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Traveling to Mexico in COVID times
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Traveling to Mexico in COVID times

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For many Californians, a quick trip to Mexico is a constant in their annual vacay plan. Five to seven days of relaxation in a beach town — Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Mazatlan — is still fairly inexpensive. Getting to a West Coast retreat is quick. Snag a direct flight and some locations give toes-in-the-sand within three hours from SFO.

A favorite spot is Puerto Vallarta, located in the Bay of Banderas, a five-hour drive west from Guadalajara. The adage “there’s something for everyone” rings clear as a church bell in this Jalisco state city. The region’s variety of topography, generally pleasing climate, range of available activities and breadth of pricing options make it a hotspot for hippie, Instafamer, jet setter and almost everyone in between.

For me, being there guarantees an eclectic mix of serendipity that never fails to entertain. During my recent trip, I gained a menu sneak peek and taste at four Puerto Vallarta establishments that will participate in Restaurant Week, Sept. 15 to Oct. 10. Chefs will create three-course dining experiences priced at up to 60 percent less than normal. Each establishment determines whether to offer a meal at roughly $15, $21 or $25 USD equivalent.

I visited Hacienda San Angel, Café des Artistes, Trattoria di Nuovo and Kaiser Maximilian. Aside from some of the most splendid meal preparation, the hospitality and service at each venue was incredibly welcoming. Each business has operated in the Puerto Vallarta Old Town area for numerous years; in fact, Café des Artistes was celebrating 30 years in the same location—albeit growing and expanding to now offer dining in various ambiances including garden, terrace, bar/lounge, formal indoor and private salon.

Founded and directed by Thierry Blouet, the Puerto Vallarta location has at its helm Chef Lara Castellón. One of her creations to be featured during Restaurant Week is an inverted tostada appetizer—catch of the day ceviche with green aqua chile topped by a mini crunchy tostada. My meal was followed by the restaurant’s longstanding guest favorite prawn and castile squash cream soup. The ensuing course was a piquant and smoky plate of sea bass with red enmoladas.

I understand how meals can easily extend to two or more hours—the service is timed to perfection with excellent conversation and education by servers. While waiting for presentation of the softest fillet accented by red wine and shallots served atop puree of cauliflower, the attendant shared highlights from an extensive wine list with selections from Spain, Germany, Austria, Mexico, California and France .

Hacienda San Angel offers open-air dining with a view in a formal setting. Reservations are required to enter this collection of historic villas that have been restored over numerous years by the recently deceased founder /philanthropist from San Francisco, Janice Chatterton.

As with Café des Artistes, the presentation of each plate was impeccable and artistic. A ceviche was accented with touches of habanero, diced tomato and mango, encircled by a mango curl, then topped with a crown of shoestring crisps—mellow heat cooled by juicy tropical flavors.

This was followed by a generous portion of firm, yet flakey, dorado (mahi-mahi) dressed with rows of thinly sliced, placed and seared potato. Papaya, mango and melon dotted the plate perimeter. My host, Alejandro, has worked at Hacienda San Angel for nine years. Among the ingredients and Spanish words he introduced to me was higo, or fig. Zuccotto con higo capped the meal, rich and sweetened by a berries sauce and row of meringue.

A third venue I visited was Trattoria di Nuovo, owned and operated by Nohemi Heredia. Celebrating 11 years in business, this casual bistro is tucked away on Basilio Badillo street. Its unassuming entrance gives way to a surprising secret garden,  Italian in vibe with red and white checked tablecloths, Sofia Loren in picture frames, plus candles and cheerful yellow flowers at each table. This comfort of the venue is surpassed only by the geniality of each staff member, as well as Nohemi herself.

Chef Luis Villasenor Bobadilla prepared three items from their Restaurant Week menu, starting with a beet salad adorned with creamy sweet dressing, soft goat cheese, plus candied walnuts. As a main, a generous bowl of pasta was dotted with catch of the day, pargo, in tangy Kalamata olive and lemony veloute sauce. For this recipe, the chef rotates between using one of three Banderas Bay fish types: dorado (mahi-mahi), pargo and huachinango (both from the red snapper family). Dessert was a surprise—fried, light and crispy chocolate raviolis filled with banana and drowned in affogato sauce. Portions were hearty. Good thing my hotel was located several blocks away and uphill.

Capping off the restaurant tour was a visit to Kaiser Maximilian, and a shared meal with owners Andreas and wife Maria Cecila. Having dined at this restaurant more than 20 years ago, I was intrigued to learn more about how the venue had changed over 26 years.

