10 Dishes You’ve Gotta Try in Merida

by | Dec 27, 2022 | Food, Mexico, Travel

Planning a trip to Merida and the Yucatan?

Want to immerse yourself in the food of Mexico?

In this post, you’ll find a list of what to eat in Merida and the rest of Yucatan. These are ten traditional dishes that are unique to the region. You can find them not only in Merida but also in Valladolid and Campeche.

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First of all, I want to say that I’m really glad you made it here.

Because trying the food in Merida is one of the best things you can do in the city,

and the food in this amazing city is also amazing. It’s nothing like what you’ve probably eaten in Mexican restaurants back home.

Yes, you can find tacos and quesadillas in Merida, but there are another ten dishes that are special to the Yucatan. In fact, you’ll find dishes here that you won’t find anywhere else in Mexico.

So let’s find out the best food in Merida and the rest of the Yucatan as well as where to eat all these delicious dishes.

Check out my 2022-2023 Mexico Travel Guide for more tips, tricks, ideas, and inspiration for visiting the most beautiful country in North America. You’ll find over 10 travel articles to help you explore its history, culture, food, and natural beauty.

1. Cochinita Pibil

a dish of cochinita pibil, some pickled purple onions and black bean paste

You cannot leave Merida without trying the city’s most famous dish, cochinita pibil.

This pork dish is a blend of both Spanish and Maya traditions. The Spaniards brought the pork and the main spice, achiote—a red seed that gives the meat its red color and mild peppery flavor.

The Maya brought the cooking method—they would traditionally cook their meats in pits underground (“Pib” means “underground” in Mayan). You can see this underground cooking at the Museum of Gastronomia Yucateca restaurant where every day at 3:00 PM, the chef takes the pork out of an underground pit where it’s been cooking all day.

If cooked right, the meat is tender and juicy. If cooked wrong, it’s dry.

When you order cochinita pibil, it usually comes with tortillas and delicious pickled red onions that give the dish a nice tang. You then make your own tacos.

Other times, when you order tacos or tortas in the Yucatan, the meat in the taco is cochinita pibil.

Cochinita pibil is also the main ingredient in another famous Yucateca dish, panuchos. 

2.      Panuchos

a plate of 2 panuchos with chicken and 2 panuchos with cochinita pibil and all 4 topped with tomato slices and avocado slices
Panuchos with chicken and cochinita pibil

The first dish I ate that I truly loved in Merida was panuchos. That was at Chaya Maya restaurant. After that, I saw the dish everywhere—at street stalls, taquerias, and fancier restaurants.

When you order panuchos, you get three fried tortillas stuffed with black beans and then topped with a lettuce leaf, shredded chicken, turkey, or cochinita pibil and tangy purple onions. Sometimes they’ll be topped with tomatoes and avocadoes.

The story goes that panuchos were invented by an innkeeper named Don Hucho, who ran an inn in Merida along a road leading to Campeche. Travelers would show up late at night hungry. Don Hucho had his wife cook up whatever was on hand by frying these refried bean-stuffed tortillas and topping them with whatever was leftover. News spread about this delicious food, and Don Hucho’s Inn became very popular.

You can find really good panuchos at mercado at Parque de Santiago or La Chaya Maya.

PRO TIP: There are 2 La Chaya Maya restaurants in Merida—a block from each other. Go to the more traditional and beautiful-looking one called La Chaya Maya Casona on Calle 55 and not the one on the corner of Calle 62 and 57. It has a much nicer atmosphere.

3. Salbutes

a plate of 3 salbutes with cochinita pibil, tomoto slices, and avocado slices

Salbutes are very similar to panuchos. They also start with a corn tortilla that’s fried. It’s then topped with shredded chicken, pork, turkey, or cochinita pibil as well as pickled purple onion, tomato, and avocado. The difference is that the tortillas in panuchos are fried with bean paste, but in salbutes, there are no beans.

You can find them in a lot of restaurants around the Yucatan. They can be eaten as an appetizer or as your main dish.

Personally, I find salbutes to be too dry compared to panuchos. So, if I had to choose, I’d definitely go with panuchos. Sorry, salbutes.

4. Sopa de Lima

a bowl of sopa de lima
Sopa de lima

While panuchos were the first dish that I fell in love with during my stay in Merida, my absolute favorite dish in the Yucatan is a bowl of Sopa de Lima (lime soup). I love everything about it: the umami flavor from the chicken and tortillas, the acid from the sour lime (limetta), and the bitter citrusy taste of the cilantro. It’s the dish from Merida that I dream about the most.

In total, the soup has chicken, onions, cilantro, tomatoes, and lime. I’ve always had it garnished with tortilla strips and cilantro and sometimes avocado.

I’ve ordered it in a few places. An outdoor food court next to Parque de Santa Ana has a restaurant called El Castillo that serves my favorite sopa de lima.

