Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties
- Exploring Mexico's Pacific Jungle Coast
Right before the world realized how serious covid was we had a chance to escape what we thought was just another winter with a trip to Mexico. It feels like an eternity since we took a trip to Sayulita in the Riviera Nayarit but according to some online searching the NBA All Star Game (which I watched in Mexico) was just this last February. Less than a year ago. Mexico remains my favorite country to take a quick trip to and this would be just that. We stayed for five days I believe and chose Sayulita bc we wanted a chill trip. There's other places in Mexico much higher on my list but it's hard to beat a warm beach town in the dead middle of a Chicago winter. Sayulita is a small town of less than 3000 people on the pacific coast in the state of Nayarit. It's northern location in the state makes it easily accessible by car or bus. There is no airport but Puerto Vallarta is only about an hour away though there's likely to be traffic during the high tourist season. It's one of a handful of towns up and down the coast that snowbirds like to flock to when Canada and Northern parts of the United States go cold.
Sights from Sayulita
Sayulita itself was at one point a hidden gem. Mainly among surfers who flocked there for winters and left a piece of their hippie DGAF vibes when they left. It's a super chill town that's probably going to go boom sometime soon. It's already past phase one but there's still no major resorts or anything too corporate save for a Subway and some 7-11's in town. They just got a major bank in the last five years or so I was told. It's certainly not a secret anymore but still feels more like Negril than Mo Bay.
Sights from San Pancho
We ended up renting a car in PV bc even though I was cool with a chill beach vacation I knew I couldn't just sit in one little town the entire time. Thus you'll see that quite a few of the spots we ate at were in other towns where places caught my eye. The food scene in Nayarit is very seafood forward as you can imagine. Most of the seafood spots in the Chicagoland area serve food from this region. Of course it's not quite the same as the real stuff which LA Taco
editor Javier Cabral calls some of the most underrated in Mexico. I was on a major chase for some world class Pescado Zarandeado like that which I had in Guadalajara
at a place who's original location is in Tepic - the Nayarit capitol.
Sights from the Rivieria Nayarit
It was in Guadalajara (+ Baja / LA) that pescado zarandeado was cemented as my favorite prep of fish there is. More on the specific dish in a minute but as I learned on this trip the southern part of the state where the popular beach towns are at isn't where you find the best flame grilled fish. The aformentioned Javier Cabral told me the best version he's ever had was in the town of San Blas which was a two hour drive each way. I'd thought about it but learned pretty quickly it wouldn't be doable. The highway is basically two lanes and goes through the middle of the jungle. I cant imagine it's easy at night bc it's not an easy ride by day. Chef Gino Rojas of Revolver Taco Lounge in Dallas
told me I had to go to "La Tovara" (also near San Blas) where the river meets the ocean and you'll find stands cooking it with manglar wood. I ended up trying it twice but neither was as good as the one from El Farallón de Tepic in Guadalajara. I had a few other spots scouted with the potential to be good but I didn't make it to any of them. These are the type of sacrifices one makes when they get married.
Sights from Sayulita
Mary's Mexican Restaurant (Sayulita)
On our initial walk through town we decided to put our name down for a wait at this hopping restaurant flooded with families. The menu was more tempting than other spots we stopped to look at. Plus the wait wouldn't be long since they were in the final hour or two of business for the day. I knew what I wanted as soon as I saw them on the menu. The Mary's Taco is a specialty recipe consisting of grilled shrimp, roasted poblano, avocado, and cheese. I paired that with the Sayulita Taco also made of grilled shrimp with poblano, avocado, and cheese plus elotes and mushrooms. She had the snapper huachinango platter with rice and beans. All of which were great. Good home cooking for all.
Dinner at Mary's Mexican Restaurant
The Tacos Dorados estilo Jalisco Stand (Sayulita)
To give you an idea of how small the town is some of the street vendors have no names they go by. This operation set up daily outside Estrella de Mar Mariscos in the mornings. They take barbacoa that's soaking in a chile liquid and fill it into corn tortillas before folding them on a hot flattop. As the tacos crisp up the taquero would scoop small amounts of manteca (lard) onto the flattop which assured they get extra crispy. As always at a Mexico taco stand the salsa and topping options were endless. I ate here almost daily. They loved how much I loved the tacos. A very welcoming group.
