A palapa is a palm-thatched sun haven found on beaches in Mexico. True to its namesake, La Palapa offers cuisine that is at once a haven from ordinary Mexican fare and an effective tool for blocking the sun. For lunch, start with a palate-pleasing appetizer such as plátanos con crema (sweet plantains with cream and house-made queso fresco, $6.95) before moving on to the famous Mexico City–style tacos ($5.95 each), which can be filled with eight delectable flavors, including al pastor (pineapple-chile rubbed pork). Later eaters can hang a fang on dinner entrees such as pato al mole negro oaxaqueño (grilled duck breast in rich black mole infused with 26 magical ingredients) or camarones al mojo de ajo (shrimp sautéed with garlic, red tomato rice, and slow-cooked black beans). Lubricate throat pipes and conversations and complement the meal with a tangy selection from the cocktail catalogue.
At El Mio Cid, a mouthwatering spread of authentic Spanish cuisine enraptures palates alongside flavorful wines and dulcet pours of Sangria. A tasty array of hot and cold tapas such as baked clams, chicken croquettes, or jamon Serrano and manchego unite tables in a gleeful celebration of communal plate-passing and elaborate foodstuff bartering systems. Elegantly plated entrees burst into fields of view with breathtaking color, awakening salads with house-made dressings and steaks and chicken cutlets with flavorful herbs, peppers, and sauces. In addition to dishing out saffroned paellas, fresh seafood, and meaty meals, El Mio Sid caps off dinners with dulcet desserts, such as flan, ice cream, and sorbet.
The atmosphere at Gizzi's hums with a perfectly calibrated balance of lively music and intimate conversation fueled by eclectic, upscale American dishes and expertly mixed cocktails. High-backed booths, brick walls, and a flat-screen television surround guests as they chat over lemon-and-lime-marinated shrimp ceviche and delicate but filling salads that toss beds of mixed greens or arugula with pears, walnuts, or fried shrimp. Flame-kissed skirt steaks mingle with Achuk Chuchuk salade, as well as lamb chops that just leapt off the sizzling grill like a spooked spatula. While socializing over the mixologist's painstakingly shaken and stirred libations, guests can get toes tapping to live music performances scheduled throughout the week, or hone their critic's eye during independent-film screenings held every other Sunday.
Cozumel Grill & Tequila Bar’s crafty chefs cull together spices, meats, and seafood to craft a menu of both classic and inventive Mexican eats. Diners can crisscross hands to share an adventurous appetizer of fried cactus strips ($10) or enjoy solo fare such as a jerk chicken quesadilla ($11). Patrons can take off their hockey helmets or at least lift the facemask to sink teeth into two tacos or one burrito weighed down by a choice of chicken ($10), beef ($10), shredded pork ($10), or steak ($11). For enchiladas, chefs reinforce two corn tortillas with one of five meaty fillings, paint on ranchero sauce, and add a final floor of cheese that bakes to melted gooeyness and pairs with an accompanying bed of red rice ($10–$11).
At Juan & Maria's Empanada Stop, a bell chimes regularly throughout the day, ringing along with the festive Latin music in the background. Its sound does not indicate the time, however—it greets every 50th customer to the empanada hot spot and rewards him or her with $5 worth of complimentary Spanish cuisine. When Chilean couple Juan and Maria Contreras opened their stand in 2000, they rarely had the opportunity to use the bell, as they were serving between 10 and 20 empanadas on any given Saturday. Today they dish out a minimum of 1,000 empanadas each day, vying to beat their current record of 1,504 empanadas sold in eight hours.
Their popularity stems in part from a commitment to traditional, healthy cooking methods. Each of their empanadas is handmade and stuffed with one of 12 types of filling, including 90% lean beef and pork as well as vegetarian options. The deep fryers are filled with light salad oil, and none of the menu items include chemicals or preservatives. Juan and Maria extend the same homemade treatment to their fruit juices, which can be frozen and sold as "Juan-sicles," and their four hot sauces: green gold, red gold, spanish mayo and spanish ketchup.
Attitude accounts for a second element of the pair's success. Their mix of hospitality and cultural pride draws diners to the turquoise shop, where Juan exuberantly lists the specials to newcomers. They have hosted the Juan & Maria's International Spanish Festival for the past four years, showcasing customs from 20 Spanish-speaking countries alongside their empanadas.
Amid the whirling of flamenco dancers and lively strumming of guitarists, diners savor and share bites of bright Spanish cuisine presented on minimalistic white plates. The kitchen fills a tapas menu with tasting-size portions of seafood, meat, and vegetable delicacies, enticing guests to indulge in one bite at a time, rounding out each mix-and-match meal with a carafe of housemade sangria or exotic cocktails. Small plates include tzatziki- and cucumber-drizzled bites of lamb, spanish meatballs, and asparagus a la plancha; heartier appetites brave the build-your-own entree option, which allows customers to craft individual meals that include one hearty portion of meat or seafood and one starch, all topped with a choice of sauce or glaze and served with a helping of vegetables. Parties of up to 65 guests can rent out the space for special occasions or have baskets of Spanish specialties brought to off-site locations to add flavorful flair to parties without dousing honored guests in a demi-glace.