by Marc d’Entremont
The easiest way to access La Islita del Rio Cuale from Old Puerto Vallarta is by walking across a wood plank pedestrian suspension bridge swaying gently above the river. What at first strikes a digitally engaged 21st century writer as rickety becomes a brief and pleasant time warp spanning Puerto Vallarta’s history. Affectionately dubbed the jungle, the thickly forested small island of Rio Cuale is a haven for well fed cats, stalls selling colorful crafts, restaurants, families and young lovers enjoying shade and calm amidst Puerto Vallarta’s rapidly developing tourist affluence.
A century ago the small village of Las Peñas de Santa María de Guadalupe at the mouth of the Rio Cuale was a company town. The American/Mexican mining company Union en Cuale exploiting rich silver deposits in the Sierra Madre Mountains owned most of the region. The Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) led to the expropriation of the village from the company, and it was renamed Puerto Vallarta in 1917. Despite its scenic location hugging the Pacific Ocean at the base of the lush Sierra Madre Mountains it was Hollywood that put Puerto Vallarta on the map.
In 1962 famed director John Houston filmed the award winning “Night of the Iguana” nearby with Hollywood royalty Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Carr. Yet the gossip buzz was Elizabeth Taylor’s arrival to stay with her lover, Richard Burton, when neither was divorced from their respective spouses. Enamored by the town’s beauty, Houston purchased property and then Burton bought Taylor a beautiful mansion, Casa Kimberley. The publicity raised the community’s tourism star.
Yet unlike its jet set neighbor Acapulco further south, Puerto Vallarta with traditional whitewashed red tiled roof architecture remained a quiet retreat for artists, writers, seekers of excellent sport fishing, unspoiled beaches and hiking in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Oddly, the 2007 recession in the United States coupled by Acapulco’s decline changed all that. By 2010 an increasing number of international expat retirees discovered Puerto Vallarta’s quiet charm and affordable cost of living.
In the past five years the city has boomed with luxury condos, resorts, boutique hotels and a vibrant restaurant scene. Yet Puerto Vallarta retains a calm charm often missing in the east coast resort regions of the Riviera Maya. More importantly, it’s a culinary destination for a sophisticated food conscious clientele.
The Bay of Banderas is a sport fisherman’s dream and Puerto Vallarta is heaven for lovers of fish and seafood. At the shelf of the Sierra Madre Mountains and the mouth of three fresh water rivers the bay is an ecological reserve for whales, manta rays, coral reefs and sea birds. At it’s deepest points not far from the shore it plunges over 3,000 feet. From mid-November to April it’s the popular breeding ground for both humpback and grey whales – seems all mammals like to escape cold weather.
Bonita, skipjack, jack crevalle, sierra mackerel, pargo, red snapper, grouper and mahi mahi are all available for sport and in Puerto Vallarta’s restaurants. Among the many charters available Mike’s Fishing Charters offers a wide variety of daily options and multi-day charters. Their private beach restaurant – superb seafood ceviche and made to order wood fired tortillas with grilled meat fillings – on the south shore of Puerto Vallarta, accessible only by boat, is a time warp into days before mass tourism.
A day excursion on Mike’s Fishing yacht Acalii stopped at the national preserve of Los Arcos Marine Park. These dramatic rock outcroppings are the breading grounds for dozens of sea birds that make their nests precariously (it seems to humans) on the sheer rock cliffs. Bedecked with plants as if designed by gardeners, this series of small rock islands have arched tunnels carved by the pounding surf. Their environs are a favorite for snorkelers and divers.
On the Malecon, a multi mile long pedestrian water front promenade created within the last decade, both residents and tourists stroll the length of the historic downtown concluding at Puerto Vallarta’s famed Playa Los Muertos. It’s lined with impressive sculptures, luxury condos, hotels, cafes and craft shops.
