The Lovely Dining Companion and I returned recently from our first trip to Puerto Vallarta. Fascinating time and, though I think I’ve memorized the street map of the city because we spent so many hours walking back, forth, up ,down, and sideways, there somehow wasn’t time even in the week to visit every place on our list. That said, we ate well: most of our meals were good and a fair number were excellent. I’ll try to keep my descriptions short(ish). But I should note right up front that one place colored our view of all the preceded and followed. Cueto’s was extraordinary. So much so that it made me rethink for the umpteenth time just what it is that sets one experience apart from another.LOS XITOMATES
We had arrived in town only a few hours earlier and were wandering around, acclimating to 90°and humidity. As we walked down a side street, Los Xitomates appeared before us. We were the first customers of the evening (it was a Friday at 6pm--early, but we were famished). As the evening wore on, a fairly small number of customers joined us but this was our first indication of how hard the American economy has hit Vallarta's economy. The space is casual yet it seemed right to be a touch overdressed (long slacks, no tee shirt). To say we received plenty of attention would be an understatement. Servers, chefs, kitchen staff, owners, you name ‘em, they stopped by. In the event, the food was excellent.
This was our second favorite meal of the week, ahead of even Trio and Café des Artistes. Why? Because of the entire experience. Not only was the food was excellent, just as important, we enjoyed being there. From the arrival of the four salsas (green serrano, red jalapeno, dark chipotle, and pickled onions with habanero) with tortilla “sticks” (just about literally sticks, with sesame seeds in the dough!) to the entrees (LDC had salmon with a poblano sauce and I had a mahi-mahi with a green chili sauce—I’ve forgotten now what the mahi-mahi was the stand-in for), everything was delicious. The salsas each managed multiple layers of flavor while all coming across as fresh and clean. The staff was surprised that I didn't find the pickled onion/habanero combo too hot and seemed to get a kick out of watching a turista chow down on it. Every plate set before us was quite attractive and the sauces for the entrees complemented as well as intrigued on their own. Of all the pictures I am sorry not to have, these are the ones I miss most. If were to return to one place in PV on our next visit (in addition to Cueto's), this would be it, hands down.
The house guitarist—a genial (and voluble) man with 25 CDs over a 43-year career—was not only highly talented but a genuine pleasure to talk with. The menu features creative takes on classics and isn’t strictly limited to Mexican. It also isn’t inexpensive (I didn’t write down the prices but, if memory serves, it was just a notch below Trio and Café des Artistes). We really enjoyed our introduction to dinner in PV and would happily return.
[very sadly, no pics]
Morelos 601, Centro
(322) 222-9434 TUTIFRUTI
It’s in a garage. You can see the plastic tables and chairs in my picture. Behind the curtain is someone’s very large pickup truck. The pictures don’t show the owner’s very friendly, playful, two little terriers. The owner, we think, is a grandmotherly woman, all alone (at least when we were there for breakfast). She speaks no English and she does things at her own pace, which isn't slow but unhurried. She’s certainly a sweet enough person and we enjoyed our uncomplicated breakfast. You can tell from the menu that there isn't a wide selection. Still, I'm very glad we ate here. Don’t go if you’re in a rush. We had huevos con jamon and huevos con machaca; LDC had a licuado and I had coffee. The food was fine; nothing extraordinary except that it was just like your grandmother (or abuela) made it for you. And that alone makes it worth the trip--not to mention that breakfast couldn't have been much over $5, if that. She patted LDC on the head and wouldn’t let us go until she had brought out homemade butter cookies and stuck them in a baggie for us to take. Sweet woman, sweet gesture. We’d happily return for whatever this Mexican version of gemütlichkeit
Tutifruti--the dining room
Calle Allende 200, between Av. Juaréz and Av. Guadalupe Sánchez,
Centro, Puerto Vallarta
We were eager to like this, especially after reading santander’s paean above. The room on the ground floor is old, atmospheric, and lovely. The service was impeccable. We started with an appetizer that was, at least in theory, exactly what santander had: cilantro-ginger marinated calamari with avocado and smoked tomato & jalapeño salsa. Ours resembled a stew more than anything else and though it was good, it was nowhere near the “best squid on earth.” The avocado never worked and the salsa, while it worked, didn’t seem precisely right. But the entrees made up a lot of the lost ground: we each had snapper: LDC had it roasted with garlic and served with shrimp on a zucchini salad, accompanied by a spicy tomato salsa and artichokes. Mine was a generous portion of pan-roasted filet with sauerkraut, white pepper sauce, and glazed grapes. It sounds a bit odd, I'll grant you, but the dish really worked. Most of the sourness was washed out of the kraut and the white pepper sauce was mild but redolent of white pepper. The sweetness of the grapes...just right! These dishes both approached excellent but we left disappointed.
