Looking for restaurants in Belize? Want to know where to eat in Placencia? Head on a foodie road trip through Belize, stopping off at roadside restaurants, Placencia tacos shacks and San Ignacio cafes
Some call Belize a melting pot of cuisines, but those who live there prefer to call it a fruit bowl, choosing the best bits of each to create their own. Nudged between Mexico and Guatemala, and influenced by significant immigration from seven different cultures – among them China, Taiwan, India and Indonesia – it’s no surprise that the food landscape in Belize is as varied as its geographical terrain. There are no food franchises in the country (fried chicken is the closest you’ll come to fast-food) so locals steer themselves instead to roadside shacks in hues of bubble-gum pink, burnt orange and deep turquoise serving made-to-order tamales and salbutes.
A two-hour flight from Miami, this laid-back country has the down-to-earth charm of a place that’s yet to be overly commercialised, with jungles, coastline, cities (albeit two) and farmsteads all within a short drive of each other. Rice and beans, corn tortillas, fried Jacks (a bit like a puffy savoury doughnut) and ceviche are staple dishes you’ll find across the country, and, as Belizeans like to point out, everything’s made better with a dash of rum.
Where to eat, drink and sleep in San Ignacio…
Tucked away in downtown San Ignacio, this all-day breakfast spot serves American classics (waffles, pancakes and omelettes) but it’s the fried Jacks that people stay for. Grab a cosy green-leather booth and order a plate piled high with the moreish snack – tortilla dough that’s been deep-fried to create a light, puffy savoury doughnut, with a slight chew to it. If you’re after something hearty, order the chaya pockets, where fried Jacks come filled with scrambled eggs and earthy tree spinach (and a generous side of creamy refried beans). Or, keep it sweet by tearing open the hot puffs and drizzling them generously with maple syrup. On a Sunday, the locals pile in after church, ordering plates of them alongside black coffee topped with condensed milk.
On most tables in Belize, the only condiment you’ll find is a bottle of Marie Sharp’s habanero pepper sauce. There are 16 in the range (choose between sweet mango, original fiery, or, for the brave hearted, Belizean heat), each made with a carrot base, and the iconic sauce is added to soups, stir fries or into boiling water when cooking rice.
While the main sauce shop is in Stann Creek, San Igancio is home to the Marie Sharp cookery school. Sign up for a class and Will, the chef, will take you down to the local farmer’s market in search of pineapples and plantains to add to the class menu of rice and beans, stew chicken and tortillas. Along the way there’ll be snifters of cashew, sorrel and jackfruit wine – a type of fermented vinegar. When it comes to cooking you’ll pick up tips on recreating the dishes at home, like using coconut milk to flavour rice and beans, rubbing your tortilla balls in butter to stop them from drying out, and, most importantly, using annatto seasoning in the stew chicken to give it that distinct red colour and sweet yet smoky flavour.
This turquoise wooden-panelled hut, suspended on stilts, is just a short stroll from downtown San Ignacio. The focus here is farm-to-table dining, with fruit and vegetables coming from Chaa Creek’s 30-acre organic Maya farm. Expect an eclectic mixture of dishes, from quesadillas to ceviche, Thai lettuce wraps and Middle-Eastern platters.
Opened in 1981 by Lucy and Mick Fleming – two backpackers who came to Belize and settled in the west – Chaa Creek offers eco-living in the jungle (describing itself as “wildly civilised” it mixes nature with man-made luxuries). With a camp for backpackers, individual thatched roof lodges and luxury treehouses, there’s accommodation for all budgets, scattered among winding gravel paths overlooking the lush rainforest, and 10% of all accommodation revenue goes back to partner community projects each year. All bedrooms come with reusable aluminium water bottles, while metal straws and fabric napkins are used in the restaurant.
Be sure to head to the bar, which is lined with Kilner jars filled with house-infused rums, from ginger, allspice and cinnamon to lemongrass basil. Try them mixed into mojitos and margaritas for a pre-dinner tipple. Fruit and vegetables (everything from avocados and kale to sorrel and limes) come from the hotel’s 30-acre Maya organic farm, which you can take a tour around. Other activities include sunset canoes on the adjacent river and early-morning dips in a serene infinity pool looking out onto coconut trees.
For breakfast indulge in bowls of creamy coconut yogurt, chunks of fresh watermelon, pineapple and melon, and sweet sorrel (hibiscus flower) tea.
Where to eat, drink and foodie things to do in Placencia…
John the Bakerman
A must-visit in Placencia, the waft of freshly baked bread from its ovens will be enough to direct you to this little blue wooden shack. Its stock-in-trade is loaves of bread and warm cinnamon buns. It might look closed when you arrive, but hang around long enough and John will stroll out and show you around, opening cast-iron ovens for you to peek inside and talking you through the baked goods.
Antique scales are piled high with flour, while tins on the work surface are filled with buns, slowly proving away in the warm air. Arrive early to try one of his cinnamon versions (a few are kept for those who turn up later in the day) – squidgy layers spiked with warm cinnamon sugar, currants and a sweet, sticky icing.
For the best gelato in town, visit Tuttifrutti, a little white-washed parlour with green shutters just down the road from John the Bakerman. This 15-year old institution churns out creamy gelato from 9am-9pm, six days a week. With a daily-changing menu of 18 flavours, you won’t be stuck for choice. If it’s on that day, order the fresh coconut, spiked with sweet desiccated flecks of the stuff, or the rich pistachio. Perch outside, or enjoy your scoop on the neighbouring sandy beach.
