The Cocinas Economicas (Economical Kitchens) of Isla Mujeres

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Story and Photos by DaRel Christiansen   

The Cocinas Económicas (Economical Kitchens) of Isla Mujeres



Ophelia’s Chiles Poblanos Rellenos (Stuffed Chiles)

Cebollas (Pickled Onions)

Ophelia’s Salsa de Habanero

Samuel’s Cerveza Habanero (Beer with Habaneros)

Caldo de Camarón (Shrimp Soup)

Filete con Ajo de Mojo (Fish Filet with Garlic)

Pescado Frito con Mojo de Ajo (Whole Fried Fish)

Shrimp Ceviche (Shrimp Cooked in Lime)

Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) is as seductive as its name suggests. I am always stunned to find myself seated under a palapa on Playa Norte (North Beach), toes curled in the sand, sipping Añejo rum, with the soul of the island coiled cat-like in my lap. It’s like that anywhere on Isla, as the locals call it–the island soul follows and infiltrates you with its rhythm, its cadence. Even my heart slows down.

The people of this island near Cancún in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula are peaceful descendants of fisherman and, some would say, pirates, as Isla Mujeres was once the home of the infamous pirate and slave trader Mundaca. Regardless of their heritage, however, the locals extend a warm welcome to all. Most communicate in “Spanglish” and some with excellent English, but the true common language here is food.

Though the island cuisine is not as hot and spicy as you might suspect, chiles are everywhere and in everything. Most small kitchens have their own chile-based elixir to apply as you like (you might even be tempted to put a dab behind each ear if it weren’t for the burn). The real finds are the small kitchens, “Cocinas Económicas,” set up in people’s homes, small markets, or shacks on the beach. Most visitors miss out because they can’t find them, or are afraid to try. Don’t let this happen to you! Check your inhibitions at the ferry and sample what the Island of Women has to offer.

La Lomita entrance



La Lomita entrance



La Lomita (Little Mountain) is a converted home on the crest of Avenida Juárez where Ophelia Barros carries on a family tradition begun by her parents twenty years ago. La Lomita is both a local and tourist Mecca; spend a few hours there and you will witness a parade of locals with Tupperware clamoring for the evening’s specials. On our visit, a pot of Caldo de Fríjol con Puerco (Bean and Pork Soup) bubbles richly, giving off aromas of onion, tomato and cilantro. Ophelia ladles soup into the brightly colored containers and finishes it with a flourish of crisp fresh radish. Also, on Tuesday during lunchtime, she makes “the best chiles rellenos you will ever eat.” Ophelia stuffs poblano chiles with mild cheese, fries them in a crispy breading, and serves them with tomato salsa, fresh cheese, and cilantro. The contrast of crispy shell with al dente pepper and creamy cheese draws groans of approval from all. One diner comments, “Too bad you can’t photograph the smell.” I wish I could.

Ophelia of La Lomita



Ophelia of La Lomita



Seafood is another must at La Lomita, for Ophelia’s husband, Samuel, is a fisherman. Crisp Mojo de Ajo Camarones (Garlic Shrimp) and Filete Empanizado (Pan-Fried Fish of the Day) come with fresh tortillas, black beans, rice, lime and pickled onions. Top these off with Ophelia’s rendition of Salsa Verde for a definite kick. Even the most timid should add a dab to the Frijoles Negros (Black Beans), for the tang of the salsa enhances their smoky, garlicky flavor. Also, a must for all chileheads is Samuel’s hangover cure, Cerveza con Chile Habanero (Beer with Habanero Chiles). Try it, hangover or not, for an unusual yet refreshing treat.







Next, head to Lonchera Alexia y Geovanny, more commonly known as Leonore’s. Ask for it by its formal name and you’ll never find it, but mention Leonore’s and you’ll get a wide grin and directions, or maybe even a ride. Leonore’s is located in a stall in the Mercado Municipal Javier Rojo Gómez Centro on Vicente Guerrero. A 28-year native, Leonore has fed happy crowds for eighteen years. Her Caldo de Camarón (Shrimp Soup) will cure anything that ails you, even the dreaded “tequila flu.” Tender fresh shrimp float in a delicate chicken broth seasoned with mild, smoky guajillo chiles, onion, garlic, and epazote.

Chiles at Leonore's



Chiles at Leonore’s



The guajillos add a mild essence, which compliments the sweetness of the shrimp. And epazote does what no other spice can–it adds a clean blend of grassy, earthy and citrus-like notes. Or, for simple goodness, try Leonore’s Filete de Pescado al Mojo de Ajo (Fish Filet with Garlic Sauce). It tastes fresh-from-the-sea with a hint of lime and a generous dose of garlic. Pile chunks of the steaming hot fish into a fresh tortilla with marinated onions, rice, and Leonore’s salsa. This is Latin soul food, and the memory of this moment will follow you for the many miles back to wherever you call home.

