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The waiter informed me that my order of tikin xic grouper, the house specialty, would take 40 minutes to prepare. I looked over at Carrie for some guidance. It was, after all, our penultimate day of vacation, and I wasn’t sure we wanted to spend 40 minutes of it waiting for grilled fish at this beach-side lunch spot on Isla Mujeres.

Then we came to our senses. I mean, what more did we need than Caribbean waters at our feet, cold drinks under a palapa, and the smell of grilled fish in the distance? I waded into the Bahia de Mujeres, beer in hand, to pass the time. I tried to ignore all the goddamn seaweed that threatened to dispell my island fantasy.

When I got bored of that, I popped my head into the kitchen to get a first-hand look at how the cooks prepare this Mayan fish speciality. The kitchen is located under a giant palapa and totally inaccessible to tourists and nosy food writers. The only way for me to sneak a peek at the stoves was to stick my head through a small window, which I did. I couldn’t see much other than fish frying in a cast-iron skillet, which is not the way tikin xic is supposed to be prepared. I was bracing for disappointment.

Then the grouper arrived, this hulking, Jagger-lipped specimen so common to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Scaled and gutted, the grouper was butterflied to reveal its scored flesh, which was tinted the most mouthwatering shades of orange and red, the result of its lengthy marinade in achiote paste and citrus juices. Just as important to me, the flesh was freckled with char, these little blackened sections that told me, without question, the grouper had been grilled in a banana leaf, not pan-fried. 

Despite its run-in with the high-heat of the grill, this fish was still swimming in its own juices, which pooled at the bottom of the grouper, where flesh meets skin. I don’t ever recall seeing so much juice in a grilled fish. The flavor was far more subtle than I expected from such a vibrant preparation. It wasn’t spicy. It wasn’t sour. It was…fresh. It was smokey. It was salty. And yet, it also hinted at something wilder underneath.

I greedily ripped out sections of meat and wrapped them in a fresh corn tortilla, along with some strands of cabbage, rice, and a lean application of the tongue-searing habanero sauce, which our waiter brought to the table.  If there was a better way to spend the afternoon on vacation, I couldn’t think of it right then.