Back in the early ’90s, Tulum was a sleepy pueblo on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, a day trip from a hotel in Playa del Carmen or Cancún to see the ruins and walk around downtown. Tulum was on the verge of becoming a major tourist destination by the middle of the 20th Century. It became a favorite spot for hippies who wanted to do yoga or meditate, as well as celebrities and developers. It was soon followed by international investors, Mexican hoteliers, restaurants groups, and chefs from around the globe, creating a luxurious tropical paradise near the ocean.

These days, you can throw a stone from your hotel and hit a trendy outdoor restaurant set on decomposed granite with a wood-fired oven cooking local, foraged ingredients — exactly the sort of restaurant you’d expect from a place with Tulum’s reputation. Over the years, however, competition has increased and new chefs from Mexico City (often hired by Mexico City restaurant group) have brought more regional cuisines to the area. And there are even a few affordable stalwarts of old Tulum that have survived the area’s economic evolution.

Still, dining in Tulum is mostly expensive, and if you’re going to drop over $300 on dinner and drinks for two, you’d better make sure your meal is worth it. The best restaurants offer all the romance, magic, and aesthetics that the beachside resort promises. They serve dishes elevated by the local flora and fauna and cook with techniques inherited from the Maya; that often includes recaudos (colorful herbal marinades), especially grilled octopus in a recaudo negro, a dish made iconic by chef Jose Luis Hinostroza’s Arca.

Bill Esparza, a James Beard Award-winning food writer and author based in Los Angeles, is Bill Esparza. LA MexicanoA featured journalist and Netflix Street Food USA.

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