How Tulum became Mexico's hottest culinary destination

By Brad Cohen,

Temple of the Wind in Tulum — Photo courtesy of Dennis Jarvis

When Rene Redzepi created a seven-week pop-up in the middle of the jungle in Tulum, Mexico this spring, he did so to much fanfare. Any time the chef of Noma – consistently ranked the world’s best restaurant – does anything, it gets a lot of attention, but this time was different.

For the harshest critics, the $600-a-head tasting menu was a gross example of cultural appropriation; for the hippies who’d been coming to Tulum "since before it was cool," it was the final death rattle of the once sleepy paradise; but for foodies everywhere, it was a symbol that Tulum had finally arrived as a juggernaut of a culinary destination.

Of course, Tulum's restaurant scene – extremely impressive for a relatively small beach town – has been steadily growing and improving for years. When New York native Eric Werner macheted his way through the jungle to build a temple of locally sourced seafood despite the fact that he was off the electric grid, there wasn't much like it that existed. 

Fast forward seven years, and what was once a quiet town has become a boho-chic fantasyland – and beyond the raw juices and yoga retreats and traditional medicine, there is a burgeoning food culture that rivals just about any beach town on Earth (though, there are plenty of raw juices and yoga retreats and all kinds of traditional medicine ceremonies if that’s what you’re looking for).

The culture that Werner is largely credited for creating at Hartwood – a fierce dedication to local produce and seafood, wood-fired everything (largely due to a lack of electricity on the jungle side of the street) and Yucatecan ingredients used in Mexican-inspired (not traditional Mexican) cuisine – has spread throughout the town to create a food culture unique to this tiny corner of the map.

Hartwood

Hartwood is still the place to eat in Tulum. Not much else has changed since it first opened in 2010. Not the menu prices, the quality, the complete lack of pretension – or the difficulty getting a table during high season.

The atmosphere here is decidedly rustic. Everything is cooked by fire in the beautiful open kitchen, decor is pretty much limited to the produce thoughtfully set in front of the kitchen and copal smoke wafts through the restaurant to create a romantic setting.

Hartwood depends completely on local (or semi-local) seafood and produce, which means a menu that rotates daily, but it does have quite a few staples. Werener’s ceviches are always excellent, the pork ribs are a local favorite and the octopus is nothing short of perfect. Also, pro tip: the roasted beet with an avocado-habanero cream is mind-blowing. 

Kitchen Table

Towards the edge of the hotel zone, Kitchen Table is simple in both aesthetic and cuisine. Housed in a big palapa (a palm thatch roof) with a few small tables, this little solar-powered restaurant is totally integrated with the jungle surroundings. The menu here is small – a few appetizers and a selection of meat and fish cooked in the flames – and pretty much everything is made on a wood-fired grill. The steak, octopus and ribs are all great here, as are the seasonal fruit-forward cocktails.

Gitano

Gitano makes some of the best cocktails in Tulum, but you come here as much for the scene of beautiful people getting their night started as you do for a beverage. Complete with a disco ball among the palms, and a dance floor that gets filled up on Friday nights (as well as live music on Sundays), Gitano is exactly how you’d dream up a cocktail lounge in the jungle if only you were creative enough.

But the cocktails, nearly all mezcal-based, are excellent. We recommend the Jungle Fever (chili, lime, cilantro) and Kisses in the Car (passion fruit, tangerine, habanero). The food here is also simple and high quality, including tostadas, ceviches and roasted proteins.

Cenzontle

Cenzotle calls itself a secret garden (jardin secreto), and that’s pretty much how it feels. With antique lamps and light fixtures, candlelit tables, and funky furniture and decor, it feels a little bit like your grandma’s house meets Alice in Wonderland all set in a little jungle garden.

Unlike many of the restaurants in Tulum, which are either Mexican-inspired or simply use local ingredients, Cenzotle serves more traditional Mexican cuisine, but with a modern twist. Think duck carnitas slow cooked in orange juice, tuna al pastor, and piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese and jocoque on avocado mousse and arugla pesto.

Casa Banana

This relatively longstanding grillhouse has been open since 2009, when Daniel Navazzotti, a native of Argentina, decided to open a restaurant based on what made his homeland famous: grilled meat. Yes, you can get grilled seafood here, but you come here for steak – quite possibly the best in town – and homemade chorizo cooked on the Argentinian-style asado grill. 

Safari

Luis Aguilar opened Safari in 2015 after departing New York, where he held the reins of the kitchen at celebrated Manhattan taco joint Tacombi. The chef took his taco expertise to the beach and swapped out the taco truck from which he served food at Tacombi for a more aesthetically fitting 1970s Airstream to serve tacos at Safari.

He cooks most of the food on a small fire pit right next to the silver camper. This place serves up five different kinds of tacos, which are easily some of the best in town, but make sure you don’t skip out on the yucca truffle fries.

Casa Jaguar

Casa Jaguar basically took the concept of neighboring Hartwood – everything from the wood-fired entrees and veggies to the tropical ceviches, to the incorporation of the surrounding jungle, to the use of ingredients in the decor – but gave it the boho chic treatment (see: more pretentious).

Casa Jaguar is a solid option if you can’t get into Hartwood, and a great place to sit and grab a fresh-fruit cocktail pre- or post-dinner, and there is often fun music playing in the spacious jungly surroundings.

La Popular

La Popular is a beachside fish shack – a small bunker for a kitchen and a few tables right in front of the sea – that focuses on serving a wide variety of sustainable seafood, grilled or cooked in a wood oven. The appeal extends well beyond the food itself. Here you can embody the simple life of sitting on a pillow at a low table, staring at the ocean and listening to the waves crash on the shore while eating fish, fresh from the sea.

We recommend the catch of the day cooked in any of three marinades or rubs, like the verde citrica with parsley, lemon, garilc, olive oil and peperoncino, or the especiado, with coriander, paprika, cumin and celery salt. 

Wild

From the entrance, Wild looks almost like an abandoned – and rediscovered – Mayan city, thanks to the large concrete pillars with tops cut into the shape of leaves standing above the tables and bar. The menu at this newcomer is decidedly Mediterranean (homemade flatbread served with baba ganoush and hummus; lamb marinated in Lebanese zaatar, artichoke and yogurt sauce; and grilled octopus with squid ink risotto and sauteed mushrooms), but it’s also got a local flair.

Make sure you order a cocktail here, designed by Nicolas Baptiste, formerly of the celebrated London bar, Experimental Cocktail Club. As the name might suggest, things here do tend to get wild at the occasional "secret" parties in its deep jungle setting (you can find out about them via social media or word of mouth).