It was September of 1998 and I was in Cuernavaca, Mexico staying at Las Mananitas where I was taking an immersion Spanish class for two weeks. I had a free weekend and decided to fly to Zihuatanejo to check out a new hotel that a reputable travel magazine called Mexico’s most romantic, Casa Que Canta. The hotel was just as it was described and thus begun my love affair with the twin cities of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo.
In August of 2009, I was asked to help organize Share Our Strength’s first Taste of the Nation event in Mexico. Because of my affiliation and devotion to America’s largest hunger relief organization, I would have gone to any city they requested, but the fact that it was Zihuatanejo, I was thrilled. Through the process I developed a friendship with the director of operations and executive chef of the Club Intrawest property there. So when the Ixtapa/Zihautanejo Visitors Bureau asked me to participate in their first Food and Wine Festival and told me I would staying at working with my good friends at the tropical paradise of the Intrawest, I immediately said yes.
The bureau soon went into partnership with Food & Wine Magazine and the festival last week became their first in Latin America. It was remarkably successful, especially for a first year event – well attended and very organized.
The first night we arrived in Zihua, we were guests in the home of a world famous architect for a VIP press reception for sponsors and participating chefs. The 15,000 square foot open-air home on four levels with three pools and multiple palapa bars was stunning and the views of Zihuatanejo Bay were unparalleled. The reception was catered by various local chefs offering such passed delectable antojitos as ceviche de pulpo and sesame empanadas with tuna. Mexicans have become very serious about their cuisine, a fact that can be attested to by the hordes of journalists and photographers that were at the reception the first evening. I was interviewed several times while at the festival but the most impressive interview was undoubtedly the one by Reforma, Mexico City’s daily newspaper.
Later that evening a group of 12 of us went for dinner to what I think is still the most beautiful hotel in Zihuatanejo, Casa Que Canta. The restaurant sits on the edge of a cliff, feeling like it is cantilevered, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The warm glow of alabaster lighting fixtures and candles give the dining area a sense of enchantment. Then there was the food. We had just spent the evening with Casa’s chef and manager/sommelier at the reception. When they heard we were dining at Casa, they headed back to their restaurant to make sure we were completely indulged. Most of our party started out with guanabana or platano margaritas which tasted of intense, tropical fresh fruit. We were eased into tuna ceviche with coconut, pasilla-spiced prawns with black beans and pineapple and pork pibil tamales. The feast continued with spicy crab tacos, zucchini blossoms ravioli and grilled langoustine with salsa verde. Marlin baked in a banana leaf was perfectly cooked and while the peppercorn sauce that accompanied it had a nice bite, it left me longing for a salsa roja over perhaps a mole.
The next morning I went to see my friend Guillermo González Beristáin do a demonstration at the beautiful Club Intrawest, the gorgeous private resort where I was also staying. Guillermo is the chef-owner of several restaurants in Monterrey such as Pangea and La Catarina, which specializes in Mexican haute cuisine. In 2002, he opened Genoma, a retro-modern Latin eatery. In 2007, he turned his attention to El Tío, rescuing this traditional restaurant, a bastion of Mexico’s regional northern cuisine. He is a brilliant chef who incorporates many modern techniques into his cuisine. His first presentation was thinly sliced avocados encasing a crab and mango filling. It was served with a thin sheet of clamato juice that was jelled with agar.
That evening there was a beautiful dinner on the beach that could have been the setting for a movie. Beautiful models in white sun dresses welcomed guests with glasses of champagne just as the brilliant sun was setting over the Pacific. And the food was some of the best the entire weekend. Twenty chefs from Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo prepared their specialties for the 200 comfortably dressed food and wine aficionados while a blend of Contemporary Mexican and “Café Del Mar House Music” blared.
Spit-roasted cabrito, grilled quail in achiote, and wonderfully chewy arrachera were just a few of the meats being prepared over smoky charcoal grills that sent fragrant smoke up into to the hills. One chef had an array of six ceviches ranging from octopus to tuna and conveniently next to him was a woman hand patting and cooking thick, toothsome corn tortillas on her comal. I counted 21 different salsas to accompany the “grill-fest”.
Wines from Baja were being featured that night and the ones getting the most attention were the Chardonnay and Shiraz from Casa Madero and the wines from Monte Xanic, the premier winery in Valle de Guadalupe. The real star, however, was the blend of Tempranillio, Barbara, Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot from Maria Tinto. One of the owners is none other than Guillermo González Beristáin, who is also the winemaker. Great chef and wine maker? That’s a bit over-achieving, don’t you think?
Later in the evening, Rick Bayless did a demonstration on the beach with Sissy Biggers of Food Network fame (now working at Food & Wine magazine). It was a simple presentation illustrating how to cook a tortilla on a comal and a recipe for salsa habanero. It was obviously geared to a fun-loving crowd not much interested in anything too technical or intellectual that evening. His star power made up for any minimalism in the demo.
The next day was Sunday and Danyele (my trusty assistant) and I had an early breakfast then spent most of the day in the kitchen preparing for my demo that evening at the marina. I was asked to present dishes associated with Samar as that would help add a bit of “global” nature to the festival. I demonstrated the tres vasos from Spain, the stuffed squash blossoms with green olive-pomegranate salad from Turkey and the chocolate samosa with pistachio-gum mastic ice cream from – well, Samar!
Also presenting that evening were Federico A. López, a well-known and respected chef from Cancun, Alfredo Oropeza, a popular television chef in Mexico and Enrique Olvera Figueras, arguably Mexico’s most brilliant and famous chef. Enrique has been subject to rave reviews and remarkable notice during the last several years. Food & Wine named Olvera one of the 10 most promising culinary talents worldwide and Starchefs.com published a list with the “top 10 international figures in the culinary industry,” which included Enrique. His restaurant in Mexico City, Pujol, is becoming a national destination and books months in advance. My favorite dish he prepared that night was a Mayan-inspired simple puree of epazote-scented black beans with squash blossoms, perfect tomatoes and grilled squash. The dish was topped off with cumilles, an insect often eaten alive.
I finished off the evening at Taqueria Papa Loco where I had the best tacos al pastor I have tasted since my “quest for the best” ended at El Farolito in Mexico City during the filming of my PBS cooking segment on Taquerias in 1999. The Horchata and Jamaica were quenching and delicious but the queso fundido left us wishing we had ordered more tacos al pastor – so we did!
The next morning we had one last meal – a hearty and spicy breakfast – at Margaritas in downtown Zihua. There were 10 of us and we must have ordered the entire menu – chilaquiles, rancheros, molletes, enchiladas, quesadillas, and my favorite, enmoladas. And why is the papaya in Mexico so addicting? It’s a shame that we never get papaya that flavorful here.
It was time to return to Dallas so Danyele and I decided that on the plane ride between Zihua and Mexico City we would knock out the fuego menu we would be doing in a few days. Somehow, it was not surprising that the diners found avocado-crabmeat relleno inspired by chef Guillermo, a mole negro foam on wood roasted ribeye and for dessert a terrine of Mexican chocolate fondant and passion fruit curd with cactus pear-clove sorbet.
I’ve already signed on for the Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo Food & Wine Festival – 2012. So should you!
Stephan Pyles is the chef/owner of his namesake Stephan Pyles Restaurant and Samar both on Ross Avenue in Dallas. Crave is pleased to have the chef share his travels with us.
3 responses to “Chef Pyles in Zihuatanejo”
That sounds wonderful!
What an exquisite description of that part of the world. My husband and I did the Ixtapa trip about 10 years ago, had a beautiful time, and I enjoyed reliving the descriptions of some of the foods we had that were similar. Thank you Chef.
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