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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.

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.

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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

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