Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, has an entire culture built around fabulous dining. The problem, however, can be hunting down unique dining establishments without being directed to crowded, touristy restaurants. Online reviews can be helpful, but of course those are usually written by… other tourists!
Strolling through Puerto Vallarta, you walk past those food stands or small restaurants where throngs of locals converge. And the delicious smells drifting from the food carts are incredibly appealing. But you’re hesitant. Surely, you think, they might not be clean, and no one wants to spend their vacation with a stomach bug.
Now you can spend an evening with other adventurous diners, with a local resident guiding you through countless choices, for several unforgettable hours of culinary delight. Vallarta Food Tours and Vallarta Eats are the two companies offering food tours, both creating a memorable experience.
If you’re still reluctant to dive in—before the first taco hits your mouth—your guide will explain why local food carts are perfectly safe. Puerto Vallarta banned street carts nearly 30 years ago, so the ones you see today were grandfathered in and have been in the same family ever since; which means their food quality is safe or they would not still be in business. The city also requires at least two workers at every food cart – one to handle the food and another to handle the money. (If you see someone handling both, well… those you can skip!)
On the food tours you’ll experience tacos in every conceivable form, including fish tacos prepared from the local catch-of-the-day. Marlin and mahi mahi are both popular choices.
Beef tacos arrive on your plate in abundant forms. Tacos volcan, named after their similarity in appearance to a volcano, are similar to a tostada. You’ll try at least one mouthwatering carne asada (steak) taco with tortillas made right at the stand and if you’re adventurous, perhaps even beef cheek tacos or tacos made from the steer’s eyeball (not to worry… the latter is usually sold out long before your arrival).
Tacos al pastor may rank among the favorite of locals. Succulent pork steaks are layered into a large pile and slowly roasted on a spit (think the Mexican version of a gyro). After slicing generous portions of the pork onto an awaiting tortilla, the grill master finishes it off by deftly wielding his knife to add a slice of pineapple that has been perched atop the spit. While each taco stand or family restaurant serves a variety of tacos, often it’s the homemade salsas that draw local customers to each favored stand. Each proprietor has his own recipe ranging from mild, creamy avocado salsa to intense smoky and spicy mulato.
And there are also other food cart stops for more diverse fare. Pozole, a traditional soup made from hominy and meat broth; an assortment of aqua frescas, waters flavored with local fruits; and maybe even a little mezcal may make their way to your palate. For those with a sweet tooth, the tours end with a bit of dessert. Sometimes homemade ice cream and sorbets, other times at a candy or chocolate shop. If you’re lucky you’ll get churros fried fresh!
Both food tour companies offer a variety of tour options including anytime tours that focus on what locals eat for breakfast and lunch, as well as evening tours that focus on dinner items while giving you a sense of Puerto Vallarta’s night ambiance. And if you’re looking for something different, each company offers unique outings.
If you’re in the mood for craft beer with your tacos or perhaps something higher end, head to Vallarta Eats where they are launching a new beer/taco hybrid tour or their Tasting Vallarta tour that visits several of Puerto Vallarta’s more upscale institutions, the latter tour being a masterful evening of learning exactly how gourmet dining in Puerto Vallarta has evolved. Want to work off those calories as you relish them or is a cocktail more your speed? Vallarta Food Tours has a brand-new Bikes & Bites tour, as well their popular Mex-ology Tequila and Cocktail tour.
Numerous stops and a full stomach later, you leave with a local’s perspective of the Puerto Vallarta food scene. And f you’re like me, halfway through the first taco stand you were already thinking, “How am I going to recreate these dishes at home?”
Luckily you can book a cooking class with Enrique, a local chef, through his company Cookin’ Vallarta. Enrique picks up the small group and takes you to a local market – a real local’s market – to purchase what will be needed for the class. Masa for homemade tortillas and fresh vegetables for a variety of guacamoles and salsas begin the list. You’ll find stalls with fresh meats, seafoods, and cheeses, which Enrique captivatingly explains in detail. The main dish for the class depends on the day of the week – for our class carnitas were on the menu. So we picked up fresh cuts of pork to create the dish, made by simmering the meat in oil and then milk.
After the market tour we’re off to Enrique’s home, where his wife, Eri, awaits our arrival. The afternoon is spent cooking, chopping, dicing and roasting the food items picked up at the market. We watch Enrique demonstrate how to braise the pork for the carnitas. After a tequila appreciation lesson, it’s time for the feast. You sit back, relax, and enjoy the meal with new friends and ponder the lesson of the day – how food can introduce you to a new culture.
As Enrique says, “Food has a language. It will talk to you.”
Photos by: Troy Clarence, www.cotrippin.com
Get me there (all three companies have interactive sites where tours/classes can be booked directly):
Vallarta Food Tours: