Chef John Malik

a writer trapped in a cook's body

Mexico for Two


Ealry morning capture of Hotel Unico 20 87 looking towards the beach

After four days of wonderful authentic cuisine and beverage in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, the most telling plate of food of our entire visit came after spending three hours in Cancun’s airport. We were hungry, we still had another hour and a half of waiting followed by a three-hour flight back to the states. So we ate at Guy Fieri’s Kitchen. Yeah, I know, but my wife thought we should get a good look at this particular train wreck.

As far as airport food goes, you’d be hard pressed to do worse

While the service was pleasant enough, the offerings were an obnoxious hodge-podge of every grilled meat and fried thing ever served on a TGI Friday’s or Chili’s menu.  And while I was dejectedly contemplating his “quad fries” (four different cuts of out-of-the-box fries) I realized they were the perfect analogy for the average American’s visit to this part of Mexico: fast American food at its least creative masquerading as something foreign, clever, and possibly dangerous. Welcome to Mexico, Yanqui.


I have a mid-January birthday and for the past 20 or so years I usually celebrate it with a long bike ride, or a hike. Something strenuous. Because when I think my heart’s about to burst out of my chest is when I feel the most alive. And this year my bride, fed up with hiking in 24 F weather, finally said “Enough!” And that’s how I came to dominate a 7:00 am spinning class, on my birthday, in a hotel on the Yucatan Peninsula. In between that, we feasted on amazing food, wine, cocktails, and snacks. We enjoyed a diversity of flavors, textures, and colors that were an absolute delight to our palette, and all while far too many of the American tourists around us stood in line for pancakes and scrambled eggs with “nothing foreign in them.” Long sigh…

To understand Mexico, you first need to understand hospitality, of which there’s many levels. At the bottom is Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport, especially when it snows, which it did when we arrived back in the states. Near the top is the excellent service one receives in exchange for an $8.00 meal at your average Chick Fil A, or the hospitality provided by a fine white tablecloth restaurant such as Stella’s Bistro in Simpsonville, SC, and at the top, there’s Mexican hospitality that goes a step above anything I’ve experienced in the US. Think I’m kidding? At the Cancun airport, just past the baggage pick up area, there’s concierge desks, a lot of them. Naturally everyone arriving in Cancun walks through this area. And it’s staffed with hosts (in suits and ties) greeting you then asking:

“Where are you going?”

“Akumal, Hotel Unico.”

“Ah, then you need Leopoldo. That’s his area of expertise. Please, right this way.”

Leopoldo, our concierge at the Cancun airport

We were escorted to the small desk of a smiling gentleman whose sole purpose was to answer any questions we may have.

“Will we need pesos?”


“Need? Perhaps. Most of the cab drivers require cash, and they’ll take pesos or American dollars. If you go to a market in the city, some may prefer pesos but most everywhere will accept your Visa, or American Express. If you want pesos, don’t exchange them here. Wait until you get to a local bank or perhaps your hotel. But those ATM style machines might charge you a big fee.”

When Leopoldo answered our questions, he summoned a host who helped us find our car. And all of this occurred courtesy airport staff. And for those of you that work at, or own say a coffee shop, burrito bar, taco joint, or handle luggage at the curb of Charlotte’s International airport, all of this happened without a “tip” cup or a “gas money for the crew” cup. We tipped because we received excellent hospitality, not because we spent thirty seconds in front of someone ordering a $4.00 drink. They’re going the extra mile because they want you to have a positive experience in their home.

About an hour and a half later we were welcomed to Hotel Unico 20° 87°, so named for its latitude and longitude.

Main lobby of Hotel Unico 20° 87°

I love it when people get together to think, ponder, and ask questions and then create solutions. Spend an hour inside a Lowe’s Grocery Store and you’ll see my point. They obviously started with the question: “What’s wrong about every traditional grocery store experience?” Then they went about changing that based on the answers. At Hotel Unico, the same approach is evident, starting with our welcome reception.

Front desk of Hotel Unico 20 87

Think about your last big trip. You were up late the night before, woke up early to get to Charlotte International where you were treated poorly, crammed into an airplane for a three or four hour flight, then into a taxi or a bus and then after all this you have to stand at a desk like your at the pharmacy. And it’s like this at even the most exceptional hotel.

Not at Unico. When we walked in we were escorted to soft seating, offered a bottle of water and/or a cocktail from the bar, then consulted on our reservations and plans for our five days. We were introduced to our personal host, Dorian, who coincidentally had a background in culinary arts, and he would be our primary contact for any request we would need during our stay. A taxi, a sightseeing trip, a dinner reservation, Dorian was our guy. Shortly we were presented with four candles, each a slightly different aroma, and were asked which one we would prefer our room to be treated with.

Now which one of these aromas would you prefer in your room?