I also gained more insight into the influences of “Maximiliano.” Maximilian of Habsburg (Vienna 1832 - Mexico 1867) was an archduke of the House of Habsburg, brother of the Austrian Emperor Francisco José, plus son-in-law of the Belgian King Leopold I. In 1864 he became Emperor of Mexico, arriving with his wife Carlota that same year. His tenure was neither positive nor long-lived; he succumbs to a sentence of death in 1867.

This Austrian bistro is a tribute to the late ruler and offers fine dining in the main salon and casual fare plus European coffees throughout the day in an adjacent space. The dinner menu is a wide range of fare taking European, Mexican and continental influences. An extensive wine list and full bar are on site.

As a greeting, I was offered two signature drinks: one featuring a very smoky mezcal with a glass rimmed by crushed chapulines, better known as those crunchy cricket snacks popular in southern Mexico, particularly Oaxaca. A second chilled beverage featuring Elderberry was crisp and light. Akin to a spritzer,  it was highly suited for slow sipping.

The appetizer of tacos de pato confitado was a surprising blend of duck in Oaxacan sauce of cinnamon and ground pumpkin seeds, capped with colorful mango relish. Dinner was a thick cut of red snapper and zesty cilantro topping, plus companion fresh vegetables.

During Restaurant Week, Kaiser Maximilian will offer Pot de Creme de Chocolate, Pastel de Queso (sour cream cheesecake with coconut crust topped by poached fruits) and Copa Maximilian (pecan and vanilla ice cream with banana, Kahlua and whipped cream) on its dessert menu.

Within Mexico, Puerto Vallarta is ranked number two for gastronomy, following Mexico City. Estimates state there to be more than 500 places to dine. Seafood is a staple on most menus, but beef (such as the $100 cut of steak at Sonora Prime in the Marina area), chicken, veal, duck, vegetarian and many more options abound. The selection is overwhelming.

Loud and brash dining featuring Americanized menus dominates the Malecon, but you can walk south along the beach boardwalk and find a bit less frenzy for your sunset dining. Alternatively, head inland for quieter surroundings, better prices, more authentic preparations. Many hotels and resorts also offer exquisite options, sunset views and late evening meals.

Is it safe to travel to Mexico?

From Baja to Cancun, Mexico tourism thudded to a halt for many months. Complete shutdowns were the norm for several months starting in April last year. Yet despite early predictions that Mexico beach destinations would take until 2022 to recover, seems to be not the case for Puerto Vallarta. Puerto Vallarta Daily reports that versus July 2019 (pre-COVID-19), July 2021 saw a tourist tally increase of 14.4 percent. The vast majority of visitors hail from the United States. This influx is attributed to summer holiday intentions, pent-up demand, and ease of travel to Mexico. As of August, the country does not require visitors to quarantine, show proof of vaccination or negative test results for COVID-19 in order to enter by air.

The unfortunate news is that the Delta variant has arrived. In September, adjustments continue to be made within Jalisco. Night clubs and bars are permitted to operate at 25 percent guest capacity. Restaurant capacity remains capped at 50 percent. Casinos may fill to maximum capacity 60 percent.

The good news is that, overall, locals in the urban areas of Puerto Vallarta are compliant regarding use of facial masks, but in outlying regions this is less the case. The biggest no-mask culprits seem to be the American tourists. Canadian citizens, usually as visible as US visitors, were scarce in Puerto Vallarta. Guests from Europe seemed absent. A few from Asia were seen.

Regarding accommodations in the area, the major hotel operators are rigorous when it comes to setting and following protocols for cleanliness; the smaller chains and residences seem less astute. Hand-sanitizing stations and attendants are omnipresent at entrances, exits and scattered locations inside.

With traveler count up, lines are longer. Zigzag back and forth lines for extended periods of time will likely be the norm; it’s here where folks tend to forget the distancing rule. Travel is also a bit more complicated, in particular taking a return flight to the U.S.

Completion of online attestation within 12-hours of flight departure; that’s a new task. Obtaining, then showing, negative proof of COVID-19 presence: another to-do item. For this, testing must be conducted by an approved vendor no more than 72-hours before flight departure time. The 24-hour test tent at the PVR airport does not require an appointment, but most other locations do. Book an appointment well in advance, and know that nearly all locations are closed on Sundays, and some remain closed on Mondays.

Find more menus and information at restaurantweekpv.com/en/participantes.

Napa native Martha Blanchfield is a frequent traveler to the Puerto Vallarta region. In 2022 Martha plans to host small group travel trips to the region. Visit mexicofitnessfoodfun.weebly.com/ for more information. 

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