Monday, June 4, 2012

Local Food : Scratching the Surface

Chapala malecon

Last updated November 2017

I'm posting this blog in answer to numerous requests I've had over the years for a list of local restaurants and food options here at Lakeside. Considering that we've only lived in the area for a few years and have only rudimentary Spanish it feels highly presumptuous to do this, yet I continually hear from people who sincerely want to explore local Mexican food but don't know where to start, so here goes. I can't emphasize enough that the places mentioned here are just a small sampling, particularly when it comes to taco stands and other street food options, where some of the best places pop up only at night and are known to (and patronized by) folks in a particular neighborhood.

A bit about my tastes and background: I'm a semi-retired professional coffee and tea taster and buyer and serious home cook. I spent quite a bit of time in México and Central America during my coffee buying days, but am by no means an expert on the cuisines of these countries. My first loves, food wise, are Italy, France and India, places I've spent a fair amount of time and whose cuisines I know much more deeply. When you have spent 3+ decades tasting hundreds of cups of coffee and tea everyday, the habit of tasting, comparing and remembering - be it a loaf of bread, a dish in a restaurant, a bottle of wine or cup of tea or coffee - grows very strong. This may help to put the posts about coffee and Tequila below in context: the tasting "bug" doesn't stop at coffee and tea!

We've lived from Chapala to West Ajijic and often live car-free when in México, so my focus in this blog is on that quite narrow subset of the north shore of Lake Chapala from West Ajijic to Chapala. There's a ton of good food in Jocotepec and several well-known restaurants on the highway into Guadalajara, but you can read about those on TripAdvisor or the like.

As you'll learn if you browse the listings below, Ajijic, for all of its reputation as a gringo enclave, is still a very Mexican place, but I know that for some specialties, such as birria (the famous goat stew of Jalisco, which Jocotepec is famous for) or real spit-roasted tacos al pastor (available at night in Chapala from a stand near Soriana and I hear in Joco as well) our chosen location puts me at a culinary disadvantage. 

A copy of Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico (available locally at a stiff price or brought down from N.O.B.) will keep you exploring local cuisine for a lifetime, supplemented by a couple of choice selections from Rick Bayless or regional cookbooks from Susana Trilling (Oaxaca) if like me you are a glutton for recipe options. Also essential is this great food blog written by the knowledgeable Cristina Potters: 
Mexican eating hours: This is important to know, and to adapt to, at least to some extent in order to do well eating here and get into the flow of the culture. Think in terms of a cup of coffee and piece of fruit or toast if you rise early (bearing in mind that Jalisco, which geographically should be on Mountain time, is on Central time which means the sun rises far later here than most anyplace else!). A substantial breakfast (desayuno) - say huevos ala Mexicana (scrambled eggs with tomato, onion and serrano chile) with coffee and tortillas, around 10, then comida, the main meal of the day, sometime between 2 and 3:30 p.m. Cena (dinner) is typically light and late: a couple of tacos or a tamale, or perhaps just hot cocoa and a sweet, after 8 p.m.
We deviate a bit from this, often having breakfast early, some fruit around 11 if we're hungry, and then lunch on the early side of the Mexican range, around 1:30 or 2. We really try to keep to this schedule because we feel so much better not being laden down by a heavy meal at bedtime, and because keeping within shooting distance of real Mexican meal times means we can travel outside of this gringo enclave and get fed. Insisting on eating your meals at 8, 12 and 6 means you'll be foerever trapped in a "gringo bubble" and will never know which Mexican eateries are popular. In Guadalajara, for example, which is a very traditional and conservative Mexican city, many restaurants don't even open until 1:30 or 2. 
Many of the best restaurants aren't restaurants: Mexican food falls into two broad categories: food from places we gringos would recognize as restaurants, and street food. Mexico has some of the best street food in the world, and by far the best in Latin America, so those who avoid it out of fears about sanitation are really missing out (and operating on the assumption that food handling in closed kitchens in gringo places with, often, slow turn on their food is somehow safer!).

