Chef Betty Vasquez of restaurant El Delfin at Hotel Garza Canela // © 2016 Riviera Nayarit Tourist Board
Feature image (above): Pescado zarandeado is coated in spices and grilled over mangrove wood. // © 2016 Riviera Nayarit Tourist Board
Riviera Nayarit tourism is in an enviable position. As one of the newest resort destinations in Mexico, tourism officials can learn from the successes and failures of other destinations as they develop. One of the things Riviera Nayarit is getting right is its approach to the region’s cuisine.
“Our goal is sustainability,” said Richard Zarkin, public relations manager for the Riviera Nayarit Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Restaurants are using locally sourced food, which is supporting local farmers, who then receive their piece of the tourism pie. Everybody benefits — including our visitors.”
Riviera Nayarit’s culinary ambassador is chef Betty Vasquez. Vasquez has her own restaurant, the highly regarded El Delfin, at Hotel Garza Canela in San Blas. Vasquez is also one of the judges for “MasterChef Mexico,” a reality cooking show that premiered last summer.
“The cuisine of Riviera Nayarit is very close to the earth, very close to the sea,” Vasquez said. “With 192 miles of coastline, we have an abundance of fresh seafood. Farther inland, we have microclimates that allow farmers to grow produce throughout the year.”
Vasquez began cooking 24 years ago in the family’s hotel restaurant, when she was a teenager. Vasquez received a Le Cordon Bleu education, but also grew up observing her grandmother at work in her own kitchen.
“You could say I cook Mexican food with heart, utilizing French techniques,” Vasquez said.
There’s a range of dining options in Riviera Nayarit, from simple seaside eateries to elegant restaurants at the region’s five-star resorts.
“Riviera Nayarit has had fusion cuisine for the last 200 years,” Vasquez said. “Over the years, people have been arriving by sea from other countries. Each of these immigrant communities brought their own ways of cooking. For instance, the Chinese introduced the use of ginger.”
Vasquez has some opinions on which dishes visitors need to sample.
“The absolute must-try dishes for visitors to Riviera Nayarit include ceviche, aguachile, pescado zarandeado and birria,” she said.
Ceviche is fresh seafood mixed with chopped onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, jalapenos and cilantro; marinated in lime; and often served on a crispy tostada. Aguachile is similar to ceviche and is prepared with shrimp marinated in lime and super-spicy chiltepin peppers. Pescado zarandeado is a true regional specialty, originating on the island of Mexcaltitan, off the coast of Riviera Nayarit. Pescado zarandeado is most often prepared with red snapper, with the whole fish split in half from head to tail.
It’s then slathered with spices and grilled over a fire of mangrove wood. Birria is a savory goat or beef stew, which locals consider a hangover cure. Many birria sellers dish it out in the morning and close shop by noon.
“Street vendors are key to our gastronomy,” Vasquez said. “Visitors must try our street food. A good rule of thumb is to choose vendors who have the most customers gathered around their cart. I encourage everyone to try street food — it’s also a great way to meet the locals.”
Vasquez especially recommends fruit salad made by street vendors, which is drenched with lime and dipped in a spicy chamoy sauce or dusted with Tajin (a dry spice made with salt, lime and peppers).
“In Riviera Nayarit, we take great pride in our cooking,” Vasquez said. “The most important aspect of our cuisine is the freshness of our products. Traveling is about new experiences, and what you have tasted is part of your trip.”