Somehow, the evening added up to less than the sum of the parts. What was missing? The soul, I guess. I can’t point to any misstep or error. I enjoyed my food and would have been very happy with it had it cost even twice as much. But in the end, it left us pleased but not thrilled, happy but not ecstatic. The food was one of our best meals and the service was nearly impeccable, but no one ever came across as particularly friendly or warm. Given the competition for diners, we were a little surprised. All in all, I’d be willing to go again and see if the experience changed; I'd just go with slightly altered expectations.
Trio calamari app
Trio seabass with sauerkraut, white pepper sauce, and glazed grapes
Trio seabass with zucchini
Trio dessert chile crestiano (I've e-mailed the restaurant for more information. I'm not certain of the name: it was a roasted poblano dipped in chocolate, stuffed with a fruit and ? mixture.... Intriguing to say the least.)
Guerrero 264, Centro
Puerto Vallarta, México
(322) 222 2196http://www.triopv.com/menu.php CAFÉ DES ARTISTES
I challenge anyone not to be awed by the outdoor/indoor garden here. A multi-level series of tables are set on small terraces set among an almost jungle-like setting under fifty-foot (and higher) trees, ferns, etc. Dark, atmospheric, beautiful. A setting to die for. Once again, top-notch service. And once again, mostly excellent food.
Before I get back to the food, let me emphasize the darkness. Servers all carried powerful, small flashlights and the menu was, truly, difficult to read. Great atmosphere, a bit impractical at the outset, though. There is also, almost hidden by the foliage, a "waterfall" (in quotes because it is constructed, not natural) and the sound of water was soothing throughout the evening.
We each chose the chef’s tasting, a series of three choices. In the event, we both chose the same appetizer: cream of smoked tomato and chipotle soup, with cheese and mushrooms custard and fresh cream. We agreed on the soup: one of the best bowls of anything either of us have had in a long, long time. LDC’s entrée was grilled salmon “zarandeado,” mixed vegetables and mushroom pickles, mashed potato with chiles toreados. I went with the grilled beef tenderloin “petals” (no, even after the presentation, I don’t know what that means) with a sauce of camembert cheese and chipotle chilis, leek and a tomato. I will complain that my tenderloin was not a good cut. Chewier than tenderloin ought to be. But the sauce was excellent and the presentation impressive: the "petals" rested on a slightly charred disc of potatoes, propped up by a roasted onion (cebollito variety), vegetable terrine/napoleon and roasted tomato. (Not sure where it goes, but if you're going to give me bread, for god's sake make it good bread. The bread here was very nearly embarrassing. Fresh but remarkably unremarkable, especially for a restaurant of this caliber and with these aspirations.)
For dessert, LDC went with the “Big Dancer” Café des Artistes mango and maracuya mousse with raspberry sauce and I chose the lychee and orange crème brulee. Both desserts were good, though I think each of us favored our own. And I should note that I am not ordinarily a creme brulee person, but this was quite exceptional. As enjoyable as the meal was—and as stunning a deal given the price ($86, including a glass of wine, tax, tip...everything)—we’d happily return. Indeed, the chef (Thierry Blouet) is a true master of sauces and understatement. We really did enjoy our food.
But once again, something was missing. No real human connection, no warmth, no...soul. Ultimately, for the high quality of the food and service, a disappointment. A word to the wise for those eating indoors: watch out. There was a private party in the bar and it was LOUD. Not that the party intruded on the outdoors, but we had to wonder what effect it had on those dining indoors.
