This article is from the December 2004 - January
2005 The Mexico
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LAS JOYAS DE MEXICO
By Lynne Doyle
I don’t go to Mexico for the food. I love it, but most of it doesn’t love me, so where and what I eat when I’m traveling in Mexico is way down on my list of important considerations. Generally, I’m heavily dependent on Coke Light and happy if whatever I’ve eaten doesn’t make me sick. However, just as the country is full of wonderful surprises with regard to everything else found there – like hotels, ruins, art, museums, and beaches – there are, here and there, some special restaurants that stand out above all the rest for one reason or another.
Two of my favorites could barely be more different from each other, nor could they be much further apart geographically, but they are nonetheless special for very similar reasons. First of all – the atmosphere of friendliness and welcome Mexico is so famous for and that always speaks to me so deeply, and secondly – well, maybe firstly for most people – the simply great food they serve.
On the Pacific coast, in the city of Puerto Vallarta – in Viejo Vallarta (not the new part of Vallarta that looks a lot like Cancun) – there is a little place called Memo’s Casa de los Hotcakes. This little hole in the wall is located on Calle Basilio Badillo 289, very near Lucy’s CuCu Cabana, maybe four or five blocks back from the beach. When you enter, it looks very unimposing -- sort of like a small sandwich bar -- except for the always long lines waiting to be seated. But once you get in, there is a small open area of closely-arranged umbrella tables placed around jungle vegetation growing on the high walls surrounding the little patio. About evenly populated by tourists and locals, this reasonably-priced little joint is a hidden treasure in a town filled with wallet-stretching gourmet restaurants owned by foreigners. Memo Barroso, the smiling Mexican owner, serves fresh-squeezed orange juice in large glasses, terrific coffee, and best of all, every different kind of pancake known to man – all cooked to perfection and featuring fruit, sauces, soft butter and real maple syrup.
I have to be honest – left to my own devices, I probably never would have ventured into this place, but my husband – who definitely does travel on his stomach – decided just from the cooking smells he picked up on the sidewalk that it was worth the wait to investigate. In line for about twenty minutes before we got seated (another confession – lines make me very grouchy), I still wasn’t convinced, but Bill was, just from watching the orders of other diners going by as we waited. However, once seated with coffee in front of me, I was a convert. I don’t usually have great luck finding coffee hot enough for me in Mexico but when I do, my pleasure is all out of proportion. That first day, my husband ordered banana pancakes and I – not a big pancake person – ordered strawberries over the top of mine. Memo corrected me and pointed out the difference between toppings and true strawberry pancakes, and I can’t say enough about the breakfast we were served, complete with bacon cooked thoroughly (also somewhat rare in Mexico).
Perhaps the best thing I can say about Casa de los Hotcakes is that for the rest of our three-week stay in PV, at Bill’s prompting, everything we did had to be scheduled around time to get there at least once a day. Also, I have recommended this restaurant to many friends and acquaintances visiting PV and all have come back raving about it. And I probably should add that there is not much in this world that can compare with Memo’s chocolate pancakes.
In the city of Oaxaca, on the corner of Calle Garcia Virgil and Calle Humboldt, is another little hole in the wall restaurant called Maria Bonita. I don’t know the name of the man who owns this neat little place, but he is fun and friendly and speaks almost perfect English. A friend brought me to Maria Bonita one night several years ago and I got into a discussion with the owner about the correct way to order lime in a drink so that I could get a section with juice instead of a twist. After much joking and laughing, he taught me what he felt would be a surefire Spanish phrase and made me the best gin and tonic I’ve ever had anywhere, not that this is such a tricky feat. (Incidentally, his phrase seldom works but I’ve learned to just hang on – in Mexico, almost everything is served with a plate of lime sections, so you can use those if in spite of your best efforts, you get a twist in your drink.)
Since that first visit, I have returned to Maria Bonita faithfully, bringing many friends and everyone has loved it. It is very small – the three tiny rooms can accommodate at most maybe 30 people at one time – but the rest rooms, although very tight, are clean and neat, and there is always an impressive exhibit of the work of some local artist featured on the walls. I cannot speak directly to most of the food because I always have the same thing – Maria’s unsurpassed chicken consume and my personal favorite, chicken filets served with a mushroom sauce over rice – which is always excellent, but friends have ordered many other dishes and I have never heard a complaint. Perhaps the most praised is the Oaxacan sampler, a large platter of all kinds of Oaxaca specialties, including guacamole, Oaxacan cheese, and fried grasshoppers. Bill, always my most reliable food critic, particularly favors Maria Bonita’s interpretation of arrachera, a thin beef filet marinated and grilled to perfection, served with rice, vegetables and warm bread. While I have not personally sampled all the entrees offered, I know that portions are always generous, the food is served piping hot, service is prompt and always gracious, and prices are very affordable.
An especially nice time to visit this restaurant is during the Day of the Dead festival. Always a very big deal in Oaxaca, this festival is observed absolutely everywhere, including bars and restaurants. At this time, Maria Bonita removes one of their tiny tables to make room for a small offrenda dedicated to the owner’s parents and parents-in-law, and lit by candlelight, Maria Bonita is even lovelier and more atmospheric than usual.
I can assure you that whatever your dining preferences, if you give these two little restaurants a try, you will always be rewarded with plenty of excellent food at very good prices – no one I have ever sent to either place has ever reported even an “iffy” experience. I promise.