When winter blows snow into icy ridges against your windows, it’s time to look south. An easy four-hour non-stop flight from Chicago lands in the heart of a Mexican Riviera, Puerto Vallarta. Hotels and condo rentals abound to welcome northern snowbirds, and friendly Mexican locals stand ready to serve. First on any traveler’s mind is the question of safety in Mexico, and Puerto has a long history of offering visitors security and kindness. After four visits to PV, I’ve found no areas of the city that I would hesitate to venture into alone on foot during daylight hours or after sunset.
Once settled in a furnished condo near the beach, we walked two blocks east to 260 5 de Febrero, No Way José, a spot that sounded corny, but seemed to draw crowds. At a spacious upstairs table, we lifted glasses of cold Negra Modelo and crunched the welcome chorizo-topped taquito.
Two small roasted güeros, tiny yellow banana peppers stuffed with mahi-mahi ceviche, arrived on a plate mirrored with tart passion fruit purée sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Here began my journey into the tradition of combining fruit with locally caught fish. I’d already determined to focus on seafood; after all, we were just steps from the fish-laden Banderas Bay.
No Way José’s main plate brought a thick fillet of perfectly grilled mahi-mahi resting on wilted zucchini flowers and covered with a thick creamy mango mandarin sauce. A few julienned carrots and zucchini nestled next to a mound of mashed potatoes. The bland sweet sauce did nothing to enhance my delicious thick fish fillet. A touch of zippy salsa and a squeeze of lime livened the mixture, and the uninteresting mashed potato was easy to abandon for warm corn tortillas on request.
Dessert was not on my program, but the miniature Mexican flan garnished with orange curd, strawberry purée and powdered cinnamon was a perfect final taste fragranced with cinnamon splinter candles.
This entire dinner for two including two margaritas, one beer, one first, two main plates, and one dessert cost just under $50. Keep in mind that most restaurants in PV are not smoke-free. Halfway through our dinner a chain smoker sat down next to us. Fortunately our table, alongside an open window, gave us just enough breeze to keep the air moving.
The local free newspaper, PV Mirror, praised a new restaurant opened by the veteran chef of the prestigious Café des Artistes in town. Hugo Ahumados named his place Maia for the earth goddess and for his first-born daughter. Tucked near the end of the block, Pulpita Street hugs the southern edge of the Romantic Zone just yards up from the beach. Inside, we found a comfortable, unpretentious room with bare tables, low lighting and no attempt to “fiesta up” the space. There’s no printed menu, but a large chalkboard lists the day’s specials. Here only local seasonal.
At last I would find a good glass of wine from the premium winegrowing region in the Baja Peninsula. Our server brought me two samples to choose from; both were excellent, though I found the chenin/colombard blend from Santo Tomás fuller in flavor, drier, and better for the fish on order. Drinks in hand, we were greeted with a tidbit of warm bean and chorizo purée with fresh tortilla chips.
We shared our first course of hot shrimp, octopus and mushrooms in garlic butter with julienned guajillo chili. Surprisingly, it arrived in an oval sardine tin. As warm as it was, giving off an irresistible garlic butter aroma, we longed for some French bread to dip in the sauce and wished we’d ordered separate plates for both of us.
When our fish arrived, we were jolted by another unusual serving dish, an oval glass bowl designed to look like a split glass jug. These tableware gimmicks did not improve the eating and made it more difficult to enjoy spooning the tasty sauce up with the fish. At this point I realized I’d run amiss. I did not receive the fish preparation I thought I was getting, and this was totally my fault. I need to advise you to study the chalkboard menu carefully and discuss details with your server. I was caught up with the type of fish offered since I’d seen this beautiful blue-scaled specimen in a pescadería, and I didn’t pay enough attention to the preparation. The fish arrived with fruit, and the sweet turned out to be not what I thought the best companion. The mojarra fillet was perfectly cooked and rested on a brothy bed of sliced poached apples, pineapple, strawberries, and jicama, then topped with a light vegetable stock velouté.
Dessert would have meant too much sugar after the fruit in our fish dishes, yet the freebie little glasses of sweetened coffee with tequila and milk alongside a bite of coconut candy and guava paste gave us a pleasant send off. What a welcome addition Maia brings to the more common touristy food in PV.
Maia’s exquisite handcrafted dinner, including two margaritas, a glass of wine, one appetizer and two main plates, came to 623 pesos or just under $50 before tip.
When you’ve come to the point in your Vallarta stay that all you want is some great fish and chips, a perfect margarita (not the huge frozen mixtures that taste like Sprite and cheap booze), head over to Basilla Badillo and join the crowd at Joe Jack’s Fish Shack. Be sure to sit upstairs in the open-air garden room with old movie posters and hanging bougainvillea. Here you’ll find American efficiency, lots of English spoken, perfectly cooked fish, genuine mixed drinks, and plates delivered with a touch of Mexican flair.
I can’t leave Puerto without encouraging you to try its street food. Every vendor I’ve encountered has been clean and friendly as can be. Each one offers some of the best tastes in the city. I’m fond of the fish tacos at the Marisma stand up the hill near the Emiliano Zapata fruit market at 320 Naranjo, where the battered fish tacos and the smoked marlin tacos are delectable. Closer into the beach area at the corner of Constitución and Francisco Madero, El Moreno is our favorite spot for birria, pork tacos, and quesadillas. The Birria Woman, as I’ve called her, has been holding forth here for 34 years and is now joined by her daughter and son-in-law. They maintain a lively trade in their tidy white cubicle surrounded by bar stools from 10 in the morning until late at night. They dispense savors and salsas of Mexico not to be missed.
If you have any kitchen facilities available, consider cooking some of the amazing fresh produce available. Walk east, up the hill to the end of Cárdenas Street to Mercado Emiliano Zapata. Here you’ll find abundant fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, grains, dairy products, and tortillas. For incredible fish caught daily, walk west and look across the street from the shuttered Rizo’s on Constitución for Pescadería el Aguaje; then cook the best meal you’ll have in Puerto Vallarta.
As a side note: for the luxuriating experience of a perfect hairstyle, a facial or manicure, make an appointment at Cuquita on Libertad Street in the Central Zone. Here the expert dueña, a gorgeous woman with decades in the business, will bring you the sensation of being pampered in a grand hacienda.
Photos:Mary Jo Mc Millin
Published on Jan 27, 2014