Leonore's Shrimp Soup



Leonore’s Shrimp Soup



With all this talk of fresh seafood, many who are familiar with the cuisine of coastal Mexico are probably asking, “Where’s the ceviche?” The ceviche is at Picus Coctelería, a small but colorful shack on the beach. The proprietress, Yolanda, along with her son whose ice blue eyes match his mother’s, proudly serves the best ceviche on the island. Whatever your pleasure–caracol (conch), tomburro (abalone), camarón (shrimp), pulpo (octopus) or pescado (fish)–it can be mixed and matched into ceviche and cocktails as brightly flavored and musical to the palate as their Spanish names. Each morsel is tender and delicate, with the caracol adding a satisfying crunch to the mix. Seasoned only with lime, chiles and fresh tomato salsa, each bite is of the sea, pure and clear and fresh.

Cleaning squid at Picus



Cleaning squid at Picus



And for those of you who were frightened by ceviche as a child, have no fear! Yolanda’s Pescado al Mojo de Ajo (Whole Fried Fish with Garlic) will have you sucking fish bones while your comrades look on in amazement…or horror…or jealousy. Her simple preparation of whole salted fish (yes, whole as in head and tail), scored and generously peppered with fresh garlic, is quick-fried for a crispy delicacy that Long John Silver’s can’t hold a candle to. This is finger lickin’ good! In fact, you’ll probably have ravaged your fish before you even notice your wonderful, untouched rice, tortillas, beans and guacamole.

Yolanda tells our enamored crowd (this is our third visit in five days) that her Filete Relleno is the house specialty. A whole fish stuffed with caracol, pulpo, camarón, and cheese, then smothered in an alfredo-type sauce, sounds like overkill to me. But I try it. It is well done, beautifully seasoned, and tasty…and leaves me full for what feels like days. Even tequila can’t jump-start my appetite after that meal!

I quizzed my hosts at great length and managed to extract the recipes that follow. You will be able to re-create the flavors of the economical kitchens—but not their ambience and friendship!

How to get there:

From the Cancún airport take a taxi ($25-$30) to Puerta Juárez. From there, the 15-minute ferry ride ($3.50) leaves every half hour with 8:30pm usually being the last ferry back to the mainland (“usually” being the operative word here–this is Mexican time, folks!).

From Cancún, the 25-minute ferry ride ($7.50) departs from Playa Linda. Schedules for this ferry can be picked up at the airport and most hotels in Cancun.

Where and when:

(As it is with all things Mexican, the hours tend to be flexible.)

La Lomita

25-B Avenida Juárez

Closed Sunday

Breakfast 9-11am, $2-$5

Lunch 1-5pm, Dinner 7-11pm, $2.50-$10 ($17 for lobster)


Lonchera Alexia y Geovanny (just call it Leonore’s)

Mercado Municipal Javier Rojo Gómez Centro

Avenida Vicente Guerrero

Closed Wednesday

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner 8am-9pm



Picus Coctelería

Avenida Rueda Medina

Open daily 12pm-8pm


Have more time? Try these other places:

Lonchera Manolitos

Margarita Challe (Ophelia’s mother & founder of La Lomita)

Avenida Pawo Ovisto

Sundays only


For local Indian recipes created with ingredients indigenous to the island and its Indian peoples

Lonchera Poc-Chuc

Avenida Juárez y Abasolo



Taco Stand

Avenida Rueda Medina, in the parking lot of the car ferry

Try the Huevos con Chaya (Egg and Chaya in a tortilla)

Habanero Pork Sandwich Stand

Avenida Rueda Medina, across from the Naval base stairs

Open until they’re gone, so get there before 10am


Sources for epazote:

Check your local Mexican grocery  or 707-538-3585 for dried epazote

 or 650-325-7333 for epazote seeds


Sources for chile guajillo:

Check your local Mexican grocery  or 903-553-0800 for whole dried pods




Ophelia’s Chiles Poblanos Rellenos (Stuffed Chiles)

Ophelia’s chiles rellenos are the best on the island. They are almost always gone by mid-lunch, so don’t wait! The tomato sauce can be prepared one day in advance.

Tomato sauce:

  • 4 roma tomatoes, chopped

  • 2 small onions, chopped

  • 1 clove garlic, chopped

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • ½ cup water

  • Salt to taste

In a pan, sauté the tomatoes, half the onion, and the garlic in 1 tablespoon of the oil for 10 minutes. When cool enough, purée the mixture in a blender with the water until smooth. Meanwhile, sauté the rest of the onion in the rest of the oil over medium heat until browned and soft. Add the purée and cook, covered, over low heat for 10 minutes to blend the flavors.


