Learn About Mexican Culture Through Exceptional Cocktails at This Riviera Maya Bar
For many travelers who have their sights set on the resorts of Mexico, their cocktail fantasies might exclusively orbit around endless margaritas — frozen with salt on the rim. But as refreshing and delightful as a perfect marg can be, at Zapote, the handsome new bar at Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, the cocktail menu aims for more.
Juan Pablo Loza, Rosewood Mayakoba's director of culinary operations, dreamed up Zapote years ago when he was tasked with revamping the resort's food and beverage offerings. "When they hired me in 2015, I set out to show off, through new dining concepts, what Mexico is," Loza tells Travel + Leisure. "We needed more than the existing menus — we had three restaurants when I started — to express the richness of our culinary heritage."
Loza was traveling around Mexico researching different ways he could incorporate his homeland's robust food culture into the blueprint of a luxury beach resort when he decided that, in addition to food, he needed to add a world-class bar to the property's food and beverage lineup. And it was in Mexico City's Licoreria Limantour, a World's 50 Best Bars stalwart, while sipping on award-winning libations six years ago where the eureka moment popped up.
"When we tried their drinks, I was immediately amazed, and that's when I asked myself and my team at the time: 'How can we call ourselves one of the best resorts in the world if we're not serving at least one drink like this?,'" Loza recalls. The years between then and the February 2021 opening of Zapote were spent growing and strengthening the seeds of ambition sown in that bar. Limantour eventually became a collaborator, not just on the beverage side but in the decor, too, when Rosewood brought in Estudio Atemporal, Limantour's branding and design partners, to execute Loza's vision.
In addition to slinging tasty drinks that pay homage to the Yucatán, Loza wanted Zapote to deliver a specific experience that deviates from what most travelers expect from a bar by the beach. Instead of going for a party-like tropical atmosphere, his point of reference was more intimate, more elegant, and more Mexican.
"In this region, haciendas are very unique; they're beautiful houses in the middle of the jungle, in the middle of nowhere," Loza says of the inspiration for Zapote. "I like that feeling, of being invited to have a drink in someone's hacienda. And that's the concept we tried to bring to Mayakoba."
The indoor-outdoor bar, split into various spatial vignettes, is built around natural materials found all over the Yucatán peninsula. A medley of warm wood and stark stone creates an old-meets-new aesthetic through a decidedly midcentury modern lens. Different types of seating arrangements (from a long communal table in the middle of the bar to secreted nooks best used by an amorous twosome) allow not only for visual depth, but also for various parties to make use of Zapote however they want. Plants throughout help create that lush hacienda-in-the-jungle atmosphere as does the thoughtful inclusion of more "personal" items like books, figurines, small metal lamps, and other tchotchkes — the type of stuff that a well-traveled matriarch may have collected over time and scattered around her home.
As beautiful as the bar looks, it's the food and drink that truly make Zapote sing — and where the homage to Mexico is most prevalent. The signature cocktails, for instance, are a celebration of all things local, from the wild herbs and Indigenous fruits to potent Mexican spirits. We all know about tequila and mezcal, but did you know about paranubes? It's a rum from Oaxaca that's mixed into a milk punch, made tart with mamey and pineapple. There's also Katun, a Yucatán gin distilled by a former mezcal producer. It's mixed into mayayo, one of Zapote's most popular drinks; it features a sour orange that the hotel grows in its on-property garden. Like the rest of the menu, mayayo has a bright, forever-summer quality to it.
"This place is hot all the time so we knew we wanted our signature drinks to be refreshing," Loza adds. And, don't worry, there is definitely a Casa Dragones margarita on the menu.
The food menu, too, has an unexpected Yucatán narrative. Trendy, live-fire cooking is at the center of Loza's kitchen at Zapote, but dig a bit deeper, and you'll notice that there's a strong Middle Eastern inflection in every dish. And that's because in the 19th century, immigrants from Lebanon started settling in the region and have since made significant contributions to the local community.
"The food can be labeled Lebanese-Mexican," Loza says of the tapas-style menu that includes pita paired with different types of spreads like the guacahini — "it's as if a guacamole and a hummus had a baby."
One of Loza's favorites is the shakshuka, a well-known egg dish that he turns on its head by spiking the tomato sauce with habanero and then adding pumpkin seeds, two ingredients that show up in a popular egg-based Yucatán tamale called Brazo de Reina. For Loza, this is the perfect marriage of the two. "It looks like shakshuka, but it tastes like Brazo de Reina."
It's another way that Zapote aims to lightly educate its guests on all things Mexican. Loza adds, "I want to show that Mexico is more than just fajitas, Coronas, and margaritas."