Puerto Escondido is a relatively small city (35,000 inhabitants) in Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca. It is known far and wide for its surfing, often called The Mexican Pipeline for its mighty Zicatela Beach waves. Bioluminescence tours in the nearby Manialtepec Lagoon will turn the staunchest atheist into a believer as the sky’s canopy sparkles with thousands of stars. Baby turtle releases by the hundreds turn every visitor into a conservationist. Infant frogs in the mangroves learn to turn their chants into croaks as birds chirp in a unison of encouragement. And bird watching at sunrise takes on a new meaning of splendor as vultures and storks decorate tall trees while pelicans and Amazon parrots fly beneath. Out in the ocean dolphins by the hundreds leap heavenward as whales and giant tortoises slide by nonchalantly. At every turn, Nature’s beauty astounds all who visit. But, there’s a beauty in Puerto Escondido of another kind as well: its food!
While visiting Puerto Escondido for three weeks in January, my heart often returned to Oliver Twist’s lament, “Will they change the bill of fare? Still we get the same old gruel!” I wanted to snatch up Oliver and his buddies and whisk them off to Puerto. There, gruel would be an unknown commodity. Instead the smells and tastes of Oaxacan cooking would burst forth, enticing all to become gourmet tasters and perhaps even gourmet cooks.
On my first morning in town, I met up with Gina of Gina’s Tours (email: [email protected]) for a walking tour of food specialties. Musicians serenaded us in front of meat, fruit and cheese stalls at the Benito Juarez market. Chapulines (grasshoppers) bedeck a few stalls at the market. These crunchy toasted specimen can serve as a quick snack or topping on a taco. Additionally, they are said to bring good luck so give them a try. We then visited a town’s secret hideaway (no sign out front to avoid need for owners to pay taxes) where tortillas met toppings of beans and Oaxacan cheese called quisillo. Another favorite at this stop is the fried ants sitting atop tortillas. These ants can also be found, if you’re lucky, in a salsa called Salsa de Chicatanas. They are crunchy, rather like Spanish peanuts. Then we visited a family that demonstrated the grinding of chocolate, and ended the morning at a beach front restaurant at Playa Principal, Pulpo Canoso. Here, we devoured nopal cactus. The chef removes the spiky spines, peels the rind and then stacks the shiny paddle-shaped leaves. Placed on a tortilla and beans, it is a delicious treat. Combining this dish with a drink of chocolate and mocha is bound to start any day off perfectly.
I stayed in a bungalow at Instituto de Lenguajes while in Puerto Escondido. ([email protected]) Gustavo was my teacher my first week there, and he likes food. On our first Friday morning, we hopped on a collectivo for the Benito Juarez market so he could introduce me to a few of his favorite stalls there. One stall specializes in agua frescas, Spanish for “cool waters” or literally “fresh waters.” These are light, non-alcoholic beverages made from one or more fruits, cereals, flowers, or seeds blended with sugar and water. I knew a few from prior travels or restaurants in southern California: Agua de Jamaica, Tamarindo, and Horchata. I added a new favorite called Guanabana. Its original name is annona muricata, and it is a refreshing combination of fruits and water. Easily, I became hooked on them! “Bebetelo!” (translated into “Drink it!”) became a favorite expressions of mine. Close to the juice bar sat the stall for rojas de polelanos. These are quesadillas stacked high with the same chili sauce used for chili rellenos, plus cream of garlic and milk and cheese. Absolutamente Delicioso!
Conjugating verbs is a necessary evil of learning Spanish, but cooking classes at the Instituto de Lenguajes proved to be the reward. Leti stopped early her cooking job in a local restaurant to help me master favorite dishes: Mole Negro, Camarones, and Chili Rellenos. Mole has 27 ingredients in it, and one must add patience to the list. The chocolate smooths the chili that gives it the perfect punch. It proves to be a perfect topping for chicken. Camarones are large prawns, probably caught that very morning. Camarones a la Diabla soak in a red chili sauce of guajillo, chili de arbol peppers and plump red roma tomatoes. The chili relleno has been a popular Mexican cuisine for over 150 years. It is a green chili pepper (probably a poblano pepper) stuffed with minced meat and cheese and coated with eggs. For two other cooking classes, Maria (Gustavo’s wife) took charge. Pescado Veracruz is fresh fish, smothered with rice, vegetables, and sauce of ripe tomatoes. And a group of about six of us mastered making (and eating) ceviche, both Mexicano style and Tropical style with mangos. Food in Puerto Escondido, as in other parts of the state of Oaxaca, are known for being organic and fresher than fresh. Indeed, it comes through in every bite.
I and a visitor from Great Britain joined Gina for yet another tour, this time for a sunset panga (outboard fishing boat) in the mangroves from the lagoon to the river to the beach. It gave a different ambience than the sunrise birdwatching trip I had done there. Not as many birds welcomed us and it became a speck eerie as darkness descended, but the food at the beach was none less than spectacular. Coconuts were cracked open, fresh fish covered the plates, tortillas were non-stop, and beans and sauces were plentiful. A campfire roared behind us and the ocean waves crashed onshore. The humble home, gracious husband and wife team of boat driver and cook, and star-filled night made it a magical evening.
To my good fortune, I have enjoyed many fine meals throughout the world. Southern Italy’s pasta and gelata always bring back fond smiles of memories. Bali’s fresh fish give a new definition to “freshness.” Thailand wins hands down on combining nutrition and taste. But, there’s one restaurant that so far is my absolute favorite: Almoraduz. It is not large. It does not boast of an ocean view. However, the ambience is wonderful; the service is impeccable, and the food is beyond incredible. Located in the Rinconada district of Puerto Escondido, the owners/chefs (Quetzal and his wife Shalxali) hail from culinary school in Mexico City. They choose only the best ingredients, such as oysters from a special nursery in Baja CA. Every so often they have mescal tasting and goat tacos. We asked Quetzal to delight us with his Cocina de autor, allowing him to decide the menu selections for us. He shared with us that there are sixty species of corn, thirty-five from Oaxaca. And his tortillas and love for corn and its importance to the people of Oaxaca show at every turn in the restaurant. Maize was very important to the ancient Mayans that it even had spiritual and religious significance. According to Maya mythology, humans were created from maize; white corn was used for the bones; yellow corn for the muscles; black corn for the eyes and hair; and red corn for the blood. One wall of the restaurant serves as a mural of the King of the Corn. Kernels of corn are mixed in the paint to accentuate its passion to history. Different colored tortillas and spices attest to various species of corn, and the only problem is in choosing what to sample from the many offerings. Gourmet flair shows in other dishes as well, such as the dessert we had of seven kinds of sweet potatoes doused with goat cream. Unhesitatingly, I recommend that anyone visiting Puerto Escondido go to Almoraduz and submerge into the Cocina de autor.
Indeed, Puerto Escondido is relatively small for world renowned food, yet it sure fit that bill for me. The town is a hidden gem of wonderful winter climate, ocean breezes, environmental preservation, incredible sunsets, peaceful people, and – oh, yes, did I mention its food? I brought back my share of recipes and fond memories. But, truth be told, just thinking about its food makes me want to book another trip to Puerto Escondido.