If I wake up with a slight hangover and hear both Spanish and Québécois being spoken at the same time, I know I’m back in Puerto Vallarta, at my friends’ condo in The Marina District — my home away from home — or at least I wish it was. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a couple of weeks in Mexico to cure the middle-of-winter blues every year, and P.V. is just the place. It’s the perfect mix of sun, sand, and surf — a sparkling city of 300,000 wedged between the lush green mountains and the Bay of Banderas. Known mainly as a tropical beach-resort, it’s also a paradise for food-lovers, with myriad offerings at every price point, from crazy expensive to crazy cheap — and I like cheap, although my friends who live there told me long ago to never buy a taco that costs less than 10 pesos (about 56 cents), for obvious reasons.
There’s a beach just west of the Puerto Vallarta airport heading towards Nayarit that’s a little out of the way, but if you’re a food-lover like me, it’s well worth a visit, and actually part of my annual ritual. It’s called Boca de Tomates beach, and to get there you have to drive down a long, god-forsaken dirt road that runs through the middle of a crocodile sanctuary operated by The University of Guadalajara. Along the way you can stop off and see the crocs, all about 12 feet long and separated from their adoring public by nothing more than a rusty chain-link fence. I recommend viewing them from the car, because crocodiles are food-lovers too. We heard from a friend that the road was even worse than usual this year — terribly washed out from the storms last winter — so we walked there on a sunny Sunday afternoon, taking our sweet time, strolling the two miles or so along the beach, and stopping to talk to the guy that runs the sea turtle nursery, with the dogs running wild through the surf the whole way.
Forget about the hassle, once you get to Boca de Tomates, you’re greatly rewarded with three “illegal” zarandeado restaurants that somehow popped up on state-owned property decades ago. Zarandeado translates from Spanish a few different ways, but in this case it means “flipped,” because the featured dish is a marinated fish that is put in a grill basket and cooked halfway before getting turned. Completely self-sufficient, these restaurants rely on ice for refrigeration, generators for electricity, and propane and wood for cooking in elaborate, improvised kitchens with sand floors and thatched roofs. The most famous of these restaurants is Sabino’s, where the founder Ron Sabino claimed to have invented the style, although Tino’s in Nayarit and downtown Vallarta makes the same claim. These days every mom and pop restaurant in Vallarta carries something zarandeado-style thanks to one mention by Rick Bayless on his cooking show last year.
The Boca de Tomates zarandeado restaurants are packed on the weekends with families out for an afternoon together. Don’t be surprised if you are the only non-local, just go with the flow; everyone is really friendly, even if you’re snapping photos, like me. It’s a terrifically-fun experience, dining at the long wooden tables draped with colorful plastic cloths set out in neat rows under palapas that stretch down to the beach. Waves crash as waiters bring micheladas for the hungover (yours truly), buckets of beer, margaritas, and huge platters of food, all served family style. As we snack on great ceviche, pickled vegetables, salsas, chips, and guacamole, everyone is waiting for the specialty of the house: grilled Huachinango Zarandeado. Here’s the drill: You grab your beer and walk in the hot sand back to the open-air kitchen to choose your just-caught fish from a cooler. (Tip: A two-kilo snapper is plenty big enough for eight.) A smiling lady weighs it out for you. One guy scales it and guts it, and the women remove the backbone, score it, and smear it with the marinade. Then the men grill it over a wood fire and the waiters serve it with an oil-based mulato chile sauce that is to die for. You can hang all day, eating and drinking, for roughly $20 USD per person, tip included. Make sure to save room for a slice of fresh coconut pie from Jonnie the Pie Guy, who hawks his pies up and down the beach all afternoon shouting, “Pie, pie, pie!”
For me, there is nothing like Vallarta in season, especially the Boca de Tomates experience when the huachinango is caught that morning and grilled over a wood fire, bones and all. Whether you call it pargo in Spain, huachinango in Mexico, or snapper in the states, zarandeado tastes the same — fabulously oily, smoky flesh that simply melts in your mouth, and you can dazzle your friends with this easy-to-make recipe. Serve this with beans from the pot, rice, and good tortillas — corn, of course, since it’s a taste of southern Mexico you’re after.