When the World’s Best Restaurant Opens a Pop-Up in Tulum

By Camille Styles
street tacos

ed note: When we heard that our friend, Tara Miko, was headed to Tulum to dine at the once-in-a-lifetime Noma pop-up, we begged her to capture it all and report back. Here she shares the highlights, the food porn, and everything you need to know about traveling Tulum, even if a table at Noma’s not on your agenda. Take it away, Tara! 

Some people love to travel, I on the other hand, live to travel. I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t on-the-go, exploring new places. Sometimes that meant far-off, exotic destinations in Asia, and other times it was right in my own backyard. My mantra was simple: find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Chef Rene Redzepi is a perfect example of taking ordinary ingredients and making them dance together in extraordinary expressions of flavor. Last year, when he announced he was taking his culinary skills to Tulum, Mexico, for a 6-week Noma pop-up, I jumped at the chance to experience his genius first hand. For nearly a year, I watched the Noma team travel to remote jungles of Chiapas, forage plates from clay in Oaxaca, and resurrect an entire restaurant from the ground in the middle of the Mayan jungle. Their Instagram allowed the world a front-row seat as they inched closer to opening day, unveiling what is now being called the “meal of the decade.” To say I was excited is an understatement.

photos by tara miko

Our trip started at Papaya Playa Project, an eco-chic, off-the-grid hotel, which is made up of a small city of tiny bungalows. PPP is a sustainable project that is operated by solar power, local sourcing, and responsible construction. The air is full of music as the DJ spins on the beach, the food is fresh and gourmet, and bathing suits are the attire of choice.

We had a beautiful ocean-front room with a private pool overlooking the ocean. I chose to spend most days in the hammock, swaying in the breeze, enjoying a siesta or a good book.

I love to read, so naturally one of my favorite amenities in the community room was their mini library. It’s filled with books left by past travelers for future visitors to enjoy.

We had several days in Mexico before our meal at Noma, so there was plenty of time to explore Tulum. We ended up ditching our rental car and traveled mainly by bike or foot.

My last trip to Tulum was 11 years ago, and there were only a handful of hotels and one or two restaurants. These days, Tulum is known for its delicious cuisine and gorgeous beaches. Here are a list of some of our favorite restaurants in town:

I woke up early every morning and headed into town for a coffee with my camera in tow. I loved capturing the street life. This gentleman had the most delicious homemade empanadas and tortas.

Cute tiendas (shops) have popped up all over the town, selling items made by artisans all over Mexico. I almost had to purchase a second suitcase just to bring all of my findings home.

A sleepy shop pup in a sleepy beach town…

Since Tulum is a beach destination, there is never a shortage of fresh seafood. The boats come in every morning with the catch of the day. One of my favorites is the huahinango, otherwise known as red snapper. I eat it in everything from ceviche to fish tacos.

Finally, the day of our meal at Noma had arrived! I was worried I had read too many articles about the dinner and had overly hyped the experience in my head. Storms loomed throughout the day and we held our breath hoping they would hold off.

As we walked into the restaurant, the sky opened up and a downpour proceeded. We walked to our table under an umbrella as staff briskly moved guests to dryer tables. Luckily, we were nestled under a palm tree, just out of reach from the rain.

Our dinner started with a glass of champagne and a cheers among friends!

We started with a piñuela, a delicate fruit served with tamarind, a touch of mezcal, and cilantro flowers.

Coco tierno con caviar stole the show for me. Fresh green coconut with Russian caviar. Maybe it was the exciting flavors or the unexpected pairing of ingredients, but I have not stopped thinking about this dish since then.

Chef Redzepi is known for using unusual ingredients and tostada de escamoles has to be one of the weirdest yet most delightful dishes I’ve ever tasted. Escamole (ant larva) tastes and looks like sweet corn served on a tostada. Although the ingredients sound pretty out-there, it was one of the most familiar flavors of the evening.

The entire experience was full of twists and turns, much like a suspense thriller. Each dish seemed like a new chapter as the plot thickened. From octopus to crickets, we all agreed that this meal would go down in history.

After a meal like that, where do you go? Local streets tacos, of course! Several of the Noma chefs recommended Honorios tacos.

Our last day was full of reflection and relaxation on the beach before we headed home with our delicious memories and a new appreciation for food.