Except in a handful of places (Mexico City and Morelia come to mind) there really isn't a high-end restaurant culture per se in México, and that is because the best cooking is at home! People go out for tacos at night, or grab a torta (Mexican sandwich) during the day, but the complex stews, laborious tamales and other gems of Mexican cuisine are never better than at one's mother's or grandmother's place. The other thing to bear in mind is that Lake Chapala is in Jalisco, which is, so to speak, the Iowa of Mexican cuisine. It's pretty basic meat-and-potatoes (more accurately, birria, pozole y carne en su jugo) cooking, at least in restaurants (the diversity of dishes cooked at home is of course another matter entirely. Plus it remains true that the truly great cuisines  of México are found in the places with large indigenous populations: Oaxaca of course, followed by Chiapas, Puebla and Michoacán. 
Common sense advice on street food: look to make sure the people making the food and those handling money are not one and the same. In a truly small place like a tortilleria the person may indeed be doing both, but they'll invariably put a plastic bag over their hand when handling money. There may be trash in the street and dogs running loose, but sanitation in even the humblest food places tends to be quite good. Look for places that are busy, bearing in mind that Mexicans don't patronize places where they get sick!

At Lakeside you can generally assume that aguas frescas (fruit flavored waters) are made with purified water and sanitized fruit, but outside of the area it pays to ask, and to avoid raw salads and drinks with ice in them.
Tipping: round up a few pesos for street food take out, leave 10% for table service. At places patronized exclusively by gringos 15% may be expected.  Please don't over (or under!) tip.

Note:  (SE by a listing = "Some English" for places where the owners or staff have some commmand of the language.  At the others, you'll have to be brave and try your "restaurant Spanish," or simply point to what looks good! I've also rated places from * (decent) to **** (excellent) based on my personal assessment of food quality (alone - i.e. service and decor excluded). I should also say that these are relative assessments within the context of what is available here at Lakeside and in Jalisco generally. The cusine here, while it can be delicious, is pretty much "meat and potatoes" cooking and even at its best can't really compare with top regional cuisines in places such as Puebla or Oaxaca or the world-class alta cocina cooking found in places like Morelia or México City. 
Restaurants: Ajijic
These are places with table service, seating and printed menus and are a good place to start. 

Café in Alcalli**/**: 16th de Septiembre #6A, about a half-block West of LCS. M-Sa, 9-5. Small, family run place with good Mexican breakfasts and simple, classic versions of such staples as enchiladas, carne asada, quesadillas and the like for lunch. It's a one-person kitchen for the most part so definitely not the place to go with a group. 
Café Grano Café ***: Marcos Castellanos 15-C in Ajijic, just east of the plaza and across the street from the main church). By far the best coffee beans at Lakeside; try the medium roast Chiapas. The best espresso drinks as well (though barista expertise is certainly not up to the level of a top U.S. or Italian bar), and excellent pastries. All the coffee is fair trade organic; the staff is a treasure. Free high-speed (for México) wi-fi. 

Chile Verde*** SE: On Colon, just across the street from the plaza. A bustling, friendly place with reliably good breakfast and comida. Try the pozole, pork in chile sauce or any of the daily specials. Excellent homemade tortillas, fair prices, exceptionally kind and competent service. 

Chimi's/El Rinconcito de Chimi**: 16th de Septiembre #27, across the street from the Lake Chapala Society. 9-3 weekdays, 9-1 on Sunday. Very basic, tiny place for Mexican breakfasts with a daily lunch special as well. The location is the main draw. 

Fonda Doña Lola**: on the Carretera, #36, at Alvaro Obregón across from the Waffle house. 8 to four or five p.m., closed Thurs. Good carne en su jugo (local specialty of tender beef in its juice with bacon, beans, onion and fresh tortillas), decent mole, good breakfasts. Slow service, rustic atmosphere. Popular with the Guadalajara crowd for weekend breakfast and comida. 

