5 Gluten-Free Bites of Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit
These two Mexican states located just miles apart from one another are making their mark on the world with their burgeoning artist community and an outstanding culinary culture that blends traditional Mexican with impressive fine dining. As a plus, Mexican cuisine is extremely gluten-free-friendly with their love of corn tortillas and fresh ingredients.
While Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit are two separate states, it’s worthwhile to check out the gluten-free cuisine in both areas. They offer everything from street food to traditional Mexican hangover delicacies to inventive dishes and thorough wine lists that can accommodate anyone who avoids gluten. While it’s best to always travel with gluten-free traveler’s cards noting what you can and cannot eat (particularly if you don’t speak the language), overall, the cuisine of the region is quite perfect for the gluten-free lifestyle. Traditional Mexican staples like quesadillas, tacquitos, chilaquiles, and tacos are made from corn-based tortillas and are not made with flour.
It may go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway for extra emphasis, the local drink tequila is extremely gluten-free. Made from blue agave, tequilas range in flavor profiles similar to those of whiskeys. Some local favorites are reposado tequila and its smoky sister alcohol, mezcal, where the agave is cooked in a stone oven.
Chilaquiles with Jugo Verde at Grand Velas’ Azul
I had arrived in Riviera Nayarit the evening before and was enjoying a few too many cucumber martinis when it dawned on me that I had no idea what the Mexican hangover cure was. I asked a fellow dining companion, who replied that it was chilaquiles. The next morning, I was taking in a lovely view of the ocean at RCI-affiliated property Grand Velas. I ambled over to the breakfast buffet to see chilaquiles right before me. The traditional Mexican breakfast dish is a base of corn tortilla strips, red chile sauce or salsa verde, and shredded chicken. Garnishes can vary, and at the buffet you had all the options like cotija cheese, crema Mexicana, chopped red onion, and avocado. With that pile of delicious condiments to add onto my dish in front of me, the waiter asked if I wanted to try Jugo Verde to pair with it. Jugo Verde is a traditional drink made from cactus, parsley, grapefruit, pineapple, and celery that helps aid digestion and lower cholesterol — hangover meats health while brunching in Mexico.
Beef Tongue Carpaccio at Café de Artistes
One of Puerto Vallarta’s most celebrated chefs, Thierry Blouet has been serving fine dining cuisine in one of the most romantic settings in creation for close to 20 years. While dining there one evening over a humble seven-course meal, I sampled some of the chef’s signature items. From grilled calamari to salmon with avocado cream, I was being wowed dish after dish. Since I’m gluten-intolerant, the restaurant catered to all of my needs by tweaking dishes and changing them if need be. While my dining companions received ravioli, I was presented with a plate of what looked like thinly sliced carpaccio. While assembled in the same fashion, my server smiled and told me it was "la lengua," meaning beef tongue. My high school Spanish kicked in and after already taking a bite, I felt marvelously adventurous trying my beef tongue carpaccio. It was topped traditionally with watercress and shaved Parmesan.
While staying in Puerto Vallarta, I went on a local Gourmet Safari event done once a year in the local area. The premise behind the out-of-the-box food festival is that you ride on a trolley with your (hopefully hungry) dining companions and venture to four different restaurants: one for canapés and champagne, one for appetizers, one for a main course, and one for a sweet ending. While at our first stop, Insú Sky Lounge, famed Mexican chef Patricia Quintana, who owns and operates Izote in Mexico City, made a mouthwatering taquito with salsa verde served in a shot glass. Taquitos (also known as flautas) are created by rolling up corn tortillas and usually stuffing them with chicken or meat. (Note: while most taquitos are corn-based, some chefs may use flour in the recipe, so it’s always best to ask before eating.)
Fast-forward to two days later and one eco adventure tour under our belt, I sauntered into my hotel at Casa Velas when I realized I hadn’t eaten in hours. I flagged down a waiter and ordered the taquitos from its pool bar menu. I was hard-pressed to think it could even stand up to Quintana’s taquito but when I bit into my second taquito, I was blown away. Completely different in flavor, this taquito was stuffed with chicken and a sweet tomato sauce on the inside. The fixings included guacamole and beans which I mixed altogether in every forkful.
Vegetable Risotto at Nacho Cadena’s La Leche (left)
When you walk into chef Nacho Cadena’s elegant but simple restaurant La Leche, you’re transported into a world where everyone’s beautiful. The white tables, chairs, and accessories coupled with the dim, romantic lighting makes this restaurant almost soothing from the moment you enter.
Nacho’s son, chef Alfonso Cadena, manages the kitchen and has an outstanding reputation for turning out dishes from all over the world. Nacho explained that the duo went from Mexico to Spain to Italy to New York and San Francisco to sample the world’s best food and figure out how they could construct a restaurant with great influences, but wholly unique, unlike any other. My favorite dish (and we had many) that came out of Nacho’s kitchen was the seasonal risotto. Simple and light, it included fresh mushrooms and black and dark blue carrots. Perhaps one of the most aromatic dishes I sampled while I was in Mexico, it was a not-to-be-missed dish.
While most restaurants serve risotto in lieu of a pasta course to those who say "no" to gluten, it is never a throwaway dish. Making a risotto can take much more time, energy, and love than pasta and is quite a feat to get it just right.
When we concluded our meal and finished up our after-dinner cocktail, Nacho looked around as the lights dimmed and mused, "As the night is getting older, the music is getting louder," he said. "We’re changing the skin of the restaurant." Indeed, they were.
BBQ Mountain Quail at Trio
A trip to the heart of Puerto Vallarta is not complete until you visit one of the area’s most well-loved restaurants, Trio. German-born chef Bernhard Güth has been a resident of PV for more than 15 years after having lived and cooked in both New York and Italy’s most prestigious restaurants. The chef considers his cuisine to be Mediterranean and maintains the mantra that the kitchen turns out simple dishes executed flawlessly. "Our food is cooked with love," he told me on a recent trip there. During a seven-course tasting menu, I was wowed by seasonally inspired plates, but was most taken with the chef's BBQ mountain quail with polenta poblana and a portobello mushroom and sherry wine sauce. I'm a sucker for a good piece of quail, and the plate was extremely balanced, from the gaminess of the quail to the sweetness of the sauce. The chef assured me that catering to people with gluten intolerance or Celiac disease is a simple task, as most of his food isn’t cooked with flour or any additional preservatives, a true mark of having simply cooked cuisine with natural ingredients.