All while we had a cocktail in hand and a soft couch under our fanny. Now that’s hospitality.  In the time it took us to check in and walk to the room, someone had rushed over and spritzed our room with that aroma. Neat touch, however, being so close to the beach gave us access to all the wonderful salt water air one could wish for.

Restrained luxury at Hotel Unico

An hour later we stood at one of the outdoor bars and ordered a couple of beers when a (very) drunk American staggered up with two 32 ounce tumblers and told “Jose” to “fill ‘em up with Crown Royal and a spritz of Diet 7Up.” At that point it was about 2:00 pm and as he sauntered back to his cast of friends it looked like we were the only ones not hammered out of our gourds. Really?

Our balcony came omplete with an exquisite jacuzzi. Every night the turn down service included different touches such as rose petals or chilled wine.

Well friends, that’s the dilemma of a large hotel in an international resort community. It’s always possible that a big group of folks could show up and suddenly you’re looking for the quiet pool or solitary stretch of beach. Luckily for us Hotel Unico is quite large with plenty of places to hide. However, why would you come to a gorgeous part of the world with a fascinating culture and plenty of diversions just to get slobbering drunk by the pool? Heck you can do that at home next to your own (kiddie) pool.

guest area of Hotel Unico

At 6:00 am one can get beautiful still shots of Unico’s normally animated pools.

Hostess at Hotel Unico’s dining room

We’ve been fortunate enough to travel and stay in some rather amazing places and I’m a fan of a great hotel. I spent a year and a half as the Executive Sous Chef of an excellent hotel in Charleston, SC and the satisfaction of working with a great team and making someone’s vacation memorable is an amazing feeling. And a great hotel can really set the tone for someone’s visit to a new city or country. It’s all about guest interaction and prodcuing those winning moments every time a guest interacts with one of your staff. If their smiles aren’t authentic, most of your guests will see right through that. Hotel Unico is one of those places that transcends the label of “hotel.” It’s professional, polished, luxurious, and yet comfortable. We’ve stayed in hotels that feel like museums and you’re afraid to smudge the brass or touch the handrails.  Hotel Unico offers the kind of comfort that comes when visiting an old friend or a lovely restaurant. And since this is an all-inclusive resort, don’t blink when you see the price tag because duing our stay we dined on exquisite food, snorkeled through clear Caribbean water jammed with aquatic life, shot a game of pool, listened to some amazing live music, had access to a serious gym, enjoyed cocktails pool side, a cooking class, etc. It’s worth it.

Mexican tableware on display at Hotel Unico

Hand carved spoons and a Molinillo (made for whipping up hot chocolate drinks) in the foregrouond. Hotel Unico

Prior to dinner we were invited to a cooking class hosted by Chef Ariel. Ceviche, the technique of curing raw seafood with fresh citrus juice, was on the menu. Ariel created a salad with cucumber, tomato, shaved red onion and plenty of fresh herbs.

Ceviche courtesy Chef Ariel, at Hotel Unico

One technique on display was to grate oregano by rubbing it quickly through the hands

Our first night the hotel offered an outdoor market-style evening complete with wonderful live music and a dozen or so food carts. Skirt steak, grilled shrimp, spicy grilled chicken, warm tortillas, fresh salads, churros, and on and on.

Outdoor dinner featuring street food carts with churros and an odd crispy pancake stuffed with cheese and warm Nutella

Unless you stick with the house wine, you’ll have to pay for your wines, such as this Shiraz from Mexico’s Casa Madura

The breakfast buffet was a kaleidoscope of color, textures, and heat levels. Being from south Louisiana I didn’t shy away from the salsa and peppers,but did steer clear of the fresh Habaneros. Powered up, we headed out for a day long trip to the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

You know what your breakfast is missing? Fresh chopped Habaneros tossed in olive oil. Feel free to help yourself. I opted for the herb pesto in the middle, which turned out to be Habanero & herb pesto.

Fresh fruits such as guava, mango, papaya and grapefruit so sweet you’d swear it was dipped in honey.

Yellow Guava and sliced meats on the breakfast buffet


The fresh squeezed agua frescas were a welcome sight

On to the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Our guide Alan was part of Cancun Adventures group and they were incredibly professional, timely and organized. On this one day we had a complete guided tour of Tulum,snorkeled through a large lagoon teeming with underwater rock formations and sea life, then snorkeled through one of the many caves, also kown as cenotes (Sah No Tays).

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are as close as you’ll get to a traffic jam in this part of Mexico

For 500 years Tulum was a vibrant city, and then it wasn’t. It was a port of trade with a bustling city center that traded with cultures up and down the Caribbean.

Alan, our host for the day, was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic. The Tulum ruins are the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza.


