North of Río Cuale
The success of the Restaurant Trio (264 Guerrero, btwn. Hidalgo and Matamoros, tel. 322/222-2196, noon–3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.– midnight, reservations recommended), two short blocks north of the Río Cuale, flows from an innovative Mediterranean menu (most entrées $10–16) and its cool, elegant candlelit atmosphere. Imaginative combinations of traditional ingredients, attentive service, and satisfying desserts topped off with savory espresso have kept customers coming back for years.
Within the bustle of the Malecón restaurant row stands the longtime favorite Las Palomas (Malecón at Aldama, tel. 322/222-3675, 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun., moderate). Soothing suppertime live marimba music and graceful colonial decor beneath a towering big-beamed ceiling afford a restful contrast from the sidewalk hubbub just outside the door. Both the breakfasts and the lunch and dinner entrées (nearly all Mexican style, $5–12) are tasty and bountiful.
If, however, you hanker for home-cooked Italian food, stop by Rito’s Baci (corner of Juárez and Ortíz de Dominguez, tel. 322/222-6448, 3–11 p.m. daily, $6–12), the labor of love of the sometimes taciturn but warmhearted owner-chef, who stays open seven days a week because his customers “would be disappointed if I closed.” His establishment, as plain as Kansas in July, requires no atmosphere other than Rito himself, a member of the Mexican football league hall of fame. All of his hearty specialties, from the pestos through the pastas and the eggplant Parmesan, are handmade from his family’s traditional recipes.
A pair of formerly up-and-coming restaurants, De Santos and Los Xitomates (hee-toh-MAH-tays), on Morelos, have achieved solid success. Both rely on the current popularity of innovative Mexican cuisine. At Los Xitomates (Morelos 570, btwn. Aldama and Corona, tel. 322/222-1695, 6 p.m.–midnight daily, $10–18), soft music and flickering candles set the stage, while good wine and continental–North American–Mexican fusion cuisine provide the performance. For example, you might start off with romaine-avocado salad dressed with Roquefort, accompanied by a glass of Chilean Calixa chardonnay ($5), followed by either barbecued breast of chicken, grilled rib eye steak, or rice with wild mushrooms and chile serrano. My pick was the steak, which was cut thin, accompanied by a glass of good red Chilean Concordia shiraz ($4). Reservations recommended, especially weekends.
At Restaurant de Santos (Morelos 771, tel. 322/223-3052 or 322/223-3053, 5 p.m.–2 a.m. daily, $6–23, reservations strongly recommended), a couple of blocks farther north and across the street, the atmosphere is young, lively, and often crowded. Although I had to settle for a seat at the bar, it nevertheless didn’t affect the food, which was as delicious as it was imaginative. For salad, I started with grilled asparagus in olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette, and ended with a truly delectable salmon fillet, wrapped and baked in mashed potatoes. Alternatively, take your pick from dozens more options: salads, pizzas, pastas, seafood, and meats. My wines, both good, were Chilean Santa Digna sauvignon blanc and cabernet, both $5.
Good macrobiotic and vegan cuisine is getting a foothold in Puerto Vallarta in a number of locations. For a very worthy alternative, go to Planeta Vegetariana (Iturbide 270, near corner of Hidalgo, tel. 322/222-3073, 8 a.m.–10 p.m.) located downtown, near the south side of the church. In a refined but relaxed atmosphere, the owners (with just 10 tables) have achieved renown with a healthy and delicious offering for Puerto Vallarta’s growing cadre of health-conscious visitors and locals. It’s easy to imagine some visitor-devotees eating all their meals there, and being amply rewarded. For breakfast, you could indulge in the buffet ($7) with lots of juices, fruit, pancakes, muffins, and cereals. Come back for lunch for savory-spicy black bean salad ($4) and maybe some soy enchiladas ($5). Top the day off with a supper of eggplant-banana lasagna ($6), and follow it with fruit salad ($3) for dessert.
A trio of romantic hillside restaurants concludes my list of north-of-Cuale dining options, listed from north to south. Start out one evening at the striking castle-tower of Restaurant Café des Artistes (Guadalupe Sanchez 740 at Leona Vicario, tel. 322/222-3228 or 322/222-3229, 6–11:30 p.m. daily, reservations mandatory, latest at 10:30 p.m.) that rises above the surrounding neighborhood. Romantics only need apply. Candlelit tables, tuxedoed servers, gently whirring ceiling fans, soothing live neoclassical melodies, and gourmet international cuisine all set a luxurious tone. You might start with your pick of soups, such as chilled cream of watercress or cream of prawn and pumpkin, continue with a salad, perhaps the smoked salmon in puff pastry with avocado pine nut dressing. For a finale, choose honey- and soy-glazed roast duck or shrimp sautéed with cheese tortellini and served with a carrot custard and a spinach-basil puree. (Entrées $10–30, most around $20.)
Higher up the slope is the longtime favorite mid-priced Restaurant Chez Elena (Matamoros 520, tel. 322/222-0161, 6–10 p.m. daily, $8–14, reservations recommended, closed Aug.–Sept.), on a quiet side street a few blocks above and north of the downtown church. Soft live guitar music and flickering candlelight in a colonial garden terrace set the tone, while a brief but solid Mexican-international menu, augmented by an innovative list of daily specialties, provides the food. On a typical evening, you might be able to choose between entrées such as cochinita pibil (Yucatecan-style shredded pork in sauce, $9), banana leaf–wrapped Oaxacan tamales ($6), or dorado fillet with cilantro in white sauce ($14). Chez Elena guests often arrive early for sunset cocktails at the rooftop panoramic view bar and then continue with dinner downstairs.
Finally, highest on the hill, treat yourself to dinner at Puerto Vallarta’s most uniquely private restaurant, at the elegant, boutique fifteen-room Hacienda San Ángel (Miramar 336, tel. 322/222-2692 or 322/221-2277, dinner 6–10 p.m.). Personable owner Janice Chatterton initially created her restaurant for her in-house guests, but now extends her invitation to all lovers of fine fusion Mexican– continental–North American cuisine. Some of her favorite recommendations include, for starters, smoked salmon carpaccio ($9) and/or grilled vegetables ($7). Continue with shrimp coconut cream soup ($7) and climax it all with roasted half chicken, stuffed with cuitlacoche. ($15). For more of her suggestions, visit www.haciendasanangel.com.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Puerto Vallarta, 7th edition