Over the last three decades I’ve traveled to Mazatlán, Mexico countless times, and on each trip I discover yet another culinary nugget that simply delights me. On a recent gastronomical tour, my eating adventures included breakfasting my way around the touristy Zona Dorada (The Golden Zone), eating the day’s catch near the charming historic district, making fresh tortillas and fire-roasted salsa in a remote village, and enjoying the most amazing array of seafood dishes in an off-the-beaten-track neighborhood restaurant. To a culinary explorer, it was like finding the Holy Grail of Food at every meal.
In and Around the Historical Center (Centro Historico)
If you love seafood, this seaside city (now considered one of the safest port cities in Mexico) boasts some of the best and freshest seafood like red snapper (huachinango; shown above), tuna (atún), mahi mahi (dorado), and shrimp (camarones) the size of a large man’s finger. In fact, Mazatlán is known as the "Shrimp Capital of the World." Head to the Jose Maria Pino Suarez Municipal Market, preferably in the morning, for a peek at what’s fresh off the boat, or, if you have access to a kitchen, to buy provisions for an unforgettable meal. At over 100-years-old, the Municipal Market is one of the last of its kind in Mexico thanks to big box stores like Walmart and Costco that provide one-stop shopping in bulk. Once you get past the touristy knick-knack vendors, you’ll find those selling beautiful fruits and vegetables, meats and seafood, herbs and spices, freshly-made salsas, baked goods and colorful confections, pantry staples, fresh cut flowers, and so much more. It’s one of my favorite markets in the World! A must-buy while there is smoked marlin (shown below), a specialty of Mazatlán, and freshly-made tortillas from the tortillaria, just outside the market on the corner of Jose Maria Canizales and Calle Aquiles Serdán.
Just a few blocks southwest of the Market you’ll find the Plazuela Machado (Machado Plaza), a charming little square flanked by restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as the famous Ángela Peralta Theater, one of Mazatlán’s most important cultural treasures. Enjoy an icy beer or margarita on a hot day or return to the square at night when the streets close, the restaurants move more tables out of doors, and where young and old alike loiter amiably. You may even catch a live performance in the square’s beautiful original 1870s-era iron gazebo. For some great food in and near the square don’t miss Pedro y Lola’s (on the northeast corner of the square) and Topolo (just a block east of the square). It's just a short walk from the Plaza to the malecón (the beach boardwalk) where you'll find El Shrimp Bucket. Created in the 60s, El Shrimp Bucket was the first location of the famous Sr. Frog’s and Carlos & Charlie's chain and long known as the place where celebrities went. Today, El Shrimp Bucket remains a classic seafood restaurant. Grab a bucket of shrimp, a beer or cocktail from their extensive bar, and enjoy the ocean view.
Breakfast in The Golden Zone
Mexican’s are considerably family-friendly, but Panama - the most famous coffee chain in the state of Sinaloa - is truly a place kids will love. No alcoholic beverages are served and people of all ages will delight in the extensive selection of beautiful baked goods and hearty Mexican fare. The 40-year-old family-run restaurant started as a bakery then branched out into over 30 full-service restaurants serving authentic local cuisine throughout Culiacán and Mazatlán. It’s a passionately run place where every four months employees partake in a recipe contest a la Top Chef-style to determine the menu’s newest seasonal dishes. Be sure to try a cup of Mexican-style coffee, generously spiked with cinnamon and spices.
Beach Dining at Pancho’s
Pancho’s is a must-visit restaurant located on the beach in the heart of the Golden Zone. I first dined at Pancho’s with my father and step-mother the year the restaurant opened in 1985. It’s always the first restaurant we dine in after arriving in Mazatlán. Needless to say, Pancho’s is a home away from home and the owner, Pancho, now a family friend. When they first opened, their space offered just a few tables on a covered patio set just above the beach’s edge. Now, they’ve expanded up and back, enough to accommodate 200 diners at a time. But growth has not affected their quality. The food is still spectacular (breakfast, lunch or dinner), and the service impeccable and always delivered with a genuine smile. The charming original patio still exists and it’s where I always prefer to sit (for the memories and the view), and now with a third generation of family in tow.
Angus Beef a la Durango-Style
Located just a couple blocks north of the Golden Zone is La Casa Country, a Durango cowboy-themed steakhouse serving fine cuts of Angus and Argentine-style beef and traditional Mexican cuisine. Enjoy the table side prepared guacamole, but don’t fill up as the succulent steaks are huge and most delicious! The bartender also makes a mean margarita. Keep lunch light as you'll want to go to La Casa Country plenty hungry.
