Local restaurants, such as Sabores, are found only a few blocks from the tourist areas.
Photo by Allison Busch 

100% Authentic: The Food of Paradise

May 26, 2009
By Allison Busch

"The only thing that will make you sick here is a hangover," our waiter last night informed us in response to our many questions. "Is this ice made from purified water? Is this lettuce ok to eat?"

Last week whenever someone found out I was headed to Mexico, the first thing I was told was to not drink the water and to avoid the ice. Oh, and don't eat fruits or vegetables. Or food from street vendors. Or meat that's been left out too long. Ok, so having a taco would leave me with... a tortilla. That was ok to eat, right?

Keeping all this in mind, I dutifully packed my suitcase with peanut butter and Pepto-Bismol. What on earth was I going to eat on this trip?

Our first meals on the island were fraught with questions about what was safe and what wasn't. Mostly, we were concerned about the water. Every time we got a drink we glanced at each other, wondering who would ask the waiter if the ice was safe. Eventually, we learned that even the locals drank purified water. Plus, this island has catered to tourists for years. If you make the tourists sick, chances are that you won't be open for very long.

Recently, I was taken to lunch at a place a few blocks away from the tourist area. It belonged to a woman whose neighbors had all pitched in some money to allow her to start a restaurant, Sabores. She cooked in her own kitchen and had designed her front room and backyard to hold a few rickety tables and chairs. As we sat sipping jamaica, a delicious drink made from the hibiscus flower, we watched as our enchiladas and chiles rellenos were prepared. As we expected, it was delicious. It doesn't matter where you are; there's nothing like a home cooked meal.

Strangers eating in your living room may sound strange, but it's rather common here in Cozumel. I've been surprised at the number of restaurants that are located in someone's home. Back in the states, there are so many zoning laws that this wouldn't be possible. Sometimes, the only way to pick out a restaurant from a row of houses is a small sign above the door.

Although I am still careful, I've gotten over most of my food fears. I look forward to trying to find an obscure, 100% authentic place to eat for lunch or dinner. My goal is to eat as little American food as possible. I can always do that back home! I do still eat my peanut butter, but I now use a tortilla instead of bread.

In the end, if anyone goes home without having some of the truly local food, they've missed an incredible part of the trip. It's not like any Mexican food you've ever had. I hate to say it, but Taco Bell and Chipotle back home don't count. Go ahead, order a true taco. Prepare to be surprised when you receive a coaster-sized tortilla with some meat and onions on top. And you haven't had guacamole until you've eaten it fresh and covered with lime, with homemade tortilla chips on the side.

Although we did give in to the Hard Rock Cafe when we just couldn't live another day without a burger, for the most part we have tried to eat as much authentic food as possible. And, I'm sure to the shock of many back home, none of us have been sick.