Tacos Dorados in Sayulita
Miguel Ángel (Bucerías)
Most tourists visit this area for the
beaches but I came for the Pescado Zarandeado. Perhaps the states most
famous dish. Fresh caught fish is split down the middle bone-in and
seasoned with chile paste and an array of condiments such as soy sauce,
Maggi, mayo, and mustard. It’s then grilled over mangrove wood and
served with fresh tortillas to make tacos. Probably my favorite seafood
preparation on this here earth. We visited Miguel Angel on a ride into Bucerías for lunch. Judging from spots I added to my google maps of the area this little city to the south of Sayulita seemed to have the most appealing food options to me. While I enjoyed the zarandeado here it wasn't as good as those previous spots tried. But great hospitality and talking parrots added to the enjoyment of the meal.
Pescado Zarandeado at Restaurant Bar Miguel Ángel
Mariscos Villarreal (Bucerías)
Another seafood dish you should seek out in the area is Aguachile estilo Nayarit. Raw Shrimp
cooked in lime juice mixed with Serrano chiles and cilantro which makes
it green. Though the dish originated in Sinaloa (where it was first
served shrimp-less) it’s also extremely popular here. Scoop some up and
throw it on either a tostada or some saltines and then customize it to
your liking with condiments popular on Mexico’s west coast. Options like Maggi,
Worcestershire, pickled onions in soy sauce.
Aguachile at Mariscos Villarreal
Tacos on the Street (La Cruz)
Right outside of Bucerías in the town La Cruz you'll find some legendary mesquite grilled ribeye tacos. Basically the only thing on the menu here aside from tostadas, quesadillas, and flan. What is it about smoky beef
on lard laced flour tortillas? Such a perfect pairing. Easy to see why
Tacos on the Street has been popular since the 70's with both locals and snowbirds
alike. Don’t be fooled by the empty chairs as I got here exactly when
they opened. So I read this place gets packed every night they’re open. Pic'd below are the smoky ribeye tacos on flour with everything (red and green salsa).
Ribeye Tacos at Tacos on the Street
Tacos Tal Ivan (Sayulita)
Back in Sayulita Tacos Tal Ivan is one of the towns most popular taco stands. They set up shop early evening and sell tacos al pastor into the night. Both tourists and locals stand around the massive cones of pork that shrink with each passing hour. They actually have two locations within maybe a 3 minute walk of each other. A testament to their popularity. I ate here almost nightly as the trompo of pork marinated in a bright red achiote paste was impossible to pass up. I forget how much each taco cost but less than $1 US. The use of charcoal to cook the meat makes it taste that much better.
Tacos al Pastor from Tacos Tal Ivan
Restaurante Limbo (San Pancho)
If you want a town a bit chiller and less crowded than Sayulita check out San Pancho one town over. It's by no means undiscovered but it's a bit smaller in both size and tourist vibe. We tried this hip local spot called Limbo for an early lunch one day and ended up going back later in the trip. Both the seafood ceviches and tacos made with heirloom corn were spot on. Nice place for some lunch.
Lunch at Limbo
Mayela La Original (San Pancho)
Here's a real locals type spot that saved me from having to nurse a hangover all day. I had to go get some Electrolit at the towns local Oxxo after a few too many samples of mezcal the previous night. Upon leaving with a couple bottles (coconut is my favorites) I took a wrong turn down a side street off the main strip while in a daze. I came upon the sign seen above which is for a town taqueria ran out of a friendly older lady's house. The Electrolit and a couple of tacos dorados estilo Guadalajara was exactly what I needed to curb my hangover and feel normal once again. That and some pool time.