The Vallarta Botanical Gardens less than a 30 minute drive from downtown Puerto Vallarta along the dramatic south coast is a zen like haven of calm. Surrounded by thousands of orchids, butterflies and sculptures the restaurant is open to the lush countryside and an ideal space to relax in comfort. Enjoy coffee, a cocktail or lunch. The edible flower decorated guacamole is outstanding.
Puerto Vallarta is a foodie city from elegant restaurants to street food. This November the city will again host its annual (22nd) Festival Gourmet International. To many foreign visitors Mexican food is Tex Mex platters of rice, refried beans and cheese smothered burritos. Sure these dishes are available in many areas of Mexico just as hotdogs are in the USA and Canada, but it’s not the sum total of Mexico’s national cuisine.
As a culinary travel writer I’ve been invited on many press trips worldwide. Obviously a public relations agency and the local tourism bureau will do their best to show off the top sites and restaurants of their city. If the destination is one I’m visiting for the first time than I often arrange for my return flight several days after the end of the official trip. I want to have a chance to explore the city on my own and at my own expense. I want to become the average tourist. Often the difference can be striking and not always for the better.
Yet my three extra days in Puerto Vallarta simply confirmed its unique qualities. It’s a charming city for both residents and tourists with outstanding culinary talent.
As a chef I usually shy away from all-inclusive resorts. Like too many cruise ships, being a captured audience for the kitchen’s desire to maximize profits too often results in forced acceptance of less than stellar quality. Villa Premiere Boutique Hotel proves that concept is by design, not necessity. Created and operated by a family of architects already in the 3rd generation under the umbrella of Buenaventura Hotels, the adult only Villa Premiere exudes comfort, serenity and extraordinary customer service from the moment you arrive.
Guests are presented with glasses of champagne before sitting at the reception desk. After the necessary formalities of registration you’re whisked to one of two masseuses who provide a complimentary neck massage. By the time you’re thoroughly relaxed the concierge escorts you to your room where your baggage has already been delivered. A slate platter awaits you in the antechamber of your room next to the espresso machine with attractive arrangements of welcoming sweets. That’s all within the first hour.
If a guest has opted for the all-inclusive package – highly recommended – the discrete pampering will continue during your stay. An extensive room service menu and a well-stocked mini-bar may entice you to remain in your room gazing out on the pounding surf of the Bay of Banderas from the balcony. Yet the glass walled restaurants, open-air beachfront pool bar and manicured beach are equally enticing.
From breakfast to late night cocktails, the Villa Premiere’s chefs and mixologists never cease to amaze. Each dish whether it’s traditional mechaca – northern Mexican dried beef scrambled with eggs – a tropical fruit plate, extraordinary seafood soup or a fanciful dessert of faux sweet fried egg with tulle cookie bacon, the skill, quality and imaginative presentations are outstanding. Cocktails are made with the freshest ingredients from superb passion fruit martinis to the finest scotch.
While it’s difficult to pull yourself away from the Villa Premiere’s extraordinary cuisine, please do because you’ll not be disappointed. High on the steep slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountain foothills the Vista Grill offers panoramic views of the city and the ocean. A local favorite, it’s particularly prized at sunset.
The Oaxacan yellow corn tamale, like a large ravioli, is stuffed with succulent braised short rib atop a rich mole sauce. Grilled slices of rare duck are paired with chayote puree and a blackberry balsamic sauce. For dessert strips of pliable chocolate – a marriage of chocolate mousse with a soft fruit leather consistency – is paired with lime ice cream.
On the Malecon, La Cerveceria Union entices with an open-air ambiance, a long bar with an artistic mosaic of craft beer bottle caps, an extensive craft beer selection and fresh shucked local plump Bay of Banderas oysters. Raw or grilled, the oysters are divine. The grilled portabella mushroom burger will turn an omnivore towards vegetarianism while the crunchy yet light batter on the thick onion rings will win over a fast food devotee.
For me a unique dish at La Cerveceria Union is what I can only describe as Mexican fondue. Molcajete de Queso Verde is a scalding hot and eminently tasty dish of melted cheese and green sauce served in a traditional stone molcajete. Breakfast was just as enjoyable with an omelet of squash blossoms and white cheese while gazing out on the Malecon’s iconic sculpture installation La Rotunda del Mar.
