Leave the buffet to explore the land of tequila, pico de gallo and birria tacos
By Omar Mouallem | December 1, 2014
It’s no secret that western Canadians love Puerto Vallarta. While eastern Canadians prefer Mexico’s Cancun region (or Florida), Albertans and British Columbians have gravitated more to the Pacific coast city made famous by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s love affair. And since the province’s second oil boom and the Mexican city’s real-estate boom coincided in the mid-2000s, those of us seeking a winter escape have enjoyed the luxury of multiple flights every week at our disposal.
And the effects of these flights were obvious at Occidental Grand Nuevo Vallarta, a newly renovated all-inclusive located in a resort community minutes away from Puerto Vallarta, yet in a different time zone. I randomly encountered fellow Edmontonians – even friends of friends – seemingly everywhere. We puffed Cubans and sipped smoky mescal in the luxurious open-air lounge, flooded the amphitheatre karaoke with Fleetwood Mac and cheered for the Sherwood Park couple who crushed the poolside beer-drinking contest.
But comforting as it was, the oceanside resort started feeling like a tropical suburb – especially when it came to the buffet tables. One could stuff his face without ever encountering so much as a poblano pepper. Here I was in Jalisco, the home state of tequila, pico de gallo and birria – a slow-cooked beef brisket in stew-soaked tortillas grilled to a crisp – not knowing where to begin. And so, I joined a Puerto Vallarta Food Tour in hopes of finding the region’s authentic flavours.
After I met the guide Alex Nava on the manicured El Malecn Boardwalk, he immediately led me far away from it, uphill along some battered sidewalks and around a corner (note; bring sensible shoes). There it was, the glorious birria taco cart – well, kind of. It was hardly visible behind a cluster of locals, who swarm it everyday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., or whenever the Tacos Robles reaches the end of its supply. For 28 years, Mrs. Robles and her family have served this delicious mess that proves the best Mexican food usually comes off the street. But just in case we needed any more convincing, we burrowed further into the Romantic Zone (what the locals call their “gaybourhood”) to a man stirring a massive vat of tomato stew.
Most Carnitas El Michoacano (note; it’s now closed) patrons take the tacos of “little meats” – the translation of carnitas – to go, but we dined in. Sitting in Coca-Cola patio chairs and eating off plastic plates wrapped in clear bags to keep them clean gives the illusion that carnitas are easy to make, but don’t be fooled. To achieve pork shoulder that is this tender and flavourful takes hours of braising and a delicate balance of spices.
Alex led us to other family restaurants but none more multigenerational than Cevicheria El Guero. Every day the middle Guero, Antonio, goes to the fish market for the day’s catch of red snapper and mahi mahi. While his son served us Jamaica, a cool hibiscus tea, and his father delicately cleaned chili peppers with a dry cloth, Antonio chopped and soaked the fish in lime juice for 20 minutes and tossed it with diced onions, tomatoes and cilantro. The cool, sweet and tart ceviche arrived on a tostada topped a creamy avocado wedge, and tasted as fresh as you’d expect for something made on the spot every afternoon.
After a brief tour of a tortilla factory, Alex and I stopped for fresh coconut water sipped right out of the nut. There are several setups, like Caesar’s Coconut Stand, around the city, but I was too intimidated to approach the machete wielding purveyors without adult supervision. After the green, shaved coconut was dry, I handed it to Caesar. He briskly chopped it up, tossed in a clear bag and sprinkled with salt, pepper and chili powder. The coconut meat was suddenly an addictive snack, staining my fingers like a bag of Doritos, but much, much more satisfying.
Not all of the city’s top fare is casual, of course. Mama Rosa is the kind of restaurant where Jalisco families go to celebrate birthdays. It’s also one of the only places to find sopa Tarasca. Like tortilla soup but made with black beans, it’s thicker and richer and gives a slight kick care of pan-fried guajillo chilies. Named for the Aztecs’ enemy empire, the Tarascans, the soup is difficult to find in Mexico because little of the Tarascan culture was retained. Thankfully, this dish made the cut.
With the end of the tour nearing, it was time to celebrate by “drinking the flag.” That is, a time-honoured tradition of shooting three glasses of different coloured liquids – yellow (lime juice), white (tequila) and red (sangria). For that, we re-entered the tourist area located near the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe and took a seat inside Gaby’s. After savouring chewy chicken enchiladas smothered in chocolaty mole unique to Jalisco, we raised our glasses and toasted: To Puerto Vallarta, one of the continent’s most under-appreciated food regions.