator to work on his/her laptop. 

The inspirational messages on the walls and a variety of books and games that are left for clients to enjoy are added bonuses to the overall experience. The tiny terrace that overlooks the busy and noise laden calle 115, which isn’t the most picturesque, but adds to the welcoming atmosphere. The owner, a laid back, family man who takes pride in his business and knows what excellent customer is all about. This unique cafe offers other snacks such as paninis and a variety of pastries that look delish but unfortunately in which I cannot partake as a gluten allergic being. Hours of operation: Open 7 days a week from 7 am to 11 pm, with variable holiday hours.
 

Here are some of my favourite dinner spots in Playa del Carmen: 

 

1.) La Perla Pixan and Mezcal Store 

Definitely one of my favourites for their authentic Mexican cuisine and a unique rendition of traditional Oaxacan delights that leave your taste buds tantalized in delight. It’s central location at Calle 34 Norte between 5th and 10th in a quiet little nook immediately draws attention for its grandiose palapa rooftop and friendly hosts. Some of my top menu picks are the sopa de hongos (mushroom soup) huaraches de pato organico with mole, and their chile relleno dish (stuffed chile peppers) with flor de calabaza (squash blossoms). I am admittedly a mezcal lover and have to say that their mezcal cocktails are some of the best I’ve had to date not only for their levels of flavour but also for their unique, artistic presentation. The Kukulkan in particular was a pleasant surprise; served in a brown paper bag and opened in front of you to reveal an already smokey cocktail that was literally smoking from its core. The first few sips reveal the potency of the mezcal itself and every sip afterwards unravels poco a poco (little by little) very distinct flavours. I highly recommend the banana and sweet potato flambe to complete your meal. It’s a perfect symphony of sweetness that isn’t overbearing and satisfied my after dinner craving to perfection.

The regular live music there is a fabulous touch too and I have danced the night away at a number of birthday parties and just because I felt an urge to move and groove. The ambiance is super lively and enchanting, making you feel like you’ve been teleported to another world. The waiters have an evident flare for customer service with excellent product knowledge and attentiveness. Hours of operation: Open 7 days a week from 8:30 am to midnight with variable holiday hours. Reservations are definitely recommended as it’s consistently busy. 

 

2.) Romeo Trattoria Pizzeria

This place is a winner all around. I spent Valentine’s Day last year with a special someone and I have to say that I was impressed! From the decadent beef carpaccio to the yummy gluten free seafood pasta bathed in a rich and decadent marinara sauce, bubbly prosecco with a touch of sweetness and an ultra intimate ambiance. In spite of the tables being placed in very close proximity, I was seduced into to a culinary haven that is something of the sublime. High quality grilled prawns, lobster, white fish and my favourite, octopus that make up their sharing platter for two that three could very easily enjoy, is also one of my faves. The complimentary limoncello at the end of the meal is a great touch and end to the perfect meal. For the quality and quantity, this place is fantastico! The service is consistently excellent and efficient. Their menu is also extensive, offering so many options for those who have annoying food allergies like me. Located at 4th Avenue North between 10th and 15th Avenue, I highly recommend making a reservation as it is consistently packed. Hours of operation: Open 7 days a week from 4 pm to 11:30 pm with variable holiday hours. 
 

3.) Axiote Cocina de Mexico 

The red glowing sign of this restaurant affixed to a grand palapa reveal an elegant dining experience from the get go. Upon arrival, you enter in to a cozy, welcoming atmosphere with low level lighting that was just right, after staring at a computer screen all day. I had a reservation for the second floor of the restaurant which was recommended by someone with whom I had spoken by phone. There was a lack of acknowledgement however that this was the case. A tad awkward to say the least. We were not escorted to the upper balcony but rather went on our own to discover that there was nothing set up and the tables appeared unkempt. We quickly came back down and asked for another spot in the restaurant. Not a great start to the night but the food definitively made up for it. 

Succulent, exquisite, tantalizes your taste buds are just a few of the words that describe this authentic Mexican dining experience. The pulpo asado (grilled octopus) melts in your mouth with a special twist on a marinara sauce that accompanies it which is very rich in flavour. The tacos de pato (duck tacos) are incredible and la sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup) is the best I've had to date. The service although very efficient, was rather lackluster and our servers focus appeared to be more on getting the food to our table than the attention and care to the service itself. Overall, the staff seemed stressed when we arrived and there were very few guests in the restaurant at the time. As the night unfolded however, the restaurant filled up with groups of diners so I imagine there was some tension due to a number of holiday reservations. Either way, the super cuisine make up for what it lacked in attentiveness and in all fairness, it could have just been an off night. Located at 34th Street North between 5th and 10 ave., this is definitely a place worth checking out. Hours of Operation: Open seven days a week from 1 pm to 11 pm with variable holiday hours. Reservations are recommended.

 

4.) Harry’s Steakhouse and Raw Bar

With the exception of Señor Tangos, a grand dios steakhouse and tango performance theatre in Buenos Aires that I had the fortunate opportunity to experience on a work trip, I honestly have yet to have a better steak. The ambiance and service is just simply, WOW. Having first reviewed the prices, my friend and I both agreed that we would share a meal which would keep the bill to about $2,000 pesos (about 140 bucks Canadian) for both of us. Well, in eventuality we each spent this amount and fortunately did not leave this place disappointed by any means. On the contrary, everything continued to dazzle from the 5 smoking hot waiters at our beck and call, to the classy ambiance with the perfect lighting and special touch for my friend’s ‘birthday.’ The only two items we ended up sharing were the gigantic baked potato that was enough for four and a gorgeous mixed greens with nuts and goats cheese.

