In San Blas, a traditional fishing village on Mexico’s wild Pacific coast, the cooling ceviche comes in many guises, including refreshing aguachile made with local prawns.
By CINDA CHAVICH
(San Blas, Mexico) – Sitting under a shady thatched roof in an open-air restaurant on a wide beach, I’m enjoying a study in ceviche.
That Mexican specialty of raw fish “cooked” in lime juice and served with green chilies and tender corn tortillas for wrapping is the sushi of the south – a light, chilly snack that’s a refreshing antidote to the tropical heat.
And here in San Blas, a traditional fishing village on Mexico’s wild Pacific coast, the ceviche comes in many guises. We start with the finely chopped local grouper, combined bits of minced onion, hot jalapeno peppers and tomatoes. It comes with guacamole to scoop up with crisp fried tortilla chips.
Then there’s the local specialty, aguachile, a unique ceviche made of the delicious local shrimp, marinated in sweet lime juice, with spicy green tomatillo salsa and cooling chunks of cucumber, a particularly winsome bipolar combination of hot and cold.
San Blas, a two-hour drive north of the busy tourist hub of Puerto Vallarta, is an historic seaport, dating to the 1700s. The Spanish built cathedrals and counting houses here, their crumbling stone shells still surrounded by canons high on the cliffs.
But for the last 150 years, it’s been fishing that has been the lifeblood of San Blas – local fishermen still supply the shrimp, mahi-mahi and tuna served in restaurants and resorts from Mazatlan to Alcapulco. So this is ground zero for fresh fish.
We actually smell the smoky mangrove fires of street-side fish vendors before we see them as we drive into town. Fresh fish is sold in street markets and the popular grilled fish dish, Pescado Zarandeado, is on the menu everywhere.
Perch on a stool at a portable kiosk in the historic plaza, head to a fine hotel restaurant, or come to one of the many beaches that skirt the bay, where river estuaries thick with mangroves empty into the sea, and eat fish.
Playa Las Islitas is just one of the many wide sandy beaches lined with outdoor palapas restaurants. At Mysis 111, a spot at the end of the road, Pedro Garcia has a smoky mangrove wood fire going and is busy seasoning a large butterflied snapper to lay across his make-shift grill. Basted with a spicy, garlicky butter flavoured with citrus and achiote paste, the Zarandeado comes to the table garnished with sliced onions, tomatoes and oranges, smoky and juicy and ready to wrap in tortillas with a splash of the local Salsa Huichol hot sauce.
It’s a fish feast that starts with his crispy fish “ciccarones” and platters of fish and shrimp ceviche – cool and spicy, it’s perfect to have with an icy, long-necked Pacifico beer.
The scene is repeated throughout our stay in San Blas, whether walking the streets around the historic square or exploring the wide beaches, there’s always a place for a little ceviche snack and a fresh fruit juice or agua fresca.
At Hotel Garza Canela, the comfortable hotel chef Betty Vazquez runs with her siblings, the Restaurant El Delfin serves intriguing guava and chili martinis and fine wines with an upscale menu, including Vazquez’s fish ceviche with oregano and serrano, and shrimp with the fruity local guajillo chilies and orange sauce.
She says there’s an ongoing debate about the origins of ceviche – Peruvians say they were the first to “cook” seafood in acidic citrus juices – but there’s no doubt that Mexican cooks bring their own local spin to the dish.
“The fish came from the ocean, and the citrus from the Middle East in the 17th century,” says Vazquez, who has represented the region at food events from New York to San Francisco, “but Mexican people here have a unique way with fresh fish and seafood.”
Along with fish and seafood, corn is produced in the area, so fish tacos, gorditas with crispy pork carnitas, and a traditional shrimp soup thickened with corn flour are also on most menus. You’ll even find delicious corn ice cream and street vendors selling the traditional fermented corn drink, tejuino.
But here, “where the jungle meets the sea,” it’s really the sweet freshwater shrimp harvested locally and central to the local dish of aguachile that’s special.
In fact, ceviche is so popular in the state of Nayarit, there’s even a Ceviche Festival, and popular family-style restaurants like La Cevicheria, devoted to ceviche and the local shrimp, where the menu ranges from shrimp soup and shrimp pate to tuna sashimi to tostadas topped with ceviche of snapper, smoked marlin, scallops and tuna. There’s ceviche mixto verde of scallops and shrimp mixed with shredded apple and red onion, Ceviche Acapulqueno chopped small and mixed with tomato ketchup, and the local Aguachile de Camaron, with shrimp, Serrano chiles, lime, avocado, cucumber and red onion.
It’s a two-hour drive from San Blas to Nuevo Vallarta and we overnight at Villa La Estancia, where there are seven kinds of ceviche on the menu at the pool bar.
Enroute to the airport, we spot La Cevicheria’s big shrimp next to the WalMart, and there’s just time to stop for a final ceviche fix. The cured shrimp are as crisp and sweet as the cucumber in our aguachile. It’s a fresh flavour that we’ll miss until our next trip to Mexico’s wild Pacific coast.
IF YOU GO:
Hotel Garza Canela, San Blas
Run by chef Betty Vazquez and her siblings, this is a comfortable little boutique hotel with a fine restaurant in quiet San Blas, complete with garden suites, a pool and a great gift shop featuring local artisan wares. The friendly staff can point you to helpful local guides for bird watching and other eco adventures.
Villa la Estancia, Nuevo Vallarta
Posh resort and spa along a strip of hotels and condos, with top chefs offering creative cuisine and several gourmet restaurants and bars on site.
copyright Cinda Chavich