Visitors to Mazatlan should be sure to try one of the local shrimp restaurants. // © 2013 Thinkstock
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In Jalisco you have tequila, in Oaxaca you have mole and, in Mazatlan, it’s all about the shrimp. This coastal colonial city on the Pacific is the center of Mexico’s shrimp industry. Having shrimp in such abundance, it’s only natural that the residents of Mazatlan are experts at preparing shrimp-based dishes, ranging from lime-drenched ceviche to hearty bacon-wrapped shrimp.
While most visitors will have a list of restaurants they want to visit, they shouldn’t neglect a trip to the shrimp-selling ladies along Aquiles Serdan in Old Mazatlan. These women are called Las Changueras and display a variety of shrimp in plastic buckets and trays from sidewalk tables, shaded from the sun by colorful umbrellas.
Las Changueras are not shy about hawking their wares and, if you pause for even a second, you are likely to have a huge blue shrimp thrust under your nose, since smelling the shrimp is key for determining the freshest of the bunch.
“Changueras will say it’s all fresh, but often it has been frozen, since shrimp boats are out to sea for three or four weeks at a time,” said Rodolfo Osuna, a local guide from Pronatours.
Most visitors to Mazatlan won’t have access to a kitchen. But that’s not a problem, since its a common practice to buy shrimp from Las Changueras and have one of the neighborhood restaurants prepare it. They will charge about $5 to cook the shrimp according to a customer’s desires.
During the months of May through August, the sea-going shrimp vessels stay in port in observance of the shrimp spawning season. This is when Mazatlan’s restaurants serve shrimp raised on nearby shrimp farms.
In Agua Verde, located about 30 miles from Mazatlan, shrimp farms are visible from the side of the road. This region around Mazatlan is the biggest fish farming area in the country. The shrimp farms resemble irrigation ditches, and it’s common to see white egrets on one leg hunting for a meal. I was granted permission to tour Aqua Pacific, one of the local shrimp laboratories, where shrimp larvae are raised in carefully controlled conditions.
Aqua Pacific produces millions of larvae a year. I was surprised to learn that 70 percent of the larvae grow to be full-size Pacific white shrimp, the largest shrimp in the region. The larvae are sold to local fish farms who in turn “plant” their shrimp March through May.
While diners make do with farm-raised shrimp during the summer, come September, after the long layoff, shrimp are caught in great numbers in the sea lagoons surrounding Mazatlan. This is when tourists will find shrimp trucks by the side of the road, selling 6½ pounds of shrimp for just $8.
Where to Dine
I’m a big fan of palapa-covered open-air beach restaurants, and visitors will find plenty of these in Mazatlan. Still, sometimes a full-scale restaurant is in order. El Presidio in Old Mazatlan is considered to be one of the best restaurants in town.
“Mexicans like Presidio, but Americans love it,” said Osuna.
It’s easy to see why. The restaurant is in a carefully restored building with open courtyards full of lush plants. The ambience is that of an upscale colonial-era private residence, making it the perfect choice for a romantic evening. Try the Mexican fried noodles with grilled zarandeado shrimp.
The oldest seafood restaurant in the city is 63-year-old Mariscos Bahia, also located in Old Mazatlan. It is a former residence and, while elegant, it still manages a homey feel. A specialty of the house is camarones a la diabla, shrimp cooked with seven chiles. A tasty complement to the meal was called pescado pajaritos, tiny flying fish that are fried until crunchy. May is the season for these, when they are so plentiful they jump out of the water right into a waiting bucket.
La Puntilla is a popular restaurant on the south side of the Mazatlan waterfront. The seafood platter is a menu mainstay here and offers a culinary tour of Mazatlan on one huge plate. The shrimp pate and the aguachile are excellent with an ice-cold Pacifico, Mazatlan’s local beer. Since La Puntilla is on the water, it has a marina vibe. It’s common to see kids swimming off the jetty and diving off the pilings here.
Shrimp is a matter of civic pride for Mazatlan and great eateries abound. The city is also wonderful for walking, either along the seaside malecon or down the narrow streets of Old Mazatlan. Perfect for building up an appetite for your next meal.