Shopping for produce // © 2012 Maribeth Mellin
The Taco and More Tour costs $55 per person including all tastings; advance reservations are required. Agents receive 15 percent commission.
I couldn’t ignore the shrimp-stuffed jalapeno with secret sauce set atop a fresh tortilla, though my stomach was beyond full. The cook watched as I plopped down on a stool at his taco stand. One bite led to another until I begged for more. I knew there were stops to come on this amazing food tour, but I had to try an octopus tostada. Chacha, the ebullient guide for our three-hour foodie tour, urged me forward. After all, carne asada quesadillas, fish on a stick and tamarind candy beckoned. Vallarta Eats, a small company with a hearty handful of culinary expeditions, aimed to sate my every tastebud during its Taco and More Tour.
The tour began amid hard-working locals taking a breakfast break for tacos de birria, bits of stewed meat (goat, beef or pork) on a corn tortilla. As we sipped hearty birria broth in plastic glasses, Chacha launched into a thorough lecture on street food safety. Certified street stands must post their business license in full view and provide water or hand-sanitizer for customers. Cooks handling food cannot touch money or dirty dishes. Reusable plates must be covered with a nifty plastic sleeve that’s discarded after each use. During her show-and-tell lesson, she pointed out each detail and answered every imaginable question wary eaters might pose.
“I want to make you feel good about eating on the street,” she said.
By the end of her talk, I was convinced that I would try anything Chacha proffered, including foods I had sworn would never cross my lips.
Take the carnitas taco stand, for example. I love carnitas, mind you, and have devoured many a taco stuffed with roasted pork. But I didn’t know exactly where the meat came from, and practically covered my ears as Chacha explained the source. Turns out the tastiest bits come from pig parts I’d rather ignore. My advice? Avert your eyes and order a mixed taco, then pay close attention to the many salsas and condiments on offer. Trust those who tell you dark red salsas tend to be muy picante, and be sure to weigh the merits of tangy salsa verde. You will likely need a second taco to perfect your seasonings. Chacha led us through the back streets of the Zona Romantica, joking and gossiping all the while. Few tourists wander this far from the beach, sticking with the many excellent restaurants along downtown Puerto Vallarta’s malecon. Shopping and dining opportunities abound in neighborhoods south of the Rio Cuale, but newcomers tend to limit their wanderings to a few key streets. Locals and expatriates head farther inland to shop for fresh papayas and shrimp at the Mercado Emiliano Zapata and spend a few pesos for sublime meals at street stands.
Our tour covered about 1½ miles between the market and Playa los Muertos in a zigzag pattern that defied my attempts to map our route. Chacha and other guides from Vallarta Eats vary their itineraries, spreading the wealth among many local vendors and throwing in a few surprises for those who think they know Puerto Vallarta’s best street eats. We visited stands that families have been operating for 30 years or more and a modest corner stoop where ladies in checkered aprons served impeccably fresh coconuts filled with sweet milk. Chacha showed us how to eat hot corn tortillas with a squirt of lime juice and a sprinkle of salt, and pointed out a worker cleaning pork skin for crispy fried chicharrones.
After visiting an immaculately clean, air-conditioned butcher shop and a warehouse where bolillos (crunchy rolls) are baked atop ceramic tiles in a giant oven, we collapsed into plastic chairs for a limonada (lemonade) and ceviche break. Grilling Chacha once again, we scribbled notes about her favorite restaurants. Before long, it was time for those incredible shrimp jalapenos and a brisk walk to the malecon for pescado sarandeado, red snapper sprinkled with salt and spices and glazed with salsa and mayonnaise grilled over a wood fire. By that point, we all cried out for cervezas and margaritas, but one last stop demanded attention. We entered a typical dulceria, a candy shop with shelves and tables stacked high with sugar-coated cacahuates (peanuts), mango lollipops dusted with chilies and pinatas that defied imagination. Chacha bid farewell as I grabbed a few glorias, creamy caramelized goat milk candies covered with chopped nuts, and headed back to my room for much-needed coffee and sweets.
Vallarta Eats also offers a Mole Pozole and More tour of restaurants serving regional Mexican dishes and a Totally Taco Tour is in the works. Book your clients on at least one of these tours at the beginning of their Puerto Vallarta vacations, and they will feel like seasoned travelers eager to try the many flavors of Mexico.