For many Californians, a quick trip to Mexico is a constant in their annual vacay plan. Five to seven days relaxation in a beach town—Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Mazatlan—is still fairly inexpensive. Getting to a west coast retreat is quick. Snag a direct flight and some locations give toes-in-the-sand within three hours from SFO.
A favorite spot is Puerto Vallarta, located smack in the center of the Bay of Banderas, a five hour drive west from Guadalajara. The adage “there’s something for everyone” rings clear as a church bell in this Jalisco state city. The region’s variety of topography, generally-pleasing climate, range of available activities and breadth of pricing options make it a hotspot for hippie, Instafamer, jetsetter and almost everyone in between. For me, being there guarantees an eclectic mix of serendipity that never fails to entertain. During my recent trip, I gained a menu sneak peek and taste at four Puerto Vallarta establishments that will participate in Restaurant Week, Sept 15 to October 10. Chefs will create three-course dining experiences priced at up to 60 percent less than normal. Each establishment determines whether to offer a meal at roughly $15, $21 or $25 USD equivalent.
I visited Hacienda San Angel, Café des Artistes, Trattoria di Nuovo and Kaiser Maximilian. Aside from some of the most splendid meal preparation, the hospitality and service at each venue was incredibly welcoming. Each business has operated in the Puerto Vallarta Old Town area for numerous years; in fact, Café des Artistes was celebrating 30 years in the same location—albeit growing and expanding to now offer dining in various ambiances including garden, terrace, bar/lounge, formal indoor and private salon. Founded and directed by Thierry Blouet, the Puerto Vallarta location has at its helm Chef Lara Castellón. One of her creations to be featured during Restaurant Week is an inverted tostada appetizer—catch of the day ceviche with green aquachile topped by a mini crunchy tostada. My meal was followed by the restaurant’s longstanding guest favorite prawn and castile squash cream soup. The ensuing course was a piquant and smoky plate of sea bass with red enmoladas. I understand how meals can easily extend to two or more hours—the service is timed to perfection with excellent conversation and education by servers. While waiting for presentation of the softest fillet accented by red wine and shallots served atop puree of cauliflower, the attendant shared highlights from an extensive wine list. Vintages from Spain, Germany, Austria, Mexico, California and France filled the selection.
Puerto Vallarta Restaurant Week: dining at Hacienda San Angel.
Hacienda San Angel offers open-air dining with a view in a formal setting. Reservations are required to enter this collection of historic villas that have been restored over numerous years by the recently deceased founder /philanthropist from San Francisco, Janice Chatterton. As with Café des Artistes, the presentation of each plate was impeccable and artistic. My palette was introduced first to a ceviche accented with touches of habanero, diced tomato and mango, encircled by a mango curl, then topped with crown of shoestring crisps—mellow heat cooled by juicy tropical flavors. This was followed by a generous portion of firm, yet flakey, dorado (mahi-mahi) dressed with rows of thinly sliced, placed and seared potato. Papaya, mango and melon dotted the plate perimeter. My host, Alejandro, has worked at Hacienda San Angel for nine years. Among the ingredients and Spanish words he introduced to me was higo, or fig. Zuccotto con higo capped the meal, rich and sweetened by a berries sauce and row of meringue. A third venue visited was Trattoria di Nuovo, owned and operated by Nohemi Heredia. Celebrating eleven years in business, this casual bistro is tucked away on Basilio Badillo street. Its unassuming entrance gives way to a surprising secret garden that opens to the sky. Italian in vibe with red and white checked tablecloths, Sofia Loren in picture frames, plus candle and cheerful yellow flower at each table, I found this venue to be exceedingly comfortable, surpassed only by the geniality of each staff member, as well as Nohemi herself. Chef Luis Villasenor Bobadilla prepared in front of me three items from their Restaurant Week menu, starting with a beet salad adorned with creamy sweet dressing, soft goat cheese, plus candied walnuts. A nice feature of this trattoria is its open kitchen—which made for the option to photograph preparation of each course. As a main, a generous bowl of pasta dotted with catch of the day, pargo, in tangy Kalamata olive and lemony veloute sauce was created. Nohemi shared that for this recipe, the chef rotates between using one of three Banderas Bay fish types: dorado (mahi-mahi), pargo and huachinango (both from the red snapper family). Dessert was a surprise—fried, light and crispy chocolate raviolis filled with banana and drowned in affogato sauce. Portions were hearty. Good thing my hotel was located several blocks away and uphill.
