One interesting unwritten tradition that intrigues us is the botanas, or appetizers, that arrive when you order drinks in certain bars or cantinas. Our trusty tour guide showed us the way at Eladio’s in Progreso last year, and Paul and I wanted to try it out for ourselves when we returned to the beach last month. William Lawson was so masterful, knowing just what to order while prying the best botanas from the kitchen. Left to my own devices, I probably would have bypassed this obvious (to me, anyway) tourist trap, but once inside, Mr. L revealed that it was a terrific place to hang out.
The food is humble fare, but it still seems fairly generous to hand out kibis, ceviche or chorizo, but there it is, at least in the experience of other bloggers. Could this be true? No secret code? Not just on even-numbered days between 2-4 p.m.? It can’t be this simple.
So after hopping a northbound bus on Calle 64 (it came right away) and heading to Progreso, Paul and I found Flamingos, where we heard the shrimp was good. And what we heard about the shrimp was true, but that came later. First, we ordered our drinks and held off ordering platters, and I wasn’t sure if ordering an entree meant no botanas. (I’m still not sure.) I found myself looking toward the kitchen; it didn’t look busy. Waiters were milling about. And I’m not known for my patient nature. After 10 or 15 minutes, nada. No ugly American am I. I didn’t want to ask the waiter “so do we get botanas or what?” … not much I didn’t. Another 10 minutes. “Let’s just order,” I implored to Paul. “No, let’s wait,” Paul advised. Paul’s the patient one.
We were seated by the window overlooking the malecón and the beach. It was a little early, and not a cruise-ship day, so the promenade was pleasantly serene. Mostly we saw vendors. Some walking right up to the window to sell toys, souvenirs or even merengues. (Wouldn’t that undercut the restaurant, which has its own dessert menu? Despite a sign prohibiting vendors, waiters seem to be surprisingly tolerant. One guy selling masks and woven tote bags even walked in and up to my table when he caught me taking a photo of him.)
Then, some matronly ladies on the malecón let it be known they were in the market for the merengues. And the merengue hawkers came in from out of the woodwork. Everyone seemed giddy. It’s nice when a system works out for everybody.
And then, we scored a small victory for ourselves. The delicious botanas arrived. Without Mr. Lawson to tell me, aside from the tortilla chips, I wasn’t quite sure what I was eating. One dip tasted like a mild sikil-pak, or pumpkin seed-based dip; the other likely a dish of thin refried beans. There was a nice ceviche de pulpo and refreshing slices of something like jicama. Maybe it was … jicama. Anyway, it was free and it hit the spot. Why ask questions.
Come to think of it, the drinks weren’t all that cheap. Not expensive by U.S. standards, but priced to subsidize those free botanas. (No-extra-charge botanas is more accurate.) Cantinas in the Centro offer botanas, too, but I haven’t ventured into any of them yet. Paul’s one cantina experience was to pop into one to use the bathroom. It was an emergency. He was followed out by an angry proprietor, with her hand out, who wanted modest recompense — the equivalent of 5 or 10 cents. In retrospect, we should have obliged to her very reasonable request, but we were so stunned by the confrontation — and we were very green, this being our first trip to Mérida — we walked on, chastened. Long story short, we haven’t returned to sample the landlubber botanas. Eladio’s sister restaurant, Lucero de Alba, on 47 y 56, is where I’d go.
So back to the beach: We did eventually order lunch at Flamingos. The coconut shrimp and shrimp diavolo that followed were the best shrimp I’ve had since I was at a reception at the Four Seasons in 1999 or so. Soooo fresh. I really should toss that bag of frozen Stop & Shop shrimp I’ve been keeping. I’m spoiled for fresh, perfectly cooked Progreso shrimp.