des Artistes setting
des Artistes smoked tomato/chipotle soup
des Artistes salmon “zarandeado”
des Artistes tenderloin petals
des Artistes Big Dancer
des Artistes lychee/orange creme brulee
Café des Artistes
Guadalupe Sánchez 740, Centro
Puerto Vallarta, México
(322) 222-3228http://cafedesartistes.com/cda/menu-eng.pdfEL ARRAYAN
This place was high on our list but, sadly, by the time we made it, something had caught up with LDC’s tummy. So she had to content herself with picking at our two appetizers and some chicken soup. The apps were intriguing: jamaica flower (aka hibiscus) quesadillas (the flowers sauteed with asadero cheese and served in corn tortillas) and plantain empanadas filled with black beans and asadero cheese. We were served several sauces: the server recommended the dark chipotle salsa (though, in the event, it was much thicker than a salsa) with the empanadas. A superb match. I went with the chile en nogada, described upthread by David Hammond. It is served cold. As in cold, not room temperature. This is a busy, popular place and it’s clear why. (Speaking of which, the outside world intrudes even here. Hand sanitizers on every table--and, indeed, we saw them often in town as well.) The menu (and the room) is homey and offers some great choices. Our server, though busy, took the time to talk with us a bit and it helped settle us in, in a way never quite felt at home at either Trio or Cafe de Artistes. We found the price quite reasonable ($44, including tip). Contrary to David H’s experience, we had excellent and attentive service. I even tried to interest LDC in the chapulines, based on David’s recommendation, but couldn't make the case (partly to my own relief, I'll admit). I’d go again without hesitation for the opportunity to order something different. I think my slight negative reaction was largely based on my entrée which I found more intriguing than enjoyable. I truly enjoyed both apps, liked the vibe (there was a young husband and wife entertaining on guitar and percussion who we were so impressed with--a rare thing--that we bought a couple of their CDs), the room, and the choices offered.
[very sadly, no pics; didn’t have the cameras with us]
Calle Allende 344, Centro
Puerto Vallarta, MÉXICO
(322) 222-7195 http://elarrayan.com.mx/currentmenu.phpCUETO’S
It was on our radar from a line in a post upthread by chicagofoodies. Then, once we had trained our concierge to recommend LTH-worthy “authentic” places, she put in a good word for this place as well. It’s out of the way, in a poorer neighborhood with zero tourists. We walked from our hotel and, though the area was a little offputting because of frequently unlit streets, I never felt unsafe. The outside of the place is brightly lit and once inside the sliding glass doors, we were treated royally. This was, hands down, our best meal in Vallarta.
As we got comfortable--the room, as the picture discloses, is not particularly warm or inviting--we were shown a tray with seafood. Everything on that tray was beautiful, including the largest crawfish I’ve ever seen by a factor of about three. The menu is large and after much to-ing and fro-ing, we started with the ceviche a la Vallarta (they had another version…Acapulco, I think). Then on to our entrees: I went with the huachinango sarandeado
—the classic whole red snapper basted/coasted in garlic-chile oil. LDC chose the giant shrimp and asked for her sauce on the side, so she could dunk. Everything was outstanding. No ifs, ands, or buts. I don’t remember sucking fish bones quite as eagerly ever before. Both entrees were accompanied by a simple rice prep and steamed squash/carrots. Nothing exceptional about those sides, but oh...the entrees! And, lest it be an afterthought: the flan. At the risk of being overly enthusiastic, the best flan either of us has ever had. Not your ordinary flan, this was a slice of a cakelike flan (in size, not texture). Almost four inches thick, a generous portion, and not draped with caramel sauce as it's traditionally presented. This was flan to die for. It's not normally a dessert I order, but it somehow seemed like the thing to order and I will be eternally grateful that I did so. If anyone reading this goes and disagrees, I'll refund the price of your dinner...that's how certain I am!
We loved this place and almost everything about it, from the owners (a family) to the servers, the mariachis (who asked a pricey 60 pesos (about $4) per piece but were really very good)...you name it. As I mentioned at the top of this post, Cueto's forced me to rethink (yet again) why some meals just blow others away. As I hope this post makes clear, we had excellent service and excellent food at both Trio and Café des Artistes, two highly regarded places. But as good as both of those meals were, Cueto’s beat them. Handily. Why? Probably in part because we hit it off with one of the owners and in part because everyone we dealt with was so friendly. When a place it hitting on all cylinders, it’s hard to beat. And it was that warmth, that friendliness, that…"soul” that accounted for it being the place we liked best. Great service and great food are absolute prerequisites, of course. But they aren’t enough, I guess.
Aside to Alan (jazzfood): if you liked the homemade salsa at Tino’s, you’d love the sauce here. Same theme but just flat-out better here. We asked one of the owners if it was for sale. He said yes and went into the kitchen. He came back with a jar of the sauce and when I asked how much, he said to "put it in the tip." Though he was very generous, I am already concerned about the quality of my life when it runs out. Garlicky, chiley-y, an astonishing depth of flavors.... The perfect sauce.