Capping off the restaurant tour was a visit to Kaiser Maximilian, and a shared meal with owners Andreas and wife Maria Cecila. Having dined at this restaurant more than 20 years ago, it was intriguing to learn more about how the venue had changed over 26 years. I also gained more insight into the influences of “Maximiliano.” Maximilian of Habsburg (Vienna 1832 - Mexico 1867) was an archduke of the House of Habsburg, brother of the Austrian Emperor Francisco José, plus son-in-law of the Belgian King Leopold I. In 1864 he became Emperor of Mexico, arriving with his wife Carlota that same year. His tenure was neither positive nor long-lived; he succumb to a sentence of death in 1867. This Austrian bistro is a tribute to the late ruler, and offers fine dining in main salon and casual fare plus European coffees throughout the day in an adjacent space.
Glazing the beet and goat cheese salad at Trattoria di Nuovo.
The dinner menu is a wide range of fare taking European, Mexican and continental influences. An extensive wine list and full bar are on site. As a greeting, I was offered two signature drinks: one featuring a very smoky mezcal with glass rimmed by crushed chapulines, better known as those crunchy cricket snacks popular in southern Mexico, particularly Oaxaca. A second chilled beverage featuring Elderberry was crisp and light. Akin to a spritzer, I thought it highly suited for slow sipping. The appetizer of tacos de pato confitado was a surprising blend of duck in Oaxacan sauce of cinnamon and ground pumpkin seeds, capped with colorful mango relish. Dinner was a thick cut of red snapper and zesty cilantro topping, plus companion fresh vegetables. During Restaurant Week, Kaiser Maximilian will offer Pot de Creme de Chocolate, Pastel de Queso (sour cream cheesecake with coconut crust topped by poached fruits) and Copa Maximilian (pecan and vanilla ice cream with banana, Kahlua and whipped cream) on its dessert menu.
Within Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is ranked number two for gastronomy, following Mexico City. Estimates state there to be more than 500 places to dine. Seafood is a staple on most menus, but beef (such as the $100 cut of steak at Sonora Prime in the Marina area), chicken, veal, duck, vegetarian and many more options abound. The selection is overwhelming. Loud and brash dining featuring Americanized menus dominate the Malecon, but you can walk south along the beach boardwalk and find a bit less frenzy for your sunset dining. Alternatively, head inland for quieter surroundings, better prices, more authentic preparations. Many hotels and resorts also offer exquisite options, sunset views and late evening meals. Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico: What to Expect From Baja to Cancun, Mexico tourism thudded to a halt for many months. Complete shutdowns were the norm for several months starting in April last year. Yet despite early predictions that Mexico beach destinations would take until 2022 to recover, seems to be not the case for Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta Daily reports that versus July 2019 (pre-COVID-19), July 2021 saw a tourist tally increase of 14.4 percent. The vast majority of visitors hail from the United States. This influx is attributed to summer holiday intentions, pent-up demand, and ease of travel to Mexico. As of August, the country does not require visitors to quarantine, show proof of vaccination or negative test results for COVID-19 in order to enter by air. The unfortunate news is that the delta variant has arrived. As of July 30, the Governor of Jalisco designated the region a red zone. Night clubs and bars must remain closed during August, restaurant capacity is to be capped at 50 percent. The good news is that, overall, locals in the urban areas of Puerto Vallarta are compliant regarding use of facial masks, but in outlying regions this is less the case. The biggest no-mask culprits seem to be the American tourists. Canadian citizens, usually as visible as US visitors, were scarce in Puerto Vallarta. Guests from Europe seemed absent. A few from Asia were seen. Regarding accommodations in the area, the major hotel operators are rigorous when it comes to setting and following protocols for cleanliness; the smaller chains and residences seem less astute. Mexican businesses are very good about conducting temperature checks before permitting access to a venue; view this requirement as one way to personally monitor your own well-being on a daily basis. Hand sanitizing stations and attendants are omnipresent at entrances, exits and scattered locations inside. With traveller count up, lines are longer. Zigzag back and forth lines for extended periods of time will likely be the norm; it’s here where folks tend to forget the distancing rule. Travel is also a bit more complicated, in particular taking a return flight to the U.S. Valid passport in-hand; check. Still have your portion of the immigration form; check. Twenty-four hour online check-in; done. Completion of online attestation within 12-hours of flight departure; that’s a new task. Obtaining, then showing, negative proof of COVID-19 presence: another to-do item. For this, testing must be conducted by an approved vendor no more than 72-hours before flight departure time. On the plus, numerous locations around Puerto Vallarta offer both antigen and RPC testing (varying fees). The airport has been the lowest at roughly $25 for an antigen test, but rates are changing soon. For this location, results are delivered to an email within an hour. Other venues charge as much as $150 for a test, and results may take up to a day to receive. The 24-hour test tent at the PVR airport does not require an appointment, but most other locations do. Book an appointment well in advance, and know that nearly all locations are closed on Sundays, and some remain closed on Mondays.