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Have the prices of the cabanas and the beach restaurants left your wallet feeling a little light? Take heart, because the general rule in Mexico is, "the less you spend, the better you eat". Fortunately, this saying applies in Tulum.
If you jump in your rental car or hail a cab (armed with your town map) and head into the town of Tulum, also known as the "Pueblo", located a couple of kilometers inland from the beach, there are plenty of simple, economical eating establishments, from sidewalk food stands to family-run storefront restaurants serving authentic Mexican food. In the evening, it is fun to experience the atmosphere of a small but bustling Mexican town as you stroll down Avenida Tulum, or perhaps through the side streets in the company of families, tourists, workers and craft sellers as you listen to music spilling from various bars, restaurants and residences. So why don't you head to the pueblo for some cheap, authentic and tasty eats?
Here is a list of the places visited. It is focused on traditional Mexican cuisine and street food, because that is usually where you will find the good deals. There are many more places to try, so please add to this list as you make you own discoveries so that Tulum tourists on a budget, or those simply interested in authentic local food may benefit.
ANTOJITOS DONA TERE West side of Av. Tulum at Acuario, between Weary Traveler and Pizza Hogar. Evening only. "Antojitos" means snacks, but these huaraches, sopes, and other items sure are hearty and easily make a meal. Seat yourself at one of the plastic tables on the sidewalk. You may have to wait a little as the place is popular. Ladies hand form the shallow bowl or boat shapes from the tortilla masa and brown them on a griddle until crisped. They are then topped with some refried beans and cheese. You may choose to add one or more toppings from a list, as well. Chorizo or chicken and nopales (cactus) were tasty examples. The mushroom topping was a little bland.
POLLO BRONCO East side of Av. Tulum by Beta. From about 11am to about 8pm. Many in Tulum consider this the quintessential cheap and tasty meal. Succulently marinated chicken grilled over charcoal. A whole cut up chicken is served with rice, shredded cabbage, salsa and a stack of warm tortillas to make tacos for 90 pesos. "To go" is slightly cheaper and makes a great picnic. Other sides such as papas con queso and spaghetti are available.
HOLA PRIMO On Acuario 2 blocks east of Av. Tulum. Evenings only. When you see the huge ceiba tree on the corner that seems to be somewhat of a hangout, you will know that you have found this nondescript, humble little neighborhood restaurant. Some of the tastiest items on the menu are regional offerings. One such is the panucho, which is a tortilla stuffed with beans, fried until crisp and topped with a meat such as shredded chicken, then some pickled onion and a thin avocado slice. Salbutes are similar but are soft (not fried) with beans spread on top. There are handmade fried corn empanadas. Choose fillings of pollo, carne picada (ground meat, a favorite), shark or cheese. If you feel like something homey, try their shredded chicken soup served with tostadas for dunking.
EL CARBONCITO East side of Av. Tulum at Acuario. Evenings only, closed Monday. Sidewalk type place with a bright red tile wall to help you spot it. Stupendous tacos al pastor. These consist of pork marinated in chiles, salt and garlic which is grilled on a spit gyros-style. It is then sliced off in thin strips onto tortillas to make tacos. At El Carboncito, they use charcoal instead of the typical gas cooking, and top each taco with a sliver of fresh juicy pineapple. On each table are excellent fire roasted red salsa and a creamy avocado/tomatillo salsa which are the perfect compliment to the pork. They had other menu items, but the tacos al pastor were just too good to try anything else.
LA CHIAPANECA West side of Av. Tulum at Acuario, next door to Weary Traveler, closed Sunday. The cheap eats and proximity to Weary Traveler seem to make this a popular backpacker spot. They have a fairly broad menu with many types of tacos, panuchos, salbutes, etc. They feature tacos al pastor as well, but theirs are gas grilled and renown for their expertise in carving and marinating.
DON HUACHO Used to be on west side of Av. Tulum at Beta, but heard they moved west, off of the Avenue onto a side street. Ask someone in the vicinity to direct you. Evenings only. A local favorite for seafood. They do a Yucatecan dish of whole fish pilpil style, which is lightly fried and doused in a tangy liquid sauce with lime and habanero. Some of Tulum's best ceviche. Probably the most expensive and most restauranty place in this compilation, but still reasonable, especially for seafood.
TAQUERIA DIAZ West side of Av. Tulum near Orion. Evening only. Tacos de arrachera (skirt steak) are a speciality. They also have other types of beef tacos, some exotic such as cabeza (head) if you're feeling adventurous, as well as other items such as queso fundido and guacamole. Try the agua de jamaica which is a cold punch brewed from dried hibiscus flowers tasting similar to cranberry juice. This and other cold beverages made from fruit, purified water and ice(called aguas frescas) are offered in many Tulum establishments and all over Mexico. Other popular flavors are tamarindo, guayaba (guava), and horchata (actually rice, not fruit). They are homemade, very refreshing, cheaper and healthier than soda pop.
URGE TACOS (Pronounced UR-hay) On 307 just north of the intersection of 307 and the road to Coba, just north of Super SanFrancisco and the Pemex station. Open mainly for lunch, until about 4 or 5pm. Shaded open air restaurant. Specializing in tacos of fresh fried fish or shrimp with a salsa/topping bar of everything you could want to enhance your taco. These are a little more expensive than your typical tacos, but well worth it. After having no restraint with the fish tacos, trying other items on the menu such as seafood cocktail and ceviche was impossible.
FLOR DE MICHOACAN East side of Av. Tulum near Alpha Sur. Open most of the day, and into evening. Great place for a break from the heat. You will spot this charming little place by the colorful fruits carefully arranged in a piled row which announce that it is a place to get freshly squeezed juices. Orange/carrot/beet is just one of the unique combinations. There are several such places in Tulum, but this one has a lovely courtyard in back with fountain, foliage, and wrought iron tables and chairs. Ice cream is also sold. If you are hungry, next door (and perhaps affiliated with them) is a carnitas stand. Carnitas are flavorful fried (not battered) pork which is cut into pieces and often eaten in a taco. The state of Michoacan happens to be known for its fruits, sweets, and carnitas.
POLLO BRUJO West side of Av. Tulum near Satellite, just after road to Coba. Open until 10 pm. Delivery & takeout. A Yucatan chain, but outstanding char-grilled chicken which includes salad or rice'n'beans as a side, tall stack of tortillas, very fresh heirloom tomato salsa. For those needing something more simple this is a good choice. Roughly $100 pesos for whole chicken w. fixin's (more than enough for 2 with large appetites), or around $8 USD.
In most of these type places, little or no English is spoken, so now's the chance to use you high school Spanish. If you have no Spanish, not to worry. You can print and take along the article in this section on restaurant Spanish. Then there is always pointing.