Article submitted and written by Nicholas Gilman
By Nicholas Gilman
Everybody goes on vacation once in a while, even food writers from the big city. So it was with a light heart and backpack that I set off on an expedition to uncharted waters: Acapulco. In over thirty years of travel to and within Mexico, I had never been to the fabled land of fun and sun. I avoided what I assumed would be a tacky, vulgar, ruined place. My mother, artist Esther Gilman, would wax poetic over its sandy shores. The story went that she and her then boyfriend, a hunky Italian named Johnny, lifeguard by day, band singer by night, had traveled there but had a big fight. My mother couldn’t find her hotel as she had forgotten the name of it and wandered for hours, Spanish-less through the streets. She found her lodging and made up with the boyfriend. Upon returning to New York, she met and married my father, a skinny bespectacled Jewish intellectual. This was in 1947. She never went back to Acapulco but always extolled its virtues and insisted I go “It’s so beautiful…” she would say, not realizing that things had changed in 40 years. Moral of the story, I figured, is that anyplace you go with an Italian stallion looks good.
Sadly, time has not been kind to Aca’s sandy shores. The powers that be have done little to conserve the loveliness of this spectacular natural spot. Graceful bays are overlaid with merciless, leprous-looking, commercial spread. Shameless, avaricious hucksterism has begotten endless chain stores, repetitive tacky tourist gee-gaw shops and over-built hotels. An enormous government building, plopped in the middle of the once graceful ‘costera’, which runs along the sea, is in interminable construction, “swallowing our money” as one taxi driver put it. Recent news of wars between angry narco gangs emanates with alarming regularity. So why, you ask, would anyone go? I wondered too, as ‘B’ and I set off on the five hour trip in Estrella de Oro’s finest ‘Diamante’ autobus, visions of Buñuel’s Mexican Bus Ride dancing in my head. But I was curious to see this iconic Mexican vacation spot. And Elvis had slept here.
Greenish brown undulating country gave way to dark and jagged mountains, scarred peaks soaring until they blended with gray-blue misty skies. Then, in a few ear-popping minutes we descended to sea level and coconut palms began to wave at us like friendly tropical hosts. I could smell the sea air through the sealed bus windows – or so I thought.
We arrived in downtown Acapulco, to a shrill, messy area somewhere behind the market. Exhaust fumes greeted me as I stepped outside. My heart was sinking as we boarded a seemingly overpriced taxi to take us to our hotel. But things started to look up when we got to Hotel Boca Chica in Caleta, old Acapulco (I always go for the old, whenever possible). The Boca Chica is a retro gem, whose tiled mural facade was featured in the opening credits of Elvis Presley’s eponymous – to this article- 1963 classic film (a clunker, to some critics) . It has recently been restored/renovated to its original stylish fabulousness. Comfortable 21st century all white rooms are punctuated with midcentury moderne furniture and knick-knacks culled from the best DF antique shops. Cute white clad workers scurry about offering everything ‘vacation’, from Margaritas to massages. The lozenge shaped pool surrounded by ‘50’s woven chaises beckons. And best of all is the view, visible from the ample terraces of all the rooms. This, after all, is ‘old’ Aca, and there isn’t an ugly building in sight, just those breezy palms, lazy bananas, craggy, rocky bays, and the sea. Next-door is La Caletilla, a beach ‘popular’ in the Mexican sense –happy families recline frolic, imbibing soft drinks, boiled shrimp and oysters. At night, the empty (and surprisingly clean) sands are home to a few joint-smoking fishermen back from a hard day’s work.
I was happy to check in here and never wanted to leave, but I was hungry and food’s my business. So we headed out to explore.
El Amigo Miguel - www.elamigomiguel.com
This seafood classic, now located in four spots around town just about sums up Acapulco’s ‘comida típica’, the standard marine preparations offered all over Mexico : ceviches, cocktails, fried and sautéed filets, lots of salsa, lots of catsup. No surprises, but good fresh fish.
