Sayulita, Haven of Coastal Mexican Food

schneider mar26 mexico.jpg

Photo by Sally Schneider

Sayulita, Mexico, about 35 miles north of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast, is an odd mix of fishing village, surfer paradise, and tourist haven. Its central industry is catering to the various gringos who come from the States, Canada, and Europe to revel in its perfect climate, spectacular beaches, and palpable feeling of liberation -- the latter inspired by minimal clothing and being away from one's life during the cold, shut-in months of Northern winter.

Despite its status as a tourism boomtown, Sayulita remains pretty rough-and-tumble. Doses of "real" are to be found everywhere, if you're game, in tiny restaurants and impromptu stands manned by enterprising home cooks. One such source offers boiled corn, cut off the cob and mixed in a paper cup with salt, sour cream, and a squeeze of lime. At another, you'll find wedges of eggy homemade flan, or rice pudding. Everywhere there are soft tacos made a la minute, with pork, marlin, shrimp, and, often, birria -- stewed goat in a rich, red chile-based sauce.

We gobbled fresh oysters recently pulled from the sea, with a squeeze of tiny, fragrant Mexican lime, and some hot sauce -- a heartening start to our week there.

Driving into town our first day, we passed a family sitting under a tree on plastic chairs, around a table piled high with oysters. Nearby, on a makeshift grill, sandwiched between metal racks, a splayed whole fish was cooking. Unsure whether the oysters were just for private consumption, we called out, "Are you selling those oysters?" "Si," said the man with an oyster knife. He smiled, walking over to our van. "Would you like some?"

We gobbled fresh oysters recently pulled from the sea, with a squeeze of tiny, fragrant Mexican lime, and some hot sauce -- a heartening start to our week there.

In Sayulita, the makeshift is often a good guide for real local food. On a riverbank, away from the touristy bustle of the central plaza, we came upon a Mexican woman cooking on an inventive wood-fired grill-cum-flat-top-stove, rigged out of loosely placed bricks, stones, and metal parts repurposed from other appliances.

schneider mar26 mexico2.jpg

Photo by Sally Schneider

Steak, halved chickens, an onion, and some chilies sizzled on a grill set over wood coals. A sheet of iron served as a griddle to warm tortillas, cactus paddles and pots of menudo, a tripe stew traditionally served on Sunday for family gatherings. A pot of birria was kept warm on hot bricks in one corner of the stove: a perfect bain marie.

This was the kitchen of a small restaurant -- four or five tables under a palm frond roof. We sat at one in view of a workstation made from a folding table, where another cook fed fat kernels of dried corn, soaked overnight in water, into an ancient hand-crank meat grinder. It was attached to a rough motor that whined from the hard work of grinding the tough kernels into a fine dough for tortillas. This was then rolled into balls, flattened in a press, and cooked on the griddle, producing handmade tortillas for each order. "Makeshift as a guide" proved true.

Corn With Crème Fraiche, Lime, and Chili
Soft Tacos With Roasted Meats

Presented by

Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Health

From This Author

Just In