Most of Tulum’s superb collection of high quality restaurants are located along the beach road, which makes it all too easy to enjoy all your meals a quick stroll from the beach. If you have a car, which we recommend, take a short drive past the checkpoint with friendly men with friendly automatic weapons, and explore Tulum Town, about a 20 minute drive from the beach.
The food is not as good as some of the outstanding restaurants on the beach road, but, naturally, the prices drop considerably. And you can sample the cuisine that locals and adventurous travelers alike can enjoy together.
Two spots that should not be missed are El Camello Jr., a raucous local seafood shop and restaurant, and Antojitos La Chiapaneca, a taqueria serving phenomenally inexpensive al pastor tacos. Or try them both in the same meal for a little surf ‘n turf – they’re certainly cheap enough.
El Camello, “the camel” in Spanish, is located on the outskirts of town and so, from the beach, you have to drive straight through the town until it seems like there’s no town left, and then there it is, on the side of the road. Sit at one of the outdoor plastic chairs to enjoy the full experience.
El Camello serves huge portions of ceviche including octopus, fish, shrimp, and, for some reason, goat (we did not order the goat). Sizes range from “small” (meaning “large”) to “large” (meaning “can feed a small army”).
While you wait to order, a complimentary plate of spicy shark dip arrives with homemade tortilla chips. I don’t think I had ever dipped tortilla chips into a shark dish before, but this dip would go great watching a football game in front of the TV. It’s exactly like a shark-laced salsa sounds. Not very fishy, just meaty, spicy, and delicious.
We ordered what they claimed was a “small” shrimp ceviche and a massive plate of perfectly steamed shrimp marinated in a citrus bath with tomatoes, onions, and spices arrived.
We also sampled inventive octopus tacos marinated with guajillo chilis. Octopus is hard to cook and often comes out rubbery, but not this one. Obviously, they knew what they were doing.
Some might object that the octopus could have been thrown on the grill for a little char; but the simply boiled and marinated pulpo worked for me.
Be sure, of course, to wash everything down with plenty of beer.
When you’ve had your fill of the surf, head over to Antojitos La Chiapaneca for the turf. At La Chiapaneca, the antojitos – meaning “snacks” in Spanish – include incredibly cheap tacos. The specialty is al pastor, or rotisserie pork. They serve chicken, carne al asada, and bean tacos as well. Naturally, the staff does not speak English.
The tacos are not large, but at less than 50 cents each, you can order a lot. The tacos are served with just lime wedges, and there is a slightly ominous looking fixins’ bar where pots of brightly colored salsas, chopped cilantro-laced onions, and pickled cabbage await self-service.
La Chiapaneca also serves pretty good cheese empanadas, and tostadas with bean paste, your choice of meat, and sliced avocados.
Opt for a large variety and take full advantage of the fixins’ bar. While I was apprehensive at first – especially because we were in cleanliness-challenged Mexico – I had no problems the next day, and I carefully observed that the locals were going to town on all the salsas.
The bright orange one had great flavor of guajillo chilis while the green one was seriously spicy. Try a little of both!
Are tacos at La Chiapaneca the best in the world? Is the meat quality the best? No, of course not, but you wouldn’t expect it to be for the price. It’s more about the great deal, being at a local joint, and enjoying the night on vacation.
Inexplicably, there is no beer, which would have gone perfectly. Opt instead for a Mexican coke, cheap here, $5.00 back in New York. Does it taste different than regular coke? I don’t know, but paired with lots of spicy tacos, I enjoyed myself.
El Camello Jr.
Avenida Tulum & Luna Sur
Recommended dishes: ceviches, guajillo octopus tacos, beer
Antojitos La Chiapaneca
Avenida Tulum (right after Jupiter Norte)
Recommended dishes: Tacos al pastor, empanadas con queso, Mexican coke.