If you’re a tequila fan, be sure and tour La Vinata de los Osuna, located about 30 minutes outside of Mazatlán. The blue agave distillery, established in the 1800’s, still manufactures their liquor the old way and continues to use some of the original artifacts and machinery in the process. Enjoy a sample of each - silver, reposado, añejo - and take home a bottle of your favorite (it’s cheaper there than in the US!).
Puerta de Canoas: Fire-Roasted Salsa and Fermented Cheese
A drive down a pot-holed dirt road through the tiny village of Puerta de Canoas will lead you to Doña Rosita, her daughter Monica, and Monica’s daughter Celeste. The three generations of women teach culinary classes on how to make fresh tortillas, fire-roasted salsa, a fermented white cheese, and a type of burnt milk fudge known as jamoncillo de leche. We sat at brightly clothed tables set with icy hibiscus tea and molcajetes filled with fire-roasted Roma tomatoes and Serrano peppers. We added a bit of garlic and salt to our lava rock bowls and began mashing the aromatic ingredients into a piquant salsa. What a little fire can do to tomatoes and peppers! These four simple ingredients were transformed into salsa perfection. We tore pieces from hot-off-the-grill corn tortillas, dipped them into our salsa, scooped up some of Doña Rosita’s nopales (cactus) guacamole, then topped it off with a dollop of jocoque for the ultimate bite. Jocoque is an indigenous strained yogurt cheese made popular by Lebanese producers. Like Lebanese labneh, the tangy jocoque is similar to sour cream but with a slightly coarser texture, lower in fat, and containing the good bacteria that yogurt has. I quickly found this cheese addictive and began slathering it on the toasty warm tortillas. To square off our not-so-small amuse-bouches we sampled the ladies’ famous jamoncillos, decadent little burnt milk fudge balls with or without toasted pecans.
A Day Trip to El Quelite
Just 40 minutes north of Mazatlán is the charming historic town of El Quelite, also known as the capital of the region’s cuisine. This picturesque rural farming town, perched above a river with the same name, is full of colorful tile-roofed homes, cobblestone streets, and art galleries. For a taste of rich history and local cuisine visit El Meson de Los Laureanos, a restaurant owned by Dr. Marcos Osuna. Dr. Osuna, known as the father of rural tourism in Sinaloa, refurbished his family home into a museum/restaurant, each room offering an eyeful of historical memorabilia. Here you will enjoy an extensive menu of traditional ranch-style foods like locally-raised meats (try the Steak Arranchera), artisan cheeses, a delightful selection of antojitos (little bites like quesadillas, sopes, and tortas), and hand-made salsas. Be sure to try the house specialty, cow tongue, stewed to cut-with-a-fork tenderness. I promise, you will not be disappointed.
Aguachile, Ceviche and Giant Shrimp
The small village of Villa Union, just 20 minutes from Mazatlán, is home to El Cuchupetas, a famous local seafood restaurant specializing in shrimp and other seafood dishes. We were there to try aguachile, a local delicacy of raw shrimp, onion, lime juice and chile peppers that have been slightly pulverized in water, hence the name (agua = water, you get the rest). El Cuchupetas’ layout is a series of small, table-packed rooms whose walls are covered in photographs of visiting celebrities from Mexico and around the world. It was my first time there and I was excited as a 6-year-old girl, squirming in anticipation of aguachile. What arrived at our table, courtesy of the adept ordering of our host, was a series of mind-blowingly good seafood dishes. First came the spicy aguachile with notes of the sea and the sweetness of shrimp livened up with citrus.
Ceviche of every combination of octopus, shrimp and scallops and with or without avocado, red onion, tomato and cucumber. Smoked marlin-filled empanadas came, followed by little shrimp tacos. Giant grilled shrimp smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce along with baked oysters in a Rockefeller-style sauce were conveniently placed before me. I longed to try more from their extensive menu, but my belly doth protested too much. So I waved the white flag and called it a meal. And what a meal! It’s clear that also the way to a girl’s heart is through her belly. And, El Cuchupetas, you stole my heart!
Editorial disclosure: Foodista's travel and expenses were generously hosted by the Mazatlán Hotel Association.