The dumbest thing I ever did in Cancun didn’t happen when I was (or pretending to be) 21. Instead, it took place mere weeks ago, on the cusp of my third 39th birthday, and it was a classic rookie mistake that left me in a bit of a pepinillo, if you will. I’m almost too embarrassed to admit it, but accidents happen when you’re caught up in the fun of an evening on the beautiful beach, staring out at that unmistakably gorgeous turquoise water, at the Marriott Cancun Resort.
Oh, and I suppose it’s worth mentioning that a little bit of mezcal was involved.
But first, let’s turn the clock back to 2019, when this property was celebrating some serious changes. For starters, arriving guests would have to be oblivious to not notice the work being done to the lobby. The breathtaking new design, which is so spacious and captivating that it feels like a palace, wouldn’t be completed until January 2020, but the effort alone signaled an ambitious desire to remind travelers from all over the world that this property is iconic.
The centerpiece of the new lobby is the GreatRoom bar, with its sophisticated style, drawn from local culture and history, and massive windows overlooking the courtyard and pool, as well as a collection of Mexican whiskeys and mezcals that any aficionado would love.
As impressive as the lobby and GreatRoom are, there might not be anything that holds a candle to the hotel’s newest restaurant, the SacBé Beach Shack. This sandy spot is tucked away behind and below the pool, almost as if no one was supposed to know about it. However, that would have been a crying shame, because to know this joint is most certainly to fall madly in love with it.
From the name to the décor, the Mayan influence is evident and exceptionally executed, especially when blended with the bohemian vibes of Tulum. With no floors, the sand is always between your toes, and that’s enough to make any beach bum feel at home. Don’t be surprised if you spot an influencer or two—in my case it was four—mastering their selfies from either the floor loungers, bar swings, or hammock seats. And try not to hurt your neck as you nod along to the subtle, enjoyable beats from the DJ stationed right next to the lifeguard station.
Any other year, SacBé Beach Shack would have been the talk of Cancun, and its reputation would have quickly had social media buzzing and travelers hyped to visit. But like many resorts and new restaurants throughout the Caribbean and Mexico, the buzz was subdued in 2020. Instead of building momentum and earning its status as an energetic sandcastle with food and drinks that’ll make a starving guest forget all about Marriott Cancun’s other culinary delights, this one simply had to wait.
That also means I had to wait to visit and finally experience SacBé Beach Shack’s Mezcal Lab, which, if you’re here for the short version, should immediately leap to the top of everyone’s Cancun dream list. I have enjoyed tequila and mezcal tasting several times, but never anything as in-depth, educational, and downright delicious as this.
The evening’s festivities featured a wildly creative joint effort between Chef Albert Marquez and the Mezcalier, Manuel Benavente. My group was presented with four courses, with each food item conceived by Chef Albert with a little help from his grandmother’s recipes. Then, as an item was served, the Mezcalier, who stood before us as equal parts professor and rock star, gifted us with a generous pour from a well-disguised mystery bottle.
In some tastings that I have attended, the person running the show told us flat-out what we were drinking and why it was perfect for the specific dish. What makes the Mezcal Lab so spectacular is the learning experience that is built into it. Instead of giving us the answers to the test, Manuel challenged us to not just sip our samplings of each bottle, but also focus on them individually for the sake of determining notes and comprehending why it matches Chef Albert’s ingredients. It is an intermediate course that can make a beginner feel like an expert.
But you only feel like an expert until you pull a rookie move in front of an audience, so that brings us back to my dumbest moment. Chef Albert does an excellent job of explaining his ingredients and what makes each dish so flavorful and important to him, and he was particularly proud of his handmade habanero sauce served alongside his pibil-style pork. I, a hot sauce junky with little common sense in moments of friendly banter and, again, mezcal, saw this dipping spot as a challenge and swiped my pork taco right through it, scooping up about half of the sauce in one bite’s worth.
It’ll be a long, long time before I ever forget Chef Albert’s smile as he waved over more water from the bar. But even as I laughed through the tears and sweat—and everyone within a 30-foot radius enjoyed my jovial misery—I was pleased by how well the sauce paired with the Benavente Mezcal.
To be accurate, I visited SacBé Beach Shack three times during my stay. I was over the moon (the Super Flower Blood variety) to be testing my mezcal chops with an expert, but the bottom line is we visit Cancun for authentic Mexican food, so I had to test the regular menu or else I’d never forgive myself.
And when the server guaranteed me one of the best quesadillas I will ever have in my life, well, that’s a challenge I won’t back down from. Verdict: It was incredible and if life was fair, I would have been able to fill my suitcase with mushroom and steak quesadillas so I could bring them home and eat them in front of my jealous family.
Not that it’s much of a surprise that a place that hosts a Mezcal Lab would have great cocktails, but I’m particularly a sucker for mezcal-based margaritas. Factor in delicious fruits like watermelon or various berries and I’m bringing those recipes home with me. The Sundown Somewhere (watermelon) and Raspberry Benavente drinks were not only terrific because they were fresh and dynamic in flavor, but they’re also completely different. They’re daytime and evening cocktails, respectively, yet no one would hold it against you for switching them up.
Manuel was a fan of the Sundown Somewhere as well, and it’s a very good sign when a certified mezcalier loves a cocktail, because that gave me an in to ask the most pressing question I have for any spirits expert: What’s your favorite cocktail recipe to make with mezcal?
The answer, Manuel told me, was surprisingly simple: “Two ounces mezcal, two ounces grapefruit juice, two ounces orange juice, one ounce lemon juice, and one ounce pomegranate juice.”
I may not have been able to sneak home a dozen or so quesadillas, but I was fortunate to bring home a lot of mezcal knowledge and a recipe that I have already made enough that I won’t need to write it down again.