Mexico’s Caribbean playground finally grows up—and stakes its unexpected claim as one of the country’s best fine-dining destinations
Partiers may be pounding piña coladas at a swim-up bar just a few feet away from me, but I’m interested in a far more refined coconut indulgence. I’m seated at Le Chique, the restaurant at the Azul Beach Resort Riviera Cancún, and as I work my way through the 24-course menu, I’ve reached a dish known as coconut five ways. It consists of spongy sprouted coconut (aka “coconut apple”), gelatinous young coconut, coconut water, coconut shaved ice, and habanero-spiked coconut-milk aguachile—all of it served alongside a generous dollop of caviar. The dish is an ode to the tiny Pacific Coast state of Colima, where coconuts were first brought to Mexico in the 16th century. (The caviar, in fact, is a sly textural nod to Colima’s unique style of ceviche, made with finely minced fish.) It’s a cultural lesson on a stunningly delicious plate, one that’s likely lost on the pool-bar crowd.
Le Chique’s menu, a cutting-edge survey of regional Mexican cuisine, is replete with dishes like this. Yet the restaurant, which chef Jonatán Gómez Luna opened in 2008, has long been an outlier in the region. The draw of the Riviera Maya, a stretch of coastline along the Yucatán Peninsula between Cancún and Tulum, has traditionally been the beaches, the resorts, the Mayan ruins, the cenotes… but not necessarily the cuisine. I’ve been vacationing here off and on for 25 years, and like many of my compatriots, I’ve often bemoaned the divide between the fantastic street food and the mostly generic, resort-based fine-dining scene. The difference seemed to grow even more stark in the last few years, as the country’s culinary centers—Mexico City, Oaxaca, the Valle de Guadalupe—underwent a restaurant revolution.
Yet, all the while, the success of Le Chique (along with the 2009 opening of Cocina de Autor at the Grand Velas) offered a sign that something was brewing amid the all-inclusive buffets and Señor Frog’s–style bacchanalia. Creative Mexican chefs gradually filed in, and today one of the most exciting high-end restaurant scenes in Mexico can be found on the campuses of these secluded beachfront resorts.
The cherry on top of this transformation was the opening, last July, of Hotel Xcaret Arte, 15 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. The hotel is a veritable playground for Mexico’s star chefs, with nine restaurant concepts, any one of which would be another resort’s flagship. This opening cemented the Riviera Maya as a serious food destination—and it cemented my need to taste the change.
But, of course, I have to start at the beginning, Le Chique, where that coconut triumph is rivaled for greatness by just about all of the other 23 dishes I devour: fatty tuna with vanilla and seaweed, tongue and plantain in black mole, wild-caught mussels with the famous smoked sausage of nearby Valladolid. “It’s been an honor to be part of this evolution in Quintana Roo, seeing the arrival of new chefs and smashing old ideas of ‘hotel restaurants,’” chef Gómez Luna tells me as I polish off a dessert of carrot, guava, yogurt, and cotton candy. “It’s not just these magical beaches; food is becoming a calling card for the Riviera Maya, as well.”
My next experience is just 30 miles down Federal Highway 307, at the Rosewood Mayakoba. While this high-end resort opened in 2008, it wasn’t until 2014, with the debut of its signature restaurant, La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen, that food and drink became a primary draw. La Ceiba styled its experience as a Mayan-themed dinner party, set in a garden that provides the restaurant with herbs and vegetables—a lovely concept for sure, but the problem was that only guests could get a table, meaning that many diners remained unaware of the magic that the resort’s culinary director, chef Juan Pablo Loza, was mixing up in the kitchen. That changed (sort of) in February 2021, when the hotel opened the Zapote Bar, giving non-guests and food-industry insiders a chance to venture onto the exclusive grounds. Many of the items on the bar’s food menu are grilled over its namesake zapote wood, and the kitchen adds Middle Eastern touches (tabbouleh, shakshuka) that reflect the long history of Lebanese immigration to the area.
Aside from Loza’s cuisine, on Tuesdays Zapote adds even more local flavor by featuring visiting bartenders and chefs as part of its Martes de Locales program. “Martes de Locales is a way to celebrate all the talent in our community and invite anyone to experience it,” Loza tells me over a Mayayo cocktail, which features sour orange, guava, lemon leaves, and the local Gin Katún, whose 17 botanicals are sourced from the Yucatán peninsula. “The ease of flying to Cancún means we see tourists from all over the world, and it’s our mission to show them the many faces of Mexico.”
Of course, one of those faces is Loza’s, and I can’t leave without dinner at La Ceiba. I’m rewarded with smoked garden lettuce with intense local honey, achiote-rubbed octopus with a vinaigrette of aromatic rough-skinned Yucatecan lime, and striped bass grilled with avocado leaves, chayote, and fennel.
“We want guests to experience the variety of flavors and influences that exist in our culture,” Loza says. “Through food and drink, they can take a trip through Mexican history and everything our different regions have to offer.”
