There's authentic Mexican cuisine in Cancun, but only for those who break away from the resorts.
If you only hang out in Cancun's Hotel Zone, you'll never discover how great Yucatecan food can be, with its fresh fish, marinated meats and poultry, and accents of lime, orange, and herbs native only to this part of Mexico. Leave the beach crowds to their buffalo wings and tequila; dining salvation is a 55-cent bus ride away in Cancun City, the service town for the big resorts.
Labna (Margaritas 29, 011-52-998/892-3056, entrees under $10)
Mayan kitsch is Cancun's curse, so the soaring but low-key temple design befits the restaurant's contemporary approach to the rustic food of the Yucatan. Two can easily share papadzules (corn tortillas filled with chopped hard-boiled eggs and covered with green-pumpkin-seed sauce) or empanadas de cazon (baby-shark turnovers). Most entrees fall well below $10, including the traditional Mayan dish poc chuc (achiote seed-rubbed grilled pork served with bitter oranges and a green-chile tomato sauce) and pollo pibil (spicy chicken slowly braised in a banana leaf). Good desserts are rare in Cancun, so it's worth indulging here on guayaba mousse or caramel-infused tres leches cake.
El Cejas (Mercado 28, 011-52-998/887-1080, entrees $8-$15)
Given that a heavy portion of residents are between 25 and 35, beer swilling isn't confined to Hotel Zone bars. Swing by the Mercado 28 crafts market (south of avenida Yaxchilan at the end of avenida Sunyaxchen) on a Sunday afternoon, when groups of friends twirl longnecks and share platters of shrimp, octopus, conch, or scallop ceviche as wandering musicians play for change. Crabs are a specialty-stuffed and steamed or fried with garlic or chipotle sauce.
El Rincon Yucateco (Uxmal 35, west of av. Tulum circle, no phone, entrees $4.50-$9)
This casual grill's two-for-one bottled beers are a perfect match for the house specialty of panuchos-puffed corn tortillas stuffed with epazote-stewed black beans and topped with barbecued pork. Diners at the noisy sidewalk tables preen in the sun and watch the cosmopolitan foot traffic around the nearby bus station. El Rincon's signature dish is a heaping bowl of shredded chicken in a tangy broth of chicken stock and lime juice: the classic Yucatecan comfort food called sopa de lima.
Cocina La Chaya (Mercado 28, 011-52-998/888-6437, entrees $5-10)
Buff young fitness freaks who practically live in their bathing suits swear by chaya, a vitamin-rich Yucatecan green that's like a cross between spinach and mint. This mom-and-pop business in Mercado 28 features big plates of beef, fish, chicken, or mushrooms heaped with chopped chaya and slivered ham. They're best washed down with the gem-colored "waters": papaya, melon, lemon, or orange.
Parque de las Palapas (Between av. Tulum and av. Yaxchilan, quesadillas 75¢)
Once the searing sun goes down, families congregate in this palm-filled park, tucked between busy avenidas Tulum and Yaxchilan, to enjoy concerts at the bandstand, ride the Ferris wheel, and hit the vendors selling quecas, slang for quesadillas. The turnovers are filled with beef, chicken, or chorizo, as well as exotic options like cactus leaves or cuitlacoche, a delicacy made from corn kernels bloated by a tasty fungus. Cuitlacoche might set you back $15 in the States, but in the park quecas are rarely more than 75¢.
Club Nautico (Puerto Juarez, just north of ferry dock, 011-52-998/116-8471, entrees $4-$9)
Each night in Puerto Juarez, on the beach by the Isla Mujeres ferry, fishermen unload their catch, pull up plastic chairs, and wait for fillets to come off the fire. Grouper rubbed with achiote seed, drenched in sour orange, and grilled over charcoal is perhaps the most popular dish, but the bouillabaisse-like sopa de mariscos is a rich bargain for shellfish lovers, as is the mixed "cocktail" of octopus, shrimp, and conch. Every so often, a neighborhood lady wanders in with a tray of flan and coconut custard, each under $1.
La Faena (La Faena Plaza de Toros, av. Bonampak, 011-52-998/884-4197, entrees $4-$7)
The cantinas tucked into the outside wall of Cancun's bullring serve some of the city's best bar food. Patrons follow soccer matches on a giant TV as they dip hot Spanish sausage in cool guacamole (chistorra) or slurp down green chile strips in melted cheese (queso fundido). After the third beer--how about a Negra de Leon, a malty, dark brew rare in America--you'll crave a meaty main dish such as the barbecued lamb (barbacoa de cordero). If bullfighting isn't your sport, skip Wednesday afternoons.
La Parrilla (av. Yaxchilan 51, 011-52-998/884-8193, entrees $6.25-$15)
The plastic cow out front and the strolling mariachis inside scream "tourist trap," but some of the savviest folks in Cancun celebrate anniversaries at La Parrilla because it's festive and the meat comes in substantial gaucho-like portions. Crunchy, lime-saturated green-cactus leaves on soft tortillas (nopalitos) will cleanse your palate for the mixed grill of chicken breast, skirt steak, pork chop, and chorizo served on a hibachi at the table. Side dishes of cowboy beans (pinto beans with smoked bacon, green chile, and cilantro), grilled onions, and strips of roasted green chile peppers round out the meal.