We found Chayote's on our first night in Mexico, after wandering around town in search of two things: one, fish tacos, and two, as local a spot as possible. We struck out on the first count—Chayote's is a fish market by day, but serves up meat parts at night. The plastic tables were crowded with families and local business owners, dressing their tacos with a bracingly spicy salsa verde.
Tacos at Chayote's
We made it to Chayote's twice, trying tripe, cabeza, asado, and lengua—three tacos on delicately flavored corn tortillas will set you back 48 pesos. The tripe and tongue were unquestionably the standouts —the tripe is unctuous in texture and rich in flavor; the tongue has a huge meaty flavor and chars up nicely on the griddle. Tacos come with chopped raw onion and cilantro, but the serving of meat fat-caramelized onions on the side are not to be missed.
The Real Fish Taco, Sayulita
The Real Fish Taco has the amusing, if confusing, tagline, "My Ass!!!" I'm not sure if this means it's not really the real fish taco, or... well... whatever, but it's as tourist-centric as Chayote's is local. That doesn't stop it from being fantastic. The flour tortillas aren't made fresh, but they do pick up some butter and brown spots on the griddle. Fish choices vary, but can include shrimp, oysters, marlin, and mahi mahi. The marlin is fantastic—it's smoked and shredded, and with a hint of heat, almost has a carnitas-like flavor. But the shrimp may be the best. Fresh and sweet, the sea critters take on an orange hue when cooked in garlic and butter. All tacos are topped with a slaw of shredded romaine lettuce, ripe tomatoes, carrots, cucumber, and red cabbage, and are made both messy and face-stuffing-good with squirts of a creamy chipotle sauce. At 35 pesos each, they're a significantly more expensive option, but the beachside location makes up for it.
Margaritas at Hostal del Centro, Sayulita
The outdoor bar at Hostal del Centro would be a great place to hang out even if their drinks were subpar, but they happen to make the best margaritas (60 pesos each) in town. The secret is simplicity—the drinks are made one by one with fresh-squeezed lime juice and agave-rich tequila. Glasses are rimmed with chile salt good enough to lick off plain. As for the spot itself, stake out the swings big enough for two flanking the bar, and cross your fingers for a night when the local Buena Vista Social Club cover band plays.
Chiles Rellenos con Pollo at Mary's, Sayulita
We went to Mary's in search of aguachiles—they was good, but the chile rellenos (110 pesos) was even better. A plump poblano pepper is filled with tender chicken and cheese; the filling takes on a little heat from the pepper's innards, and makes for a runny, tasty mess when split in half. The real reason for ordering the rellenos, though, is the sauce. About a third of the plate is drenched in an incrediblly fragrant, tomato-based sauce, which has a remarkable depth thanks to a blend of richly flavored spices. I picked up clove, cinnamon, and toasted cumin—as for the others, our server wasn't saying. Fresh corn tortillas come on the side, and were very useful in swiping up every last bit of sauce.
Quesadillas at the Restaurant Acela Taco Stand, Chacala
Restaurant Acela is a busy beachfront restaurant by day. It's a fine place for a ceviche tostada and a Pacifico, but the best bites come out at night. As darkness falls over the little fishing town, the ladies in pink aprons come out, and begin making tacos, quesadillas, and vulcans (crispier, open-faced quesadillas) to-order (20 pesos each), on tortillas made before your eyes.
Quesadilla and Vulcan, dressed
While the tacos and volcans (crispier, open-faced quesadillas) were nothing to complain about, the quesadillas are absolutely the must-order. Here, tortillas get their due —bigger than traditional taco rounds, with a rich corn flavor and pliant texture surrounding salty melted cheese and meat. Carne asada was good, but chorizo was better, thanks to its big, spicy flavor. Don't dig in too quickly, though— there's a killer salsa bar to visit first, filled with picos and sauces of varying intensity, onions both pickled and plain, and even a giant bowl of pinto beans. I shamelessly loaded up, and would do so again despite ending up with salsas all over my face.
Chilaquiles at Las Brisas, Chacala
As a hotel, Las Brisas scores some serious points for reasonably priced rooms, right on the beach. But let it be known that their breakfast, which is included in room rates, is just as good as the oceanfront location. In particular, try their chilaquiles con huevos (75 pesos if you're not staying at the hotel), potentially one of the best versions I've ever had. The star here is a bright, fresh tomato salsa that's reminiscent of the balanced simplicity of a great pasta sauce. Fresh-fried chips retain their crisp texture, and a scattering of salty queso fresco and chopped onions provide salt, texture, and punch. My scrambled eggs were a little dry; next time, I'd go over-easy. Don't skip that side of refried pinto beans—they are delicious, with a full-bodied flavor that suggests some kind of rendered pig fat.
Camarones at Chico's, Chacala
"You have to go to Chico's," said just about everyone we encountered in Chacala. I'm glad for the repeated recommendations; otherwise, we likely would have dismissed the restaurant as another beachside joint. But Chico's excels at seafood in a truly special way. We started with the camarones al aijilo (95 pesos for a whole order; half order pictured), another exemplary Nayarit shrimp dish. Sweet, snappy, and fresh, the shrimp are delicately sautéed and well-flavored with caramelized garlic.
