Correction: A photo caption with an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the people pictured in the photo. The three men are Ray, Efren and Helser Chacón, not Ray, Lupe and Helser Chacón. This version has been updated.
There’s nothing more vacation-altering (in a good way) than meeting a traveler who has been visiting the place you’re visiting every year since before his now-teenage kids were born.
During the boat drive from one of Cozumel’s renowned dive sites back to our hotel, my husband and I and the couple we were traveling with met such a man, who informed us of basically everything one had to do while on this island off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. We took mental notes and quickly reshuffled our utterly unscheduled days to heed his advice.
And — after said advice led us to a restaurant that became our most memorable experience on the island (right up there with seeing sharks) — we wished that we had asked the guy more questions.
El Moro is the sort of eatery that plays to a Rick Steves sort of traveler, the kind who wants to eat like a local and have a conversation with the people behind the food. It’s off the island’s main strip, providing open-air dining in what was once the owner’s home.
Go there once, and you’re bowled over by the comfortably authentic food and the hospitality. Go there twice, and you’re family.
If you hold still long enough, it’s likely that you’ll get to hear the restaurant’s endearing story, told to us by one of the owner’s three sons, Ray Chacón.
According to Ray, when his father, Rodolfo, first visited Cozumel to scout out a location for his cantina, he was struck by a car and told that he would never walk again, let alone open the restaurant.
After struggling with his injuries for years on the mainland, Rodolfo decided that the Cozumel restaurant dream was not dead. One day, he told the family to pack up “because Cozumel did this to me, and Cozumel is going to pay me back,” Ray tells us in accented English, waving his arm back and forth for emphasis.
El Moro quickly became a hit on the main tourist strip before Rodolfo, now 73 and walking just fine, decided to appeal to a more local crowd and move the restaurant to a neighborhood two miles away.
The visitors still find the place, year after year, and there are hugs all around when a familiar face walks in the door. Pictures of the regulars, and a few celebrities, hang on the bright orange walls.
And that’s not to mention the food. I was so enamored of my grouper en papillote the second night we ate there, I asked for the secret (assuming that it was butter or coconut oil).
Ray told me that it was “corazón.”
“Doesn’t matter if it’s scrambled eggs, if you make it from the corazón, the heart, that’s what matters,” he says.
Were it not for the mango margarita already lulling me into a blissful state, I might have said, “Really? Because it tastes like butter.”
But the place quickly works its Mexican charm on you. When you watch the sons tell their father’s story with tears welling in their eyes or describe a menu item with such gusto that you’d think they hadn’t eaten in days, you lap it right up.
If you decide to walk to the restaurant, as we did after taking a Zumba class nearby — talk about local experience — the residents kindly point you in the right direction. If you just give them the name, most taxi drivers can get you there from your cruise ship or resort.
Our first night at El Moro, we sit down to salsa and, by the time it starts to kick, mojitos bring the cooling mintiness that we’ve come to expect on Cozumel (when eating beyond the walls of our watered-down all-inclusive resort).
The nachos we order arrive in a nearly unrecognizable state, nothing like the piled-high versions you find in the States. The layers of beans, dark red sauce and queso blanco melt into the chips — and then our mouths. They disappear before we can verbalize our approval beyond full-mouthed groans and nods.
Ordering the main course at El Moro is perhaps the hardest part. The number of choices makes you leery, thinking that they’re doing too many things and none of them well. Then the food arrives, and you realize that the problem is instead the vast number of order-worthy items on the menu — fresh seviche, Yucatán pork and a locally renowned Cuban sandwich, to name just a few — and that this place isn’t close enough to Washington (or wherever you call home).
Surprisingly, the item I find myself longing for — the one that brought us back two more times that week — is the restaurant’s house-made butter pecan ice cream. Yes, ice cream, in a town that doesn’t hesitate to call gelato “chill-ato” to entice tourists. I found it unbelievable, too, and went on a butter pecan sampling spree upon our return to Washington, only to declare El Moro the winner.
It’s logical to assume, based on the restaurant’s approach to its meals, that the concoction included both butter and pecans in some form. But there was something else making it utterly creamy and crave-worthy.
Coconut milk? Nicotine? Oh heck, it must have been the corazón.
75 Bis Norte No. 124
Entre 4 y 2
Daily except Thursday, 1-11 p.m. Entrees $10-$15.
Pipkin, a freelance journalist in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.