5. Queso Relleno

a plate of queso relleno
Queso relleno at Museo de Gastronomía Yucateca
a plate of queso relleno with the ground meat falling out
Queso relleno at Museo de Gastronomía Yucateca

One of the most unique dishes from the Yucatan is queso relleno. The first time I had this dish, it didn’t strike me as very Mexican. Literally, it’s a big ball of Dutch Edam cheese filled with ground beef or pork, capers, raisins, and onions. It’s set in a bechamel-type sauce called kol, which is made of corn dough. The stuffed cheese ball is then topped with a red sauce made from tomatoes and chilis. My dish came with a few raisins but no capers.

How did Dutch cheese become incorporated into Yucatecan cuisine?

The likely origin story is that Yucatecans brought the cheese back from the free import zone of Belize in the mid-1800s. It started to then be sold in Chetumal in Quintana Roo. Edam cheese also was found to keep very well unrefrigerated in the hot and humid climate of the Yucatan.

6. Relleno Negro

a dish of relleno negro
Relleno negro at Prospe de Xtup
a hand holding a tortillas with slices of meat in a black sauce
Relleno negro at Prospe de Xtup

I find relleno negro the most intriguing of all Yucatan dishes. It’s a cross between a soup and a stew with a fabulously black broth made from burnt chili peppers. The taste is so complex.

The traditional ingredient is turkey, but you’ll also find it made with pork and chicken. You’ll also see a boiled egg, onion, and tomato in the soup.

Like many dishes in Mexico, you can eat it with tortillas.

The dish originated with the Maya, who used the sauce over game.

I love this dish. I had it at two places: La Prospe del Xtup and Manjar Blanco.

7.  Papadzule

a dish of papadzule
Papadzule at La Chaya Maya Restaurant

Papadzule is another intriguing dish that you’ll only find in the Yucatan. It’s usually a set of 4 enchiladas (rolled corn tortillas) stuffed with boiled eggs and smothered in a sauce made from pumpkin seeds. Finally, it’s topped with a tomato-chili sauce.

The origins of this dish are a bit murky. Some say it’s a Maya dish, while others argue that the prehispanic Maya’s thick tortillas would have been unsuitable for the dish.

I had this papadzule at La Chaya Maya and to be honest, I wasn’t a fan of it. If someone knows of a better place to try the dish in Merida, let me know in the comments. 

8. Poc Chuc

a dish of poc chuc  and s small salad of lettuce and radishes
A plate of poc chuc at La Tia Restaurant in Valladolid

Poc chuc is one dish from the Yucatan that tastes better than it sounds and looks. If cooked right, and high-quality pork is used, poc chuc is absolutely delicious.

Basically, it’s pork marinated in sour oranges and thyme and then grilled. The oranges give it this zing that I absolutely love.

Poc chuc is a Mayan word and poc means toast or roast and chuc means charcoal. However, it is not a Maya dish. In fact, it originated at the Los Almendros restaurant in Merida in 1962.

When you eat poc chu at a restaurant, it often comes with pickled onions, some tomatoey sauce, avocadoes, lettuce, and of course, tortillas. You just use the meat to make your own tacos.

I had this dish in Valladolid at La Tia Restaurant—a very local restaurant where not many tourists go.

9. Motulenos

a dish of motulenos
A plate of Motulenos

When I heard that there were peas and ham in Motulenos, I wasn’t that keen on trying it. The pea-thing just sounded out of place in an egg dish. Even seeing other people eat this unattractive dish turned me off.

But as my father always used to say, “try everything at least once in life.” So, I did and during the rest of my stay in the Yucatan, I often ordered motulenos for breakfast.

According to the internet, Motulenos originated in the town of Motul in the Yucatan. Honestly, I’ve never heard of this place before even though I traveled all over the region. If it exists (and I’m not saying it doesn’t but you know how the internet is), it must be a really small town.

So, what’s in Motulenos besides peas and ham?

It’s made of corn tortillas topped with black beans and fried eggs, which is further covered in a tomato-chilli sauce, and finally sprinkled with cheese, ham, and peas. Somewhere in the dish are plantains that eventually also get covered by the tomato sauce.

You can find this on most breakfast menus in the Yucatan. I had motulenos at El Trapiche, a popular and inexpensive restaurant near the Zocalo. I also had it El Lobo restaurant in Celestun, which makes for a nice day trip from Merida.

10. Marquesitas

a hand holding a marquesita

Wherever you go in the Yucatan, you’re going to come across marquesitas being sold in zocalos, in parks, on beaches, and on the street. They are a very popular street food in this part of Mexico. I have traveled all over the country, and I’ve only seen marquesitas in the Yucatan and Campeche.

Marquesitas are like crispy rolled-up crepes made on something that resembles a waffle maker. They are stuffed with caramel, chocolate, Nutella, jam, or Edam cheese. You choose.

Where do marquesitas come from?

According to many food blogs on the internet, they originated in Merida in the 1930s. An owner of an ice cream store came up with the idea of making and selling them to attract customers during the winter months.

I tried marquesitas at the Zocalo in Merida, the beach in Celestun and the Malecon in Campeche.

Special Merida Ingredient: Chaya

a bowl of chaya soup
Sopa de chaya at La Chaya Maya

There’s one interesting ingredient I found in Merida that I didn’t see anywhere else in Mexico: Chaya.

