Travel

Between a Pork and a Lard Place

5 unforgettable culinary destinations in and around Mazatlán, Mexico
El Presidio Mazatlan
The courtyard at El Presidio | Photo: El Presidio

Ah, Mazatlán: where the shrimp flow like water, and the water can make you sick. It's a city that five years ago was put on major cruise lines' no-go lists due to drug cartel activity and where notorious kingpin El Chapo was captured in 2014. The so-called Pearl of the Pacific is safer these days and popular with Mexican tourists in the fall shoulder season and Americans in the winter.

Mazatlán cuisine on the whole isn't cutting edge. It's not experiencing the culinary renaissance of Mexico City that's been praised to high heaven, and the dining culture has little to do with the Mexican food explosion in New York. Pardon the rough comparison, but Mazatlán is the Baltimore of Mexico: not leading the pack but proud of its deep-rooted food heritage. And any culinary tourist on Mexico's West Coast should stop in Mazatlán for aguachiles, birrias, smoked marlin tacos, chorreadas and, of course, the food carts along the Malecon, aka boardwalk.

What follows is not a comprehensive survey of the city's food scene, but rather five spots that can't be missed.

Start the day at Pancho's Restaurant.
There are countless breakfast spots in town, but the one you'll hear about the most is Panchos, as if its marketing staff pays people to push it on tourists. But that's OK, because the hot messes of food at this oceanside spot are worthy of the hype. The chile relleno and chilaquiles are standouts, but to be honest, pretty much every entrée is the same: gargantuan and sloppy with piles of pork or beef or egg—or all three if you want. Though the coffee isn't going to impress anyone, the chiles should be enough to wake you up. Sit upstairs, so you can look out onto the sea and ponder life as your ankles swell from all the lard and salt.

Dancers at El Mesón de los Laureanos | Photo by Jordan Teicher 

Have dinner in an old mansion at El Presidio.
Chef Diego Becerra inherited a late-19th-century mansion from his grandmother and turned it into this indoor/outdoor compound that's arguably the most exciting restaurant in Mazatlán. The gorgeous tree-filled courtyard is the perfect location for your dream destination wedding, as long as you don't mind the bats that swoop around at night. Becerra, who's worked in kitchens in Mexico City and around Europe, is quick to admit that his hometown isn't the most risky when it comes to food. "People tend to stick to traditional food in Mazatlán, but I like to experiment when I can," he says. If there's one chef trying to push the culinary boundaries here, it's Becerra. His seafood-focused menu would do well in a larger city with harsher critics. Try the octopus carpaccio, smoked marlin tacos and raw shrimp aguachile.

Eat lobster by the sea at La Rosa de las Barras.
This rustic hotel and restaurant in the zero-stoplight fishing town of Las Barras de Piaxtla can be difficult for tourists to find: From Mazatlán, you take a main road north for about 45 minutes, then turn onto a street without a sign, then travel 15 or so minutes down an unpaved road through a nature preserve toward the Pacific. There are few signs, and it's easy to get lost, so it's a journey best taken during daylight hours.

The second-story open-air dining room at La Rosa is plastic-chair casual and fits only three tables. You can watch the waves roll in as you pick apart spiny lobsters (two cost $10) and devour fresh-caught dorado tacos. It's BYOB, and the nearby beach area has a picnic vibe: You can't tell who's a paying customer at the restaurant, who's a guest at the hotel and who's just eating their own food on the mostly empty and seemingly endless beach.

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Sip spirits at La Vinata de los Osuna.
There used to be 23 tequila distilleries around Mazatlán; now there's only one, La Vinata de los Osuna. Well, that's not quite true: The family-owned distillery, which dates back to 1876, hasn't been able to call its product tequila since the government passed a law in 1972 that stipulates tequila needs to come from Jalisco and small parts of neighboring states. La Vinata de los Osuna calls its tequila-like spirit Destilado de Agave, and, trust us, it's way better than most mass-market tequilas. The production methods haven't changed much since the 19th century: We're talking horses pulling large stone wheels that crush the agave plants, small fermentation rooms and white-oak barrels. Production manager Louis Daniel Limon says, "We lose a lot of alcohol every year, because we still use wood—it evaporates. But it's worth it." The distillery doesn't seem to have plans to change much or expand, and produces only 30,000 bottles a year. Tequila lovers should absolutely visit the lush grounds to sip the goods and take a tour.

Take in dinner and a show at El Mesón de los Laureanos.
El Quelite is a quaint town north of Mazatlán that wouldn't be included in articles like this if it weren't for the efforts of hometown hero Dr. Marcos Osuna. In 1998, he opened El Mesón de los Laureanos, a Mexican theme restaurant serving traditional dishes while entertaining guests with live, old-timey shows. The popularity of the restaurant has turned El Quelite into a touristy town. (Fun fact: Osuna says he was bullied as kid because of his blond hair. This is just conjecture, but it's almost like he's getting his revenge decades later by bringing hordes of blond tourists to this tiny dot on the map.)

The entertainment can border on the ridiculous: Some days, young men dressed as native Indians perform fireplay ceremonies. Other days, there's a dancing horse. Osuna himself dresses up for the occasional show. As for the food, it's way better than you'd expect considering the restaurant's gimmicky nature: The chilorio (slow-roasted pork in sauce) is lard-tastic and delicious, and the machaca (dried spiced beef) goes great with pitchers of sweet house-made horchata. The beef tongue is extra tender and, well, tongue-y. Try all the meats while you think to yourself, Man, that horse sure can dance.

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