The iguanas, however, were not very enthusiastic

Cherimoya fruit

One of the revelations of our trip was a half hour at the greatest coffee shop ever, Ah Cacao, in Playa de Carmen. All their drinks were made with chocolate. Our Cocoa Tradicional was a warm latte style drink of almond, dark chocolate, espresso, and milk

While goofing off we toured a few vintage markets and one had all thse refurbished refrigerators from the 60’s. The owner replaced had the compressors and gaskets and if we lived closer, I would’ve taken one of these home.

Ready to take a detour from your sea-side resort? 30 minutes south lies Tulum; it’s geographically large, and the best known neighborhood goes by the name of Hotel Zone. And that’s where you’ll want to go.

The Food

If your idea of Mexican cuisine is one of these ubiquitous cantinas that dot our suburban Amercan landscape, where the food is an amalgam of canned beans, pre-shredded cheese, and flour tortillas so thick they’ll make a decent frisbee, a visit to Hotel Unico and Tulum will be an eye-popping experience.  The food we enjoyed had a unique geographical stamp and featured plenty of local produce, seafood, and Mexican wines.

A month or so before our trip, we read about a restaurant in Tulum called Hartwood. The writer praised its ethos, cuisine, and balmy outdoor dining room and the fact that thy cook everything over hardwood and since they have little refrigeration, they buy most everything daily.  When we showed up, sadly they were booked solid. Yet a short walk down Tulum’s only street revealed a dozen restaurants with this same ethos and outdoor dining. What magical sort of chef’s playground is this town of Tulum?


You can drink and dine under a gorgeous Mexican sky at Mur Mur

Yes those are swings at the cocktail bar of Mur Mur

roasted potatoes with chorizo and fresh herbs; octopus ceviche, intriguing cocktails, and delicious Mexican Malbec.

Mur Mur had a kitchen that would give an American health inspector night sweats. There was little refrigeration but plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything was cooked on a hardwood grill or wood-burning oven. It was cooking so pure and lovely I wanted to sell everything, move to Tulum and open up something similar

While we were enjoying our cocktails, they were still receiving fresh produce.

Downtown Tulum has one narrow street, plenty of traffic, and lots of diversions

Cenzontle restaurant. Also open air with plenty of wood-grilled vegetables and local seafood. The wonderful, crazy part of Tulum was the building codes, or lack of. We didn’t care because it was all so romantic and open and wonderful

Small plates at Cenzolte. Hibiscus empanada; Roasted piquillo peppers with avocado mousse and crema fresca; Octopus cocktail with Ginger mayo, cucumber, avocado, jicama juice, serranitos, chile de arbol oil.

Restaurant Cueva Siete at Hotel Unico

The challenges of providing a great dining experience in a hotel can be gargantuan. However, the food we had at Unico, and especially the two meals we enjoyed at their flagship restaurant, Cueva Siete, was downright magnificent. Have you ever seen a Recado Sauce at your favorite stateside Tex-Mex cafe? Neither have I. It’s a puree made from fire roasted chiles and a blend of herbs that may include annatto, oregano, cumin, clove, cinnamon, black pepper, allspice, garlic, and salt. So as you can imagine, depending on the chiles or herbs, it could vary wildly, which is a great opportunity for a professional cook. At Cueva Siete we had our first Recado and it was eye opening. One would thing a sauce made from chiles roasted this dark would be bitter and heavy. On the contrary, the herbs and stock were the prominent flavors and the fire of the chiles was tamed, literally by fire.

Tuna Aquachile with a black recado sauce, chilled radish, housemade cracker, vegetable ash


Xtabentun Duck L’Orange. duck breast with Xtabentun (zha ben toon) liquer, sweet plantain puree, buried carrots and corn, carmelized lime zest.


Roasted Rack of Tizimin Lamb, salt cured yolk, local vegetables, puffed and fried tortilla


Cheesecake. With macarons, Xtabentun pearls, dark chocolate, local berries, fresh mint


Stewed pineapple, coconut sorbet, puffed cheese fritter, Xtabentun liquer foam, romero powder


In this part of Mexico, they don’t really cook with peppercorns. The pepper they cook with is ground up dried peppers. Smoked or not, dried, then ground. At a market we saw an incredible variety of dried peppers.


Lobby Bar at Hotel Unico. Check out the stock for this bar; Habanero peppers, smoked chiles, dried chiles, smoked salt, and plenty of citrus. Seriously, you really should go.


Should you go to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula? If you love adventure, the smell of salt water, exploring a diverse culture, exciting cuisine, snorkeling, sailing, learning about a fascinting ancient culture, and tremendous hospitality, then by all means go. You’ll fly into Cancun then need to have pre-arranged transportation to get you south. Once at Hotel Unico, they’ll be happy to help you finalize your plans.

Hotel Unico 20° 87°

Cenzolte Restaurant

Mur Mur Restaurant




Author: ChefJohn

Cook without tattoo, writer without a pen

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