Back in the early ’90s, Tulum was a sleepy pueblo on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, a day trip from a hotel in Playa del Carmen or Cancún to see the ruins and walk around downtown. But by the end of the 20th century, Tulum was well on its way to becoming a global destination, first for hippies seeking yoga and meditation retreats, then for celebrities, and then for developers. International investors, hoteliers, restaurant groups from Mexico City, and chefs from all over the world followed, eventually creating an expensive tropical playground by the sea.
These days, you can throw a stone from your hotel and hit a trendy outdoor restaurant set on decomposed granite with a wood-fired oven cooking local, foraged ingredients — exactly the sort of restaurant you’d expect from a place with Tulum’s reputation. But over the past couple of years, new chefs from all over Mexico (often recruited by Mexico City restaurant groups) have increased competition and brought other regional cuisines and specialties to town. And there are even a few affordable stalwarts of old Tulum that have survived the area’s economic evolution.
Still, dining in Tulum is mostly expensive, and if you’re going to drop over $300 on dinner and drinks for two, you’d better make sure your meal is worth it. The best restaurants deliver all the magic, romance, and aesthetic promised by the beachside destination. They serve dishes elevated by the local flora and fauna and cook with techniques inherited from the Maya; that often includes recaudos (colorful herbal marinades), especially grilled octopus in a recaudo negro, a dish made iconic by chef Jose Luis Hinostroza’s Arca.
Bill Esparza is an LA-based, James Beard Award-winning food writer, author of LA Mexicano, and a featured journalist on Netflix Street Food USA.