Unlike bars, which are all about alcohol, the quality of a Yucatecan cantina is measured by how generous they are with their botanas.
Bars in other countries may on occasion hand out complimentary snacks to patrons in the form of a small bowl of peanuts, pretzels, or chips, but in Yucatán, this simply won’t do. In fact, some cantinas are so food-centric that they describe themselves as botaneros rather than cantinas.
The way things work is that waiters will bring rather underwhelming botanas to your table for the first couple of rounds of drinks. But if you stay long enough, and more importantly spend enough, you can expect the botanas to get better and better. So obviously if you are just going to drink a couple of beers you can’t expect a huge serving of ceviche to be included. Of course, most cantinas also have a la carte menus in case you are hungry but not in it for the long haul.
So let’s get to it.
Refried beans and tostadas
Just about every cantina will start you off with some of these. Though the quality of the beans may vary somewhat from place to place, they are usually fairly decent. Some places will crumble up some queso sopero (a very chalky white cheese) atop the beans, which gives them a saltier taste.
As we covered in Snack time: The best of Yucatán’s botanitas last month, charritos are inflated squares of either corn or wheat flour. They are hollow on the inside and provide a very satisfying crunch. While most have a little chili powder added, they are not particularly spicy.
I am prone to groan when these are brought to the table, but if I am being honest, I end up eating them anyway. Salchichas picantes are basically just chopped-up pieces of hotdog wieners bathed in a moderately spicy sauce, usually chipotle.
Everyone loves a nice empanada. In Yucatán’s cantinas, they are usually stuffed with either bean, potato, or cheese and chaya — the latter being my favorite combination.
Kibis, sometimes spelled kibbeh, are a popular import from Lebanon to Yucatán. They are made out of cracked wheat, onions, and spices which are then molded into a round or oval shape and fried. In Yucatán, they are often stuffed with meat, cheese, and chile habanero.
Polcanes are made of deep-fried cornmeal and usually contain beans. They may not be healthy, but they sure are delicious, especially when they are fresh out of the fryer. The word polcan has its root in the Mayan words pol (head) and can (snake).
Tamales or vaporcitos
Tamales are a popular staple in much of Mexico, and like polcanes, have prehispanic roots. The most popular kind of tamales in Yucatán’s cantinas are known as vaporsitos. They are usually stuffed with chicken and are served on their own or on the banana leaf in which they were cooked.
Ceviche is a seafood dish typically made from fresh raw fish, shrimp, and octopus cured in citrus juices, most commonly lemon or lime. As seafood can get fairly expensive, don’t expect huge servings unless you are already known at the cantina as a particularly generous tipper
Well, of course, tacos were going to be on the list. The most common varieties on offer in Yucatán cantinas include tacos de cochinita pibil, relleno negro and escabeche.
But wait, there’s more!
Other popular botanas that did not make the list include flautas (wrapped up fried tortillas), spicy potato wedges, and mollejas en pico de gallo (you are better off not knowing what these are made of!).