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Exploring local cuisine will bring a blend of color, history and culture to your palate—and incomparable richness to your travels.
By Heather Steinberger
Food is one of the most powerful ways to experience a destination. Whether you’re sampling dried machaca beef or succulent chocolate clams along the Baja Peninsula, grilled fish Tikin Xik in the steamy Yucatán or an overstuffed po’ boy in the Mississippi Delta, you’ll return home with an added appreciation for where you’ve been. Local cuisine celebrates and communicates the history, traditions and spirit of a culture. Exploring a place through its food adds layers to your visit that will provide insight, a sense of connection and, of course, pure pleasure.
The Edge of the Mexican Frontier
Just a few decades ago, Cabo San Lucas was a modest fishing village clinging to the Baja Peninsula’s southern cape. Today, it’s an ultra-glam getaway for the Hollywood “glitterati,” an oceanfront Scottsdale for those seeking time on its world-class golf courses, and a premier gem in Mexico’s tourism crown.
“Baja California Sur didn’t become a Mexican state until 1974,” notes Juan Carlos del Rio of Epic Group Los Cabos. “It’s still one of the least populated areas of Mexico and Latin America, and it has the special allure of a small destination.”
It also has become a destination for haute cuisine. In the last 10 years, some of the best chefs from across North America have opened enticing new venues at the cape. Enrique Olvera, one of Mexico’s best-known chefs, is acclaimed for Pujol in Mexico City and Cosme in New York. Last year, he opened Manta in Los Cabos, where guests can experience traditional Mexican cuisine infused with Pan-Pacific influences.
“Olvera’s flavors, presentations and colors are simply amazing,” del Rio remarks.
Then there is Richard Sandoval, often called the father of Mexican cuisine. He has a collection of 40 Latin American-inspired restaurants worldwide, and at Toro Latin Kitchen, he blends Pan-Latin cuisine with South American, Japanese and Chinese influences.
At Thierry Blouet’s new Café des Artistes Los Cabos, unique dishes are prepared using French techniques and fresh Mexican ingredients from Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Tapalpa and Ensenada. The evolving, avant-garde cuisine honors the convergence and fusion of local and international flavors, and the restaurant’s wine cellar features Baja California’s best.
At the Don Sanchez Restaurante, guests will enjoy a 350-label wine cellar, exquisite hacienda-style courtyard and contemporary Baja cuisine. On the menu you’ll find aged steaks and fresh seafood—a nod to the peninsula’s experienced rancheros, and to the expert anglers who ply the biodiverse Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau once called “the world’s aquarium.”
“In Los Cabos, you’ll find everything from street fish tacos to internationally renowned chefs,” del Rio says.
You’ll also find emerging chefs who are working hard to bring back an ancient gastronomy. Although Baja California Sur’s Guaycura and Pericú peoples are long gone, these young professionals are determined to unlock the secrets of their culinary wisdom.
“Many of these chefs are just out of school, and they’re exploring indigenous recipes and ingredients, like the pitahaya cactus fruit,” del Rio explains.
The Land of the Maya
Six years ago, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) added traditional Mexican cuisine to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, noting that it’s a “comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners.”
And the very root of these practices can be found in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. You may be surprised to learn that you can find the staples of Maya cooking—corn, beans and chili—in the opulent all-inclusive resorts that line Quintana Roo’s Caribbean coast.
Freddy Chi, executive chef at the Royalton Riviera Cancún’s Agave restaurant, said he incorporates traditional ingredients into his dishes on a daily basis: chili habanero for salsa, annatto seed for various meat pastes, and corn for tamales and tortillas.
“It all comes down to the unique climate of the region, which is suitable for the cultivation of these ingredients,” Chi says.
At Agave, guests will enjoy a fusion of Meso-American and European cuisine, as well as unique dishes that bear a distinct Yucatecan influence. Well-known regional recipes include Tikin Xic, grilled fish marinated with annatto and cooked over charcoal, and La Cochinita Pibil, pork marinated with annatto, covered with banana leaves, and slow-roasted in an underground oven using hot stones.
