You’ll find the beach restaurant of your dreams on an overgrown road in Tulum. It may lack walls, stoves, and a reservationist, but the fish is impeccably fresh and the open-fire cooking smart and soulful
Mya Henry and Eric Werner in the kitchen they built; the day’s ingredients are piled on the table or kept in white-washed crates.
It happens to all of us: You’re on vacation, and after a few days of clear skies and glassy surf, you wonder out loud, “Why not move here?”
Usually the question answers itself, and soon you’re waiting for your flight home and using the airport WiFi to catch up on e-mail. But when Eric Werner and Mya Henry were visiting Tulum, the low-key beach town on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula where the water is turquoise and the power grid stops at the main highway, they couldn’t think of a reason why they shouldn’t trade in their New York City lives for an eternal summer.
Six months later they returned to Tulum, bought a tiny plot of land on the jungle side of the narrow road that runs along the Caribbean, and opened Hartwood, a restaurant where all the food is prepared on the grill or in the wood-burning oven. Werner had worked at Vinegar Hill House in Brooklyn and Peasant in Manhattan, two restaurants famous for cooking on wood. It was good training, because at Hartwood there are no induction burners in the back, no ovens in the basement.
In fact, there is no basement. Or walls. The dining area has rough-hewn wood tables with benches open to the night sky; the bar where Henry mixes up Spicy Grapefruit Margaritas is a hut made out of whitewashed branches. It’s Gilligan’s Island by way of World of Interiors magazine.
Werner’s menu is just as original and straightforward, portraying a New Yorker’s abattoir-to-table love of meat and open flames as influenced by the products of Mexico. He buys his produce at the Mercado Municipal in Valladolid, driving 90 minutes to the colonial city deep in the Yucatán jungle in his vintage Jeep Wagoneer. His seafood is never more than a few hours out of the ocean.
At dinner, freshly tanned visitors will find slow-roasted pork belly charred on the grill and served with smoky-sweet pineapple; watermelon grilled for a salad of pea sprouts, queso fresco, and pickled radishes; and whole fish scored in the Mexican style, then masterfully grilled, and drizzled with olive oil infused with herbs from the market.
The food is flavorful—bold ingredients tied together with smoke, fresh herbs, and the occasional spicy kick. Werner and Henry might have the ideal outdoor kitchen, but you don’t need a wood-burning oven or palm trees rustling overhead to make the following dishes. If vacation is a state of mind, firing up the grill will take you there.
Hartwood, 7.6-km marker, Beach Rd., Tulum, Mexico; hartwoodtulum.com