  • 1 1/3 cup prepared tomato sauce

  • 4 poblano chiles, roasted and peeled

  • 12 ounces Mexican white melting cheese (i.e. Supremo’s Oxaca), cubed

  • 16 toothpicks

  • Canola oil for deep-frying

  • 2 cups flour

  • 2 teaspoons salt

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 eggs, separated

  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream, at room temperature

  • 4 tablespoons feta cheese

  • 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Slice off and reserve the caps of the poblano chiles. Carefully seed and rinse the chiles, keeping them whole. Stuff each chile with the cheese and secure the caps with at least 4 toothpicks each. In a deep pan or wok, heat oil (enough to cover chiles halfway) to 350 degrees F.

While the oil heats, mix the flour, salt and pepper into a shallow bowl. In a separate small bowl whisk the egg whites until frothy. Add the yolks to the whites and whisk until blended.

Just before frying, dip each pepper into the egg and then the flour, covering completely. Lightly shake the pod to remove the excess flour, and carefully return to the egg mixture. Use a spoon to cover the pepper with egg once again, and then return to the flour mixture for a second coating. Shake gently to remove any excess. (This “double dipping” will ensure that the flour sticks and provides an extra crispy coating.)

Using tongs, gently place the pepper in the hot oil. Take care, as it will splatter. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes or until browned. Turn the pepper once and cook 3-5 minutes more, until browned. Take care not to overcook or the cheese will escape. Drain the cooked peppers on a rack over paper towels for a minute.

To serve, ladle 1/3 cup prepared tomato sauce on a plate and place a chile on top. Garnish with ½ tablespoon heavy cream, 1 tablespoon feta and ½ tablespoon chopped cilantro. Serve with plenty of Ophelia’s Habanero Salsa (recipe below).

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

Cebollas (Pickled Onions)

These slivered reddish gems are the perfect addition to every Mexican meal. Ophelia’s have the best flavor and crunch, and, though cebollas are intended to be condiments, her guests often find it difficult not to pile their tortillas full. Add slivered chiles, a little or a lot, for some heat.

  • 1 large onion, peeled, cut in half along the grain and then sliced thinly against the grain

  • ½ cup of white vinegar

  • 2 small, peeled fresh beets, quartered

  • ½ teaspoon of salt

  • Slivered jalapeño chiles

Put all ingredients into a small saucepan. Simmer covered, on medium to low heat for 20 to 30 minutes, until the onions are soft. Do not overcook or they will be soggy. Add the slivered chiles and chill in the refrigerator. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 servings, as a condiment

Heat Scale: Mild

Ophelia’s Salsa de Habanero

The avocado is the “secret ingredient” that gives this salsa its creamy texture. We know what makes it hot! It’s great in soups and beans but we put it in everything.

  • 4 habanero chiles (seeded if you don’t want all the heat)

  • 1 small onion, sliced

  • 2 or 3 cloves garlic

  • 4 teaspoons chopped cilantro

  • ½ ripe avocado, sliced

  • ¼ teaspoons salt

  • 1 cup water

In a food processor, purée the first six ingredients until smooth. Slowly add the water until the salsa is liquefied. Chill until ready to serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Hot

Samuel’s Cerveza Habanero (Beer with Habanero Chiles)

Believe it or not, this spicy beverage is incredibly refreshing in the Caribbean heat. Samuel swears it will cure the “tequila flu.”

  • 1 chilled beer glass

  • Margarita salt

  • Ice

  • ½ teaspoon chopped habanero chile

  • Juice of half a lime (fresh is important)

  • Corona or Sol beer

Rim the chilled glass with the salt. Fill with ice and add the habanero and lime. Carefully pour in the beer. Stir and enjoy!

