In Mazatlan, Come Curious — and Hungry

A new wave of chefs want this city to be known as much for the food it cooks as the food it grows

A new wave of chefs, and the city’s tourism department, want this area to be known as much for the food it cooks as much as the food it grows.

Mazatlan is cooking up a storm, and its chefs want more visitors to come to the table.

The seaside Mexican city is situated in the state of Sinaloa, which is known as the agricultural capital of the country. But a new wave of chefs, and the city’s tourism department, want the area to be known as much for the food it cooks — specialties include grilled mahi mahi, octopus in garlic sauce, and many shrimp-based dishes — as the food it grows.

“The local cuisine has been brought to a new level. We call it the New Mazatlecan Cuisine. It’s the same typical cuisine but brought into a more gourmet style, a more refined style. This is a new gastronomic movement that tourists can’t miss,” said Julio Birrueta, the director of the city’s tourism board, which covered expenses for The Daily Meal’s visit.

Birrueta points to Diego's Beach House, El Fish Market, La Mazatleca, and El Presidio as just a few of the restaurants on the forefront of the city’s growing culinary scene. In October, the city welcomed its newest restaurant, the sleek Casa 46, overlooking Plazuela Machado (Machado Square), in the heart of Old Mazatlan. The head chef is Marino Maganda, a veteran of the nearby Pueblo Bonito hotel, which was named one of the 50 best hotels in Mexico by Travel + Leisure in 2014.

History is important to Mazatlan’s identity; its new tagline is “the Colonial City by the Beach.” Founded in the sixteenth century, it became an important seaport, but while fishing remains a big industry, tourism has surpassed it as the city’s biggest moneymaker. And there’s reason to believe that tourist dollars, particularly from the United States and Canada, will become an even bigger slice of the pie. Hotel expansion could add 5,000 rooms to the inventory by 2022, according to a Wyndham Hotel Group estimate.

Development, meanwhile, is accommodating the surge in interest — and accelerating it. In 2012, the city pumped millions of dollars into the Centro Historico, and more restoration work remains. A new highway between the city and Durango means travelers can travel between the two cities in less than three hours. And day excursions to nearby towns are expanding. In El Quelite, the sprawling restaurant El Meson De Los Laureanos is a destination in itself, with a boisterous roster of traditional live music and dancing to accompany diners’ meals.

Could increasing focus on visitors limit Mazatlan’s authentic vibe? Birrueta doesn’t think so.

“I think it’s a problem for many destinations, not just in Mexico but around the world: When they explode, they really lose their character. But Mazatlan is different in that aspect. There’s local activity, local history, local culture that really makes a big difference,” Birrueta said.

Liquor production is part of that culture. Los Osuna, for instance, still does business pretty much the same way it did back in 1876, when Andres Osuna y Osuna led its first extraction and distillation of blue agave. The distillery, which is on the outskirts of the nearby town of La Noria, does fermentation in wood tanks, uses a local yeast, and doesn’t add any artificial flavors.

“They want to show all the world that Sinaloa makes a really good product, and they want to make it like a hundred years ago to show the traditional flavors and aromas of Sinaloa,” said manager Luis Daniel Limon during a tour of the plantation.

Back in the city, meanwhile, Onilikan is a new micro-distillery in the city’s “Golden Zone” that’s honoring the region’s agriculture while innovating. The micro-distillery uses blue agave as well as mangos in its liqueurs and spirits and mixes European and Mexican production methods. At maximum capacity, it can make 400 bottles a day.

“With the product, what they can see is all the raw materials that are grown here. Sinaloa is known as being the farm of Mexico. We grow a lot of things. We are developing other products that will showcase, for example, the tomatoes that we grow a lot of here and the chickpeas and many other things that we are growing here,” said Victoria Campos, Onilikan’s commercial director.

Campos was born in Mexico City but moved to Mazatlan 12 years ago to work in real estate. She and her brother Manuel — a former immunologist — started their business as a way to keep busy during retirement. It hasn’t always been easy. Things took a dip in 2010 when several cruise lines stopped coming to the city amid reports of crime. But the ships are back now and as business is picking up, she, like many in the food and beverage industry here, are eager to show visitors what they have to offer.

“The reason we started here in this area was we had the traffic of a lot of tourists, but suddenly we didn’t have any. So for three years, it was very tough. But now everything is growing, everything is blooming, everything is coming back,” she said.