Dining Around Mexico's Riviera Nayarit

Delicious dishes with a sense of place, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
Rosenthal takes a culinary tour throughout Nayarit.

You've heard of ecotourism? Well, I've just returned from what I would call eat-o tourism: a culinary adventure throughout Nayarit, one of Mexico's 31 states. The Riviera Nayarit, an agricultural and aquatic treasure trove, takes its name to the 192 miles of Pacific Ocean coastline it occupies. Fertile valleys of volcanic soil soaked by seasonal rains produce a lush and abundant assortment of fruits and vegetables. Mango trees are everywhere.

On the road, you pass little trucks filled with just-harvested jicama as well as huge trucks heaped with sugar cane. The region is a welcome home to jackfruit, coconut, bananas, watermelon, agave, tomatoes, and some tobacco. There's also a vast supply of fish and seafood, particularly shrimp, from the ocean and coastal estuaries. All in all, there is ample great eating to be had in this part of the world.

A 45-minute drive from the Puerto Vallarta airport, Punta Mita is the luxurious, gated enclave of the Riviera Nayarit. It's anchored by high-end hotels the Four Seasons and the St. Regis, which collaborate to host an annual food, wine, and tequila tasting event called Gourmet and Golf. Although their two Jack Nicklaus-designed courses look spectacular, I'm here with about 700 others for the gourmet goods.

The three-day program features well-known local and international chefs (such as Michael Mina and Richard Sandoval) who offer cooking classes, demonstrations, and tastings. The opening cocktail party, set on a beach overlooking the Pacific sunset, presents small plates prepared by about 15 chefs as well as samplings of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican wine. The standouts included octopus and pork belly with cauliflower, chile guajillo, and Meyer lemon from Drew Deckman of Deckman's in San José del Cabo, braised beef cheeks with "drunken" sauce and creamy chayote purée from Guillermo González of Pangea in Monterrey, and tuna tartare and guacamole hand roll from Kaz Okochi of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C.

One feature of the festival was an elegant lunch prepared by Lula Martin del Campo, executive chef for HSBC Mexico and chef-proprietor of Roca in Mexico City. Her cooking is sophisticated but uncomplicated. It's modern but uses ingredients that date back to pre-Hispanic times, with a focus on primary flavors. A simple amuse of a whole fried shrimp was served cold with chile árbol-spiked tomato salsa. Our starter was a salad of three kinds of corn topped with a spicy piquin dressing (ensalada de tres maices con aderezo de piquin), a perfectly beautiful composition of tastes, textures, and colors. Ash beef, cleverly coated with the ashes of burnt corn tortillas and served simply over cotija cheese sauce, deftly contrasted the richness of the meat with the slight tang of the Mexican cheese. Machiote de frutas con crumble (mixed fruit with crumble) combined tiny pieces of strawberry, blueberry, and mango macerated in their juices with vanilla ice cream and bits of sweet crumble.

Located 100 miles north of the Puerto Vallarta airport, the small fishing village of San Blas is a historic port and a serious bird-watcher's paradise. It is also home to Betty Vasquez, the doyenne of Nayarit cuisine. Like many great Mexican cooks, Vasquez learned at the hands of her grandmother, then furthered her skill at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. A stint at one of Spain's most outstanding Michelin-three-star restaurants informed her cooking, which respects her region's indigenous ingredients and honors tradition, yet fuses it with modern technique and style.

Vasquez exudes a personal warmth that enhances her hospitality. She greeted us with a light lunch at her El Delfin restaurant: a simple salad, a perfectly creamy guacamole ("never with tomatoes"), piping-hot mini-empanadas stuffed with sweet shrimp, and a flawless ceviche of mahimahi flavored with curry, mint, red onion, lime, and serranos. Curry and mint were introduced to the region by the Chinese and Filipinos who came to this port in the 17th century. The key to successful ceviche is to not marinate the fish for too long or it will become flabby and overly acidic. This version took only five minutes to "cook" in the lime juice, rendering the mahi perfectly firm and full flavored.

Our dinner that evening, back at El Delfin, began with a shot of tequila and sangrita. There are many sangrita recipes, but most are made with some combination of tomato juice, orange juice, lime juice, and hot sauce. Alternating between sips of each, sangrita provides the yin to tequila's yang, stimulating both your palate and your appetite. It is worth noting, incidentally, that the common notion that all tequila comes from Jalisco is a well-promoted misconception. In fact, there it may also be produced in portions of four other states, including Nayarit.

Vasquez's dinner started with an aguachile of shrimp and avocado balls that sang with the flavors of onion, garlic, cilantro, and lime, and a little hit of heat from serranos. The aguachile marinade — half water, half lime juice — to which she adds a splash of tequila, is served on the side. Next came parboiled calamari marinated with orange, cilantro, and cilantro seed, in olive oil from Baja, Mexico, served alongside toast points slathered with a homemade mustard mayo. 

The assertively flavored hierba santa grows on the coast and tastes like a marriage of mint and anise. Vasquez employs it in a cold soup made with avocado and lime, studded with fat local oysters and topped by frizzled leeks. I detected the seductive scent of saffron a second before the main course of mahi arrived. Vasquez explained that it was "to remember the Spanish." The firm, roasted fish, garnished with crisp sliced almonds and parsley and set atop rice with nubbins of jalapeño, rested in a shallow pool of white wine sauce infused with the fragrant saffron. Glorious food it was.

