Some youngish travelers from Italy were guesthouse neighbors back in January. They were in Mérida for the weekend. Over breakfast, we would ask how their evening went. Each time, they were sort of downcast. They enjoyed the cathedral, the bus tour, and all the historic architecture, but their dinner at fast-foodish Los Trompos “was OK.” The next day, their dinner at La Chaya Maya had them concluding that Yucatecan food isn’t for them.
Yes, travel in Mérida isn’t fool-proof. There are good and bad choices before you. Even if you choose the right restaurant, you might make a bad choice from the menu. Restaurants here are uneven, through and through.
La Chaya’s new outpost in Santa Lucia is romantic, gorgeous, very tourist-friendly, and puts Yucatecan style in the best possible light. Laid out in a grand, classic casona, a handsome mahogany bar is on one end, and a semi-open kitchen is on the other. In the center, an antique carriage anchors the center courtyard, and a woman makes tortillas out in the open, clearly intending to be appreciated by the tourists. The walls are elaborately stenciled and the lighting is soft.
From the outside, the original Chaya Maya on a chaotic corner at Calle 62 resembles a typical American luncheonette circa 1975. This new Chaya is a little more serene: on a lovely stretch of 55, not far from Santa Lucia park.
Sadly, service at the new Chaya was disorganized. We wandered in, but someone was mopping the floor, soaking it with soapy water. They insisted it was OK to walk in anyway, but we decided to come back when the floor was dry. When we came back, the entryway was vacant. We waited around an eternity just to get seated by a huipiled hostess, and then there was considerable confusion among the wait staff over who, if anyone, would take our order. They’re working out kinks, I guess.
As we were guided to a corner table, I passed a diner just as he was unfolding his banana leaf to release the briny aroma of some fresh assorted fish in achiote. I hadn’t intended on a seafood meal, but one whiff had me hooked. When mine arrived, it had none of the flavor or aroma I had expected. I had made the classic mistake of ordering something that wasn’t the kitchen’s bailiwick. I should have stuck to the sopa de lima y empanadas de cazon con agua de chaya. I’ve read so many rave reviews, but they’ve never mentioned seafood. I’m learning not to order certain things where it’s not the specialty. No risotto at Spasso, and no seafood at La Chaya.
Another night, we went to a place not too far from the new Chaya. It’s another well-liked restaurant with a new outpost in the tourist district: La Tradición. We passed by their new place on Calle 60 over and over. The place looked pretty decent; I especially liked the balcony on the second floor, perfect for people-watching. When we went, it was practically empty, and a quick tour of the place revealed how cavernous the new La Tradición is. Two floors, plus a large terrace out back. La Tratto, Parque Santa Lucia across the street, will be open soon. There will be even more competition in the neighborhood.
There, I finally had cream of chaya soup, which was fantastic. This was my chaya visit. If you like spinach, you’ll love chaya. Eat it in moderation, I’m told. Then came pavo en relleno negro, the stuffed turkey in black stew. Meh. Maybe this is what our Italian friends had. Kind-of sort-of interesting, but very dry turkey. I ate about half of it. Paul had poc-choc, which was pretty forgettable. Not bad mind you. We have a theory that a kitchen isn’t at its best when it’s not turning out lots of food at once. It’s not “in the zone” with just a couple of customers. We gringos eat earlier than locals, so perhaps they found their zone a few hours later.
The waiter seemed to enjoy using his English with us. He was very friendly and helpful, and probably bored, as was the hostess sitting at her station tapping on her smart phone. (Smart phone addiction is as bad in Mérida as it is at home.) The place desperately needed some buzz.
We went there based on all the hearty recommendations found on Trip Advisor, based on their original location way up the road. And La Chaya’s reputation precedes it. It’s a “must” according to many people who’ve posted online. We’ll be back to both restaurants later this year, and I assume by then they will have worked out any kinks. And we try to eat later in the evening, as the locals do, to try and catch the kitchen in “the zone.” It will take time for us to learn what to order, where to order it, and when.