Maya Beach Bistro
For fresh fish with stunning beach views, Maya Beach Bistro is the place to book a table. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, this open-sided, mahogany-panelled hut is strung prettily with lightbulbs and looks out, beyond palm trees, onto the Caribbean Sea. Lobster is where it’s at, so start with the lobster bread pudding, where squidgy brioche rolls come soaked in a sweet vanilla brandy bisque with chunks of lobster tail. For mains, order the indulgent lobster grilled cheese; chunky slices of toasted whole-wheat bread sandwiches pieces of meaty lobster, swimming in an oozing cheddar and brie sauce.
Perched on the side of the road, this rustic hut with vibrant green signage is the place to go for tacos. Early morning queues grow quickly when people pick up hot chicken tamales from the help-yourself box on the counter before work, but the tacos are an equally appealing breakfast option.
With only a couple of women working in the tiny kitchen, take a seat on a stool while you watch them being made. Smoky nuggets of juicy pork come topped with punchy pico de gallo, sharp onion slithers and a dollop (or two) of hot sauce; turn you head to one side as you eat to save yourself from losing all those sweet meat juices.
Where to eat, drink and foodie things to do in San Pedro…
What started as a hole-in-the-wall burger joint over 40 years ago is now one of Ambergris Caye’s most popular seafood restaurants. Still owned by Elvia Staines, daughter Jennie is now at the helm of the kitchen. The colourful roadside restaurant, complete with sand flooring, is decked out with mahogany panels, vibrant canvases by local artists and brightly patterned tablecloths. Each night there’s a special, with Wednesdays focusing on crab and Fridays playing host to the Grand Maya buffet with live music playing in the background.
The coconut shrimp curry is what people go for – a yellow curry sauce flavoured with rich coconut, tomatoes and sweet shrimps served with fragrant coconut rice and sweet slices of plantain. If it’s on the menu, order the crab claws filled with flaky crab meat and a side of rice and beans. Wash it down with a margarita, the signature cocktail; keep it classic with lime, or order a warming ginger, sweet pineapple or punchy jalapeño version.
San Pedro has a non-stop hustle and bustle that you don’t find across other parts of Belize, but there’s still a laid-back vibe across its three main streets (referred to as first, middle and back) and their vibrant buildings. Head to middle street to make a pit-stop at DandE’s, a frozen custard shop run by Americans Dan and Eileen Jamison.
Inspired by the Coney Island treat, the frozen custard (made from whole milk, sugar and egg) has a thick, creamier texture than other ices after being churned. Step inside the ramshackle shop, where walls are lined with drawings from customers, and take your pick from a whiteboard filled with flavours. Expect everything from pumpkin pie to maple pecan and be sure to finish your cone with a sprinkle of chopped nuts for that extra crunch.
To get a real taste of the local cuisine, sign up for a walking food tour from San Pedro Central Park and you’ll get to sample dishes from seven different restaurants and bars in the old town. Run by Felipe and his sister Dora (who both grew up on the island) the aim was to preserve the local heritage so along the route you’ll learn about the cultural and culinary history of the area and its restaurants.
Tours start at Elvi’s Kitchen before moving onto Briana’s Food Palace – a no-frills place serving plates of garnaches (a dish made of fried corn tortillas topped with refried beans, shredded cabbage and cheese), empanadas, salbutes (a moreish, deep-fried corn tortilla) and fried Jacks. Save room for the fresh boiled shrimp ceviche at Lily’s Treasure Chest, though. Conch fritters continue the seafood theme at El Fogon before dessert by the beach at The Holiday Hotel, San Pedro’s first hotel.
For breakfast by the beach head to Estel’s Dine by the Sea. The vivid turquoise building, complete with vibrant signs and bright murals, serves up a hearty Belizean breakfast with the salty sea whooshing in and out in the background. Take your pick between picnic-style tables shaded under the roof, or go barefoot and enjoy the sand under your feet on the beach itself. Take your pick from a blackboard daubed with choices in colourful chalk, from huevos rancheros to Mayan eggs.
Creamy shrimp omelettes come filled with a mixture of slow-cooked onions, peppers and tomatoes, with generously-sized fried Jacks on the side. You can build you own, with a choice of eggs, meats and breads, but the sides really come into their own. Opt for crispy fried potatoes, creamy refried beans, cinnamon rolls or tortillas.
Tortilla making at San Antonio Women’s Co-operative
Learn how to make corn tortillas with San Antonio Women’s Co-operative, a group of Yugatec Maya women trying to bring back traditional cookery techniques. Watch (and try your hand) at mixing corn dough, made simply from dried corn and water then cooking it over open-fire on a clay pot before drizzling the resulting puffs with coconut oil and a sprinkle of salt. Indulge in a lunch of tamale – a light, soft corn dough (imagine a kind of Belizean version of cannelloni) filled with stew chicken before being wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a pot over flames.
Ask to try the corn coffee, too. It’s a simple concoction of corn that’s been blackened in a clay pot over open flames and ground before being mixed with boiling water. It has the same punchy bitterness of an espresso, only with zero caffeine.