Classic Tables: Chichen Itza

The Yucatecan fire still burns bright after 10 years

Long before Ricardo Zarate's Peruvian flavors brought the national spotlight to Mercado La Paloma, dedicated fans of fiery cuisine were joyously burning their taste buds at Chichen Itza.

Opened in early 2001, chef Gilberto Cetina's restaurant is devoted to the cooking of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. The region's tropical climate and Mayan history both bear a strong influence on the cuisine, which features a liberal use of toasted pumpkin seeds and a reliance on the incendiary habanero for spice.

We mourned the loss of the Westlake outpost, which closed in 2009, but any residual sadness melts away whenever we sit down to a plate of cochinita pibil (pictured; $9.50), the restaurant's famous red-stained pork.

The orange- and achiote-marinated meat is cooked into submission within a banana leaf, the resultant pile of pig crowned with pickled onions and a whole habanero. Rarely do we leave any of this rich, tangy dish behind–except for the untouched chile.

Cetina's cochinita pibil has earned him a place in meat lovers' hearts, but it's a vegetarian dish, sikil pak ($4), that most thoroughly haunts our taste buds. The Mayan dip of ground pumpkin seeds, tomatoes and herbs sounds simple, but it has a depth of flavor to match its long history.

Chichen Itza, 3655 S. Grand Ave., Downtown; 213-741-1075