The standout at Miguel’s is the ceviche Acapulco style. Catsup is used to fill out the sauce – usually not my favorite ingredient, but here it is used discriminately, and imparts an appealing hint of sweetness; the fish is obviously fresh.
Here’s my recipe:
750 gm. (3/4 lb) huachinango (red snapper) or sierra (mackerel) filets cut into 1 cm (1/2”) dice
(in Mexico, your fish monger will do this for you free of charge). Here I like to sterilize the fish in a strong solution of the same drops you use on your vegetables. Elsewhere, you can use a couple drops of chlorine, or buy very good fish for sushi and forget it.
For the marinade:
1 medium (Spanish) onion, finely diced
2 fresh jalapeños (or to taste) finely diced
3 firm plum tomatoes, seeded (but not peeled) and chopped into ¼” dice
3 tb. each chopped cilantro and parsley
½ cup catsup
¾ cup fresh orange juice
¼ cup lime juice
a large pinch dried Mexican oregano
1 ts finely grated orange rind
1 ts Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 ts salt
Combine marinade ingredients in a glass or high-fired ceramic bowl at least a half hour in advance. Fold in fish and marinate for about an hour (a little more for huachinango, less for sierra). Serve in small dishes with home-fried tostadas. Alternatively, small cooked shrimp can be used but these don’t have to be marinated for more than a few minutes.
We also tried Miguel’s pescado a la talla. But Maria Cristina’s was better (see below).
Pie de la Cuesta: Bungalows Maria Cristina
Pie de la Cuesta is a natural, unspoiled beach about a half hour’s drive from the city. We commandeered a taxi to take us. The nearly empty beach is home to a very few vendors, and is peppered with thatched palapas belonging to the few rustic bungalows. We settled under the first inviting one we saw and sat sipping icy beer, chatting with passing boiled shrimp vendors and small beach boys who should have been in school. Then we had Maria Cristina prepare us another Pacific classic: pescado a la talla. This is a whole fish splayed open, slathered with an ‘adobo’ or chili mixture, than grilled. It was fabulous and the rolling waves, warm caressing breeze, heady sea air and lazy mood made it even more memorable.
Acapulco is located in the state of Guerrero and pozole is the region’s pride. It always seems to cool down enough at night for a bowl of hot soup, so we headed to El Zorrito, on the costera. Red, green or white hominy laden pozole was on offer, but my favorite, and harder to find in the capital, was the pumpkin-seed thickened green. We ate surrounded by happy local families and strolling mariachis. A few European tourists peered in but, apparently feeling the atmosphere to be ‘too real’ they headed off to Sr. Frog’s, down the street. Their loss.
Don’t be a drag, be a queen:
What a surprise it was to encounter the Fonda Amayrany in the middle of the small market near Caletilla beach. It’s an ordinary market fonda ubiquitous throughout Mexico. What makes the difference is the fact that this one is run by transvestites. The gals will fry up a nice milanesa, fish or chicken filet, or a plate of enchiladas. Simple is better in this kind of place so I chose a filete (of fish) al ajo. It was done to garlicky perfection. We thought we’d return for breakfast the next day, but found the stand closed. “Drag queens aren’t morning people,” ‘B’ speculated.
With that sage advice and a torta in hand I boarded the bus for the long journey home. Acapulco, ultimately, doesn’t try to be what it isn’t. There’s no pseudo-colonial like in Puerto Vallarta. It’s either still-here retro or in-your-face new. I like the contrasts– big city gaudiness vs. natural beauty; urban energy vs. provincial slow pacing; tourist-town hawking vs. small-town friendliness.
I never felt the sinister mafia-tinged aura I feared. Just laid back balmy ambiente. I’ll be back.
Nicholas Gilman is the author of Good Food in Mexico City: A Guide to Food Stalls Fondas and Fine Dining; His blog is: www.goodfoodmexicocity.com.