“By visiting restaurants like Agave, guests can venture outside their comfort zones to experience new flavors and textures, which we call our ‘pre-Hispanic’ cuisine,” Chi says. “This is the food that is most authentically Mexican and creates a memorable dining experience.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments on the Quintana Roo food stage involves Ricardo Muñoz Zurita, one of Mexico’s most highly regarded chefs. This prolific author and restauranteur is working with the Fiesta Americana Resort Collection (Live Aqua, Fiesta Americana, Grand Fiesta Americana, Live Aqua Boutique Resort Playa del Carmen and The Explorean) to develop a series of new restaurant menus for its 140 hotel properties. The menus will debut this summer.
“Each hotel’s menu is different, based on location,” Chef Muñoz says. “It’s been a huge amount of work, a very ambitious project. I researched dishes for each city so I can give people a taste of what that place is all about. Here in Quintana Roo, people see the beautiful coast and hotels, but they don’t visit the inland communities.”
As Chef Muñoz observes, indigenous people and influences are still here, and he wants to introduce travelers to authentic Maya cuisine. His local menus will feature traditional ingredients like white, black and red annatto pastes, black beans, habanero chili peppers and native squash.
“People have been eating these dishes for centuries,” he says. With a laugh, he adds, “Visitors don’t know about them, so they’re new without being new!”
According to Chef Muñoz, the project came at the right moment in his career, and at the right moment for Mexico, as its cuisine continues to garner international attention.
“I have this magnificent opportunity to share the cooking I’ve researched for so many years,” he says. “It’s very personal, because I’ve fallen in love with all these local communities. It’s about so much more than food. It’s a way of life.
“I originally thought I’d do this for awhile, do a little research and maybe write a book about it,” he reflects. “Instead, it changed my life. It’s in my soul.”
The Soul of Contemporary Polynesia
Mexico isn’t the only travel destination whose exploding food scene is fueled by both traditional and international influences. In the Hawaiian islands, visitors can explore traditional Hawaiian dishes and the culinary adventure known as Hawaii Regional Cuisine, which draws from throughout the Pacific Rim.
“Hawaii is a diverse melting pot,” says Camilla Aluli from United Vacations, who has lived in Hawaii all her life. “And it has a diverse, inclusive food scene. There’s something for everyone.”
Those who want to get a feel for local ingredients and specialties should start with the islands’ farmers markets. Aluli recommends visiting the Big Island’s new Hāmākua Harvest Farmers Market at Honoka’a, which opened last September, and the KCC Farmers Market on Diamond Head Road (southeast of downtown Honolulu).
Another must-visit is Kewalo Harbor waterfront, home to a thriving mobile food community.
“It’s relatively inexpensive, and you’ll get to see the commercial and charter boats go out from the harbor.” Aluli says of the waterfront food-truck hotspot.
For a locals’ restaurant experience, look no farther than 70-year-old Helena’s near the Honolulu International Airport; it won a Regional Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2000. Then there’s Haili’s Hawaiian Foods and Ono Hawaiian Foods, both near Waikiki. You’ll be able to sample such favorites as kalua pig, lomi salmon and poi, a traditional dish made from fermented taro root that has been baked and pounded to a paste.
You also can venture down to the docks for an even more casual experience.
“We have such beautiful fresh fish,” Aluli says. “At Nico’s Pier 38 in Honolulu, you can buy and eat it right there, sitting on a pier bench.”
If possible, try to add Mama’s Fish House on Maui’s north shore to your Hawaii travel itinerary. Family-owned since 1973, it’s one of TripAdvisor’s top 10 fine-dining restaurants in the country; Open Table says it’s the second most popular U.S. restaurant, period.
To fully embrace the burgeoning Hawaii Regional Cuisine food scene, however, be sure to spend some time in Waikiki at the International Market Place. Celebrated Hawaii chef Roy Yamaguchi and award-winning San Francisco chef Michael Mina will be among those opening seven new restaurants this year in the redeveloped market place; at press time, the grand reopening was scheduled for August 25.