Near the trendy Marina District on Puerto Vallarta’s north side with its modern condos, golf course and luxury yachts Asador La Vaca Argentina is a large restaurant and entertainment complex popular with guests that especially crave fine beef. A select wine list of both Argentine and Mexican vintages paired well with lean grilled tender beef, thin crust mushroom pizza and a platter of grilled vegetables, sausages and a gouda cheese tart. Considering Argentina’s diverse culinary influences the popular menu at Asador La Vaca Argentina matches Puerto Vallarta’s style.
Despite Puerto Vallarta’s justified reputation for fine restaurants, its street food is equally praise worthy. I had the good fortune of being hosted for an evening by Puerto Vallarta Food Tours. I’ve been on many food tours worldwide, but what made this particular evening unique was it focus – tacos.
Meaning no disrespect to popular concepts of tacos, the street vendors and small restaurants Puerto Vallarta Food Tours had us sample during a three-hour walk in the city’s compact historic core – known as the Romantic District – changed my perceptions. It started with the platform itself. Hand made freshly cooked tortillas cannot compare to the packaged cardboard varieties familiar to most Americans
Guided by chefs Manuel Zuloaga and Amanda Selitzer we gorged on lightly battered, crunchy fish tacos with a cilantro cream at Joe Jacks Fish Shack on the district’s central Calle Basilio Badillo. A few blocks away Taco Memo’s been at the same street corner for decades and serve fresh grilled beef and pork loin tacos with pickled vegetables. Down a side street Patio de Mi Casa is famous for its crab taco.
Tacos Don Juan serves a mix that a true omnivore loves, taco de cachete, a mixture of innards and meat from the head of the beef. Restaurant Lolitas is the oldest cenaduria – aka a diner c.1930s – in the Romantic District. It’s popular for its sopes. This traditional southern Mexican dish is a soft somewhat thicker corn tortilla topped with cheese, lettuce, onions, red or green sauce and usually a protein – chicken in this sampling.
A stop at El Carboncito is to truly understand the immigrant influence of all Western Hemisphere cuisine. A large cone of meat identical to Middle Eastern shawarma roasts in front of an intense charcoal fire. Yet it’s not lamb but what Mexican’s fondly love as tacos al pastor. Decades ago Lebanese immigrants introduced shawarma and locals promptly switched lamb for less expensive pork. Topped with a large onion and thick slices of pineapple, the slow roasted flavors were intense and forever altered my perception of what a taco could become.
After hours munching on tacos and exploring the Romantic District, drinks were on the agenda. Crossing over the Rio Cuale on the aforementioned suspension bridge took us to the Vallarta Cigar Factory. Smelling no smoke although they’re famous for their hand rolled cigars, the Vallarta Cigar Factory is equally well known for their chocolate, ice cream, intense coffee and more importantly mezcal. The lesser known 110 proof distillation of the agave cactus stole my heart away from tequila. Aging mezcal in oak barrels imparts a subtle smoky aroma. Like a good scotch, it’s enjoyable to sip neat while taking bites of orange slices dipped in salt and chili powder.
The evening ended with dessert, of course. Julio’s Churros has been located on the same street corner for decades. It’s anything but fancy. A simple table with a sheet pan of cinnamon sugar, a gas lamp for light and a propane fueled heat source is all this couple has ever required to produce the crunchy but feather light pastry beloved among Spanish cultures.
Whether it’s exquisite presentations at the luxurious Villa Premiere or the comforting warm crunch of a freshly made Julio’s churro, it’s pride that drives the excellence of Puerto Vallarta. Pride in customer service, pride in quality ingredients and pride in living in such a lush environment was palpable as I walked this city. It will draw me back sooner than I ever thought.
Disclaimer: the author was a guest of Puerto Vallarta Tourism and Latitude International
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