Amidst the quiet but lively streets in the heart of downtown Tulum, Mexico, Manny Flores sits tucked away in Naj K’ooben, an open air cocina located behind the city’s popular Hostel Sheck.
An experienced chef and globally proclaimed taco expert, Manny has spent decades finding his way around kitchens across the world before making his way back to the place he now calls home on the Yucatan Peninsula.
As I make my way through a lush garden of Guano Palm trees to join him in the kitchen, he greets me with a boisterous laugh and a bushel of the day’s fresh produce that he managed to snag at a local market — prickly pear cactus, dried guajillo chili peppers, and the ripest of avocados.
What seems like the start of an ordinary cooking class I quickly realise is anything but.
While Many diligently chops and dices meats and tough shelled veggies with precision and ease, his kitchen hands Jessica, an Aussie transplant, and her partner Carlos, a native of Mexico, pour endless ice cold glasses of fresh cucumber Aqua Fresca— perfect after my hike through the Tulum Ruins in the Mayan jungle.
I quickly realise that Manny is special — different from many chefs I have come to work with before. The difference isn’t in the way he cooks the food he serves to his patrons. No, I think to myself, it’s the way he admires it…almost *loves* it like each item is a living being with a special purpose.
The meal begins with giant molcajetes (mortar & pestles) of guacamole dip, spicy salsa roja, and warm salsa verde made table side per Manny’s direction.
I watch as each pepper is smelled and rolled between his hands to check for ripeness before being smashed and churned into a thick, soup-like consistency. He advises that these dips are best served warm with warm tortillas or chips.
For the main course — tacos — no sour cream or shredded cheese is found in these parts. Los tacos are made the traditional way, served with refried beans fresh off the stove top with seasoned meats such as chicken with Mexican pesto, pork chops with poblano peppers, and no pales (cactus) with Chile de Arbol peppers.
In between the bursts of white hot flames from the stove top skillets and playful banter with tales from his storied culinary past, Manny made sure the process of constructing this rarely designated UNESCO Heritage dish was both understood and appreciated. Spoken in impeccable English, Manny explains how to make tacos "gourmet and degustation style" using only what the Mayans once used: fire, mortar and pestles, local spices, and the freshet meats and local vegetables.
At certain points throughout the cooking process, the aroma from the peppers and the heat from the stovetop flames fill the nostrils of everyone in the kitchen. Hilarious moments of sneezing and eye-water ensued in what Manny said was a sure sign that what I was about to eat was as authentic as authentic could get.
Five rounds of gourmet tacos and four molcajete’s of salsa and guacamole dip later, I’m so full I can barely move, but Manny doesn’t quit — it’s not his style. Continuing to chop and grind and stir, he experiments with different combinations of flavours, spices, and oils asking those in the kitchen to reaffirm what he already knows is delicious by having them smell and feel the fresh produce in their own hands.
We part ways with an invitation to his street taco joint Tacos Manny's, that is a permanent establishment on the corner of the intersection just yards from the hostel property. What doesn’t look like much to the naked eye he assures us is a culinary experience we wouldn’t soon forget, especially after a few late night margaritas. A glance at his menu reassures this.
Unlike any cooking class I have experienced prior, Manny brings a special spice and personality to both his style of cooking and the dishes that makes with so much love and passion. His unfettered knowledge of traditional Mexican cuisine creates lasting memories and easy-to-learn recipes that can be passed on to love ones for generations.
To learn more about Manny and to book the 2.5 hour “Chef’s Table Taco Experience” through Airbnb during an upcoming trip to Tulum, book directly with Jessica and Carlos on Airbnbor Trip Advisor.
Alexandra Booze is a freelance travel writer and editor of the digital travel, food, and lifestyle publication East Coast Contessa. Since 2016 she has worked with more than 450 travel and hospitality brands from across the globe to provide social media, influencer marketing, photography, and editorial services.