Taco Dorado in San Pancho
La Sea Food (Lo De Marcos)
We stopped in what was a quiet unobstructed (by tourists) town on the way to dinner one day. I had La Sea Food on my google maps and we were driving through this quiet town and decided to stop. There were a few gringos here and there but they felt like the type who might be trying to hide rather than on vacation and such. Haha. The colorful La Sea Food was popular with groups of local friends when we visited. It took a while to get our food but it wasn't like we had anywhere to be. We tried a trio of items including a crispy taco gobernador which is a Sinaloan specialty consisting of shrimp, peppers, tomato, and cheese. We also got a smoked marlin quesadilla (outstanding) and some decent raw tuna. The type of place that makes me love Mexico. There's good food wherever you go.
Lunch at La Sea Food
Restuarante Pineda (Rincón de Guayabitos)
In my failed attempt for Pescado Zarandeado like that in Guadalajara I had us drive up to the town of Rincón de Guayabitos. It's about 40 minutes north of Sayulita. I read about a place called Restaurante Pineda and it seemed like the type of Mexican restaurant where people went to celebrate. This was verified when we arrived. They must have room for 1000+ people. The parking was like that of a busy concert or festival that attracts everyone in a 100 mile radius. Lots of vacationing Mexican families and such. With a few levels of dining and more than one bar area you got the feeling this place was a well oiled machine. We sat at one of the bars which was overlooking the water. There's a beach for kids to play on while they wait for food or the parents drinks beers and relax. We ordered margaritas and watched as the young boy behind the bar whipped them up.
Those drinks were maybe the best thing about Restuarante Pineda. Not to say the food was bad but that kid makes a killer margarita (he was maybe 15). Pictured above are the Camarones Momia aka Mummy Shrimps! Fresh
local shrimp is stuffed with cream cheese then wrapped in bacon and
covered in melting cheese. While some cultures find the combo of
seafood and cheese to be horrific that’s not the case in Mexico where
yes they do put cheese on some tacos. We also had an order of pescado
zarandeado. It was just alright. I’m still in search of something as good
as that at El Farallon de Tepic in Guadalajara. Cool spot though up here
in the less traveled Rincon de Guayabana. There must’ve been more than
500 people dining here, both tourists and locals. Fantastic views too.
Pescado Zarandeado at Restuarante Pineda
Ikan Cocina Maria (San Pancho)
Ikan Cocina Maria is another hip little spot to check out in San Pancho. It's a restaurant ran out of a local family's house. From what I remember it's the younger generation of the family that's running the show. I loved the setup which made you feel like you were somewhere in nature and not on the sidewalk of a side street in this chill little surfers town. We tried a handful of tapas including fresh made ceviches and really well put together fried shrimp tacos on extremely potent blue corn tortillas.
Lunch at Ikan Cocina Maria
Tacos Gaby (Sayulita)
Here's a stand you should put at the top of your to-do list if you're ever in Sayulita. Tacos Gaby is a literal hole in the wall just a few doors down from the downtown location of Subway. She has a reputation for some of the best fish tacos in town. Her customer base is a mix of locals who work in the area and surfers and tourists who know what's up. Both the fish and shrimp tacos are tempura fried to order. You cant go wrong with either one of them so get both and decide what your next move will be from there. Meaning no way you come here and dont come back for more. As good as it gets.
Shrimp Taco at Tacos Gaby
But wait there's more! Let me introduce you to the most memorable empanada I've ever had. Gaby presses them fresh after your order. So you can watch as she takes a scoop of masa and forms it into the mold. Fresh local shrimp and cheese go inside before it's pressed and made into an empanada. A quick trip to the fryer ensures everything inside is melted and the outside is crisp and golden. You take your plate over to the salsa bar and decorate it to your liking. Give it a minute (that cheese is bubbling) before indulging in hot pocket perfection. If anyone from Netflix Food is reading give this friendly lady an episode on the next season of 'Street Food: Latin America" - lets hear her story.
