Down the beach road from Hartwood sits two friendly fine dining establishments in funky open-air settings that put out serious food. Casa Banana is the more established of the two, serving wood and coal-oven Argentinean/Mexican specialties, including the best steak you’ll find in the area. An outdoor margarita bar provides needed libations.
El Tabano looks like you are walking into someone’s private patch of jungle, with oddly shaped wooden tables interspersed between several small seating areas, some open-air, some covered by a thatched roof, with jungle in between. Don’t expect a host to seat you, as it’s better to wander to your table, preferably near the floor to ceiling chalkboard menu near the kitchen. There, the chefs create original takes on regional Mexican food, including a fantastic fish en pipian – with a fiery pumpkin seed-chili sauce.
Casa Banana is at its heart an Argentina-inspired steak house. But it looks nothing like most steak houses, with no roof over most tables, lanterns hanging from trees, and dim votive candles glowing within ceramic bowls on each table. The ambiance is romantic, with a sort of elegant outdoor dinner-party feel. Start off slow with a wood-grilled beet salad, a vegetable well-made for the grill.
While steaks are their specialty, Casa Banana also puts out elevated grilled seafood dishes. Particularly impressive were perfectly grilled squid cut into thick rings and dusted with chili, and strewn atop a mound of fresh chunky guacamole. It is rare to find great grilled squid, as most restaurants mask pour quality or technique by breading and frying their calamari, but here, that is not the case.
Like Hartwood, Casa Banana also serves a whole wood-fired snapper. While Hartwood favors primal elegance and elevated technique, Casa Banana aims for the simple pleasures of grilled fish and vegetables, accented by the powerful combination of cast iron and wood fire. The huge snapper, which they claim only feeds one person, is served atop three different sides, the best of which were ginger-scented cauliflower.
This over-abundance was also evident in the rib eye steak, which was served with two sauces and two different potato preparations (mashed and roasted). The mashed potatoes and chimichurri sauce overshadowed the ordinary roasted potatoes and not-spicy-enough tomato salsa. The steak was grilled perfectly and reminded us that there is no better way to prepare meat than over wood fire.
El Tabano’s Barcelona-raised chef situates her restaurant interspersed between the jungle road’s wild vegetation. Dread-lock sporting waiters, and a handwritten chalkboard menu complete the rustic feel. The food, however, is anything but uncivilized. Most dishes are recognizable Mexican staples but with certain subtle innovations that improve upon the classics. The guacamole, for example, featured big chunks of tomatoes and avocados, with pumpkin seeds and oats providing crunch.
The best dish was a grouper en pipian, doused in a fiery chili-pumpkin seed sauce. While almost entirely absent from the New York Mexican restaurant scene, pumpkin seed sauce is a staple of Mexican cooking, though it is normally green from tomatillos. I enjoyed this innovative chili-streak red preparation better. Fall-off-the-bone pork ribs with a tangy-spicy tomatillo sauce should not be missed either.
The wine list features predominantly Mexican wines, but with all the spicy food, I’d stick with the locally brewed Akumal pale ale.
Both restaurants are on the jungle side of the beach road. Main courses at El Tabano are around 190-250 pesos; Casa Banana is a little more expensive.