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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cave of the Monkey

It's just barely starting to be spring here. I've seen a few crocuses popping up, but otherwise things are still pretty bleak, so I thought I'd post a few pictures from a trip we took to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, a few weeks ago. The vacation was all too short, just a few days, and I keep wishing we were still there.

Parts of the town are a little too touristy for our taste, and condos and hotels are being developed like mad, but there's still enough we love about the area to make it special. (This was our second trip there.) The turquoise-blue ocean and white-sand beach (we head north of town to escape the crowds) are otherworldly, the local people, in our experience, are really nice, and the local recipe for guacamole is divine.

The other thing to love about Playa del Carmen is La Cueva del Chango, a.k.a. Cave of the Monkey, a little open-air restaurant, best known for its breakfast, that specializes in natural food and local Mayan cuisine. It's one of my favorite places in the world. That picture above shows the colored glass bottles set into its concrete ceiling like stained glass. A small stream runs through a channel in the stone floor and out into the open garden patio out back. In the bathroom you wash your hands under a little stone waterfall, presumably channeled from the same underground spring. Fish swim in a little pond in the middle of the restaurant, and a tree grows through a hole in the roof. This sounds a bit like Swiss Family Robinson at Disney Land, but the overall effect is more rustic and natural, and supremely relaxing. And it's not just me; Jacques Pepin comes here, too. What more endorsement do you need?

Coffee is served in simple clay mugs, with brown sugar.

Fresh jugo de piña, por favor. There are all kinds of fresh juices on the menu.

Huevos rancheros à la Chango. That green stuff in the beans is chaya, a leafy Mayan vegetable.

A view from the front door.

The monkey over the entrance gate.

Awesome monkey mural in the bathroom.

La Cueva is excellent in its own right, but I must acknowledge it's hard not to love a place when this is your destination once the meal is done.

I mentioned guacamole among our top four reasons to love Playa, so here's a bonus for any who have read this far. We had an afternoon snack at a place called Palapa Hemingway, which is one of those places with the gimmick of making the guacamole at your table, kind of like a Mexican Benihana. I don't mind the gimmick though, because it means we got to spy on the simple ingredients that went into it, and it was the best guacamole of my life! That might have been due primarily to the freshness of the ingredients (and the two margaritas I'd already polished off), but nevertheless, here's the eye-witness recipe:

1 and 1/2 avocados

1/3 of a fresh lime

1 T each, chopped, of:
- tomato
- cilantro
- jalapeno
- onion

1 T light olive oil


[That oil was the secret ingredient for us. Olive oil? Okay, I don't know if it was olive oil, but it was some kind of oil. Not extra-virgin olive oil, at any rate. A pale yellow kind. I wouldn't think that would be good in guacamole, but it was.]

Scoop the avocado flesh into a bowl with the other ingredients. Squeeze the 1/3 lime and add the juice. Shake salt liberally over everything. Mash everything together, and add more salt to taste.

Another place we like called Las Delicias sprinkles crumbled queso fresco on top. This is also extremely good.

Enjoy, then die of happiness.

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At 3/29/2007 11:26 AM, Blogger Neal Grigsby said...

Welcome home!

Oil, eh? That is an ingredient I have not seen in any guacamole recipe. One would assume that the avocado itself has plenty of natural fat so you wouldn't need any more, but maybe a dash of another kind of oil helps round out the flavor somehow. I'll have to try that next time.

In my experience it really is the freshness and ripeness of the avocado that makes all the difference, and actually the level of salt is also of primary importance. I've tried minimalist and baroque recipes for guac, but whatever the other flavors you have to salt the avocado well.

Your post has made me long for another Mexican vacation. I became particularly enamored of having a rich pot of black beans for breakfast, and this seemed to be a pretty universal option wherever we went, in Playa and Mexico City. It's one of those things that you wouldn't think would be so good.

At 3/29/2007 1:10 PM, Blogger RBG said...

We had breakfast one morning at La Cueva del Chango on your recommendation (we traveled there not long after your first trip, if I remember correctly) and while I loved everything about it that you so eloquently describe in your post, I have to say I was absolutely eaten alive by mosquitoes in the hour or so we were there! So that was a little distracting but it's still definitely worth a visit. In fact, I think I could put up with the mosquitoes right about now!

At 3/29/2007 4:34 PM, Blogger Chrissa said...

I wondered if you guys had ended up going there. That's a shame about the mosquitoes. Our only bad Chango experience was the day we sat outside in the sun and almost melted. We didn't have much trouble with any kind of bugs on both our trips (both in March) so I wonder if it's a seasonal thing. And I've definitely heard they can be bad down in Tulum.

Agreed, Neal, on the importance of avocado ripeness and salt. And the yumminess of beans for breakfast!


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