Shrimp Empanada at Tacos Gaby
Tacos Toño (Sayulita)
If not for a hot tip from the hotel employee I might've missed Tacos Toño. I say maybe bc there's still a chance I would have walked by given it's location on one of the roads taking me to and from my hotel to downtown. So I had just been walking by and saw this popular stand ran out of an older couple house - I'm pretty sure I would've stopped. The guy at the hotel where we were staying told me these were his favorite tacos in town. He said he had them for dinner before checking in for his night shift. They fry up two large servings of suadero and carnitas and sell them in the evening from about 6p until sold out. It's location is in a residential area but the closer to town you get you the more taco spots start popping up. Lots of options to choose from up and down Calle Pelicanos. The suadero here were a candidate for the best tacos I've had all year. Personally it's one of my favorite type of tacos and these were great. The beef was fried until it was tender then crisped up upon ordering.
Tacos de Suadero at Tacos Toño
Restaurant Yeikame (Sayulita)
Yeikame will come up when searching for the best breakfast in town. Sure it's mostly popular with tourists and that's to be expected in a town of just 3000 that does double that in tourists. So I wouldn't call this a local type spot but it is locally owned and the food is cooked by locals. So I guess what I'm trying to say is this is the type of place that does cater to tourists but also makes really good food in doing so. Mexican breakfast is extremely underrated if you ask me. One of my favorite morning dishes when in Mexico (more easily found) is huevos motuleños which is a famous Yucatan dish made made by putting eggs on fresh fried tortillas smeared with with black beans and topped with other ingredients like cheese ham, peas, plantains, and a red salsa picante. I feel like most breakfast spots in Mexico serve this dish and from what I can tell they all do it pretty well. Always hits the spot.
Huevos Motuleños at Yeikame
The Tacos de Cabeza Stand (Sayulita)
In Mexico breakfast tacos are just called "tacos." Sometimes they're eaten for breakfast and other times for dinner and lunch. In the mornings you'll find this guy and his cart parked in front of La Mariscal in downtown Sayulita. He specializes in tacos de cabeza (steamed beef head) which is a popular form of breakfast in Mexico. Man for a town of like 300 there's alot of really good tacos here.
Tacos de Cabeza
Speaking of great places to get tacos for breakfast here's another one. Carnitas Sayulita is right before the bridge coming from downtown. Located on the previously mentioned Calle Pelicano.
Carnitas at Carnitas Sayulita
Mariscos Jakal (Sayulita)
Wee tried to eat at Mariscos Jakal twice before the
third time was the charm. The first two visits they were out of seafood
so we kind of figured 1) it’s good and 2) it’s fresh. Both confirmed
with delicious plates of red snapper huachinango and tequila shrimp.
Loved the house special habanero and passion fruit salsa that was hot as
hell and also super refreshing. A classic Mexico seafood shack.
Lunch at Mariscos Jakal
Naufrago Cocina de Puerto (Sayulita)
We stumbled upon this younger chef driven spot on a stroll through the square. Naufrago Cocina de Puerto got our attention with their menu full of chef driven tacos and tostadas. It was our last night so we wanted to make sure we got our fair share of mariscos before heading back to the land locked Midwest. So we tried an assortment of tostadas and that was that. Another steller spot for seafood.
Seafood Tostadas at Naufrago Cocina de Puerto
Tacón de Marlin (Puerto Vallarta)
'Must Stop Spot’ here directly outside the
Puerto Vallarta airport. If you’ve ever been through PV you’ve probably
heard of the legendary Tacón de Marlin
which has been a staple for locals and foreigners alike for more than
30 years. Legendary seafood burritos like nowhere else. I came here back
in 2013 and have thought about it often since then. The signature
burrito would have to be the house smoked marlin which is made even
better by adding shrimp. Cooked with special dressing, onions, and
cheese and mixed with lettuce and tomato before going into in a flaky flour
tortilla that gets the perfect toast on a hot flattop. This location
is literally across the footbridge when you exit the airport making it a
must stop spot both when you land and when you leave. We also got a shrimp
and sea bass burrito to eat at the airport while the rest of the
tourists ate Johnny Rockets. Swordfish al pastor too! Whatever Mexico’s
equivalent of a James Beard American Classic award is - this is it.
Seafood Burrito at Tacón de Marlin
Notes: For the addresses to all these spots plus places in both the Rivieria Nayarit and Puerto Vallarta we didn't make it to please see my google maps guide by clicking HERE.