Editor’s note: jumping ahead to a bit of Mexican fun here. I left Koh Tao to watch the nuptials of a very important person in my life. We’ll be circling back to Thailand sometime soon.
At our final, large “friends” dinner in Puerto Vallarta after my best friend Jamie and Brett’s wedding, one of our favorite games resurfaced. It’s called Three Favorite Things. We love TFT because as much as you may think you know your best friends, your favorite things can be fluid and for most who play, likely change as time passes.
My three favorite things were pretty easy to come up with.
3) Being with my people
When I noticed that Vallarta Eats had a Signature Tacos and More tour that claimed to show you where the locals eat, I knew I had to get myself on it. I also convinced two of my favorite co-feasters and travel buddies, Jamie and Brett, to hop on the tour with me, post-wedding of course. Alright – convinced might be a bit of an exaggeration. I had them at “taco”.
We met our guide, Star, on the Insurgentes Bridge, the entrance to the Emiliano Zapata neighborhood, also known as Old Town Puerto Vallarta. Up until this point, I had been staying at a gorgeous hotel for the wedding, secluded in the mountains with its own private beach. We had ventured into town for a few big family dinners, but I was ready to become a bit more mexicana via my stomach.
Cobblestone roads, tortillerias and bugambilias define this town. On every corner, I was captivated by another postcard perfect view of red tiled rooftops, greenwash mountaintops or a street stand overflowing with voluptuous fruit. It didn’t take long for Old Town to charm the pantalones off me.
Back to food. Our first stop of the day was one of our most informative – and delicious. Did you know there are breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner tacos? And that no, breakfast tacos do not necessarily have eggs in them. AND that as a true Mexican, you don’t eat seafood tacos for dinner? I KNOW. There’s so much to learn about tacos.
The ladies run the shop at Chanfi, an open air, storefront-style taco establishment with plastic chairs and a stationary cooking stand. These matriarchs served our birria, or breakfast tacos filled with melt-in-your-mouth meat and chopped onions, with thirst-quenching hibiscus, or jamaica, agua fresca.
I could have eaten 17 of these juicy, meatlicious tacos that blew any other taco I’ve ever had out of the water. But this was only our first stop. We tried birria two ways – one with a soft tortilla and one with a fried, crispy shell. After Star explained what Chanfi meant (it comes from the word Chanfina, a taco that has lungs, liver and heart), Jamie looked at me with her wide-eyed “challenged accepted” face and ordered us one to try. She may be the smallest of the group, but she has the largest stomach and a dangerous sense of adventure.
Our second stop was another sample of birria, one that is so popular that it flat out closes when it runs out for the day and earns enough for the family to have a thriving real estate business in addition to their taco stand. Next, we headed to the Colin family businesses, specifically, their butcher shop and bakery where we sampled chicharones, or the salty goodness of fried pork skins, and sweet breads, the cinnamon roll I chose standing out as the best. We raised eyebrows and giggled bout the fact that each sign spelled Colin differently (Collin, Collin’s, Colin). The Colin family won our hearts when Star shared that they allow low income families to use their ovens during off hours to bake their own goods to sell in addition to very generously supporting a local community center. Go Colin family.
Our walk around Emiliano Zapata neighborhood, 100 meters from the beach, wouldn’t be complete without gorging on some ocean delicacies. I thought for a second, while living in Koh Tao and cutting pufferfish free from irresponsibly misplaced fishing net, that maybe I’ll stop eating seafood. Bah. It just tastes so good though!
Marisma is known for the best fish taco in Puerto Vallarta. I mean, come on. That’s a pretty big statement to make. Marisma is the combination of the owners names – Maia and Ismael. It, also, so charmingly means “the smell of the ocean”. Stop being so cute, Marisma.
So, could it be? Yes. It. Could. Ah, the perfectly browned and flaky mahi mahi, the spicy creamy of the chiptole mayo, and the blended avocado salsa. We learned here that if a taco stand has crappy salsas, you must never, ever return. Jamie, the sauce dipping queen, found her heaven. Star also introduced us to the five golden rules of finding a proper taco stand. You want to learn them? Go on the tour.
We continued walking and delved into the inner workings of Mexican comida. From practicing rolling a tortilla abuelita-style outside of a tortilla factory, to learning the difference between a limon and a lima in Mexico (limon is translated to lemon in English, but is actually what Mexicans call a lime), we began to really feel like locals.
With our stomachs starting to fill up, we needed to burn off some calories and open up some room for our next joint, the wooden chair-clad Mariscos El Colera. Here, we got our hands on our first tostada of the day, toped with Puerto Vallarta style fish ceviche and sliced avocado. While these were definitely tasty, I quickly became focused on the oversized cups with crudite poking out. Apparently, they’re also known for their massive micheladas. I love drinks with snacks.
Tostadas was quickly followed by three tastes of mexican drinks. Two types of horchata and one called tuba. While these weren’t my favorite, I appreciated that Start took us because Brett had mentioned that he wanted to try it. One thing that was certain on this tour? We were never left wanting. Star made it clear that we could have as much as we wanted at each place.
With the tour winding down, Star outlined what our next stops would be so we could pace ourselves. We had quesadillas coming up and they were very large, she warned us. Jamie and I decided to split ours and while our brains definitely wanted more, our stomachs were happy with the decision to use some moderation. El Moreno was cheesy, beany, and yummy and followed perfectly with paletas, or Mexican popsicles, from La Michoacana.
Our final savory stop was an addition actually discovered by our guide Star, who dragged the Vallarta Eats staff and the owner to try it so they could add it to the itinerary. While we had very little room left to fill at this point, Yucatan’s cochinita pibil and panucho (a tostada with beans, pulled chicken, avocado and pickled onions), were total wins. I also liked that it was an example of a more modern restaurant serving authentic cuisine.
Here, Star taught us some local “sign language”, demonstrating ways to thank, agree, and not offend using your hands. She also shared one of the most critical elements of Mexican eating – saying “buen provecho” to the guests you’re eating with, and before you leave a restaurant.
We landed at our final stop for a bit of dessert. Candied nuts, a few traditional mexican sweets, and tastes of liquor were a fitting end to a truly local eating day.
If it’s not clear by now, tacos and I have a love affair that will transcend galaxies.
Thank you to Vallarta Eats for hosting me on this food tour. As always, all opinions are my own. But really, was there any way I was not going to love this?
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