I recently return to Mexico, visiting the city of Puerto Vallarta (PV) for the first time (historically, I’ve visited about an hour north of the city on the coast).
I wrote about a unique Marriott resort (about 20 minutes drive from Old Town PV in Nuevo Vallarta where most of resorts are grouped) that has their own house tequila program and special food offerings, like guacamole and margaritas on the beach or customized dinners in the Herb Garden with tequila and wine pairings (more here).
But what about Old Town PV? It’s meandering, oceanside streets are as mobbed with tourists as you’d think. Yet there is charming architecture, narrow streets, vibrant smells and the food and drink excellence one can find all over Mexico — if you know where to dig. Here are my top recommended spots to eat and drink in PV (more on Mexico in general here).
Mariscos Ocho Tostadas, Marina Vallarta
In touristy Nuevo Vallarta, one has to force themselves away from the ease of their resort to eat locally. Though you’ll find tourists just about everywhere in this area, the outdoor market at Marina Vallarta is delightful and a “must” while in the area.
Mariscos Ocho Tostadas was the tip I got from working staff at the Marriott resort when asking where THEY go off hours. As soon as I walked into the simple, open air restaurant, I knew why it was a local’s favorite. Famed for their marlin and other seafood tostadas, I spent less than $5 with tip a lovely cucumber (pepino) fresca to drink with two seafood tostadas. Though solo, the staff made me feel warmly welcomed.
Old Town Puerto Vallarta — Food
Best Birria: Tacos de Birria Chanfay
While I had heard some say Tacos Robles has the best traditional goat birria in Old Town since 1986 (and was bummed it was closed the day I went), I was not at all disappointed in Tacos de Birria Chanfay, another local favorite since 1972. In a dingy but welcoming patio off a decidedly non-touristy street, Chanfay was humble, rustic and warmed my heart with near perfect beef and goat birria tacos done “dorado”-style (fried). I fell even harder for their excellent peanut and pepitas chile oil which I poured liberally on my tacos.
Best Tacos: Tacos El Cunado
Tacos El Cunado (daily 9am-12am) is as good as it gets. This is what I crave whenever I’m away from home in California or when I’m in Mexco: damn excellent tacos.
This humble, family-run stand has been going strong since 1968. “Cunado” means brother-in-law, referring to the owner’s 11 sisters (he also has 3 brothers) and all the brother-in-laws who work/ed here. Without raising costs in years, they recently went up to 15 pesos per taco (still less than $1), which makes sense given that they go out of their way to source high quality meat for their carne asada, chorizo and diced pork tacos. On corn tortillas, these cocktails sing with house salsas.
Best Restaurant: El Arrayan
I felt right at home at El Arrayan. Run by gracious Carmen Porras and Claudia Victoria, who both have worked in restaurants, bars and hotels around the globe but hail from Mexico City, this open air charmer is centered by a tree and the sky, bright with Huichol art.
It’s a restaurant that feels savvy yet utterly rustic. They’ve put thought into the decor, food and cocktails — as well as the local Mexican wine list — and the result is the “whole package”. Maybe the best tastes of the nights? Rustic house salsas, especially their earthy, thick salsa negra, which they sell by the jar.
Focused on regional dishes from around Mexico, whether Jalisco’s lamb birria or the Yucatán’s cochinita pibil, it’s all about quality, local ingredients and historic cooking techniques in each dish. I loved shrimp peanut mole (six large shrimp, guacamole, caramelized pineapple, crispy yams, house peanut ‘mole’ and cilantro oil) and their specialty of crispy cricket tacos, transporting me back to Oaxaca with tomatillo-avocado salsa. Claudia focuses on the drink offerings, including their house signature margarita, El Arrayan Margarita, sweet and sour with local arrayán fruit.
Best Margarita & Mole: Gaby’s
Gaby’s (daily 11am-11pm) is a local legend since 1989, an intimate, two-floored restaurant with an upstairs deck, famed as a family home where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton spent a lot of time when they filmed Night of the Iguana in PV.
Although mole isn’t exactly a specialty of the state of Jalisco as it is in Oaxaca and Puebla, it’s done right here — whether mole verde or mole negro. On top of that, they made the best, most balanced margarita I tasted this trip. Ask for one not with tequila but another Jaliscan specialty: raicilla (more on the local spirit here). Even better? They distill their own house raicilla (which they can sell to you in a state-approved bottle wrapped up with masking tape — I brought one of those babies home pronto)… and it’s fantastic.
Pastrami-Esque Smoked Marlin Tostadas: Cevicheria El Guero
Cevicheria El Guero has been a humble, sunny restaurant since 1989. While I found their traditional jamaica (hibiscus) juice too sweet, their smoked local marlin tostadas are killer. In fact, as they claim, it’s meat-like marlin, tasting more like pastrami, unique and having fun with a local specialty. Daily ceviche tostadas reflect fresh fish they sometimes catch themselves — and their vivid orange, uber hot house salsa is fantastic.
Just-Pressed Tortillas: Tortilleria La Gloria
Grab a stack of fresh, piping hot corn tortillas at Tortilleria La Gloria, a historic factory that has been operating since 1968 on 5 de Febrero, Emiliano Zapata (daily 6am-4pm). Locals sprinkle a bit of salt on the tortillas, roll them up and eat them on the spot.
Stuffed Jalapeno Tacos: Mariscos Cisneros
In its intimate, bright space, Mariscos Cisneros is renowned for their for their stuffed jalapeno taco. It’s excellent, indeed. I also loved their plump shrimp tacos and house salsas.
Handmade Candies: Sabor Azteca
You’ll find handmade, old school candies at Sabor Azteca, a shop that’s been running since 2006 (daily 9:30am-9pm). Some candies ran a bit too sweet for me but I loved their candied peanuts and walnuts. Located on Avenida Juarez #449, Centro.
Cigars & Chocolate: Vallarta Factory
For a cigar fix and earthy-sweet local chocolate — akin to but quite different than crumbly Oaxacan chocolate — Vallarta Factory is your stop, even better after a stroll through the charming street vendors of Isla Cuale, a tiny island in the heart of Old Town. My wish would be for world class rums, brandies and whiskies to sip with the cigars and chocolate — but they do have plenty of agave spirits.
Old Town Puerto Vallarta — Drink
Fermented Coconut & Apple Vinegar Drink: Tuba by Concepcion
You can find videos of this local legend on YouTube. Tuba by Concepcion has been serving his popular fermented coconut cream and apple vinegar drink — called tuba — laden with strawberries, apples and walnuts in front of the gorgeous Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish since 1998.
It’s lively, crunchy and lightly creamy, a real delight at a mere 10-20 pesos for different sizes poured out of a red clay pot. Look for the older guy with the white hat wandering the Malecón. This blog post has some helpful details.
Coconut Water: Cesar’s Coconut Stand
When you need a heat quencher, family-run Cesar’s Coconut Stand turns out refreshing coconut water since 1968 (daily 8:30am-7pm) at Aquiles Serdan #255, Emiliano Zapata.