It wasn’t listed in the New York Times 36 Hours in Tulum. We hadn’t heard about it from friends who’d been to Tulum. It didn’t screen surface on any of our Google searches, even though it’s been around since 2004. But on our first morning at Casa de las Olas when we were all talking about where to have dinner, Jimmy’s recommendation was quickly endorsed by everyone around the long breakfast table.
“Yes, you have to go to Cetli’s.” “Remember Claudia’s empanadas?’ “I bought her mole sauce—it’s the best we’ve ever had.” “Make a reservation. It books up.” “And remember it’s closed on Wednesdays.”
“So tell us more about Cetli’s,” we said to our inn-mates.
“Do you know about mole?” one of the women asked me.
I made mole once in my life. It was okay, but not much better than the jarred version at the local supermarket. I remember our friend Jan extolling about mole after she’d spent six months in Oaxaca, the ancestral home of mole. So I wasn’t surprised when Erin said that Cetli’s chef was from Oaxaca.
So what’s in mole? Ten, twenty, maybe thirty ingredients. There are no rules. But all good moles contain various roasted, powdered chiles. Combinations of thickeners like seeds, nuts, fruit, bread and tortillas. Aromatics like onions and garlic. Stock. Sometimes chocolate, dark or white. Maybe some vinegar. Perhaps dried shrimp. I always thought of mole as black, but there are seven moles in Oaxacan cuisine in shades of yellow, green and red as well. The good chefs keep feeding their mole, aging it like a sourdough. (Chef Enrique Olvera’s mole at New York’s Cosme restaurant celebrated its 1,000-day birthday in the summer of 2016.)
“Cetli’s is part of our Eat Retreat,” said Jimmy, the owner of Casa de las Olas who calls himself the Curator of Opportunities. “You really should go while you’re here.”
A day later driving back from the Maya ruins at Coba, Magellan said, “Why don’t we see if we can get into Cetli’s? They open at five and we’ll probably be back in Tulum a little before that.”
“I’d love to go there,” I said. “But it’s Saturday night. Do you think we’ll get in?”
In the hot, dry, quiet of the late afternoon, we were the only people on the side street where Cetli’s brightly coloured building stands out. The restaurant’s ornately carved wooden door was still locked. Promptly at five, a young man opened it up. We told him we didn’t have a reservation, that Jimmy recommended we eat here and hoped he could accommodate us. “I’m not sure,” he said. We are fully booked tonight. Let me see.” A few minutes later, he said, “Yes, please come in. Sit anywhere here that you like,” and waved us into the main area.
Frieda Kahlo would be at home in Cetli’s among the colourful needlepoint cushions, eccentric paintings, Day-of-the-Dead puppets, folk art, heavy metal crosses and framed wedding photographs from the 1960s. As were we. It feels like home because it was the home of chef Claudia Perez-Rivas before she transformed it into Cetli’s.
For almost an hour we were the only guests in the restaurant. Three or four groups of people without reservations were turned away and when I wandered around the other rooms of the restaurant, I saw why. Only Claudia was behind the stove in her small kitchen. (She makes everything herself but apparently there are a few behind-the- scenes assistants). We felt a little alone and a bit like Jerry Seinfeld’s parents eating so early, but you could tell from the ambience that we were in for an incredible dinner.
Beginning with the complimentary appies. Mini tostadas topped with beans and cheese. Bread, something we didn’t find much of in Tulum, dark, seed-filled and served with a parcel of garlic herb butter packaged in a corn husk. The best empanada (I wish it wasn’t so small) served with a green chile salsa. Beet jam with queso fresco. Requeson (a bit like ricotta) with tomatoes and herbs. And oranges topped with fried grasshoppers and chili salt!
We shared a salad made from Chaya, an ancient green that’s native to the Yucatan and a little like spinach, combined with slices of orange, plum and apple and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
Magellan ordered the house specialty, chile en nogada. Claudia stuffs a polano chile with ground beef, ground pork, raisins, pineapple and spices and serves it in a pool of white-cheese crema confettied with cilantro on one side, strawberries on the other. Sounds a little weird doesn’t it? But we can tell you (I ate half of it), this dish had it all— flavour, texture, sweetness and saltiness, umami and the red, white and green colours of the Mexican flag.
I ordered the chicken with black, negro mole. Claudia grinds her own spices and herbs in stone mutates. She sources free-range chicken that’s as tasty as my grandma Danchuk’s was. But sorry grandma; Claudia’s mole surpasses any of the sauces that ever accompanied your chicken (Mexico wins against the Ukraine in this food competition). Claudia’s The three moles now in Casa Magellan and Spic’s kitchen pollo de mole Negro was transcendent. Complex, dark and mysterious, like a Cormac McCarthy novel, a Lucinda Williams song or a painting from the Rothko Chapel.
The Mexican cuisine that Claudia creates at Cetli’s is sui generis—unlike anything else.
I almost forgot. For the perfect experience, order the tamarind margarita.
Jimmy, co-owner and Curator of Opportunities at the offbeat seven-bedroom Casa de las Olas (House of the Waves), has been in Tulum for 15 years. He knows food. Take his advice and you’ll eat well. Several of the returning guests had experienced the inn’s off-season Eat Retreat, which features cooking demos and meals cooked by the best chefs in Tulum which, of course, includes Claudia from Celti’s.
Cetli’s is open for creative, gourmet Mexican food from 5-10 every night except Wednesday.
Gordinier, Jeff. “Mole in Mexico.” The New York Times Style Magazine. March 5, 2017, page 90-92. Available online here.