The Garbage Can Chicken Shack: Street Food in Playa Del Carmen
By: Chef Cristian Feher
For me, traveling is about the food. I’ve always said that you can tell much from a culture by it’s food - the arrogant portions of French cuisine, the proud dishes of Spain, and the simply divine meats of Argentina which show decades of unyielding tradition are but a few examples of this.
I’ve been fortunate to have done a lot of travel in my life - not enough - but more than most. Until our technology advances, the next best thing to space exploration is to sit inside a flying bus, and burn fossil fuel through the clouds of Earth. It’s relaxing, exciting, dangerous and new, all at the same time.
I like the unique smell each country has. I enjoy watching locals walking through a place, that I find intriguing, with complete indifference; I live vicariously through them for a moment, imagining what it would be like to have a life there - my family, problems, and bills, all against a different background. I enjoy the temporary detachment from society as you wait in an airport terminal far beyond customs and security.
With each country, city and place, I can always think back to a great meal.
Playa del Carmen is a seaside city in Mexico, south of Cancun. Off the main strips, away from the tourists and wealthy Mexicans visiting from Mexico City, there are busy taco restaurants lining the streets. The locals congregate. Mothers wipe avocado off their children’s faces. Roasted meats hang on the windows. Busy cooks chop away at their greasy cutting boards and pump out plastic plates of corn tortillas filled with various meaty delicacies. But as delicious as these local hang outs were, they were no match compared to, what I dubbed, “The garbage can chicken shack.”
During an afternoon stroll, I was ambushed by an intoxicating aroma. It seemed to be coming from around the corner. The smell carried me, like a cartoon Pepe LePew to the edge of a burnt-down restaurant. A Mexican family had built a rudimentary shack on the corner of the abandoned lot. Four posts, barely sturdy enough to hold up a rectangular piece of zinc roof, surrounded by four short walls made of cinder blocks. Under the roof was a picnic table, and several metal barrels roaring with wood fires inside. A sweaty man with a torn shirt smiled at me. His family moved about industriously behind him. The smell was unbelievable. Chickens, skewered through metal bars, roasted to perfection over the barrel fires. In the background, bubbling pots sputtered with steam. I decided to give this place a try. So I handed over my $4 (I would happily hand over $500 to have this meal again).
The whole chicken was split into six pieces by the expert chop of a heavy cleaver. It came efficiently packaged inside of a large plastic bag - no frills. The steam made the bag puff out like a balloon. Hot tamales and corn on the cob joined the chicken in another Ziploc bag, both passed to me inside a plastic shopping bag with a small containers of salsa verde (green tomato sauce), chipotle vinegar sauce, tomato salsa, paper plates, napkins and plastic cutlery. A picnic in a bag.
I intended to eat this on the beach, but as I recall, the farthest I made it was a park bench just a half block from the shack. It was insanely delicious. The world around me faded away. There were no sounds that I could recall. I began to wonder where these street chickens had been caught, but all I could focus on was the perfectly roasted skin - it tasted like limes, garlic and cilantro had a wild orgie on the chicken, giving birth to a whole new, perfectly delicious flavor. The meat, marinated in a salty brine, was so juicy and tasty that I wanted to cry. The tamales, warm and moist, peeled out of a yellow corn husk, were the perfect vessel for the sublime sauces (which were a masterpiece in themselves). I’m quite sure the recipe for that salsa verde had been made before; passed down with the strictness of a Vedic priest from mother to child.
The entire meal was out of this world. It was an event I can’t forget. “I didn’t know you could do that with chicken.” I mumbled to myself incoherently with pieces of chicken falling out of my mouth.
I have yet to have anything that even compared to that chicken. Had I not been so drugged up on chicken fat and hot sauce, I would have offered him money for the recipe. Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But I will never forget this happy moment in time, on a park bench in Playa del Carmen.