A culi­nary jour­ney through the Mex­i­can state’s south­ern re­gion, where food comes first and fresh

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Ty­rone Burke

A culi­nary jour­ney through the Mex­i­can state’s south­ern re­gion, where food comes first and fresh

DANC­ING SKELE­TONS SALSA along to the rhythm of hand drums dif­fused in the crowd grow­ing on Plaza Machado for Dia de los Muer­tos: Mexico’s Day of the Dead. The sun has just set on a steamy early Novem­ber day in the city of Mazatlán, in the west-coast Mex­i­can state of Si­naloa, and mu­sic hangs in the thick trop­i­cal air. The dancers’ bony black-and­white face paint glows phos­pho­res­cent un­der the street­lights. The pro­ces­sion me­an­ders through the cob­ble­stone maze of Old Mazatlán, led by don­keys pulling rick­ety wooden carts topped with rapidly emp­ty­ing beer kegs. Makeshift bar­tenders pump fu­ri­ously to fill an end­less stream of plas­tic cups with Mazatlán’s beloved Paci­fico — brewed just blocks from here — which fu­els the an­tics as they build to a crescendo. Once the loop is com­plete, the plaza will fill be­yond ca­pac­ity, and will look more like a cav­ernous Mexico City night­club than a quaint colo­nial square. This is the sec­ond of three straight days each year when Mex­i­cans hon­our their lost loved ones. Spir­its are high, and peo­ple-watch­ing might not get bet­ter than this. Even on this fes­tive night, how­ever, it would be a stretch to say cui­sine is sec­ondary in Mazatlán. At ev­ery one of the dozen or so res­tau­rant pa­tios on the plaza, lo­cals and tourists crowd ta­bles heaped with mar­lin and shrimp pulled from the sea that morn­ing, lo­cal toma­toes and av­o­ca­dos, and firm man­goes driz­zled with lime and diced chilies. Even as many rev­ellers start mi­grat­ing to the city’s dis­cote­cas, there’s a steady stream of fine foods flow­ing from the kitchens onto the plaza. If you didn’t show up hours be­fore the pa­rade be­gan, you won’t get a ta­ble tonight.

A FEW DAYS LATER, when I re­turn to Plaza Machado to dine at Al­fredo Gomez Ru­bio’s res­tau­rant Pe­dro y Lola, the square’s am­bi­ence could hardly be more dif­fer­ent. It’s been an ac­tive Pa­cific hur­ri­cane sea­son, and the year’s fi­nal storm has Mazatlán in its crosshairs. Most lo­cals have re­treated to the com­fort of their homes. The plaza is de­serted, and at Pe­dro y Lola — usu­ally hum­ming with ac­tiv­ity — staff out­num­ber din­ers. Gomez Ru­bio and I take a ta­ble while the rain out­side gives rhythm to jazz stan­dards played by a live trio. Other than the bowtied bar­keep qui­etly thumb­ing his phone be­hind a shiny bar, the scene could be drawn from the same golden age of cin­ema as the res­tau­rant’s name­sakes, film star Pe­dro In­fante and singer Lola Bel­tran. Both are Mazatle­cas who be­came Mex­i­can icons, and their an­tique por­traits sur­vey the din­ing room’s brightly painted stucco and ex­posed Cal­i­for­nia red­wood ceil­ing beams. “Mazatlán’s history is dif­fer­ent than any­where else in Mexico,” Gomez Ru­bio says as we’re served an ap­pe­tizer of squeaky fresh oc­to­pus in a sauce of mild gua­jillo chili shot through with an in­fu­sion

of gar­lic, lime and white wine. In crisp English tinged with an Amer­i­can drawl picked up at the Cal­i­for­nia mil­i­tary academy he at­tended as a teenager, he tells of the city’s im­por­tance dur­ing the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush. With no rail­road to take min­ers from east to west across the United States, many skipped the treach­er­ous transcon­ti­nen­tal wagon jour­ney along the Gold Rush Trail, sail­ing south and cross­ing much nar­rower Mexico in­stead, em­bark­ing for San Fran­cisco from Mazatlán. “Most of what you see to­day is not a colo­nial city or one of the gov­ern­ment-driven re­sort de­vel­op­ments like Cancún. It’s part of what makes Mazatlán unique.” “The restau­rants here are more in­di­vid­ual,” he adds. “There aren’t many of the buf­fets you find at all-in­clu­sive re­sorts, and there are more in­de­pen­dent places where chefs can cre­ate some­thing of higher qual­ity, be more cre­ative.” The Pe­dro y Lola menu is tight. A sim­ple dou­ble-sided sheet, it mixes lo­cal seafood favourites and Mex­i­can stan­dards, with a smat­ter­ing of North Amer­i­can dishes for din­ers who came ex­clu­sively for the sun­shine. At Gomez Ru­bio’s rec­om­men­da­tion, I sam­ple the Pe­dro y Lola shrimp. This chef’s spe­cial doesn’t dis­ap­point. Served on a bed of fresh or­anges float­ing on a Coin­treau-ac­cented green chili sauce, flavours swirl, with the gi­ant, juicy shrimp pro­vid­ing a de­lec­ta­ble fin­ish. As much as cre­ativ­ity, it’s the prove­nance of such dishes that sets Mazatlán din­ing apart. The shrimp, or­anges and chilies are all lo­cal. Nearly ev­ery­thing is. Si­naloa is a cor­nu­copia. A few blocks away, Mazatlán’s cen­tral mar­ket over­flows with fruit and veg­eta­bles. When the city is hur­ri­cane free, small-scale fish­er­men sell to restau­ra­teurs on city beaches. “Of ev­ery­thing we serve,” Gomez Ru­bio tells me, “I’d say that more than 90 per cent of it comes from right here in Si­naloa.” KNEE-DEEP IN THE WA­TER to safely guide his boat onto the sand, Jose Al­fredo is bring­ing in his day’s catch. A broad grin hints it’s been a good morn­ing in the man­groves, but also re­veals the deep­en­ing crow’s feet that come with nearly two decades spent fish­ing trop­i­cal wa­ters. But even af­ter 19 years work­ing the tiny fish­ing port of La Brecha, he laughs at the idea that he’s a vet­eran. “Some of the guys have been fish­ing here for 40 years,” he smiles. “I’m still a rookie.” I’ve come to La Brecha — one of 14 small-scale fish­eries in Si­naloa’s Tea­ca­pan re­gion, and one of its rich­est — with Os­car Si­men­tal, a re­tired air­line man­ager and Tea­ca­pan lo­cal who’s show­ing me around this fer­tile agri­cul­tural re­gion just south of the city. Here, rows of toma­toes shine on the vine. Tow­er­ing co­conut palms al­ter­nate with stout mango trees, and fish­er­men haul a boun­ti­ful catch of red snap­per from the re­gion’s abun­dant man­grove forests. Ev­ery­where you look, food is grow­ing.

A fish­ing boat on the shore in Mazatlán. The city and sur­round­ing re­gion are lo­cated in the Mex­i­can state of Si­naloa, which is renowned for its seafood.

Pe­dro y Lola’s epony­mous shrimp dish ( top) show­cases Mazatlán’s prized crus­tacean catch. A young girl in cos­tume dur­ing the Day of the Dead fes­ti­val ( above).

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