Chaya is a leafy green vegetable often used in Yucateca cooking as an herb. Its English name is tree spinach. It’s incredibly nutritional. In fact, it has more iron than spinach and is full of potassium and calcium.

You don’t really want to eat it alone as it has a very bitter taste (supposedly). It’s more common to see it in drinks (agua fresca chaya), soup, and empanadas.

Markets in Merida

I highly recommend stopping by the public market in Merida called a mercado and being a little daring and buying fruit that you’ve probably never laid eyes on before.

mamey sapote
mamey sapote
a hand holding a slice of mamey sapote
mamey sapote

The one fruit that I saw EVERYWHERE in the Yucatan was mamey sapote or just sapote. It’s a got a creamy texture and tastes like an apricot with a hint of honey.

You can even get mamey sapote ice cream.

The mercados also are great places to eat. In Merida, Mercado Lucas de Galvez. You can read my guide to Merida on the best way to tour the Mercado.

Tacos in Merida

a plate of 3 tacos, each one covered in meat and black means
Tacos at Wayan’e

Tacos are just as popular in Merida as they are in the rest of Mexico, but there are some differences.

The biggest difference is in the meat used. In Merida, you’ll find that cochinita pibil, lechon (roasted pork), castakan (pork belly), and longaniza (sausage) are popular meats in tacos.

At a popular taco and torta restaurant called Wayan’e, you can get over 20 different kinds of tacos and tortas. The difference is the filling—sausage, cactus (nopal), potatoes and chorizo, poc chuc, and egg, and pork belly. Plus, they often put beans on the taco. I have NEVER seen tacos like that in other parts of Mexico.

My favorite place to get tacos is at Taqueria La Luptia at Mercado de Santiago.

The food in Campeche is similar to that of the Yucatan. If you happen to be in the city, there’s a secret little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that serves the best tacos in the world (in my opinion at least) called Taqueria Arcoiris.

Seafood and Fish around the Yucatan

a plate of ceviche
Ceviche at La Morarrita in Rio Lagartos

I didn’t see much seafood or fish in Merida. But I did have some in Progresso, Celestun, and Rio Lagartos.

If you make it to any of those places in the Yucatan, definitely try ceviche. You’ll often come across restaurants on the beach serving it.

In Rio Lagartos, head to La Mojarrita Restaurante. I had one of the best ceviche dishes in my life. The owner is one of the few official tour guides for the biosphere. (4.7/5 with 275+ Reviews).

Whole grilled fish is also popular in Rio Lagartos.

Progresso: Another seafood dish to try is pulpo (octopus). On a day trip from Merida to Progresso, I had an amazing barbecued pulpo dish at Eladio’s Bar and Restaurant.

What to Drink in Merida and the Yucatan

a glass of agua fresca chaya
Agua Fresca Chaya at La Chaya Maya
a tall glass of chelada
A chelada at Manjar Blanco

Most of the drinks I had in Merida weren’t much different than the rest of Mexico.

  1. Jamaica – You’ll find this drink all over Mexico and Central America. It’s made of hibiscus. Sometimes it’s overly sweet but other times it’s made just right.
  2. Agua Fresca Chaya – Made with chaya (tree spinach) – it’s a nice refreshing drink and if I wasn’t ordering Jamaica, I was ordering agua fresca chaya
  3. Chelada & michelada – I saw cheladas on the menu more often than micheladas. Cheladas is beer with lime juice and salt on the rim of the glass. Michelada is beer with lime, tomato juice, and Worcestershire sauce. I love, love, love Cheladas but not Micheladas.
  4. Horchata – This is another typical Mexican drink that contains water, rice, cinnamon, sugar, and vanilla
  5. Coca Cola – Many people swear that Mexican Coke is ten times better than American Coke because it’s got real sugar in it and not high fructose corn syrup. And it comes in glass bottles, and we all know that liquid in glass bottles tastes better than one in a can. Does it taste better? I think Coke in Mexico tastes amazing and I craved it all the time. But I rarely drank Coke in the U.S.

How much to spend at restaurants in Merida

The cost of food in 2022 really went up. In 2023 will it go down? I’m not good at predicting things. I’ll give you the current prices from my trip to Merida but expect for them to be higher.

A nice sit-down restaurant, expect to pay at least MXN$120 – MXN$250 for a dish.

At a comedor (an inexpensive restaurant that serves set meals) expect to pay MXN$90 – $120.

Tacos can go for around MXN$10 – $25 for one taco. You’ll need three tacos, though, to fill you up. A small torta can be at least MXN$16 – $30.

Final Thoughts

One of the best things about traveling in Mexico is the food. Yucatan is especially so. It has got so many unique dishes that you won’t find in any Mexican restaurant in your country or even anywhere else in Mexico.

If you only have time for three or four dishes, here are my favorites in order from #1 to #4 best dishes in Merida:

  • Sopa de lima
  • panucho
  • cochinita pibil
  • rellenos negro

Let me know what you think. If you happen to follow this food guide for Merida and the Yucatan, I’d love to hear how it went.

Where to Go Next in Mexico

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The Bamboo Traveler

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.

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