Cenaduria Memo's**: Hidalgo about 2 blocks W. of the plaza. Open only in the evenings. Good pozole and other basic fare, but pretty simple and the food doesn't compare to Chapala's cenadurias

menu at Tepalo on the Ajijic zocalo
Tepalo: south side of the Ajijic square, a few doors East of Bancomer. Open 9-5 everyday. A good basic place for Mexican breakfast or comida. A quarter of a roast chicken with good slaw, rice and tortillas is around 45 pesos, there are frequent daily specials, good tacos and a large selection of fresh juices and liquados
Street Food: Ajijic

In addition to these long-standing places I'll point out that one of the delights of México are the impromptu "restaurants" that pop up like mushrooms in the evenings only to disappear without a trace the following morning. There are neighborhood taco stands like this all over Ajijic and all of the other villages that offer fare that's often as good or better than any of the more permanent restaurants. If a place is clean,  busy at 8 p.m. or later and has happy customers milling around don't hesitate to ask what they have and give it a try. 
Lupita's**: just east of Colon, north side of Carretera. Long-standing rotisserie chicken place, with good chicken and side dishes and good tortas (sandwiches) as well. Reliably good rice and potatoes. For tortillas you should go to the tortilleria just across the street, which has the best in town. Please support this local place rather than the Pechugon chain place just down the street. 
Tacos Don Vic****: south side of Carretera almost to Juarez. Open Th-Tu 8 a.m.-2 p.m. though you should be forewarned that tacos de barbacoa are breakfast fare locally and they often sell out before noon. Tiny take-out only place with the best tacos de barbacoa (tender, delicious braised beef) anywhere. Tacos 10 pesos; two make a meal, three a feast. Order them con todo with salsa aparte and take them to the square for a cheap, fantastic al fresco lunch.

Taqueria Jessica***: north side of Carretera about two doors west of the Oxxo. Open evenings only, roughly 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., closed Tuesday. Long-standing taco place with handmade tortillas and very good quality. All the meats are worth a try.  For drinks try the Jamaica (hibiscus agua fresca) and horchata (agua made with rice, very sweet), or grab a beer. Eat in or take out. Very basic ambiance but friendly and bustling if you show up late enough (prime time for tacos in México doesn't begin until 8 p.m. or later). Also has a small outpost in San Antonio Tlaycapan open from 12-5 during the day (see below). They get an extra * for being the only taqueria in these listings to always use just-made tortillas, as well as for their consistent food quality. 

Tacos Don Fransicso***: On the corner of Fco. Madero and the carretera, very good tacos de barbacoa right by a major bus stop. 
Food Shopping Ajijic
The small fruterias and grocery stores on both sides of the Carretera between Galeana and Juarez (with the preponderance being west of Colon) offer some of the best fruits and vegetables at the lowest prices around and great service. One of the stores specializes in spices, seeds and beans; there are also two excellent seafood shops. If you live in Ajijic this is the place to do your day-to-day food shopping, with far better quality and lower prices than the supermarkets or the weekly Wednesday tianguis.
Surtidor de la Ribera, a local grocery chain with a small store in Ajijic and a much larger one on the main drag in Chapala, has great prices on bulk staples like beans, sugar and cereal and is more than competitive with the chains on other items. Of the two big box stores, Soriana in Chapala is a far more pleasant overall experience than the local Wal Mart, though both in turn are poor substitutes for the mega stores in Guadalajara. As one tunes into local foods, quality, seasonality and service the need for visits to the big box outlets diminishes to virtually nothing, while one's appreciation for the value and service at the tiny tiendas increases.

Super La Montaña: south side of the carretera between Juarez and Colon. This is the former location of Surtidor (now a couple of blocks East) and has a decent selection of all the basics. 

Frutas y Verduras Gabriel***: mountain side of the carretera, about halfway between Juarez and Colon. A consistently excellent place with better-than-the-tianguis prices and fruit quality. The refrigerators are worth poking around in, too, for green beans, nopales and much more. Shop here once and you'll never waste money on produce at Super Lake again (passable but expensive, or Wal Mart -- horrible). 

"no name" fruit, chile seeds, grains and spices store
No name fruteria and semilla store: Lake side, in between Super La Montaña and the bus stop. Tiny place with many useful spices, a great selection of dried chiles and produce. 

