Category Archives: Mexico

Culinary Cancun

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Fresh ceviche de camarones and margaritas at Isla Contoy at the Coral Beach Resort & Spa – light & delicious!

I have to admit that I was not expecting much of the food scene in Cancun. My only other trip to Mexico was last year when I’d won a stay in Cabo San Lucas at a resort that – while not an all-inclusive – was one of those “party party” hotels right on the playa.

On that trip, the mediocre food and ridiculously inflated prices caused us to search elsewhere when we were craving something a bit more traditional. With a little research, asking around and luck, we were rewarded with a great little spot service fresh ceviche and ice cold cerveza that we stumbled upon, a mere ten minute walk from the sprawling resorts on the beach.

So when I heard that the 2014 TBEX North America conference was being held in Cancun, I mentally braced myself for the same disappointment with the resort food. Kim and I elected to take advantage of the discounted rate to stay at the official conference hotel, the Moon Palace Resort & Spa, where we’d be close by the TBEX sessions. It would be my first time staying at an all-inclusive and I wasn’t sold on the idea that this was a good thing. Watery margaritas and tepid buffets came to mind instantly, but I was hopeful that we’d make the best of things.

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Yes, there were buffets but they were tasty, like this one which was both pool- and ocean-side.

How wrong I was!

Not only did we get a chance to enjoy many of the dining options offered by the resort, but we made use of the in room mini-bar and even tried out the 24 hour room service. Having the conference sessions right on the (huge) resort grounds meant that we even had the choice of occasionally skipping out on the TBEX-provided lunches in order to try more of the Moon Palace dining options.

>> Details here: Where to Stay in Cancun: Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort

Besides the options we had at Moon Palace, I was lucky enough to score a spot in the post-TBEX Culinary FAM trip, where I had the chance to dine at some of the best restaurants on the Riviera Maya. I was impressed by the blending of modern/contemporary techniques with traditional recipes and ingredients.

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Playing with our food (and cocktails!) at Benazuza

A great reason to travel to Cancun in 2015…

The Cancun Riviera Maya Food & Wine Festival takes place March 12-15, 2015.

I was truly impressed by the international lineup of chefs that will be in town for this festival, which was not even on my radar prior to my visit to Cancun. Highlights include:

  • Conferences and book signings by top Spanish Chefs Juan Mari Arzak of Arzak & Joan Roca of El Celler De Can Roca – whose restaurants are featured at #8 and #2, respectively, on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
  • Dinners like Divas del Cocina Mexicana – which will feature 10 of Mexico’s top female chefs in a five-course feast, paired with Mexican wines.
  • Other individual events including cooking classes, celebrity dinners, a gourmet tasting village, boat cruises and more.
  • Packages start at $400 for the weekend, when purchased in advance. They are available here.

Keep an eye on their social media channels for more info:
Facebook | Twitter (@CRMWineFoodFest) | Pinterest | YouTube

>> For up to the minute things to do, see and eat in Cancun:

>> For full photo galleries from my time in Cancun, please click here.

Where to Eat in Cancun: Benazuza

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugDeconstructed fajitas. A “pinata” filled with guacamole. Foie gras posing as roasted baby corn. A beautiful seascape where the “starfish” draped over the reef are meant to be eaten. An edible garden as dessert. An invisible margarita.

Such are the descriptions we were given during our extended tasting menu at Benazuza, and each time I felt myself breaking into a wide grin before considering the beautiful presentation in front of me. If the dishes sound off the wall, that’s because they’re designed to engage all of your senses and go beyond even that – to envoke a sense of playfulness, of whimsy and delight. It was truly a meal unlike any I’ve ever had.

Molecular Gastronmony

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugLike many foodies that I know, I was shattered when the fabled restaurant El Bulli in Spain closed its doors in 2011. Chef Ferran Adria is known as the founding father of molecular gastronomy (or as he preferred to call his style of cooking, “deconstructivism”) and it was with a heavy heart that I took El Bulli off of my culinary bucket list – a destination restaurant worth traveling for.

Fast forward to the day that I received my itinerary for the Culinary FAM trip that I’d signed up for and been accepted to (yippee!) for after the TBEX conference in Cancun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and as I scanned down to the names of the restaurants we’d be visiting, I began plugged them into Google and almost fell out of my chair!

