Oscar & Lalos – $$
Soliman Bay, Mexico
The hunger was overtaking us. Lunch was some fruit and tortilla chips, eaten while standing next to our car outside Gran Cenote – very little sustenance after a day biking at Coba and climbing Nohuch Mul. The cave snorkeling used up that energy and started dipping into our energy reserves. It was time for an early dinner.
We’d seen signs for Oscar and Lalo on the drive down from Cancun, and the guidebooks said it was definitely worth a trip. But the entrance appeared to be just a break in the jungle. It was as though the vines and trees had paused to let diners slip into the civilization behind. The path leading to the restaurant entrance had a couple wonderful Mayan-looking statues in a pond, adding to the ambiance. It was quiet when we arrived at 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon, even in the height of the tourist season on the Riviera Maya.
The maitre’d led us outside to an expansive palapa, tabletops decorated with palm fronds. The menu offered so many great choices. My husband wasn’t drinking, since he was driving – the Mexican authorities are hard with those who mix alcohol and cars – so I decided to stick with non-alcoholic beverages. Usually, I try to stick with water, but really want a little pick-me-up after the high energy day we’d had. I looked to our waiter for suggestions, but with his limited English and my practically nonexistent Spanish, I wasn’t sure what I ordered. Natural mango water?
It turned out to be a thick smooth mango beverage served in a heavy glass wine glass. It was a much smoother consistency than a smoothie. The owner/manager came over later to check on us; she said that she doesn’t serve anything she wouldn’t eat, and she’s very picky about what she eats. The natural mango water is made with mangos and a vitamin powder without added sugar. It was delicious.
To start, the waiter brought us homemade chips with several sauces, which offered a flavor variety and came with a “very hot” warning – accompanied by a hand waving in front of a mouth, which was clear in any language. We had to try the blackened peppers, even with the warning. The flavor was wonderful, similar to a habanero pepper, but blackened to intensify the flavors.
For our entrees, my husband tried chicken mole, which came with a thick mole sauce, our friend tried the fish fillet with mango sauce (no doubt partly inspired by the drink) and I picked the Yucatan chicken, a regional specialty cooked with achiote paste and wrapped in banana leaves. The mole sauce was too chocolately for me, but my chocoholic husband thought it was the perfect savory dish – bordering on a dessert experience. We usually swap dishes, but after a couple bites, we swapped back. I loved the achiote chicken. The presentation in the banana leaves was elegant, and the sauce set me on a search for achiote paste to bring home.
(Grocery stores have often been my source for souvenirs. I eventually found a grocery store with the achiote paste – known in some circles as a poor man’s saffron. We used it last weekend in a paella in place of saffron, and it worked well.)
We passed on dessert. The owner/manager stopped by to check in again – and to make sure that the local monkey hadn’t dropped onto a table for a bite to eat. I regretted that we didn’t get to see the monkey; maybe next time? We explored the restaurant a little on our way out. The tables were spread out and surrounded by jungle. A big playground formed the centerpiece. Oh how I would have coveted that when our children were tiny. Great food AND a kid diversion – quite the step up from Chucky Cheese. The owner walked us out telling us about the early 1980s when her father (Lalo) and her uncle (Oscar) started the restaurant, partly as a venue for family reunions. She asked how we heard about it; I explained the signage followed up with the guidebook.
I started wondering later if there was more to her questions than just friendliness. Was she getting all the business she wanted? In the era of TripAdvisor and online restaurant searches, perhaps being a restaurant in the countryside – not a part of a major city’s TripAdvisor restaurant list – made it just a little harder to compete.