“Roy Yamaguchi is a key influencer, as are Alan Wong and George Mavrothalassitis,” Aluli notes. “They were pivotal figures in the development of Hawaii Regional Cuisine.”
According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, 12 Hawaii chefs established this culinary movement in 1991. It blends Hawaii’s own diverse ethnic flavors with international cuisine, incorporating the freshest island ingredients—cattle raised on Hawaii Island’s upland pastures, fruits and vegetables from Upcountry Maui, and the region’s world-class seafood. Yamaguchi was Hawaii’s first recipient of the prestigious James Beard Award. Chef Mavrothalassitis won the award in 2003 for “Best Chef: Pacific” for his Chef Mavro Restaurant. And, in 2006, Alan Wong’s Honolulu was named No. 8 in Gourmet Magazine’s top 50 restaurants in America.
The Depths of the Crescent City
Like Hawaii, the Louisiana port city of New Orleans boasts a mix of flavors and culinary traditions that can be found nowhere else in the United States—from African and Caribbean to French Creole and Cajun. According to New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Kristian Sonnier, you’ll find old cooking traditions married to local ingredients.
“The trinity of Creole cooking is bell pepper, onion and celery,” advises Sonnier, a Louisiana native and modern-day Cajun (descended from the Acadians, who were exiled from Nova Scotia in the 18th century). “The most famous dishes are probably shrimp Creole and crawfish étouffeé, which is a great example of a dish that probably began in France. The crawfish here are what defined the dish.
“We still eat red beans and rice on Mondays,” he adds with a chuckle. “In the late 1800s, Monday was wash day. If the beans had to cook all day, you could do something else. The tradition stuck.”
Due to the city’s large population of Canary Islanders, paella also is a common meal in the Crescent City, as is jambalaya, thanks to those of African heritage. And then there’s the ever-present roux.
“So many dishes begin with a roux,” Sonnier notes. “It’s equal parts flour and oil, and then you add the trinity.” Lest you wonder if New Orleans is firmly planted in the 18th and 19th centuries, however, Sonnier is quick to point out that the city is currently undergoing a renaissance. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, more than 600 new restaurants have opened. And, he says, there’s not a lot of duplication.
At the Shaya Restaurant, which Esquire called the best new restaurant in America, you can sample Israeli fare. Domenica, Ancora Pizzeria and the new Josephine Estelle specialize in award-winning Italian food. And Le Petit Grocery embraces the city’s roots with innovative seafood dishes and Creole cooking.
Indeed, innovation seems to be the name of the game in New Orleans today. “We have lots of different takes on our seafood,” Sonnier says. “In the last two years, we’ve seen an explosion of offerings, creativity and vision. Chef Donald Link at Pêche Seafood Grill lit a fire with the local fish movement—‘snout-to-tail dining,’ but with seafood. He incorporates parts we used to throw away.
“It’s changed the way I dine,” he continues. “I just tried octopus sausage for the first time!”
For those who do seek time-honored traditions, the grand dames of New Orleans are still open for business. Antoine’s, the oldest continuously owned family restaurant in the United States, has been serving guests since 1840 in the French Quarter. It’s everything you’d imagine.
“The up-and-coming chefs have learned a lot from the venerable Creole restaurants,” Sonnier remarks. “And then they push the envelope further.”
So, if you’re in the Big Easy, be adventurous. Sample the true depth and breadth of the city’s culinary experience, and don’t miss mainstays like the Parkway Bakery for a po’ boy, Brennan’s for a Creole-style brunch, and even Café du Monde for its signature beignets and café au lait.
“Years ago, chicory was used as an additive when coffee was hard to get,” Sonnier muses. “People developed a taste for it.”
And now, like étouffeé and gumbo, it’s simply part of the taste of New Orleans.
Plan your food-centric vacation through your travel professional or online at funjet.com.