On the Culinary Backroads of Puerto Vallarta

Why is it, that some of the best food, is found in “hole in the wall” locations, or places you would have never thought of looking? I like to try local, traditional foods, so before leaving for Puerto Vallarta, I did an online search, and came across Arte Culinario on TripAdvisor.com

This week, I’d like to share a culinary experience unlike any we’ve done before.

Chef Mavi Graf - Arte Culinario
Arte Culinario offers cooking classes in Puerto Vallarta, but as you’ll see, it is more than a class.

Via e-mail, we arranged for a “class” with Chef Mavi Graf. We were given a choice of traditional or contemporary Mexican cuisine, or International fare. We chose traditional cuisine, as it is my feeling that before you can appreciate contemporary cuisine, one needs to understand the basics from where it came.

We were given a series of suggestions for traditional Mexican cuisine for review. For the purpose of shopping and organization, we chose Ceviche, Cochinita Pibil (Mayan-style pulled pork with black beans, rice, and pickled onions) and Tequila Flan.

Carniceria Zoraya
At 10:00 am we headed to the lobby of our condo complex, and it was hard to miss Chef Mavi in her traditional white chef’s uniform. The four of us then loaded into her Ford Explorer, and began our culinary journey. Off we went to buy the supplies for our chosen menu.

She took us to places in town that we wouldn't have seen without her. Our first stop was CarnicerĂ­a Zoraya, a local butcher. The owner greeted us from the behind the counter, and presented us with a fresh pork shoulder and a bag of fried pork rinds “for the road”.

Mariscos Plazola - Chef Mavi
The next stop was the fish market at Mariscos Plazola inside the Mercado 5 de Diciembre. Here we picked up fresh sea bass and tuna, but could easily have added Red Snapper, shrimp, or octopus, as everything was presented fresh and on ice. The staff in the market were happy to answer any questions, and Chef Mavi obviously had developed a great relationship with the owners. While we were there, we didn’t know it, but one of the people we met, we would see in a couple days, as the restaurant owner of Costa Chica (one of the best seafood values in Puerto Vallarta).

Coconut stand
As we traveled the cobblestone roads, from market to market, Chef Mavi shared stories about the local community, pointing out where to find the best lamb or oyster tacos. As a local resident, her experiences, and knowledge were insightful and entertaining. The "hole-in-the-wall" businesses, lining the roads in this old town, are the heart of the community. She pointed out a sidewalk business that serves fresh coconut water, so we stopped and had a drink from freshly macheted coconuts. The green coconuts also supplied one of our appetizers: the soft flesh was scrapped from the coconut, sprinkled with lime juice, salt and chile flakes.

Spice Shop
No Mexican menu would be complete without some fresh tortillas and fried corn chips, so a stop at Tortilleria Aries for some maize (corn) tortillas was a must.

Our next stop was across town to the spice shop. As we pulled into the parking area, Chef Mavi pointed out the local church: Iglesia del Pitillal. She had told us about the large statue of Jesus that had been carved out of a large tree. It is worth the stop. Across the street is the spice market. Amazing! The smells coming from the shop, and the variety of herbs and spices were great. Here we learned about
Jamaica (Hibiscus flower), which we would later have as a refreshing tea.

Fruteria Montero
Next was the local produce market: Fruteria Montero. I found it “funny” that all the locals were in here shopping for their produce. Why was this “funny”? It was right behind the big new Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart. In the United States, these big stores put the small guy out of business…apparently not in Mexico!

Our final stop was at La Europea, a Spanish owned liquor store, where we picked up a bottle of Licor de Damiana, for the Tamarind Margaritas. I also picked up a bottle of Mexican wine (a chardonnay/chenin blanc blend) to pair with our Ceviche.

Agua de Jamaica
We arrived at Chef Mavi’s home, where her assistant, Rosalba, had already begun the cooking process, as many things needed to be done before our arrival. We settled in at the breakfast bar, looking into the kitchen, and were presented with guacamole and chips, fresh cheese, and our coconut along with a glass of Agua de Jamaica.

Arte Culinario Ceviche
Chef Mavi then proceeded to make ceviche, and showed us three different styles, using the fresh local sea bass, but adjusted for different regions. If you don’t know the difference between traditional and Acapulco style, then you need to take this class. The third style was served as the first course of our meal. Additionally, we tried an oriental style ceviche made from the fresh tuna. There was also a shrimp ceviche that we ended up taking home with us, and later in the evening had with a couple of cold cervezas (which worked great as a pairing due to the habanero “kick” in the ceviche).

Chef Mavi w/ Tamarind/Damiana Margaritas
We saw all the techniques in making the menu we had selected, and then were invited to move to the balcony of her home. The table was beautifully set, overlooking the Marina below. The “sexy” margaritas were served. It was the first time I’ve had a tamarind margarita, served in a martini glass, and rimmed with sugar and chile pepper flakes (they are addictive….matter of fact, I am now on a quest to find tamarind paste here in the U.S.).

Cochinita Pibil
We saw wonderful things during our shopping trip that we would probably never have seen without Chef Mavi's guidance. She knew the best places for fresh ingredients. This is probably the most authentic insight into the local culture you will find. Not only will you get a tour of the local markets, and a great meal, but you will become part of the “family”. As Chef Mavi, her husband Kirk, and their daughter Cristina Lugo, told us, we will “always have friends in Puerto Vallarta”.

Balcony view of the Marina
My only regret is that we didn’t meet with Chef Mavi and Cristina earlier in our trip. The tips on restaurants and markets that Cristina gave us came in handy for the remainder of our visit.

The cost of this full day (which went from 10:00am to about 5:30pm) was on the higher end of the quoted $110 to $150/person, But when you look at it, you would probably spend that much on a nice evening out. But you get so much more than just a meal. You get to learn about food, culture, and shop for the fresh food in multiple markets. And, you’ll now have friends in Puerto Vallarta.

Muchas gracias Chef Mavi y Cristina
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