fullsizerender-4Astonishing storefronts and restaurants march up and down the Malecón, but my eyes gravitate to the art spectacles framed by the Pacific.  As we meander the mile-long esplanade, from “La Nostalgia” (Nostalgia) to “La Rotunda del Mar” (the Roundabout of the Sea) to the “Caballito de fullsizerender-5Mar (Little Seahorse) to Anfiteatro Los Arcos (Los Arcos Ampitheater), I recall my last visit here and look forward to the next 72 hours.

I find Puerto Vallarta more amazing than ever.  The lovely seaside town is rich in roots and hopes for the future.  I award the following:

Frame forward through a downpour in the Romantic Zone to-a knock-your-socks-off sunset on the point in Marina Vallarta. A table for twenty is adorned with flowers and crystal as nature shows its stuff.  Warm greetings from CasaMagna Marriott’s Lourdes Bizarro and house tequila tasting with zesty Audrey Formisano set the mood. Swirling, checking out the “tears” (legs), inhaling and swallowing, we contrast Joven (young) with Reposado (rested) and Añejo (aged) tequilas. Each of us has a different fave.  We swoon as Chef Kelvin Valenzuela takes us on a 6 course menu tripping through Mexico (Cena por Mexico): blue corn Tlayuda (tortilla with topping-like a Mexican pizza; Oaxaca), OMG sopa de lima (lime soup; Yucatán), enchiladas de jaiba (crab enchiladas; Veracruz), sorbete de aguacate (avocado sorbet; Michoacán), brocheta de Arrachera (skirt steak brochette with whoa banana flake accents; Sonora) and pan de elote (to-die-for corn souffle with crema, whimsical jugs of chocolate; Chiapas)….Salud‼️


Puerto Vallarta is host to dozens of festivals and events annually, but the upcoming Festival Gourmet International XXII is why we’re in town.  I grasped chunks of the Spanish press conference, and the exuberance of Chefs Thierry Blouet and fullsizerender-14Heinz Reize certainly did not escape me. From November 11-20, 2016: 3 maestros-7 countries-10 days—3 cities–27 restaurants-30 guest chefs-18 culinary events!  Highlights include the daily Gourmet Dine Around 6-11 PM the 12th-20th and “workshop, wine pairing and luncheon by high caliber chefs” scheduled 9-4 PM on November 14 (Café des Artistes), 15 (Coco Tropical), and 17 (Mikado at Casa Magna Marriott).   ¡Arriba! 

Our noses tell us we’ve arrived at Rancho Verano Destilado de Agave (agave distiller). The story begins with the jimador (harvester of agave) deftly cutting the spiny leaves from a nine year-old piña to yield the corazón (heart; core). Julio is our guide to raicilla here, where family tradition rules the process from field to still to fermentation to aging at the sprawling hacienda, and raicilla from agave nectar is revered.  “Raicilla should never burn your mouth, scorch your tongue or hurt your throat.”  We breathe in and out, in again and swallow as we are told, with silver, reposado and añejo raicilla. It does not burn, scorch or hurt, and we are a happy group, moving on to enticing café (coffee) and almendra (almond) variations. It’s absolutely a pleasure to meet accomplished, generous distiller Rosendo Cardénas Guerra.

A tasting held at the Jardín Botánico de Vallarta (Vallarta Botanical Garden) was eye-opening!  Raicilla has been around for 400 years.  Distinguished from tequila, which is made only from agave azul (blue agave), raicilla is produced from other varieties from coastal and Sierra regions. The agave may weigh up to 500 kilograms and it’s harvested after 8-12 years.  Methodology differs between regions-in the cooking process (above or below ground), the distillation (in copper, stainless or clay) and style (Arabic, Filipino or Mexican).  We taste raicilla from engaging individuals representing regional distilleries in a clearing by the vanilla bean orchid-walled Conservatory.  As we take in the stimulating environment, we learn of conservation and education for native plants of the myriad jungle, rainforest, desert, forested and coastal regions of Mexico. We enjoyed the freshest, most flavorful luncheon here surrounded by glorious flowers and plants.

