The holiday season is one of the more subdued times of the year in Mexico City. Many people leave the city for vacation or to visit family and friends in other parts of the country. We, however, tend to stick around more often than not, traveling around the city and enjoying the relative peace. That’s how we happened upon Coox Hanal, a restaurant hidden inside a century-old building in the Centro Histórico that specializes in the cuisine of the Yucatán, the peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea like a hitchhiker’s thumb.
The adventure began when we trudged up a few flights of stairs to the second-floor landing, where we found the restaurant’s entrance. It, along with the stairwell, was plastered with posters and artwork from the sun-kissed and beach-filled Yucatán. A hostess greeted us at the entrance podium while another member of the staff wordlessly squirted antibacterial gel into our hands, the first indication of what turned out to be Coox Hahal’s borderline quirky adherence to very strict hygienic standards (the male waiters, we soon noticed, were all wearing hairnets).
The restaurant’s interior was anything but sterile, though. Coox Hanal (the first word of the name is pronounced “koosh”) was founded in 1953 by former boxer Raúl Salazar of Mérida, Yucatán state’s capital city, and it seems much hasn’t changed since. Walls painted purple, pale pink and aqua blue were adorned with more artwork and posters from the Yucatán, while a raised stage in the center was strung with lights. Onstage, a man in a black suit and dark sunglasses played classic American ’80s pop music on a long keyboard. Dark wooden tables and chairs and a long row of wooden-shuttered windows open to the fresh air gave the entire place the feel of being near a beach, and we half expected to hear the distant thunder of crashing surf. Despite the place being very busy, we were seated right next to the stage, in close proximity to the keyboardist as he rocked out Michael Jackson tunes.
The menu at Coox Hanal, meanwhile, serves up the greatest hits – and some more rare selections – from the Yucatán, a state heavily influenced by Mayan culture and tradition. The region’s best-known dish, cochinita pibil, takes a page directly from Mayan cooking methods: pork is marinated with an acidic sauce made from annatto seeds (achiote) and Seville oranges (this ingredient betrays the region’s Spanish colonial past), wrapped in banana leaves and, as the Mayans often did with meat, roasted in an underground pit.
We first tried a round of tacos de relleno negro, tacos made with shredded slow-cooked turkey and a salsa infused with ash derived from charred chili peppers. Though the ash in the salsa made the turkey look slightly gray-black, the taste more than made up for the appearance. The flavor was utterly unique, and packed a bold, earthy punch that more than anything else evoked the pleasant char on a barbecued burger. We also tried the empanadas de tiburón, or shark empanadas, golden-fried pockets of corn masa stuffed with tender shark meat that had been cooked in a mild tomato sauce.
As a palate cleanser, we had a bowl of the stellar sopa de lima, one of the Yucatán’s most iconic dishes. A chicken-based broth, the tangy soup is flavored with the juice of the lima, a hybrid variety of sweet lime that grows in abundance in the Yucatán. The bumpy-skinned fruit has a tartness somewhat similar to the key lime, but with an incomparable flowery aroma and taste. Though the lima flavor was powerful, its sour taste served to complement the milky broth perfectly. Crispy fried tortilla strips, added just before serving, gave the soup a winning added layer of flavor and texture.
But the house specialty was clearly the cochinita. Our kilo arrived paired with a side of warm, house-made tortillas, along with green and red habanero salsas, pickled red onions and slices of lime. Tender and juicy, the succulent meat was literally dripping with flavor as we scooped it up into the tortillas. The achiote-seed marinade was not as heavy as one sometimes finds with cochinita but seemed to have just the right amount of smoky goodness with a hint of citrus. Even with a handful of friends, we were unable to finish the entire portion, but we nonetheless couldn’t stop ourselves from ordering another kilo to take home for “snacking.”
There are several Yucatecan restaurants located around Mexico City, but funky Coox Hanal – which means “let’s eat” in the Mayan language – is one of the best. Great food plus a fun, inviting atmosphere that transports you to the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is clearly a winning formula. Of course, having an in-house lounge singer playing the music of the King of Pop doesn’t hurt, either.
Editor’s note: Lately we have been craving the cochinita at Coox Hanal, so we thought it was worthwhile to rerun this review, which was originally published on February 14, 2013.