Valladolid, colonial towns and Yucatecan food

After leaving Bacalar, we drove up to to the centrally located Yucatan city of Valladolid (pronounced 'vie-odd-oh-leed'). It's taken us most of the trip so far to remember and correctly pronounce the name of this town.

Fresh pineapple sold on the roadside near Bacalar.
We only got this on the way out of town, which was a huge mistake.
This was the best pineapple either of us have ever had:
sweet, flavorful, and no woody difficult bites at all.

One of the pineapple stands. Wish we had seen more of them to try that juice.

Colonial Cities

Valladolid is charming and colonial. I never gave much thought to "colonial cities" before, perhaps because I haven't really spent time in any that were notable for that. Colonial cities are really, really cool. There is a charm here, the way the streets are laid out and built and the architecture, density and city planning, it's all just very different from other Mexican cities and towns and provides a totally different feel.

The road into Valladolid is stunning, often under a canopy of these orange trees.

I think part of the reason colonial cities are so different and cool is that when you have the luxury of either slave labor or free materials or the willingness to exploit a land, you can build some really impressive stuff that simply isn't feasible if you have to pay full price for it. I have no research to back that up, but our recent tour in Merida indicates that this is probably part of the story.

Whether my historical guesses are accurate or not, Valladolid definitely has a colonial feel to it, especially in the centro part of town. Many of the streets and sidewalks are made out of cut stone (limestone as I later learned) which gets very smooth and gives cars a certain rumbling sound. It's a huge difference to the feel of an area than modern asphalt or concrete roads and sidewalks. Cut limestone sidewalks and streets also get very polished and slippery over the centuries; I don't think I've ever slipped so much on dry stone as I have in these cities.

Colonial door

The cut limestone streets and sidewalks are a huge factor to the colonial feel, as are the town layout and the semi-modern looking cathedrals and official buildings. Valladolid is arranged around a beautiful central park, which itself is surrounded by important and colonial buildings, the greatest of which is a really cool old church.

Colonial VW on a colonial road

Having a major and (nearly) symmetrical center of the town is a bit of layout and urban planning that really affects the feel of the town. In these towns, we are better able to come to the center and know that if we wander around in any direction, we're likely to find food, restaurants and commercial areas. Residential areas are great, but when you're traveling they're not interesting in the least unless the architecture is great - you can't interact with someone's house too much.

A colonial church fortress

A consequence of having a well defined center of town for a city of this size (Valladolid is about 50k people) is that it becomes the gathering place and performance space for many events in town. I suspect that these kinds of towns actually have more civic events because they have a well defined center. When we were there we saw horses walking the cobblestone streets both nights, some kind of music performance on the first (Saturday) and a grand re-enactment of some historical colonial event on Sunday. The crowd was thick enough and the performance took up so much of the street that we were barely able to get back to our AirBnb without significant backtracking. Yeah we should have stayed out for it but it was a bit of a rough night finding food in Valladolid and we'd done a lot that day.

A colonial dog melted onto the limestone street

The last factor for me in the colonial town feel is the architecture, something that can be expressed very well with pictures. You just don't get buildings like this if you don't have another civilization come in and impose its ideas and architecture on the region (poorly, if you compare this to contemporary European architecture). Local materials, conquistador-era Spanish architecture and limited local building talent means you get buildings that are often grand and quaint at the same time.

A colonial park town square

I suspect that we'll visit a lot of colonial towns on this trip and I'm looking forward to them a lot more now that we've seen a few. There's not much to compare this to in the US; our colonial era stuff is from a different colonizing nation, a different time period and a different regional climate.

Figuring out Valladolid

Even though Valladolid is organized much more conveniently than Cancun, for example, it took us a while to figure out where the well-priced-but-good food was. We walked the entire town square, finding only slightly over-priced Yucatecan variety restaurants; places with good TripAdvisor scores and undoubtedly popular with the day trip crowd, but not the kind of place where we want to eat every meal.

We came across place after place like this, at no point satisfied but knowing that eventually we'd have to walk a ways to get the meal we wanted or spend a few extra bucks and eat decently. We started in the south west corner of the square and worked our way three quarters of the way around to the north west corner when we were about to give up and go to a place that had all tourists eating at its tables. I said lets push another half block, I see something on Google maps around this last corner that looks cheap. And it's a good thing we pushed because just as we were about to give up we found the semi-open air food court we didn't know we were looking for.

There are basically two tiers of eating in Mexico that we're living in. We can go "overpriced but decent," which means $15 - $30 for a meal for 2. The food will probably be a bit more tourist geared, although it does almost always focus on local flavors or at least Mexican food, while still offering hamburgers and hotdogs, and forever and always, pizza. There's nothing wrong with eating in this tier, and the food quality may be slightly higher than the next tier. It is a bit of a disappointment though because, well, it's overpriced and easy and vacation paced, and we're not on vacation, we're hard core traveling, dammit!

The other tier is akin to local fast food or street food or simply hole in the wall places. There's a wider range here in quality, type and price, but we can often get quite full for $5-$8 for the two of us, including a water or a beer. This tier is a bit less healthy, often featuring some form of fried tortilla instead of a side salad, rice and beans, although not always. Since our budget on the trip is fixed, the more we can save on things like food, rent and transportation, the longer we can stay on the road, or the more money we can have to start new lives when we get back, so we try to eat a decent portion of our meals in this tier.

Walking around the town plaza we were only finding the expensive end of the tourist tier, and this food court was clearly the cheaper tier. Jackpot.

