[dropcap]W[/dropcap]e ventured south to explore our neighbor in Jalisco, Mexico, with eyes wide open.

Steeped in history and culture, this hilly seaside city of cobblestone streets, swinging bridges and art-studded boardwalk is home to gracious people who capably share tradition.  Famed in the sixties when Liz and Dick fell in love during the filming of “Night of the Iguana,” Puerto Vallarta is so much more. Here, the food culture is front and center, enriched by the past and bolstered by today’s faces-young and old.

Evening at Casa Velas

Was it the flair for the dramatic or the outstretched tamarindo margarita that piqued my interest?   The boutique gardens were a vivid backdrop for an array of authentic tastes skillfully prepared and exuberantly presented by Marina Vallarta’s Velas Resorts’ restaurants and chefs.  The pleasure was all ours, from gourmet fare to exquisite tacos to tiger shrimp, while heralded by twenty-three mariachis.

Ceviche at El Guero’s

Just off the Malecón, that open gallery of gastronomy, Mariscos el Guero’s offers fresh and flavorful ceviche.  Four generations are part of this institution on Calle Francisco Madero, which traces to a wooden cart in 1989.

At a small table in the center, a former chef methodically shells shrimp. Charming Manuel of Vallarta Food Tours introduces us to ceviche, from the Incans’ siwichi, in which orange was used as citrus to prepare the fish.  Here, the tostada was crowned with the zesty combination of mahi-mahi, “cooked” by lime, mixed with onions, pico di gallo, tomatoes, cilantro, cucumber, and topped with avocado.  Accompanied by agua fresca de jamaica (hibiscus punch) and sensational salsa casera (house salsa with roasted guajillo and chile de arbol), I’ve never tasted better.

Aurelia Carillo, line chef at Restaurant Andrea, Velas Vallarta

“Buen dia,” she says, her smile filling the room. Aurelia Carillo is one reason we looked forward to an early wake-up for breakfast.

To a guest at Velas Vallarta, she is the face of Mexican cuisine as she lovingly prepares your choice of tortillas or eggs to accompany chilaquiles rojos or verdes, terrific machaca, sweet breads and tropical fruit.  Born in Puerto Vallarta, she has been employed here fifteen years.

“Yo soy feliz aqui… con ustedes, practicando español.”  I made an effort to communicate in Spanish and was rewarded with warmth.  It’s no surprise that our son and daughter-in-law were awed by Aurelia and the fantastic breakfast buffet from their stay at Velas Vallarta last fall.

Cooking Class at El Arrayán

The namesake tree graces the atrium of the restaurant in Old Vallarta.  Colorful tablecloths and Huichol art adorn the walls. Cooking classes are offered at El Arrayán from October to March only, and today we found out why.

Donning keepsake embroidered aprons, we checked out our menu and recipe packet (Spanish items, translated to English), and washed our hands.  Then, the twelve of us, co-proprietor Carmen Porras, chef Diego Sanchez and a cheerful crew generated mucho heat in the kitchen!

The chicken and the multi-ingredient mole poblano were prepared in advance of this four hour class, in order to save time and also to maximize flavors.  Organized stations and mise en place awaited.  After demonstration, there was equal opportunity for hands-on challenges in masa making, softening banana leaves over the flame, tamale construction and folding technique.
We observed the process for cooking, with banana leaves lining and topping our precious bundles, for a flavor and moisture lock. We proceeded to chop zucchini, chiles, pineapple and more for accompaniments.

Lunch was a resounding success with homemade chips, salsas, and signature Arrayán Margarita, made with yellow guava-like fruit from this tropical myrtle.  Our class projects, a sensational zucchini appetizer, chicken mole tamales, and glazed pineapple with vanilla ice cream knocked our socks off!

I’ll return for more true “mera mera cocina mexicana.”

Cocktails at Vista Grill

The expansive terrace at Vista Grill, home to an award-winning restaurant, allows guests to embrace Puerta Vallarta’s beauty from above. Here, the shimmering Banderas Bay and a promising sunset prepare you for the evening ahead.  Imbibe (yet another) margarita, munch an appetizer or two, and mingle.  Bet you can’t pass on the selfie!

Ignacio Cadenas’  La Leche

A framed milk-mustached beauty adorns the otherwise stark white interior. Floor-to-ceiling shelves house hefty cans and jugs of milk—all white, of course—branded La Leche.  The menu (white chalk on a blackboard) mesmerizes with word play.  Q.M.T. is Ignacio-speak for “Quiero My Tuna.”

Dressed in white, Ignacio exuberantly greets us with a sampling menu created that morning.  Between delectable plates of tuna, beef carpaccio, a tacita of “everything” soup, octopus herbed risotto, veal butt, duck La Leche and sweets, we deduced that Nacho, as he is affectionately called, injects a bit of his soul into each dish.


Gaby’s Restaurant Bar

Sopa de Tortilla at Gaby’s Restaurant BarThe rooftop terrace nearby the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe is well worth the climb, for the city view, traditional food and drink and this radiant family of proprietors.  Son Julio Cesar, now chef, was born in 1989, the year Gaby’s was established.  Cristina named the restaurant after her daughter.  Tequila, chips, salsa, and mole appetizers whet our appetites for classic sopa de tortilla. Friendly servers offered tastes of smoky house raicilla.  Next time, I’d like to try Julio’s recommendation: dine while enjoying a screening of “Night of the Iguana” or Linda Ronstadt’s “Canciones de mi Padre” on the whitewashed wall of the building across the street.

Sopa de Tortilla at Gaby’s Restaurant Bar

Mr. Concepcion’s Tuba

One of a select group of vendors, the engaging Mr. Concepcion  will make your day with a concoction known as “tuba.”  The ingredients listed on his jug are “sap of the palm tree, purified water and ice, apples, strawberries, pecan, sugar, honey.”  It’s refreshing!

The city opened its arms to NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) for our 13th annual conference.  The people are the core of Puerto Vallarta.  They are gracious and creative, with strength of character.

Six months later, they demonstrate such resilience.