A few weeks later, I make a return trip to the Riviera Maya to hit the next spot on my tasting tour: Hotel Xcaret Arte. A lagoon-ringed pyramid separates the resort from its sister property, the family-friendly, adventure-themed Hotel Xcaret México, and as I tuck into raw venison with a granita of huitlacoche at the latter’s flagship restaurant, Ha’ (Mayan for “water”), I can hear the faint screams of teens splashing monster trucks through mud puddles. On the more mellow, adults-only side of the lagoon, however, food is the more thrilling adventure. The options on the property include Yucatecan-Lebanese restaurant Kibi-Kibi, from Mérida-based chef Roberto Solis, often cited as the father of modern Yucatecan cuisine; upscale Encanta, from Michelin-starred Paco Méndez; Oaxacan chef Alejandro Ruiz’s Cantina Vi.Ai.Py; chef Juan Licerio’s Mercado de San Juan, which has every manner of Mexican street and market-stall food in a massive public market–style building; and Gómez Luna’s second restaurant, Chino Poblano, which playfully calls attention to the similarities between Pueblan and Chinese cooking. (Take the mole de caderas, which is typically a dish of long-cooked goat from the Mixteca region of southern Mexico, but is served ramen-style here, with Chinese noodles and sous-vide lamb.) It feels as if I’m at some star-studded food festival that is—historically rare for the resorts here—focused on the roots and influences of Mexican cuisine.
“We’ve found that about 60 percent of our guests are Mexicans who were born abroad and who, for whatever reason, want to connect in a deeper way with their roots,” Xcaret culinary director Franco Maddalozzo tells me as we peruse his Sunday brunch spread. “That’s why we feel strongly about focusing our food around regional Mexican cuisine, or merging with the Lebanese, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese influences that have long existed in Mexico. All our chefs have unique concepts, but with Mexico as a common denominator.”
It’s worth mentioning that these restaurants are mostly free to guests. This is (hopefully) the new face of the Riviera Maya’s all-inclusive resorts. Can’t decide between barbacoa, carnitas, pancita, or pozole at Mercado de San Juan?
Just try a bit of each. To cement its commitment to cuisine, in December Xcaret added another reason to come eat: La Casa de la Playa, a 63-suite offshoot on the same property, boasts restaurants from famed chefs Martha Ortiz and Daniel and Patricio Rivera-Río, and the first Mexican concept outside Peru from Virgilio Martínez of Lima’s Central. No other hotel complex in Mexico—and arguably all of North America—has such a concentration of culinary talent behind its restaurant concepts.
I have one more resort to visit. Thirty minutes to the north, on a quiet stretch of beach next to the appropriately named Playa Virgen, is Chablé Maroma. The wellness-themed, all-villa resort is an immersive respite from the party vibe of nearby hotels, boasting one of the region’s most sybaritic spas and three restaurants from executive chef Luis Quiroz, an alum of Mexico City’s Quintonil, a mainstay of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Working with Quintonil chef-owner Jorge Vallejo, Quiroz created a food and drink program that’s putting a fresh face on cocina quintanrooense—the cuisine of Quintana Roo—with modern and global influences and a focus on seafood.
“One of our responsibilities as chefs here is to know and show the cuisine of Quintana Roo and everything that surrounds it,” Quiroz says, gesturing toward the view from Chablé’s second-story Raw Bar lounge. The sunset casts a red glow over the water, combining with the rows of verdant palm trees and the pristine white sand to match the colors of the Mexican flag.
Chablé Maroma launched its restaurants in fall 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, and as tourism returns in force, these kitchens are turning heads in the same way as their Riviera Maya contemporaries. “In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen the restaurant scene clearly growing more and more,” says Quiroz. “The people coming here have much higher expectations and knowledge around food and drink than before. It’s made everyone raise their game.”
Quiroz is up to the challenge. Besides cocktails such as the black margarita (made with activated charcoal, which I hope purifies as effectively as the drink intoxicates), the focus at Raw Bar is Mexican shellfish—oysters, deep-red pata de mula (“blood clams”), giant chocolate clams—and fresh-caught fish prepared as sashimi or ceviche. Downstairs at Bu’ul (Mayan for “bean”), meanwhile, I’m wowed by dishes such as a salbut (a local type of tostada) of lobster in recado rojo (Yucatecan seasoning paste) with habanero and apple, and beef tongue in Oaxacan manchamanteles sauce with plantain and pineapple macerated in the Mayan honey-anise liqueur xtabentún.
As I enjoy my meal, I can’t help but think back to the one that started all of this, Le Chique, where chef Gómez Luna made me think as much about the food’s origins as its flavors. “The gastronomic history of the Yucatán Peninsula is as old as the cenotes, pyramids, and beaches, and it’s always evolving,” he told me. Initially, perhaps, the tourists were drawn here for “a great adventure,” but “they now want that adventure on the plate, as well.”