Pablo's Fruteria***: Lake side, next to the decent Tortilleria La Montaña and across the street from Lupita's. Another reliable fruit and vegetable place with fair prices and a surprisingly large selection of dry goods staples, cheeses and cold cuts. 

El Granero****SE: The place to go at Lakeside to buy, and learn about, spices, local chiles, honey and much more. Bilingual staff, excellent service, many hard-to-find items (from basmati rice to non-fluoridated, no-iodized sea salt to hazelnuts). They will special order for you from the Guadalajara abastos as well. A treasure of a shop. Located next door to Gossip's (not Mexican but one heck of a restaurant) near the corner of the carretera and Javier Mina. 
With respect to the weekly markets called tianguis, the Wednesday one in Ajijic is small and manageable in size but with limited selection and higher prices than many of the small shops. It's for tourists. The Monday market in Chapala is huge, bustling and much better value - worth going to at least once and a great place to take visitors to see the bounty of Mexico. Ditto with the huge wholesale market in Guadalajara called the abastos. 

The Tuesday organic market is another new and welcome phenomenon, but please don't forget that the folks selling nopales, herbs, beans, tuna cactus, berries and much other truly local food on streetcorners, sidewalks and the weekly markets are often selling de facto organic foods that are traditional and truly local. Look around and see and ask, about tuna cactus fruit, nopales (the super-healthy, tasty prickly pear cactus paddles), camote (delicious mountain sweet potato) and much more. Wealthy gringos phobic about pesticides do not an agricultural or culinary revolution make. Humble expats trying to learn what the locals eat and supporting their efforts do. 

San Antonio Tlayacapan
"Dusty Chicken"****: Not its real name, as you might guess, (it's Pollos El amigo Don David) but this is the grilled chicken place on the Carretera immediately west of the Coca Cola plant before the traffic light. The best grilled chicken in the area, with excellent roast potatoes and onions and fresh tortillas. They've been here since 1990! 

Take-out only, gets going around 12:30 p.m., comida business only, open every day. The tamarind-based marninade, uniquely cilantro-y salsa verde  and hardwood charcoal give this chicken and others like it you will see all around Mexico a wonderful flavor.  Addictive and with the excellent service and consistently skilled cooking, these folks really deserve your support. 

As of October 2017 this venerable place has moved. Their primary location is right across the highway from the Pemex station coming into Ajijic on the libriemiento, and they have a smaller one that may or may not last just east of the corner of Ramon Corona and and San Jose in the heart of the village.

Lake Taco ***SE: located in Interlago Plaza, the large shopping center directly across the carretera from Wal Mart. Consistently excellent fish tacos, good service. Open 9-5. 

Mario's (SE) ****: Ramon Corona #132 (1/2 block W. of the square). 9-5, closed Monday. Full menu of meats and seafood. The pollo deshebrado ala Mexicana (chicken with chile, tomatoes and onions) is a favorite but you can't go wrong: excellent fish, exceptional smoked pork chops (chuletas ahumadas), good daily specials, the best aguas frescas in the area. 

Family run with great pride, excellent service. Indoor and outdoor seating and the best atmosphere of any local Mexican place. Overall probably the best sit-down Mexican restaurant at Lakeside - reflected in average prices in the 75 peso range, high for the area. Do pay careful attention to the daily specials board, as over time you'll be able to try reference-standard versions of such classic dishes as pollo en pipian, carne en su jugo, pozole and on occasion an extraordinary birria made from veal rather than the usual goat. 

El Comal Expres, San Antonio - don't miss it!

El Comal Expres Taqueria****: northwest corner of Independencia and Ramon Corona, across from the plaza. Open evenings only, roughly 5 p.m until midnight or later, but as with any taqueria best to show up after 8. Lengua, adobada and much more, with a full range of toppings. Don't miss the caramelized onions sitting on the grill!  Beer and aguas frescas, for here or to go, friendly service, consistently a cut above and well worth the trip.  Spotlessly clean.

