In Cancún’s high-rise Hotel Zone, a genuine taco stand is harder to find than a mediocre American chain restaurant. It’s even more of a challenge to locate a special place where dining out feels like a real occasion. But don’t lose heart. In the Hotel Zone and in downtown Cancún, chefs from Thailand, Italy and Argentina are combining local and imported ingredients in ingenious ways, and Mexican cooks are spicing up authentic local recipes with regional chilis and herbs. Sample their work in these 10 restaurants.
Prices throughout cover a three-course meal for two, not including drinks, tax or tip.
1. Seafood by the seashore
Mocambo Blvd. Kukulcán Km. 11.5, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-883-0398
The smell of grilled lobster lures beachgoers up to the wooden deck, where sandy feet and swimsuits are welcome. Start with smoked marlin tostadas or coconut shrimp with mango sauce (seen at left). If you’re with a group, order the Cancún grill, a bounty of shrimp, conch and mussels. Meat lovers should try the Norteña grill, which comes with skirt steak, chicken and chorizo. Lunch for two, $60.
2. Cancún’s haute cuisine
La Habichuela Avenida Margaritas 25, Downtown; 011-52-998-884-3158
Flames flash from copper pans as waiters douse shrimp in tequila. Diners sit in filigreed high-backed chairs amid Mayan carvings. Try the tapa al ajillo (mixed seafood in garlicky olive oil) and shrimp medallion topped with pungent black huitlacoche (a truffle-like delicacy). Guacamole, irresistible corn chips and the classic combo plate satisfy any hankering for Mexican comfort food. Dinner for two, $70.
3. The big blowout
Puerto Madero Blvd. Kukulcán Km. 14, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-885-2829
Stylish locals frequent Puerto Madero to devour the best beef this side of Buenos Aires and nibble at immaculate plates of tuna sashimi. The sophisticated, celebratory vibe doesn’t distract from some serious food: rib-eye steaks with grilled onions, fried potatoes as airy as tiny soufflés, shrimp and octopus sautéed with garlic and oil, and bowls of chimichurri, Argentina’s spicy steak sauce. The superb wine list includes several reds from Mendoza. Dinner for two, $100.
4. Yucatán flavors
Labná Avenida Margaritas 29, Downtown; 011-52-998-892-3056
The regionally inspired menu starts with sopa de lima (lime soup) and papadzules, corn tortillas stuffed with hardboiled egg and smothered in pumpkin-seed sauce. The grilled pork marinated in sour orange (poc chuc) and earthy red achiote (annatto seed) is sublime, as is the chicken baked in banana leaves (pollo pibil). Can’t choose? Try the Yucatecan Tour, a sampler sure to inspire a return trip. Dinner for two, $40.
5. Lobster king
Lorenzillo’s Blvd. Kukulcán Km. 10.5, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-883-1254
Lorenzillo’s has claimed the lobster crown ever since it opened here in 1985. The glass tanks are kept well stocked from the restaurant’s own lobster farm. Reserve a deck table if you enjoy conversation, as the wood-paneled dining room can become packed with jolly groups maxing out expense accounts. Lobsters arrive grilled, broiled, breaded or steamed, accompanied by chili, coconut or cilantro sauce. If you’re watching your budget, try the lobster pozole (a fabulous hominy stew) or the lobster tacos. Dinner for two, $120.
6. Asian chic
Thailounge Plaza La Isla, Blvd. Kukulcán Km. 12.5, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-883-1401
Reserve a private hut to catch the sunset over Nichupté Lagoon. Mind the menu’s chili symbols—only a cast-iron tongue can handle the spicy stir-fried chicken or minced pork salad. Tropical fruits add a cooling element, though the fish filet with ginger, garlic and tamarind chili sauce still has a kick. The bar’s glass wall provides a view of the dolphins in the adjacent aquarium—until 9 p.m., when the drapes are drawn for the dolphins’ bedtime. Dinner for two, $60.
7. Breakfast splurge
Le Meridien Retorno del Rey 37 at Blvd. Kukulcán Km. 14, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-881-2200
Fill a basket with fresh pan dulce (Mexican sweet rolls) at this elegant breakfast buffet. After all, you’re not here for Raisin Bran. Handmade tortillas accompany omelets studded with spicy chorizo. Artfully arranged platters of papaya, mango and pineapple compete for your attention with fragrant cochinita pibil (marinated pork). Breakfast for two, $60.
8. Dining on the beach
Ritz-Carlton, Cancún Retorno del Rey 36 at Blvd. Kukulcán Km. 14, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-881-0808
As the moon rises, white curtains ripple under the thatched roofs of beach casitas where linen-covered tables have replaced lounge chairs. You don’t need a paramour to enjoy these private spaces. Friends and families are just as happy savoring oysters, coconut shrimp, thick steaks and fudge brownies with whipped cream. Each of the 16 casitas holds up to six people. Dinner for two, $120; $85 extra for the casita.
9. Bullring tapas
La Guadalupana Avenida Bonampak at the bullring, Downtown; 011-52-998-887-0660
The rustic wood tables at this cantina in the downtown bullring tend to fill up on Saturdays and Wednesdays, thanks to the weekly bullfights. You’ll receive the daily botana (appetizer) even before ordering a Montejo or other regional beer. Many regulars stick with the appetizers, ordering squash blossom empanadas or weird snacks like fried grasshoppers. For a full meal, you won’t find a better arrachera (grilled skirt steak, onions, and chilis) or molcajete (roasted onions and sausages with panela cheese). Lunch for two, $30.
10. Family-friendly fajitas
Paloma Bonita Dreams Resort at Punta Cancún, Hotel Zone; 011-52-998-848-7000
At this festive spot, mariachis serenade the guests, and waiters sing along as they flourish menus and paper flowers. Dishes come from Oaxaca, Puebla and the Yucatán, with Tex-Mex fajitas and spaghetti primavera for timid tastebuds. The mole is tamed down for the uninitiated—this sauce of bitter chocolate, chilis and spices is an acquired taste. Filet with four salsas is a safer bet, as is the tender steak campesino. Churros con cajeta (fried dough and caramel sauce) will have kids licking their fingers. Dinner for two, $70.