Tuesday, September 22, 2020

How to dine around the world like a food writer

Feb 09. 2020
The Airstream-turned-kitchen and outdoor firepit at Safari Tulum in Tulum, Mexico. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Nevin Martell
The Airstream-turned-kitchen and outdoor firepit at Safari Tulum in Tulum, Mexico. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Nevin Martell
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By Special to The Washington Post · Nevin Martell · FEATURES, TRAVEL

"I had to stop looking at your Instagram posts, because they were making me hungry and jealous," a friend half-told, half-accused me after I returned from a trip to Tulum, Mexico, last year. 

"Sorry, not sorry," I replied good-naturedly. After all, I was just doing my job as a food and travel writer-photographer. 

"So how do you figure out where you're going to eat?" she asked.

Grilled green beans at Arca in Tulum, Mexico.MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Nevin Martell

It's a question I get asked a lot. People seem to think I have to access secret information otherwise unavailable to the public. Don't get me wrong, I have an edge thanks to more than two decades of experience and my industry connections, but I ferret out many of my favorite meals on the road through thorough research that people could do themselves. Frankly, I'm glad most travelers don't bother, because I make a living from it. But by following a few simple tips, anyone can dine around the world like a food writer. 

Garlic roasting over the outdoor fire-pit at Safari Tulum in Tulum, Mexico. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Nevin Martell

These days, I start my exploratory process on social media, usually months before a trip. On Facebook and Twitter, I'll ask my friends and followers to chime in with suggestions on where to eat - no boundaries. In the case of Tulum, I was on the lookout for places ranging from humble roadside taco stands and open-air markets to high-end restaurants and hotels with great restaurants. Though my acquaintances in the hospitality world often have excellent recommendations, some of the best tips come from everyday travelers (or the friends they tag), eager to share their favorite discoveries. Next, I switch over to Instagram to see who is posting the most enticing food pics from the destination. I'll virtually stalk regional influencers and food-focused influencers who have visited recently, then do deep dives into their posts and likes from the area.

Slicing off pork for al pastor tacos at La Chiapaneca in Tulum, Mexico. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Nevin Martell

It's helpful to review the food and travel publications you trust. I always check out to see what Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, Eater and The Washington Post have written about a destination. Review sites such as Tripadvisor and Yelp can be helpful for places not thoroughly covered by journalists, though I am leery of the advice of strangers whose motives and expertise I can't ascertain. Another caveat: I seek out these sites' advice only for restaurants in the low- to middle-price range, because I find the reviews of fine dining establishments are often uninformed and unhelpful on a variety of levels. Eating regularly at high-end restaurants requires a certain budget and lifestyle, so for many people, visiting them is a rare occasion. This often means they will either have unrealistic expectations or fail to notice the many small but immensely significant components that go into creating a next-level dining experience, such as service elements, the minutiae of the beverage program or rarefied culinary techniques. 

You can't just rely on the Web to guide your decisions. I personally ask anyone I know who might have been to the region - passionate travelers, die-hard foodies, hospitality professionals, and people with familial or cultural roots there. If you know the Italian chef at your favorite trattoria, by all means ask her where to eat before you go to Umbria. And don't forget to reach out to the local visitor's bureau, as it can offer a wealth of information, including news about restaurants that are on the verge of opening. 

It's helpful to read up on the culinary traditions and history of the region to ascertain what you should expect and what specialties to seek out, so pick up a few relevant guidebooks, cookbooks, travelogues or memoirs before you go. They will help give you a richer sense of a place and may push you to explore unexpected activities. Before departing for Tulum, I flipped through Moon's Tulum guidebook and "Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition" by David Sterling. The latter inspired me to seek out a cooking class at Riviera Maya Kitchen, where I made tortillas from scratch while learning about the foundational role corn plays in Mexican cuisine. 

As I'm doing my online and offline survey, I compile a digital list of all the potential spots to visit, making sure to tally multiple mentions of a place. Ultimately, I save those that pique my interest most on Google Maps, so I can get an overview of options. The map also makes it easier to decide where to eat if I suddenly have a break in my schedule or if an establishment is unexpectedly closed. 

Before leaving home, I'll trace out a tentative itinerary and make any reservations necessary, especially at any hard-to-access restaurants. If you have personal connections to any of the places you're dining, let your contact know when you plan on stopping by. It can be helpful to have a friendly face guiding you through the experience - and maybe offer you VIP perks, like a kitchen tour or an introduction to the chef.

Don't think your work has ended once your travel begins. Keep your eyes open, quiz everyone you meet - cabdrivers, concierges, bartenders, chefs and fellow travelers can be particularly helpful - and adjust your itinerary accordingly. I often find a natural flow develops. Tulum was no different. Because it was the most recommended place on my list, I made a point of dining twice at Arca, an exceptionally executed, modernist minded venture from Mexican American chef Jose Luis Hinostroza, an alum of Noma and Alinea. I had a chance to chat with him, so I asked him about his favorite taquerias. He turned me on to the cochinita pibil stuffed ones at Honorio Taqueria and the al pastor tacos at La Chiapaneca, which were some of my favorite bites of the trip. While I was walking to the latter, I discovered Ki'bok Coffee, which serves excellent espresso and notable handmade pastries, including a jammy blackberry bar.

Other highlights included Safari, which I first saw on Instagram, a charmingly offbeat taqueria crafting unconventional options (the highlight was one packed with roasted octopus) out of an Airstream-turned-kitchen with an open fire out front. A rep from the visitor's bureau mentioned NÜ, which specializes in picture-ready contemporary Mexican fare. And there were several outstanding breakfasts at Casa Malca, suggested by several friends on Facebook, a chic beachfront hotel populated by contemporary artworks sourced by its gallerist owner and designed to look good from every angle, so it was impossible to go more than a few minutes without seeing someone take a selfie in front of something. 

All in all, my two weeks in Tulum were packed solid with memorable meals, many of which I documented in envy-inducing pictures I posted on Instagram. It was a trip worthy of a food writer - or anyone willing to do the research. 


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