Unbeatable food prices at the Chapala tianguis: over 8 pounds of tomatoes for about $1.25 U.S.
For Mexican food lovers, this is paradise. It's a big village and though we lived here for quite some time we truly only scratched the surface.
Around the mercado: this is comida central and one is spoilt for choice. On the south, exterior side of the market is long-time favorite José's**** with great ribs, pollo ala Mexicanachuletas ahumada and much else. Run by a hard-working husband-and-wife team (she runs the front of the house, he's the cook), this is one of the most consistently excellent places at Lakeside. Because it is a two-person show your food will take awhile but is sure to be worth the wait. 

Just across from them is Cucumber's**, well-regarded for breakfast.

A couple of doors from José's, on the Southwest corner of the market, is Chapala's Fonda ****, another consistently excellent restaurant. Try the pork in red chile sauce, chuletas ahumada (smoked pork chops - the flavor is more like really good Canadian bacon) and don't on any account fail to ask about the daily specials, which are always excellent and a steal at 65 pesos including the day's agua fresca. This is also a particularly excellent place to order soup. Pleasant atmosphere and excellent service. 
Just north of the front entrance of the mercado is a young lady selling the best ensalada de nopales in the area (go early - she's usually sold out by noon). 

To the left of her is a place called Los Portales*** (SE), selling tacos de barbacoa that are second only to Don Vic's in Ajijic. They of course also have the famous spicy pork sandwich from which they take their name,  as well as tacos de adobada, bistec, chorizo, chicharron, carnitas, lengua, buche plus quesadillas. Hours are 8-3 everyday, some English spoken.

Around the north side of the mercado on the outside is a wonderful dairy shop selling fresh yogurt and local cheeses, and next door to them is a tiny, nameless place with seating for about 8 people that has excellent daily specials. The mercado itself is a shopper's paradise, with excellent produce and meats everywhere (seafood upstairs).
El Zapote (SE) ****: This place is a cenaduria (dinner place) that just (January, 2014) changed it's opening hour to 12:30 p.m. from 2 p.m. to accommodate the gringo crowd! Open until 10:30 p.m., closed Tues. and Wed. . Address is Morelos #185, 1.5 blocks east of the main traffic light. 

This is a great place to experience the full range of classic local Mexican cuisine, from pozole to burritos cochinta pibil to sopes. Best carne en su jugo at Lakeside, wonderful pozole, superb handmade tortillas, and much more.  Clean, nice atmosphere, cheap prices. The first place to take out-of-town guests. 

El Rinconcito Cenaduria****: Juárez 512, just south of Morelos, open 2-11 p.m. Tue.-Sun. This very popular place is a worthy rival to El Zapote and seems to be if anything even more popular. Tacos, pozole, tortas, huaraches, gorditas and more. Prices are fantastic: 40-50 pesos for a full meal, or you can "splurge" on arracherra with beans, the most expensive item on the menu at 100 pesos. They have aguas frescas and basic beer (Corona and Victoria) but no bar. Friendly service, fast, great local ambiance, clean.

Cenaduria Elba***: on Calle Zaragosa just around the corner and a bit north of El Zapote. Open from around 7 p.m. in the evenings. This place has been around for decades and serves wonderful pozole. You'll see the locals come in with their empty containers to be filled. Also does a good job with antojitos
El Árbol de Café/The Coffee Tree***: Hidalgo #236, south side of carretera 2 blocks W. of main traffic light. Excellent breakfasts and the best coffee in Chapala and second best in all of Lakeside, with great service and prices. The coffee is truly local, from farms in Jalisco, but you'd better like dark roasts,  as that's all they offer. 
Cozumel**: Paseo Ramón Corona #22-A (far east end of malecon). One of the more reliable of the many seafood places along the promenade, with free margaritas or white wine with meals. Average quality.
Gelateria Romeo y Julieta ****, Ramón Corona 8A, north side across from the malecon, between 5 de Mayo and Zaragoza. Open 12-9:30, closed Tues. Not Mexican, but noteworthy as the only authentic Italian gelato anywhere at Lakeside, and by far the best ice cream of any sort you are likely to find in México. Try the avellana (hazelnut), dark chocolate or, really, anything. Also has a branch in San Antonio Tlayacapan about a block east of Super Lake. Try the dark chocolate and above all the avellana (hazelnut). Ice cream of this quality is almost unknown in México and very rare in the U.S. 
More Chapala options: further north on Madero (east side) there is a great seeds and spices store where you should buy all your beans, spices and sweets. Another block or so later you'll be drawn in by the irresistible aroma of churros, just-made deep-fried cinnamon sugar fritters. Heading further north towards the bus station is a grilled chicken place whose name escapes me that is a worthy rival to "Dusty Chicken" in San Antonio and even more popular. A few doors past the bus station is Tacos El Doc **, a humble but good place for comida with many guisados (stews) and good tacos.

