Dancing skeletons salsa along to the rhythm of hand drums diffused in the crowd growing on Plaza Machado for Dia de los Muertos: Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The sun has just set on a steamy early November day in the city of Mazatlán, in the west-coast Mexican state of Sinaloa, and music hangs in the thick tropical air. The dancers’ bony black-and-white face paint glows phosphorescent under the streetlights.
The procession meanders through the cobblestone maze of Old Mazatlán, led by donkeys pulling rickety wooden carts topped with rapidly emptying beer kegs. Makeshift bartenders pump furiously to fill an endless stream of plastic cups with Mazatlán’s beloved Pacifico — brewed just blocks from here — which fuels the antics as they build to a crescendo. Once the loop is complete, the plaza will fill beyond capacity, and will look more like a cavernous Mexico City nightclub than a quaint colonial square.
This is the second of three straight days each year when Mexicans honour their lost loved ones. Spirits are high, and people-watching might not get better than this. Even on this festive night, however, it would be a stretch to say cuisine is secondary in Mazatlán. At every one of the dozen or so restaurant patios on the plaza, locals and tourists crowd tables heaped with marlin and shrimp pulled from the sea that morning, local tomatoes and avocados, and firm mangoes drizzled with lime and diced chilies. Even as many revellers start migrating to the city’s discotecas, there’s a steady stream of fine foods flowing from the kitchens onto the plaza. If you didn’t show up hours before the parade began, you won’t get a table tonight.
A few days later, when I return to Plaza Machado to dine at Alfredo Gomez Rubio’s restaurant Pedro y Lola, the square’s ambience could hardly be more different. It’s been an active Pacific hurricane season, and the year’s final storm has Mazatlán in its crosshairs. Most locals have retreated to the comfort of their homes. The plaza is deserted, and at Pedro y Lola — usually humming with activity — staff outnumber diners.
Gomez Rubio and I take a table while the rain outside gives rhythm to jazz standards played by a live trio. Other than the bowtied barkeep quietly thumbing his phone behind a shiny bar, the scene could be drawn from the same golden age of cinema as the restaurant’s namesakes, film star Pedro Infante and singer Lola Beltran. Both are Mazatlecas who became Mexican icons, and their antique portraits survey the dining room’s brightly painted stucco and exposed California redwood ceiling beams.
“Mazatlán’s history is different than anywhere else in Mexico,” Gomez Rubio says as we’re served an appetizer of squeaky fresh octopus in a sauce of mild guajillo chili shot through with an infusion of garlic, lime and white wine. In crisp English tinged with an American drawl picked up at the California military academy he attended as a teenager, he tells of the city’s importance during the California Gold Rush.
With no railroad to take miners from east to west across the United States, many skipped the treacherous transcontinental wagon journey along the Gold Rush Trail, sailing south and crossing much narrower Mexico instead, embarking for San Francisco from Mazatlán. “Most of what you see today is not a colonial city or one of the government-driven resort developments like Cancún. It’s part of what makes Mazatlán unique.”
“The restaurants here are more individual,” he adds. “There aren’t many of the buffets you fi nd at all-inclusive resorts, and there are more independent places where chefs can create something of higher quality, be more creative.”
The Pedro y Lola menu is tight. A simple double-sided sheet, it mixes local seafood favourites and Mexican standards, with a smattering of North American dishes for diners who came exclusively for the sunshine.
At Gomez Rubio’s recommendation, I sample the Pedro y Lola shrimp. This chef’s special doesn’t disappoint. Served on a bed of fresh oranges floating on a Cointreau-accented green chili sauce, flavours swirl, with the giant, juicy shrimp providing a delectable finish.
As much as creativity, it’s the provenance of such dishes that sets Mazatlán dining apart. The shrimp, oranges and chilies are all local. Nearly everything is. Sinaloa is a cornucopia. A few blocks away, Mazatlán’s central market overflows with fruit and vegetables. When the city is hurricane free, small-scale fishermen sell to restaurateurs on city beaches.
“Of everything we serve,” Gomez Rubio tells me, “I’d say that more than 90 per cent of it comes from right here in Sinaloa.”
Knee-deep in the water to safely guide his boat onto the sand, Jose Alfredo is bringing in his day’s catch. A broad grin hints it’s been a good morning in the mangroves, but also reveals the deepening crow’s feet that come with nearly two decades spent fishing tropical waters. But even after 19 years working the tiny fishing port of La Brecha, he laughs at the idea that he’s a veteran.
“Some of the guys have been fishing here for 40 years,” he smiles. “I’m still a rookie.”
