On the Mexican island of Cozumel, all we really wanted was a good meal. Not a bargain on a snorkeling excursion or a bespangled sombrero for $50 USD, or a cheap rental car. This is what Cozumel promises in abundance when you first arrive, before your feet even leave the ferry dock. In the most touristed of places, a tiny island full of salesman hawking their wares to cruise ship day-trippers, we weren't sure we'd find it.
We came to Cozumel, and its only major city, San Miguel de Cozumel, for the same reason that everyone comes—for the coral. Cozumel's reefs are among the best in the world for diving and snorkeling, but what do you do—and eat—after you've peeled off your wet suit and drip-dried?
We decided to eat. Working on a tip from a guide book, we searched for a specific taco joint away from the main drag, but never found it. We did find, however, a quieter Cozumel. It wasn't as glitzy as the tourist-centric fare on Avendia Rafael E. Melgar. We didn't find a Margaritaville or Senor Frog's pumping loud pop music onto the sidewalk or selling t-shirts. But this was, of course, was the appeal.
A five-minute walk inland and away from Avendia Melgar revealed low-key dive shops and tiny bars strung with lights. We also found La Cabana del Piolin, a restaurant so good that we went back two nights in a row.
At first glance, it looked less like a restaurant than a room full of plastic chairs lit with bare bulbs. (We didn't find the sign bearing the restaurant's name—hand-scribbled and taped to a back wall—until the second night.) But then a waitress offered us a seat and appeared with plastic-laminated menus and a tray full of appetizers to go with our Dos Equis, all arranged on little paper plates, and simply and impeccably prepared. There were cucumbers with chile and lime, noodles in a green chile sauce, stewed squash and onions, a white fish with chopped tomatoes, sausage in a spicy red sauce, and of course, a mountain of homemade tortilla chips.
Dinner was tacos—maybe the best we've ever had. The shrimp came in a light sauce of cooked tomatoes and onions, and was seasoned with nothing more than lime juice and salt, while the beef and pork were chile-rubbed and perfectly grilled. The crispy fried fish was served over a puree of spicy black beans on a bed of lettuce and was topped with raw onion, tomato, and slices of avocado. For dessert, the waitress recommended the caballero pobre, a Yucutan version of a moist bread pudding topped with sugar, cinnamon stick and raisins that we devoured about as fast as she could set it on the table.
For a pair of travelers hungry for both a saner Cozumel and a more flavorful dinner than the cheeseburgers offered on the main strip, this was the exact place to be. All we had to do was step back.
Go there: La Cabana del Piolin, if it still exists, is located on Avendia 15 between Calle 3 Sur and Calle 5 Sur. Tacos, beer, and dessert for two will set you back about 150 Pesos.