We found it on the sleek new 62’ trimaran Canuwa, snorkeling the warm Pacific blue and soaking up rays. Our hosts brought the Ceviche and Aguachile Festival to us!  This festival, which takes place in January, was created to promote local business and Puerto Vallarta gastronomy.
As we played among the fishes, these three chefs and their assistants created their interpretation of classic ceviche and aguachile in the makeshift kitchen galley, using fresh local ingredients.
We’re awed by Chefs Diego, Josue and Mauricio of Tuna Azul, Lamara and Mauricio’s (respectively), Conner Watts, Master Brewer at Los Muertos Brewing, Oscar Hidalgo, Director of Marketing/ Operaciones at Mikes Charters & Tours, and Edgar Cisneros, the brilliant festival guru.
Each popped in its own way!
Chef Diego and Silvia, PR rep, treat us to incredible tuna, lime, chile oil, soy, red onion, celery, and caper ceviche on a tostada, topped with guacamole.  Brothers Diego and Miguel’s Tuna Azul just opened March 16 in the Romantic Zone.
Chef Josue and sous chef Rosario focus on fresh, cold, raw seafood and vegan options at Lamara.   Formerly a photographer, he changed course to open Lamara 10 months ago.  The name links both to his mother (la mara) and the sea (mare; feminine=mara).  Vegan coconut aguachile with habanero and pineapple is a showstopper. Shrimp or tuna are often added to the dish.
Mauricio prepared both rojo (red) and verde (green) aguachile (shrimp in lemon juice, onion, cucumber) and a lobster and shrimp extravaganza and citrus salad with jicama, cucumber, carrot, raisins. Mauricio’s has been in the Las Juntas neighborhood for 14 years.
It was muy rico to spend the day with such talent and good souls and to enjoy their creations from start to finish.
Loved the craft beer from Los Muertos Brewery and free-flowing margaritas from Canuwa’s crew!

img_4725Tintoque, open only one week, boasts an ever-changing menu and celebration of local ingredients and local recipes. The exceptional chef is young in years but he aims high.  A ”Jaliscoco” cocktail with coconut water, ginger, mint, Mexican honey, lemon juice and raicilla rocks.  A short rib amuse with avocado and radish catches our attention. My ensalada de calabaz (squash salad with fried calamari, mashed carrots and chayote) was very tasty, but my friend’s camaron frito (fried shrimp with sesame, eel, chipotle emulsion) took the cake for immensity, presentation and deliciousness. As did her short rib 36hrs with cauliflower puree, potato, beet and morita chile. For dessert, cuala was a gustatory sensation consisting of corn pie, raicilla gelatin, coconut sorbet. To the future of such boldness!

Each street food stand -and they are many- reflects the colors, flavors, tradition, history and excitement of Puerto Vallarta’s food scene in a vibrant dance.  Locals and visitors gather for a chance to contrast the ways that a topped tortilla can vary.  It’s 10 AM and we parade from one to the next in Old Town and the Romantic Zone with our guide duo Ricardo and Amanda from Vallarta Food Tours.
At Tacos Robles, dip the pan-fried birria tacos made of braised beef, ancho and guajillo chiles, garlic and bay leaves between two tortillas into a rich broth and slurp. ¡Saboroso!
Mariscos Cisneros’ creation is a seafood chile relleno in a taco.  It combines shrimp, butter, garlic, onions, and jalapenos in beer batter. Top it with chile oil, red habanero and/or aioli. WOW. Owners Mari, Ricky, and Marcos Cisneros are part of the entertainment.
We eat ground mahi mahi ceviche at Cevicheria El Guero, a fixture since 1989. How lovely that the owner’s daughter married the son of the owner of the fish market.
Smoked marlin is the protagonist at La Tia. Finish with chile oil, lime, spicy red or cucumber avocado sauce, it’s terrific!

fullsizerender-19Dégustation “is a culinary term meaning a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods and focusing on the gustatory system, the senses, high culinary art and good company,” according to Wikipedia.

That sums it up nicely.   ¡Puerto Vallarta!   ¡You move me!

Note: The author was one of a group of IFWTWA (International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association) journalists hosted in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico by Latitude.

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