Yucatán Surprise

Meat on the Grill

People who know I went to the Yucatán in January are asking me why I don’t have more of a tan. In fact, Doug and I never saw a beach during our eight days in the area. Sun worshipers head for the tourist resorts in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, but we are foodies, so we went inland. My plan was to work in some Mayan-ruin excursions around samplings of cochinita pibil (pit-roasted pork).

We planted ourselves at Casa del Balam in the delightful colonial city of Merida. The hotel was well located and charming, with spacious rooms, a cozy two-table bar, and a palm-filled courtyard lobby with dappled sunlight, colonial furnishings and a large stone fountain. The town’s main plaza, where free music and dance performances happened almost every night, was five minutes away on foot.

Jim Maser, who owns Berkeley’s Picante Taqueria and knows the Yucatán well, had told me that if I wanted to taste the ultimate cochinita pibil, I needed to track down Silvio Campos. Maser knew that Campos lived in Tixkokob, about a half-hour east of Merida, but that’s all he knew. Marilyn Tausend, who leads culinary tours of the Yucatán, told me that Campos often sells his roast pork at the Tixkokob market, and that if we didn’t find him there, the folks at the town bakery might know where he lived.

With those feeble leads, we set off for Tixkokob on a mild Saturday morning. Worst-case scenario, we would tour a village market and bakery. We spotted the bakery first, so we went in, bought a few pastries and asked the young man behind the counter if he might know Silvio Campos. Out came some scrap paper and we soon had a detailed map to the Campos house. Did I mention that this was a small town?

Five minutes later, we were at Silvio’s home on the outskirts of the village, meeting his wife and daughter, Silvia, who is a culinary student in Valladolid. Silvio, as it happened, was at his mother’s house nearby, where his underground roasting pits are, preparing for luncheon guests. Silvia got on her scooter, Doug and I were loaded onto a scooter “taxi” (basically, a scooter with a bench in the front), and off we went to grandma’s.

When we arrived, it became clear that we were about to crash a party. A long, cloth-covered table indoors was set for twenty, and Silvio was outside tending his fires and seasoning his beans. Friends and relatives would be arriving shortly, Silvia explained, and of course we would stay for lunch, right?   

Fortunately, I didn’t know enough Spanish to protest. Before long, we were seated at the table with Tixkokob’s mayor and his wife; a blur of aunts, uncles and cousins; and a couple of radio personalities from Merida, with their wives and kids.

Silvio’s lunch was by far the best meal we had in the Yucatán, and although he didn’t serve cochinita pibil, he did make a feast: chicharrones (crisp-fried pork rind) with fresh salsa; guacamole garnished with jicama for scooping; salpicón de venado, a moist shredded venison salad with radishes; grilled pork ribs rubbed with recado rojo (an achiote-based spice paste); and frijoles con puerco, new-crop black beans simmered with big chunks of succulent pork. Partway through this incredible meal, a handsome young man with a guitar showed up. He had inky-black hair slicked with mousse, a shirt open halfway to his waist, a ringing tenor voice, and an apparently endless repertoire of Mexican love songs. I felt like I was on a movie set.

Now here is what you need to know: Silvio prepares a different dish for the Tixkokob market every day. Saturday is cochinita pibil day, but plan to arrive by 10 a.m. or be prepared to lose out.