Our next stop was on a tiny little island off the coast called Mexcaltitán, accessible by small, motorized boats. I didn't know what to expect as we pulled up to one of the island's three restaurants, but platters of attractive seafood immediately begin to arrive.

First were whole shrimp, deep-fried with cola de rata chiles (another name for chiles árbol) for a little heat, until they are as crisp as chips. And they went down as easily as chips do, just much tastier — either as is or dipped into spicy fresh tomatillo salsa. Next came shrimp cakes, delectable disks of dried shrimp in a cornmeal dough, flattened and fried. Then it was puffy fried shrimp balls and empanadas, the flaky little pastries filled with fresh shrimp. Ceviche arrived, raw shrimp "cooked" by marinating in lime juice, red onion, and chile. Shrimp and octopus salad were next, both cooked, and served with cucumbers and tomatoes. A creamy pâté de camerón, or what we would call shrimp salad, may have been the best version I've ever tasted. Next came the freshest sea bass (robalo zarandeado) imaginable, butterflied, and grilled simply over a fire made with the wood from dead mangrove trees. You scoop the delicate, moist white flesh with the faintest hint of sweet smoke on its salty, charred skin, into a warm tortilla before you top it with your choice of salsas, onions, and shreds of lettuce. What melts delightfully into your mouth is the ultimate fish taco.

Surely there was no room for dessert. But there was for Coca-Cola. Not just any Coke, mind you, but ice-cold Mexican Coca-Cola, in a glass bottle, made with cane sugar, as it was originally intended. The real thing. No one would suggest that you should drink a lot of it, but when you do have one like this, carbonated soft drinks rarely get better. 

If you should find yourself in the city of Tepic, consider dinner at Emiliano. In the elegant open-air courtyard of a lovely home, you'll dine on contemporary Mexican cuisine prepared by a talented young self-taught chef, and choose from a thoughtful list of the country's finest wines. One way to begin is with a Riserva de la Familia Reposado, a terrific caramel-and-light-smoke tequila, well coupled with the celery salt-spiked sangrita. Albondigas de camarón ("meatballs" of shrimp) arrived in a rich gravy intensified by shrimp stock and cola de rata chile. An invigorating salad composed of mango, orange, watermelon, and crunchy jicama was accented by small baby scallops and properly dressed with a salsa huichol-enhanced vinaigrette. The wild, tropical arrayán is essentially a marble-sized guava, used here to make a sweet and tart granita de arrayán, served to cleanse the palate. The main course was a beautifully constructed affair that featured perfectly cooked sea bass over a purée of crabmeat in an oyster-perfumed white wine cream sauce, garnished with toasted pasilla chiles and frizzled leeks. Dessert was a bread pudding traditionally served on Easter Fridays. Made with plantains, raisins, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, amaranth, guanabana cream, and a sauce of annona (a small jackfruit), it was at once creamy, crunchy, sweet, and smooth and a fitting end to a delicious meal.

As was breakfast the next day, at a roadside birreria called La Sierra, on the Old Federal Highway from Tepic to Guadalajara. At 9 o'clock in the morning. Birreria are very common, very casual restaurants specializing in birria, the traditional Mexican meat stew. Long metal skewers laced with a variety of proteins (beef, lamb, rabbit, pork) surrounded the fire at this simple restaurant's entrance. Further back, an industrious woman pressed rounds of masa into flat tortillas, which she then toasted on an open wood-fueled flattop grill. On that grill sat a 30-gallon pot of perfect temperature cafe de olla, coffee infused with cinnamon. It was ladled into colorful, handmade ceramic mugs and served with crumbly, lightly sweetened corn-based cookies. Buenos días.

Those warm tortillas were brought to the table along with a plate of tomatoes, onions, and tiny pieces of super spicy habanero peppers, a bowl of jocoque (something between buttermilk and sour cream), and small slices of queso fresco, the fresh, homemade Mexican cheese. The onion-and-chile-flavored beef and the goat stew were both toothsome and hearty. The winner at our table, however, was barbacoa de borrego a la plancha. Cooked mutton is chopped and placed on a flat top grill to caramelize further and produce crispy nuggets that barbecue aficionados might refer to as "burnt ends." You wrap the savory meat in your just-made, still-warm tortilla and add in any combination of the piquant condiments and salsas. The plate also comes with a cup of intensely meat-flavored consommé, a rich byproduct of the cooking process, which seems as if it could cure the worst hangover. Rather, dip your filled tortilla into the heady broth and think of it as the Mexican version of a French dip as this mélange of wonderful flavors makes your taste buds happy. Trucks transporting sugar cane roll by while a hen with her chicks in tow passes underneath your table. And when you're asked if you'd like any more meat, the correct answer is "sí, por favor,"

Beautiful eating is not necessarily about elaborate or expensive meals. It does not depend on fancy techniques. Nor must it assume elegant surroundings. But a singular sense of place — terroir — is a significant part of the experience, along a highway or on a remote island on the Riviera Nayarit.

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