I loved the cotton candy touch at the end that came on a stainless steel art deco style stand that I could not stop frantically eating. I must have known that it would only remain at the dinner for a limited time and I was still grabbing at it as one of our servers took it away and at that point rather tipsy from the cocktails and wine that we had indulged in over the course of a three hour dining experience. If you’re looking for a special treat to celebrate a wonderful occasion or merely want to give it a try out of curiosity and have some extra spending money on hand, this is seriously the place for you. Located on 5th Avenue between 12 North and 14 North. Hours of operation: 1pm to 1am seven days a week with variable holiday hours. 

 

5.) Aldea Corazón

Located on the 5th avenue between 14th street and 14 bis, the majestically romantic ambiance in this place is as outstanding as the fabulous array of Mexican food. Their tacos are frankly some of the best I’ve had in Mexico for their freshness, flavour and artistic presentation. Los tacos de jícama, arrachera and pescado, to name a few are to die for! The restaurant additionally hosts its own cenote (watering hole) and impressive jungle like surroundings that create a feeling of a private oasis and an escape from the constant noise from the traffic of locals and tourists on foot. If you’re looking for a lovely place to take a date, I highly recommend it and the name of this alone speaks from the heart (corazón). There is an accompanying gift shop called “The Heart of Mexico” next door that offers Mexican style hand made souvenirs. Definitely worth checking out! Hours of Operation: 8am to midnight seven days a week with variable holiday hours. 
 

6.) La Mexicanita

Off the beaten track in a subdivision called Palmas II, about 15 minutes from Playa centro, La Mexicanita emerged unexpectedly one night while walking with a friend and is situated between the small family homes, typical to this barrio (neighbourhood). It’s a laid back, casual dining spot that gives you an authentic mexican experience and is known for an impressive selection of aguas de fruta (fruit water) that are served in gigantic liter beer stein mugs. My favourites are guayaba (guava) and pepino con limón (cucumber and lemon). Their machetes, a typical Mexico City favourite are superb and can be filled with whatever your heart desires like el pastor, cabeza, arrachera, carne asada; everything that you’ve ever tried in a taco can be put in this extra long and gigantic quesadilla/wrap. Their tacos are equally as delish and the service is friendly and efficient. The food prices are impressively cheap for the quantity that is served. 
 

7.) El Pueblito y La Fondita-Mayakoba

This gem is located in majestic Mayakoba in “El Pueblito.” From the cobblestone streets to the tiny boutique shops and gelato vendors, this place will charm the pants off of you. On Sundays from 11 am to 2 pm, they have a fantastic farmers market where you’ll find plants, baked goods, locally made candies, Mexican food, handcrafts, juices, local jams, honey and more. La Fondita restaurant is an integral part of this magical experience. From the time you walk into this casual, yet classy establishment, you feel immediately at home. The elegant Mexican tiling behind the bar and a comprehensive selection of liquors is impressive. The aguas de fruta are outstanding and the tostadas are the best I’ve ever had. The cochinita pibil and the huitlacoche are by far my favourites!
 

8.) Tropical

Located on la Quinta Avenida between calle 8 and 10th, This is one of my favourite hangouts in Playa not only for its decent Mexican cuisine but for the perfect people watching balcony that has a birds eye view of la Quinta Avenida and funky tropical adornments that create a tiki hut like atmosphere. They have regular of 2 for 1 drink specials that are always superb and their enchiladas de pollo y espinaca (chicken and spinach enchiladas) are ridiculously good as is their cochinita pibil, pescado a la plancha, sopa de lima and the list goes on. The service is super friendly and the ambiance relaxed and vibrant at the same time. I’ve eaten here many times during the course of the four years that I’ve been in Playa del Carmen and have yet to have a bad experience. Hours of Operation: 7 am to midnight, seven days a week with variable holiday hours. 
 

9.) Sushi Club

Having grown up in a fishing family and having had the great privilege of access to fresh seafood and sushi from a very young age, I’m very picky about where I partake in this delicacy of my ancestors. I can’t say that I’ve found many decent Japanese restaurants in Playa but this place definitely passes the test! Their two for one Tuesdays are an added bonus and they offer delivery even to more remote locations. Located on 26th Street between 5th and 10th Avenue, their rooftop dining is also worth checking out. Their Green Roll and Acapulco Roll are two of my faves. Another added bonus is that they offer gluten free soya sauce which saves me from having to bring my own. Hours of Operation: 8 am to 11:30 pm seven days a week with variable holiday hours.
 

10.) El Fogon

The succulent smells of charcoal grilled meats fill the air and lead you to El fogon, a local open air taqueria with a few locations in Playa del Carmen that specialize in “tacos al pastor” which are actually an adapted culinary wonder by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico that are derived from shawarma (meat on a spit). Each taco de pastor at this place is made from hand carved pork placed over a warm tortilla and garnished with onions, cilantro and tiny pieces of pineapple. I additionally love their tacos de chorizo, carne asada and alambres which is an ample portion of grilled meat, (reminiscent of fajitas) and come with warm tortillas on the side. The variety of condiments at this place is also impressive which can be scarce at other taquerias in the vicinity. El Fogon’s primary location is on Constituyentes Ave. between 25th and 30th Ave. The service is super friendly, very efficient and the atmosphere ultra casual with Latin music playing in the background. It’s often packed and can get rather sweaty there, particularly in the scorching summer months but it’s all part of the authentic experience that this gem offers! Hours of Operation: 6pm to 3 am.