Benazuza, the fine dining enclave in our host hotel, the Oasis Sens, was listed under the direction of Spanish Chef Rafael Zafra, who happened to be a disciple of the legendary Ferran Adria and had worked with him at El Bulli. My molecular gastronomy dreams had come true! It was likely the closest that I’d ever get to experiencing El Bulli in person, and Chef Zafra had an impressive resume all his own, including two Michelin stars. I couldn’t wait!

Breakfast at Benazuza

As we checked in to the hotel I realized that, although most of our itinerary was accounted for, we had one meal that hadn’t already been scheduled – breakfast on our second morning. We were slotted to dine at Benazuza that evening, but without hesitation I quickly booked myself for the breakfast tasting menu there that same day. As soon as I got back to the group to tell them of my plan for double Benazuza exposure, they quickly followed suit and signed up as well – these were obviously my kind of people!

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugSo, the morning after our luxurious dinner at Ramona four of us stumbled downstairs to Benazuza, which was empty save for two other tables. We busied ourselves with reading the faux newspaper articles (many of which connected Chef Zafra with El Bulli and touted his other two Michelin stars) and taking in the ambiance of the restaurant, bathed in the warm morning light reflecting off the ocean on the horizon.

When booking, we were advised to allow three hours (!!) for breakfast, and our tasting took just about that entire time. While it may seem a bit overkill going through multiple courses for your first meal of the day, with the relaxed pace of the meal and detailed instructions from the servers, I found myself happily appreciating each bite as they came.

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Simple, elegant presentations for breakfast at Benazuza

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugWe began with a cafe de olla and a trio of fresh juices served in glass shot glasses – fresh orange, watermelon with hibiscus, and grapefruit/guanabana with rosemary, which was my favorite.

Next, a basket of toasts with a variety of spreads – marmalade combos like mango with a spicy chipotle chile for heat, strawberry marmalade with a hint of tequila, cream cheese with jalapeno and butters savory (truffled) and sweet (vanilla) to round things out. Then came a few other sweet courses: perfect little brochettes of melon layered with honey the consistency of jello, yogurt with strawberries, and white chocolate foam with chocolate puffed rice cereal sprinkled atop.

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMugThe savories are always my favorite and I loved the playful way they used Mexican flavors, like a foam made of potatoes with warm seasoned beans below. My absolute favorite bite of the morning was the small dish of an earthy “cuitlacoche” (which is actually a fungus that grows on corn, sometimes known as Mexican truffle) sprinkled around a perfectly poached egg then draped with a  rich, creamy sabayon.

As the servers brought out the final course, a basket of house-made baked items and a luxurious cup of hot chocolate, I looked around and saw that everyone else looked the same way that I felt – ready for a nap! If this was our warm up for the evening, then we were definitely in for a treat.

Dinner at Benazuza

Dinner was, of course, an entirely different experience from the very moment that we took our seats around the bar. Take, for example, the presentation of the “invisible margarita”:

You can’t help but laugh, right? We all waited for the punch line – it turns out that the “cocktail” was in the straw that was later placed into each glass. Likewise, we each got a piece of sugarcane to chew with the liquor infused into it and later a shot molded into a sphere served in a clam shell with a slice of lime. It set the tone for the evening, capturing our attention, yet reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously.

As we moved to a private dining room in the back, I truly wanted to pinch myself in anticipation for the rest of the meal. Service was attentive and each dish was explained in detail as it wasn’t always apparent how a dish needed to be eaten – how exactly does one eat a “pinata”? (Answer: crack open the outer shell to reveal a mound of delicious guacamole inside, which can be scoooped out with the pieces of the shell!)

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Edible starfish (flavors of seaweed and spicy chipotle)

One of our first courses had a liquid nitrogen component, with the white smoke spreading out over the table – in the dark room it almost felt like we were spectators of a magic show. (I suppose, in a way, we were.)

Small bites and snacks came out one or two at a time, including edible starfish crackers, popcorn, and playful takes on mexican street food, like foie gras shaped to look like roasted baby corn (which totally threw me off, in a good way, texure-wise) and REAL baby corn served with a vanilla butter. We had a beautiful “deconstructed” fajita, where each veggie component was cooked and served on a wooden dish as a separate, colorful line, which we then tucked into warm, mini tortillas.

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foie gras masquerading as baby corn

The cuitlacoche dish from breakfast reappeared (yippee!) and then a few savory “entree” type dishes like a mole (done in a light and dark style) before we headed into the desserts.