I’ve come to La Brecha — one of 14 small-scale fisheries in Sinaloa’s Teacapan region, and one of its richest — with Oscar Simental, a retired airline manager and Teacapan local who’s showing me around this fertile agricultural region just south of the city.
Here, rows of tomatoes shine on the vine. Towering coconut palms alternate with stout mango trees, and fishermen haul a bountiful catch of red snapper from the region’s abundant mangrove forests. Everywhere you look, food is growing.
“This is a rich agricultural valley,” Simental says. “Dig anywhere and you’ll hit water a few metres deep. Dams and irrigation aren’t necessary. The area supplies peppers, mangoes and coconuts not only to Mazatlán, but to Guadalajara and Mexico City.”
Despite the area’s riches, La Brecha looks more like a fishing derby than a commercial port. A few small boats sit on a thin strand; there’s no heavy machinery and no pier. The catch isn’t weighed in tonnes, it’s counted one fish at a time.
Pelicans circle overhead as Alfredo pulls a quartet of meaty red snappers and a dozen smaller fish from the cooler built into the stern of his boat. His baseball cap is pulled low, his eyes hidden as he unsheathes a blade and sets to cleaning his haul.
“Most of our catch goes to the market in Escuinapa de Hidalgo,” he tells me. With a population of 30,000, it’s the largest nearby town. “But some of the restaurants from Mazatlán send people to buy straight from the fishermen.”
With a wink, Simental shells out a wad of pesos for Alfredo’s two meatiest snappers and we double back toward the village of Teacapan, where the grill is
fired and waiting.
For every mega-resort built on Mexico’s coast, a dozen villages are seemingly frozen in time, and for as long as the masses have flocked to resorts, the more intrepid travellers have tried to ensure that hidden gems stay hidden. Teacapan, a 90-minute drive south of Mazatlán, is one such gem.
When she wanted to escape it all, Nashville star Loretta Lynn drove down the Mexican coast. It was the early 1970s, the height of her fame. She could have stopped anywhere, but chose Teacapan. Lynn moved into a waterfront house here, and refused to reveal the location of her idyllic Mexican getaway.
Now, the only trace of Lynn is her abandoned home. It was one of her guests whose name was written into the local landscape. Wayne Tanner visited Lynn in Teacapan with his Hollywood actor-friend Robert Wagner, and became a regular at a local restaurant, La Tongareva. When one of its partners decided to go it alone, they opened a new place bearing the name of their valued customer. Señor Wayne’s restaurant went on to become an institution, with seating for 150 diners in a village of just 2,000 people.
It’s only a few kilometres from La Brecha, but the grill here is more local still: fishermen pull their boats up to Señor Wayne’s, bringing their catch — sometimes just a fish or two — directly to the kitchen to sell.
Simental and I wander up, snappers in hand and no intention of selling. We’re looking to get them grilled in the local Zarandeado style, unique to Pacific Mexico. Señor Wayne’s has a reputation for having one of the best grills in Sinaloa.
Out back, sparks fly as grillmaster Bonifacio Bacho stokes the mango wood fire to get the coals burning at the low roll that Zarandeado demands. The low-ceilinged kitchen is smoky, but enormous. With a grill five metres long, Señor Wayne’s can handle 30 kilograms of fish at a time. It needs to. Zarandeado is anything but fast food.
“The important part of Zarandeado isn’t the wood that you use,” Bacho tells me. “It doesn’t get much of its flavour from that.”
Sweat pools on his brow as he works the rub of coarse salt, lime, garlic and mild chilies into the snapper’s tender white meat, slitting the fish to ensure maximum absorption.
“You cut it in the middle so the salt can penetrate,” he says. “If the salt is on it for 10 minutes, it will be better. That is the secret to Zarandeado: time. The fire is kept low. This fish will take 30minutes, 40 minutes, 50 minutes to cook. It will taste better if it’s given the time it needs.”
Snapper on the grill, that time becomes our antagonist. Simental and I settle in for the long haul, watching fishermen work the waterfront. What might have been an hour seems like a week, but the fish finally arrives. The salt, lime, garlic and chili flavours are enveloped in smoky mango wood aromas.
Thick, tender meat flakes from fish that could only be fresher if it were still swimming.
“I spent years in other parts of Mexico,” Simental says wistfully between mouth-watering bites of snapper. “Baja California, Yucatán. I’ve been all over, but Mazatlán … This is where I always wanted to be, and it’s because of the food. It’s the best in all of Mexico. There’s a saying in Mazatlán that God so loved Mazatlecas that he made sure none would ever go hungry. And we don’t.”
This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Canadian Geographic Travel.