The Last Taco in Playa del Carmen

Travel Blog  •  David Farley  •  04.17.09 | 10:19 AM ET

Photo by David Farley

I was dying for a good taco. I’d been on the tourist-board-branded Mayan Riviera (the coastline south of Cancun) for a few days and had been planted in beachside, tourist-crammed towns where a legion of mediocre restaurants lined the sea like B-grade culinary sentries guarding tourists from the locals-only edible delights off the beaten path.

The last straw came when my wife, Jessie, and I picked the most salt-of-the-earth eatery in Playa del Carmen and sat down, thinking the place might yield something more authentic than what we’d been served so far.

I ordered grilled octopus and the waiter insisted I opt instead for the octopus drenched in a béchamel sauce. It didn’t sound very good, but he insisted it was better. I agreed and after taking a few bites of this chewy slop, I sent it back telling him that octopus should never be prepared that way. Even the chef popped his head out of the kitchen a few minutes later to find out who had sent back this inedible gem. The following day I recalled reading in a travel magazine about a great taco place in Playa called Los Carboncitos. “We have to find it,” I said. Playa del Carmen isn’t really known as the culinary mecca of Mexico, but still, I wasn’t going to leave Mexico without eating the food that you just can’t find back in New York.

And so the journey began. The guy at the tourist information kiosk simply shrugged when we asked where Los Carboncitos was. So did the woman at our hotel. Shop workers, policemen, even fishermen had no idea what we were talking about. “Los Carboncitos?” I’d say to a sunglasses seller, my voice oozing a kind of desperation that suggested I was lost. No luck. But the guy holding the tiny monkey on the pedestrianized Fifth Avenue had a consolation: “El Fogon,” he said. “That’s where the locals go.” He pointed us inland and we walked and walked until the hotels and palapa-topped restaurants faded into colorful no-frills apartment buildings and houses, many of which were spawned in the 1990s when Playa del Carmen became Mexico’s fastest-growing city (at one point, 100 families a month were moving there).

And then, finally, when we hit 30th Avenue, El Fogon’s garish yellow and green façade practically flagged us down. The front room was sprinkled with the odd tourist, but the crowd was mostly made up of Mexican families, huge steaming metal plates of barbecued meat at the center of their tables and containers of freshly made tortillas and red and green bottles of hot sauce making up the supporting cast. We were in the right place. The mustached waiter flashed a welcoming smile and, soon enough, a plate full of tacos arrived in front of us. The al pastor was tender with mild hints of spice while the succulent chorizo was so good I wanted to drink the juice that had dribbled onto the paper plate. These were some of the best tacos I’d had in months. Maybe years. We ordered another round and then made the voyage back to the beach.

But we still wondered about the elusive Los Carboncitos. And the next day, during our final hours before heading to the airport, Jessie spotted it. “Look,” she said, pointing down a side street just off the tourist-packed Fifth Avenue. When I saw “Los Carboncitos” scrawled across the façade, it was like a chorus of angels was belting out a harmonious note from the heavens. We’d found it. The Holy Grail of Playa del Carmen restaurants—or at least it was in my mind. We sat down and commenced ordering. Unfortunately, the food didn’t taste so divine. The tacos were unremarkable: the chorizo was dry and didn’t dribble any greasy juice onto my plate; the “fresh” fish tasted like it had been caught several time zones away (though the pozole wasn’t bad). It turns out, Los Carboncitos was really just another of the tourist-zone eateries we’d been trying to avoid. But a naïve travel writer with apparently numb taste buds thought this was the place to go. It was a disappointing last meal and I hated that I was going to return to New York with this memory laid on top of all the others. That’s when a light bulb went off above Jessie’s head. Let’s pack our bags and stop by El Fogon on the way to the airport.

When we walked in, rucksacks bulging from our backs, the mustached waiter from the day before was there: “I had a feeling I would see you two again,” he said. “Two al pastor and chorizo tacos are on their way.”

7 Comments for The Last Taco in Playa del Carmen

Julia Ross 04.17.09 | 11:36 AM ET

great post, Farley. now I’m going to crave tacos all weekend.

Joanna Kakissis 04.17.09 | 12:06 PM ET

Me too! Great story, David, though I’m still grossing out over bechamel on octopus. That should be ILLEGAL.

Terry Ward 04.17.09 | 12:27 PM ET

Ohhhh, tacos al pastor. What I would do for those tiny perfect tacos - topped with cilantro and a spritz of lime juice - right now!

Mexican food in Europe, I’ve found, is just, well, wrong.

Arjun Basu 04.17.09 | 7:20 PM ET

Tacos in Playa. Blech. But if you want the best steak: HH de Monterrey - about five blocks off the tourist strip. The best most tender grilled steak in the world. I don’t joke. Oh no.

Migration Mark 04.19.09 | 7:02 AM ET

I think I love tacos as much as you.  Growing up in Phoenix, I lived by the motto, “the more colors, and the brighter the colors painted on the outside of the eatery, the better tacos.”  It never fails.

Matt Gross 04.20.09 | 9:24 AM ET

Dude! That’s exactly the same place Jean and I went on our trip to Playa back in 2002—the best tacos al pastor I’ve ever had, with a slice of queso and a nugget of pineapple. I’ve been trying to find tacos as good ever since, to no avail. I’m so glad you went there (although disappointed you didn’t ask my advice beforehand).

Oh, another must-order: a side of grilled spring onions. As the kids these days say: OMG!!!

Tony Bishop 04.30.09 | 5:55 PM ET

I live in Playa del Carmen and I have been to all of these places you mention many times.  I have to agree, Playa is kind of a black whole of good food.  For real mexican food, and the best, go to PUEBLA.  Even my Mexican friends agree that the food here is bland at best.  But then again this was an area built on tourism, no local flair.

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