The desserts were gorgeous, of course, and fun! One was presented to us as a big white sphere, one for every 3-4 of us at the table. We all looked around, puzzled, until mini baseball bats were then placed on the table. One of the girls took a whack! at the sphere and we all laughed as the inside was revealed. Another pinata!

The final dessert was made to look like a garden, with beautiful flowers, cherries, carrots and of course, dirt. None of it was what it seemed and we all enjoyed trying to guess what flavor would greet us before we popped the components into our mouths. At this point, Chef Zafra came out to chat with us for a few minutes and I felt sad that the experience was coming to a close. But I suppose after 26 courses (-ish? I lost track!) it was time to call it a night.

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Just a few of the many highlights from dinner at Benazuza

>> For more photos and video of our experience at Benazuza, click here.

Benazuza @ The Oasis Sens
Blvd. Kukulcán 19.5 Zona Hotelera,
Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Reservations: (998) 891 5000
Benazuza Facebook Page

Disclosure: My stay at the Oasis Sens and meals at Benazuza were sponsored by the Cancun CVB as part of our culinary-themed press trip. I was not otherwise compensated for this post and the opinions are, of course, my own.

Where to Stay in Cancun: Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort

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From the moment that my plane touched down in Cancun, I was bracing to be disappointed. I’m not sure why, as I’m generally quite enthusiastic about travel in general, and in new locations in particular. But something in me was just not all that excited about checking out another beach destination (perhaps I was missing Hawaii already?) and I was on guard for scams and touts as soon as I exited baggage claim, as I noted via social media that other TBEX attendees had had problems with the shuttle. When I was able to locate a shuttle (SuperShuttle, instead of the conference’s host company) I was able to get what seemed like a decent rate to the Moon Palace, so I settled in and tried to prepare myself mentally for my first time at an all-inclusive.

I’ve never had a desire to stay at an all-inclusive as I imagined them full of mediocre buffets and watered down liquor. Given the choice, I will always opt for an a la carte menus as opposed to a buffet, where things have been sitting out for god-knows-how-long. In general, I believe in quality over quantity and I felt like with an all-inclusive that perhaps you’d be sacrificing one for the other.

Despite my hesitation, Kim and I had bitten the bullet and splurged on a few nights at Moon Palace since it was the TBEX host hotel, and we wanted to be sure that we were as close as possible to the conference sessions. As soon as my van pulled up to the driveway, I was greeted by uniformed staff with a fresh flower and offered a welcome drink.

Ahhh, I could get used to this, I thought.
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72 hours in Cabo San Lucas

People always wonder why we’d ever leave for vacation, when we live in paradise. Yet locals love to travel, whether its the Big Apple, Japan, or just Hawaii’s unofficial 9th island, Las Vegas. But rarely do people from Hawaii head to Mexico since the climate and water activities are pretty similar. It wasn’t at the top of my list either, but I’d won a free hotel stay at a swanky hotel right on Medano Beach. So why not?

Turns out, Cabo was great! I’m so glad I won that trip, otherwise I might never have gotten there.

Here are a few of my favorite things about Cabo:

Time Share Presentations

Believe it or not, sitting through a timeshare presentation can have its perks. I’d never been asked to attend one before, but red flags were going off in my head as the charming salesperson offered us information on things to do, plus free ziplines, plus glass bottom boat, plus airport transfers… It seemed too good to be true. We figured there were three of us and there’s strength in numbers, right? Sure, we did have to take the strong armed shame tactics used by “the closer” but all in all we made out well! In exchange for three hours of our time we got all the freebies plus a tour of a beautiful resort, breakfast, and the best margaritas we had in Cabo. I’d say we won. If you get approached and have the time, do it and milk the freebies!


Oh. My. God. I’ve always loved ceviche but I fell all over again at a little restaurant called Gardenia’s. It was our second day and we’d just gotten out of our timeshare solicitation. We were feeling the sting from the sour note we’d left on, so we decided to console ourselves with a snack. Gardenia’s appeared like mirage and made it all better! Chunks of avocado topped a huge portion of shrimp, tako, and sweet baby scallops. After the first bite we all swooned. Seafood lovers must also try the fish and shrimp tacos. Heavenly!
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Mexico, Here I Come!

Ten hours to showtime.

I’m booked on the red eye tonight to LA, meeting up with friends there and continuing on to Cabo San Lucas. I’ve never been to Mexico, so I’m looking forward to adding a stamp to my passport and spending a few days soaking up the sun, lounging by the pool, margarita in hand. I’m hoping to even squeeze in a cooking class if there’s time…
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