Yield: 1 serving

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot

Caldo de Camarón (Shrimp Soup)

This is Leonore’s answer to the “chicken soup” of the Anglo world. The guajillo chiles can be prepared ahead and kept in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

  • 12 whole guajillo chiles

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, diced

  • 6 cups chicken stock, homemade or Knorr’s

  • 2 cups water

  • 1¾ cups prepared guajillo chiles

  • 2 pounds medium shrimp, peeled, deveined and rinsed

  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon dried epazote (1 stalk of fresh, chopped leaves only)

  • ¼ cup fresh chopped cilantro

  • 1or 2 limes, cut into wedges

  • Prepared rice for 6-8 people

  • Your favorite hot sauce

To prepare the guajillo chiles, rinse the pods and place them in a heat tolerant bowl. Fill the bowl with enough boiling water to just cover the chiles when pressed down. Submerge the chiles with a pan lid or other heavy object and leave to soak for 45 minutes. Stem the chiles, reserving the soaking liquid. In batches, puree the chiles with the liquid until they are mostly liquefied. Strain the puree into a container. Discard the solids and store the liquid in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

To make the soup, add the canola oil to a pot over medium heat. Once heated, turn the heat to low and add the chopped onion and sauté until soft but not brown. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, water and 1 ¾ cups of prepared guajillo and bring to a boil. Add the shrimp and boil until the shrimp are pink. Scoop off any foam with a ladle. Stir in the epazote. Serve with the fresh cilantro, lime wedges, rice and your favorite hot sauce.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Heat Scale: Medium to Hot

Filete con Ajo de Mojo (Fish Filet with Garlic)

This is a common dish in the cocinas económicas of Isla Mujeres, though Leonore’s version is anything but that. It is best served as she does, with rice, black beans, marinated onions, hot sauce and fresh hot tortillas.

  • 1 pound white fish filets such as snapper or halibut

  • Juice of 2 limes

  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

  • 1 tablespoon garlic salt

  • Salt and pepper to taste

  • 4 cloves garlic, minced

  • 4 tablespoons butter

Rinse the fish filets. Marinate them for 2 hours in the lime juice and Worcestershire in a nonreactive bowl. Just before cooking, sprinkle the fish with garlic salt, pepper, and salt, and press the fresh garlic onto the fish. Heat the butter in a frying pan over medium to medium-high heat. When the butter begins to sizzle, carefully add the fish (it will splatter) and cover with a splatter screen. Sauté the filet five minutes on each side or until golden brown on both sides. Drain the fish on the splatter screen for a few minutes and then serve immediately. Sprinkle with hot sauce of choice.

Yield: 2 servings

Heat Scale: Varies

Pescado Frito con Mojo de Ajo (Whole Fried Fish with Garlic)

Our group returned to Picus Coctelería five times in a one-week period because we felt “it was our duty” to introduce this dish to all of our friends. Diners can see the waters and the fishing boats, where the fish are caught the same day as they are served. Yolanda will even let you choose your own fish if you like.

  • 1 whole red snapper or redfish, scaled, gutted and rinsed, head and tail on

  • Juice of 4 limes

  • 2 teaspoons of salt

  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced

  • Canola oil

Rinse the fish in cold water. Score both sides of the fish 3 to 4 times with a sharp knife. Marinate the fish for 2-4 hours in half the lime juice, 1 teaspoon salt, and one-third of the minced garlic. While the fish is marinating, prepare the garlic sauce by combining in a food processor 1/3 of the minced garlic, 1 teaspoon of salt and the rest of the lime juice. When you are ready to cook the fish, heat enough oil in a deep pan or wok to cover the fish. While the oil is heating, remove the fish, pat it dry with a paper towel and press the remaining garlic into the scored areas. When the oil sizzles when a piece of garlic is dropped in, carefully lower in the whole fish. Cook the fish for 10 minutes or until it is lightly browned. Drain it on a rack over paper towels until it no longer drips. Serve hot with tortillas, garlic sauce, pickled onions, hot sauce and rice.

Yield: 1 serving

Heat Scale: Varies

Shrimp Ceviche (Shrimp Cooked in Lime)

Picus Coctelería is named for its fresh seafood ceviches and cocktails. Yolanda’s seafood comes directly from the sea; for the best flavor and texture use the freshest you can find. Although this recipe is for shrimp ceviche, it can be made with any combination of shrimp, octopus, squid, conch, abalone, white fish or oysters.

Picus Cocktaileria



Picus Cocktaileria



  • 1 pound medium (51-60’s) shrimp, shelled and deveined

  • 1 2/3 cup fresh lime juice (about 5 large limes)

  • ½ teaspoon salt

  • Black pepper to taste

  • 1 small onion, finely diced

  • 3 roma tomatoes, finely diced

  • 1 teaspoon minced cilantro

  • 1 jalapeño chile, seeds and stem removed, minced

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

In a medium bowl, toss together the shrimp and 1 cup lime juice. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. This will allow the shrimp to cook in the lime juice. In a separate, medium-sized bowl combine the onion, tomato, jalapeño, remaining lime juice, cilantro, olive oil, salt and pepper. Once the shrimp are no longer opaque, drain and combine with the salsa. Allow this mixture to marinate for at least 1 hour. Serve cold with tortilla chips and your favorite hot sauce.

Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

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