It's not entirely fair to say that the tourist tier is, well, the only one aiming for tourists. They both do, and food courts like this often have a hawker of some sort pressing a menu into your hands and eagerly reciting all of their specials and foods on offer, which coincidentally are usually exactly the same as all the foods available at the next six food stalls in the row. Funny how that works.

The food court

Regardless, we had a few options here. Melissa was justifiably tired of fried tortilla Mexican food, so she got a $40 peso ($2 USD) personal pizza that was pretty decent. Like cafeteria pizza at school, weak crust but definitely counts as pizza.

I opted for one of the Yucatecan specialties, conchinita pibil, from one of the indistinguishable Mexican stands. I simply chose the one whose food on display looked slightly better. I'll explain conchinita pibil below, but I will say that even though my entire meal, which I could barely finish, was 95 pesos including a water, this was not a fried corn meal; it came with rice, an excellent black bean puree and some vegetables, so not the worst for my diet.

Yucatecan Foods

We're learning a bit about the Yucatecan specialties here, such as Tic-n-xic fish, which we had in Puerto Juarez on our Cancun leg. Now that we're in the central Yucatan and we're not coastal and further from the biggest tourist crowds, some of these specialties are starting to come to the forefront much more clearly as regional dishes worth trying.

My chochinita pibil

Sopa de Lima at Chichen Itza

  • Sopa de Lima - aka "lime soup", although it's not quite what it seems. We had this at a place right outside of the Chichen Itza archaeological zone, and it was very much like the tortilla soup we made back home, although brothier, less tomato-ey and with good shredded chicken and perhaps a bit more lime. It still has the fried tortilla strips to give it a wide range of textures. Apparently this soup really needs to be made with "lima", a Yucatecan sour lime that's a bit different from what we have in the states. This difference was lost on us in this soup, but we've only had one version of it so far.
  • Poc chuc - a thin pork steak with onions and a sweet sour marinade, in my words. This kind of reminded me of a Vietnamese marinade pork chop, although there definitely wasn't any fish sauce in what I tried. Mine came with two kinds of onions: some cooked way down and stewed with some kind of tomato sauce, not unlike the red onions at a Gray's Papaya in NYC. The other kind was tiny petals of onion charred and lightly cooked. 
  • Queso Relleno - We haven't had this yet but Melissa is on board. A chile relleno is usually a stuff, lightly breaded and fried poblano chile. This is a hollowed out wedge of "Edam" cheese (we're not sure that anything here is truly Edam cheese when it says it is) that's stuff and served in a sauce.
  • Conchinita pibil o pollo - slow cooked pork (usually shoulder), falling apart in a sauce of citrus, achiote and garlic. Not spicy, has a deep orange or red color. This isn't unlike BBQ pulled pork in the US except it's a totally different sauce and therefore flavor. I had this at the food court in Valladolid, which was excellent. Many places here advertise their conchinita pibil. You can find chicken prepared this way too.
  • Al pastor - as in tacos al pastor. Meaning "in the style of the shepherd (pastoral)", this is a marinated pork that is often served in tacos, burritos, tortas (sandwiches) or on other forms or tortilla. "Marinated pork" doesn't come close to capturing all the details important to this meat preparation though. It's pork shoulder butterflied into thin, wide strips, marinated in achiote, chiles and pineapple. The marinated strips are layered into a shwarma spit and cooked like gyro meat. When it's time to cut off slices to serve they will increase the flame and get some crispiness on the outside of the meat, that's been cooking in its own fats, marinade and pineapple juice dripping down onto the meat cone all day. It's a ton of work even to describe this, but it's pretty basic food here, available almost everywhere.
Al pastor holds a special place in our food memories because of an excellent hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Hell's Kitchen near my old office that served really good al pastor tacos, burritos and quesadillas. As good as Ponche was, the al pastor we've had in Mexico doesn't have much resemblance to their version. Ponche's al pastor has heavy on the pineapple flavor and often had chunks of pineapple in the meat, which was amazing. Their pork was finely shredded, moreso than a homemade BBQ pulled would be, and the sauce was a bit closer to BBQ sauce.

The al pastor that's prevalent here (and it's been consistently this way across the Yucatan) is totally different in flavor and texture. The pineapple is barely detectable, and only once have we seen pineapple on the plate (and that was on the side). When I've watched someone man the trompo (rotating shwarma spit) for a while, there was a big piece of pineapple stuck into the skewer right on top of all the meat, presumably to slowly drip pina juice onto the meat cone. This cook would whack off a small slice of pineapple for each taco he made, but we didn't get tacos al pastor from this place so I can't say for sure if it made it onto the plate.

The al pastor trompo at our Merida lunch

As Serious Eats tells me, the marinade is an adobo of chiles, achiote -- a deep red seed that gives this dish its color and a bit of flavor -- and aromatics (garlic). I'm not sure how much pineapple enters into the Mexican street food version. When cooked, the marinade does not come out like a sauce, but the meet is colored a strong red on the outside.

The texture for the al pastor is completely different from pulled pork as well. Like gyro meat, they slice the outer layer of meat off the spit, across the layers of pork shoulder stacked vertically. So each slice is composed of several compressed pieces of pork shoulder, melded together by salt and the cooking process. If the meat you get is crispy this is closer to bacon than pulled pork, in appearance and texture.

So in the end, nothing against the New York al pastor I've had, and still love, but this is a totally different dish.

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