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Jungle Food: A Visit to Hartwood in Tulum, Mexioco

The coastal region of Tulum, Mexico, is exotic enough to draw thousands of tourists each year; wild enough to remain undeveloped and unspoiled. Long lines in Tulum are typically restricted to two places: the hours-long ones leading to the famous Mayan ruins and, more recently, the equally long one leading to the popular eatery Hartwood.

Hartwood opened in 2011 to instant global acclaim. The hype centered primarily around its food and locale. Fish speared daily from the Caribbean Sea; produce gathered daily from inland farms; all of it served in an assemblage of open-air shacks so primitive they could pass for a charming campsite.

Almost as enchanting as the food is Hartwood’s story. New Yorkers Eric Werner and Mya Henry moved to Tulum in 2010 after a series of vacations there left them with a serious case of wanderlust. Eric had invested years of round-the-clock work in the kitchens of Manhattan, and while he assumed life would roll on status-quo, his wife had bigger ideas. “What if we didn’t go back,” she asked during one particular drive to Cancun International Airport. What if they established their own business here, allowing them to stay put? The work might be equally intense, but they’d be in paradise while doing it.

“Sold,” said Eric, screeching into the most thrilling U-turn of his life. They had no money, no real estate, and no permits. Nevertheless, one year later, they had a running restaurant.

With its tropical temps, lush green canopy, rustic lanterns, and blazing fire, Hartwood is sexy as dining gets. But “sexy” was the last thing Mya and Eric had in mind when they were machete-hacking wild brush to make room for the site. Any ambiance here was born solely out of necessity. The open-fire concept comes from having no electricity. The open-air design, because they had limited money and materials. The name, from the species of cured wood used for the fire. The locale is so remote and its amenities so primitive, its cuisine can basically be described as Yucatan-bred food cooked over an American-style campfire.

The menu, too, is a product of its environment, ever-changing based on what fish comes in off the boat that morning, and what fruits and vegetables are delivered from Tulum’s inland farmer sources. The preparation is always roasted or raw, and the seasonings are the spices, herbs, juices, and oils growing all around them—honey, coconut, roasted chilies, and dried chamomile. Into a whirl of clanging pans and chopping knives those raw ingredients go, and back out they come in the form of dishes so colorful, so hedonistic, and so simple, they could only be a product of this town, this restaurant, this moment.

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