San Juan Cosalá

Viva México/Tio Lupita **** Porfirio Diax #92) Good simple place that is deservedly popular with the expat community. Open Fri-Wed. 12-8. Chiles in nogada or their signature chicken in rose petals are worth trying. Worth the trip, and there's an excellent butcher shop across the street that specializes in aged, local grass-fed beef. 

Beer, Wine and Spirits
Two giant breweries control 99% of the Mexican beer market. Most of the beers are insipid lagers that will only seem like an upgrade to Coors or Budweiser drinkers. The best readily-available beers are Negra Modelo (a dark amber Vienna-styler lager) and Bohemia. The former comes in returnable bottles from Modeloramas along the carretera; the latter is best bought at Oxxo or Wal Mart and is a very good Pilsner. Seasonally, from mid-November through early January there is Noche Buena, a dark ale that is Mexico's best mass-market beer, available at Oxxo (owned by the brewery), Wal Mart, Soriana and Paz (see below). Despite overwhelming obstacles (poor access to raw materials, heavy taxation, etc.) there is a nascent microbrewery movement in México and some of the beers are quite good (albeit three or four times the price of already-expensive mass market beers).

In recent years there's been growing availability of microbrews from local producers. Keep you eye out for beers from Baja Brewing, a new Ajijic brewer whose name escapes me at the moment, and Berber from Guadalajara, as well as more established Minerva, whose excellent India Pale Ale and decent Russian Imperial Stout are even available at Wal Mart.  

Mexico is not a wine-drinking country and wine goes poorly with most traditional foods. Wine is heavily taxed, including, sadly, some very good Mexican wines made in Baja Norte. Wines from Chile, Spain and Argentina are subject to reduced taxes and are better values. Paz liquor store next to Super Lake has the best selection of wines and spirits in the immediate area, but nearby La Playa is also worth checking out for spirits. Storage conditions for wines at Paz, in particular, are atrocious, so buy only the most recent vintages (nothing more than two years from its vintage date).

Recently opened Viñas Americas on the carretera in Ajijic just West of El Serape restaurant has much better storage conditions than Paz and a small but well-chosen inventory of wines and spirits. Wal Mart has also become a "must" stop for wine drinkers as they bring in numerous good-value wines that are often from more recent vintages and have the best storage conditions in the area. 

Serious wine and spirits enthusiasts will want to venture into Guadalajara to La Europea (at Galerias Mall and several other locations), which has an outstanding selection heavily skewed towards the superb Spanish wines preferred by wealthy Tapatios. Costco also has an excellent selection of these wines, as well as well-stored bargain everyday wines from Spain.  
Tequila is the spirit of Mexico and goes very well, straight up, with spicy antojitos as well as being the key ingredient in the gringo cocktail the margarita. I've written extensively about Tequila elsewhere on the blog so please look for that post. There are some good dark rums available here that also suit the food and climate (try Flor de Caña Centenario or Matusalem 18)   and one can also find the superlative Spanish brandies Gran Duque d'Alba and Cardenal Mendoza, among the finest, as well as best value, brandies in the world and the perfect end to a more Spanish-style meal of steak or chops. The new Torres 15 at around 325 pesos is great value, while their 20 year old at around 600 competes with cognacs costing double the price. 

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