Cueto's fresh seafood offerings
Calle Brasilia 469, Col. 5 de Diciembre
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
(322) 223-0363CAFÉ DE OLLA
and FREDY’S TUCAN
We had very similar breakfasts at Café de Olla and Fredy’s Tucan, both in Old Town and but a block or two apart. The former is better known and more upscale, for all its rustic decor. The latter seems to be more of a cafeteria-like neighborhood spot for locals. I had huevos con machaca at both places and LDC had oatmeal and pan dulce at both. The thing that struck us more than anything else was that they either use a different kind of oatmeal or prepare it very differently in Mexico (or at least in PV): cooked to absolute death and served soupier than here. Both breakfasts were perfectly fine; good, but nothing to write home about (as it were). We would have returned to Café de Olla for dinner had time permitted because the breakfast menu was disappointing in its small number of Mexican offerings. But time didn’t permit. I'd be curious for dinner there in part because the breakfast offerings were mostly disappointingly American in their orientation.
Cafe de Olla
Calle Basilio Badillo 168-A, Col. E. Zapata
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Calle Basilio Badillo 245, Col. E. Zapata
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
(322) 223-0778http://www.fredystucan.com/ CENADURIA DOÑA RAQUEL
We thank our concierge for this one. We had passed it by on the street and, frankly, barely noticed. As the photo of the kitchen shows, it’s a very home-y place. One server, one "cook." But the food was very good, cheap, and quite hit the spot. The menu is on the small side but if you're looking for "authentic" food, this may be your place. Of the patrons there the entire time we were there, we were clearly the only tourists. We demolished what we were served and though it isn't great food, it seemed very much what you’d get at someone’s home, though, and for that we were grateful. My small pozole would have qualified as a "large" anywhere else and was generously garnished with shredded cabbage and radish. The broth was delectable; the plato especial
included two tacos, a flauta, a few enchiladas, and a tostada. All gone without a trace. LDC's enchiladas features a chocolatey mole--perhaps a shade heavy on the chocolate, but nonetheless quite good. If you need a quiet, simple, place for a relatively quick, unfancy--but very authentic--dinner, we recommend it.
Dona Raquel exterior
Dona Raquel menu
Dona Raquel kitchen
Dona Raquel “small” pozole
Dona Raquel enchiladas en mole
Dona Raquel--plato especial (tacos, flauta, tostada, enchiladas—you choose the meat)
Cenaduria Doña Raquel
L. Vicario 131, Centro
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
(or, formally, MARISCOS TINO'S
…has moved. More precisely, the El Pitillal branch has moved to the center of town--the north end of the Malecón. Since I never ate at its former (or other branches in Nuevo Vallarta or Punta de Mita) location, I can’t speak to that. But I can say that, given the enthusiasm on this board for Tino’s, we were very disappointed. The food was good. No better than that. As an indication of how the American economy is affecting Mexico, there was a large staff on hand with little to do. There was business, to be sure. Tables seemed evenly divided between tourists and locals. But we were approached, welcomed, chatted with, and served by more people than I would have thought humanly possible. Everyone was pleasant, but it was too much. Particularly since the food was merely good. My shrimp seemed to have cooked and then doused in a bottle of the salsa huichol that decorates tables throughout the city. A not particularly interesting, mostly one-note, sauce. LDC's fish soup was "fine" as well. Rich sauce, lots of seafood, but ultimately, nothing out of the ordinary. Whether the food has suffered because of the move or for some other reason, I couldn't begin to guess. But it clearly wasn't the caliber of what they served in El Pitillal to judge by all the praise heaped on them earlier in this thread.
Tino's fish soup
Tino's shrimp a la diabla
Paseo Diaz Ordaz 920 (between Langarica and 31 de Octubre), Centro
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
(322) 225-2171http://www.tinosvallarta.com/AND SO...
I necessarily omit places. Worse, I omit some of our experiences out of Vallarta. We took a trip very similar to santander's to San Sebastian, a 17th-century village in the Sierra Madre mountains, a couple hours to the east, visiting a tequila distillery and coffee plantation on the way. We went to the Botanic Gardens, a forty-minute local bus ride to the south. We spent a day hiking up the El Nogalito River.... We were lucky enough to be in PV for the Feast of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Vallarta and, indeed, of Mexico. There were nightly processions from different points in town to the cathedral: part religious ceremony, part street fair, part local holiday.... Entire families lined the streets, groups both large and small, formal and informal, including very intricate, extravagant floats and groups of people just marching. Street food, vendors, hawkers galore. A real treat and I wish we'd been there for more of the festival. Too much to include in this post.