Zarandeado at Chico's
But the real reason to come to Chico's is for the zarandeado (95 pesos for a half-kilo), a speciality of Nayarit, and some of the best seafood we had all week. A whole dorado is butterflied, and cooked over a wood-burning fire, skin-side down. The fish is rubbed with butter, garlic, and salt; elsewhere, you may see it layered with sliced plantains. The flesh side gets a turn on the grill, too, caramelizing the garlic and imparting a hint of wood flavor into the fish. The result is a delicately smoky and rich flavor with meaty chunks of fish that flake off easily. Served with fresh corn tortillas, and sides of butter-rich rice, refried beans, and avocado, these are the best DIY fish tacos ever.
Dried Fruits, Nuts, and Sweets at the Thursday Market, La Penita de Jaltemba
Every Thursday, there is a huge tianguis (open-air market) in La Penita, one of the larger, more commercial towns we visited on our trip. In addition to copious amounts of clothing, toys, and electronics, there is some great food to be found. We loved the chile-spiced mangos (second from right)— chewy, sweet, and laced with a healthy amount of spice, they're made from locally-grown mangoes that put the Trader Joe's version to shame.
Churros don Dany at the Market, La Penita
Hidden amongst a row of stuff-packed stands, churros don Dany were a fantastic sweet find at the market. Dany himself fries churros to order, spiraling dough into bubbling oil to form massive rounds. They're available as a whole rosca (30 pesos) or a sliced-off pedazo (5 pesos), rolled in sugar.
Churro Pedazo, La Penita
The ridged, crisp exterior is designed to catch ample amounts of sugar and cinnamon, but avoids the greasy heaviness of lesser churros. The interior is almost custard-like—eggy and light, it counters the richness of the outer shell.
Fresh Coconut Water
Coconuts are one of the prominent produce staples of Nayarit, and stands selling them—whole, in sweet cocada form, or in cups—were abundant, on beaches, on the side of the road, and in the market in La Penita. Here, a vendor empties fresh coconuts into a cooler of water. It's ladled into Big Gulp-sized cups, along with an ample amount of coconut meat for snacking.
Shrimp Aguachile at Los Berios Restaurant, La Cruz de Huanacaxtle
We stumbled into Los Berios around 4 p.m., starving and desperate after getting lost inside a walled resort. The restaurant, a roadside stand hugging the carretera federale between La Cruz and Punta de Mita, was a godsend, especially since it had cold beer.
It happened to be one of the standout meals of the trip. First, there was the shrimp aguachile, the best version we'd had all week. The shrimp here was so fresh it was still blue-grey in color— La Cruz is a port town, and this shrimp was clearly straight out of the water. While other aguachiles had been studded with some cucumbers and maybe a few jalapeños, this one was doused in a fresh, spicy salsa verde of tomatillos and hot peppers, and topped with buttery slices of avocado.
Half Chicken at Los Berios, La Cruz
I would have left happy after the aguachile. But oh, this chicken... I'm still dreaming about it. An order of half chicken came with all of the appropriate parts—leg, wing, thigh, breast—and had a smoky, rich chicken flavor. Deep-brown caramelized skin was good enough to peel off and eat alone, but the meat itself was juicy and fall-apart tender, not to be missed. Every bite was laced with a hint of chile, deep flavors of butter and garlic, and a splash of lemon. The slaw was delicious, too—sweet, crunchy, and fresh, an ideal complement to the hearty chicken. They were particularly excellent together in a fresh corn tortilla.
Chicken on the Grill at Los Berios, La Cruz
The wood-fired grill was directly outside the restaurant, and was doing a brisk business getting more chickens ready for the eating. The birds are butterflied, and appear to have been marinating in their red-hued mixture long enough to impart some flavor in the meat. I will be attempting to recreate this one for years to come, or at least until my return to La Cruz.
Quesadillas at Bicho's, Sayulita
Our last meal found us back in Sayulita, and at Bicho's, at the enthusiastic recommendation of our hotel's proprietor. Bicho's is off the main square, and, he promised, was a definite destination for locals. We were to get the quesadillas, and take advantage of the salsa bar. Having had similar quesadilla experiences in Chacala, we were worried that Bicho's would pale in comparison.
Oh, were we wrong. Bicho's puts out a whole other level of quesadilla greatness—these babies are BIG, made using plate-sized, fresh-pressed corn tortillas. They're filled with dripping melted cheese; our fillings included tongue and carne, which were both so good that I can't pick favorites (finally, carne asada that isn't dry!). The salsa bar is amazing, and includes a bowl of pinto beans— I created an entire plate of topping options to find the optimal quesadilla combination. My pick is a pile of beans, pickled red onions, meat fat-grilled onions, and creamy green sauce of avocado and lime paired with pipián de pepitas de calabaza, a salsa made from pumpkin seeds, peanuts, and toasted grains that's common in Nayarit. This one had a serious chile kick, too. Also pictured is a bottle of Indio, which, after a week of Pacifico, was remarkably full-bodied and flavorful.