Chocolate Notes from Mexico

Cocoa Pod Painting

Cocoa Pod Painting in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

During recent travels, I had the chance to stop in Puerto Vallarta for some relaxation thanks to some frequent flyer miles.  When we arrived and plopped our bags down in the bedroom of  our rental, we were greeted by a giant painting of cocoa pods by Mexican artist David Villasenor.   Even though we were far away from southern Mexico where cocoa is cultivated, I couldn’t help but to start thinking about chocolate.

In Search of a Molinillo

Molinillos for frothing hot chocolate

My first quest was to find a molinillo or two.  A molinillo (mol-ee-nee-yo) is a Mexican whisk  used to make a frothy Mexican style hot chocolate.  They are also used to froth other traditional Mexican foods such as Atole and Champurrado.   Atole, a comfort food found throughout Mexico and Central America, is a thick mixture of corn flour (more like masa), water, raw sugar, cinnamon and vanilla.  Champurrado is an atole made with chocolate and often drunk in the colder months around Christmas or the Day of the Dead.   I’ll put up a Mexican hot chocolate recipe after I return to my home in the snow and have a time to whip some up, but for now, let’s say that the you can use your favorite drinking chocolate blocks or powder in warm (not boiling) milk and whisk away.

The search started at a rustic market place, a collection of separate stalls meeting a common courtyard.  Arriving at 5:01 in the afternoon, I found most of the stalls were gated up including the one with the molinillos – I could see them inside the iron gate just beyond my reach.  The sour grapes effect kicked in immediately as I decided they looked a little rough and a little dusty, so I skipped this place and asked the locals for another recommendation.  They directed me to a pottery and craft shop at the opposite end of the Malecon.  The thought of a  45 minute walk relegated this option to my backup plan.  Finally, I found a local craftsman who had fashioned some elaborate molinillos with three rings and adornments burned into the wood.  After some negotiation, I bought a few and considered the mission accomplished.  If you go shopping for molinillos, look for these two features to ensure it’s functional:

  1. The rings should move around on the shaft.  If they don’t then it’s probably just a decorative piece sold to tourists.  There could be anywhere from one to three rings – as long as they spin, you’re good.
  2. There should be holes in the largest cylindrical piece at the bottom.  Even if the holes are small and slit-like, as is the case with mine, that’s fine, but they should be there to properly aerate the hot chocolate.  Some genuine molinillos don’t have holes, but they work better if they do.

Note: you can buy a Molinillo on line at NewLeaf Chocolates.

Although it’s not essential, it’s best if there are holes in the bottom piece.

The rings should spin. This molinillo has three dark rings.

Next, I went for some Mexican drinking chocolate.  Since I didn’t have a car, I tried the supermarket and was a little disappointed to find that the one brand adored by most Mexicans as a favorite childhood memory, was now owned by Nestle.  I bought it anyway since it was still made in Mexico after all.  Let’s say that it’s super sweet, but my kids really liked it (I’m not mentioning the brand because I’ve decided not to do a full review).  If you’re in search of top Mexican chocolate, it can be found, but you’ll have better luck close to the source in Oaxaca.  In this southern state, you can expect to find a rustic, coarse style of chocolate.  If it’s fine chocolate you seek, you can try Mexico city.  I did find a small artisan chocolate shop in PV less than five minutes from where we stayed: Xocodiva.  I’ll write about it in my next post.

Recommendations for Puerto Vallarta

If you plan to stay in PV, we recommend that you stay in the Zona Romantica which is the oldest part of the old town south of the Cuale river. With its dusty cobblestone streets and unpretentious shops and restaurants, it’s as raw and real as it gets in a tourist town.  If you want something more squeaky clean and polished, then stay in the Hotel Zone north of downtown and taxi into town for a few dollars when you get the urge.

Where to Stay in Puerto Vallarta

Playa Los Arcos Hotel– a full service hotel in a great location on Playa Los Muertos.  Besides the beach, they’ve got a large pool and hot tub and a restaurant overlooking the beach.  The beach has waiter service as is common with all the hotels.  Get out to the beach before 10AM to get the best chairs.  Expect the place to be crowded on weekends (don’t expect the empty beach you see in the photos).

Los Arcos Suites – if you want to save a little money, you can stay one block off the beach and use the pool and all the other services at Los Arcos.  In 2009, my wife negotiated a rate somewhere south of $90 a night for a suite with a separate living room so that we didn’t have to sit in the dark after the kids were asleep.  There is a pool, but no restaurant or bar – you walk over to the main hotel for that stuff.  Honestly, it was just adequate.  The bathroom was tiny and the shower routinely flooded the floor.  The kitchenette had a tiny fridge and stove top.  On the other hand, there was a balcony large enough to eat on and watch the bustle on the street below.  We spent a lot of time on the beach, so it didn’t matter and we didn’t complain because we got what we paid for.

San Marino Hotel– has a good location and is rated highly online, but we’ve not stayed there.

Selva Romantica is a wonderful new condo complex at the top of the hill on Francisca Rodríguez about 2-3 blocks from the ocean with everything from studios up to two-bedroom units.  It has an infinity pool with a view out over the town and the bay as well as a hot tub and palapa for you to dine under.  If you don’t mind walking up and down the hill everyday, it’s a great place to get away from the noise on the streets below and enjoy a fantastic view.  Look for listings in PV rental sites.   Studios start around $100 a night in the high season.

There are also numerous other condos for rent in the area such as La Palapas.

Meza del Mar – this place looks pretty kid friendly although it is on the south end of the beach (Playa Los Muertos) so it’s both a little quieter and little further walk to the action.

Where to Eat in Puerto Vallarta

PV is definitely an inexpensive place to eat, but don’t expect dirt-cheap prices.  Well, you can buy all sorts of street food from the perpetual parade of peddlers on the beach such as skewers of mahi-mahi or shrimp, various fruits and, our favorite form of risky behavior: fish ceviche tacos.  All of this runs about $2-4 a serving.  The mahi-mahi skewers can be wonderful, but we recommend that you just walk up to the charcoal grilles on the beach and buy it right there – it’ll be fresher.  As for real restaurants, here are our recommendations:

Fajita Republic – Mexican.  The Fajitas Neptuna are awesome – an assortment of firm white fish, shrimp and a bit of lobster with all the usual suspects to pile on top: guacamole, cheese, cilantro, tomatoes, and sautéed onions.  You even have the option of corn tortillas – a plus for me.  The only downside is that the mojitos are incredibly weak.  In the Zona Romantica on Basilio Badillo.

Vitea – Oceanfront Bistro – on the Malecón. Their description of “European Riviera Cuisine” is pretty accurate – it feels like a typical European bistro with lots of Mediterranean influence.  I like that some dishes have small and large options so you can get an appetizer and a small plate if you want to eat a little lighter after a few days of cheese-fueled Mexican dishes.  The spicy mushroom bruschetta is great with the Triologi malbec/ merlot/ cabernet from Argentina.  We’ve enjoyed most everything we’ve had there.  This place is probably our favorite – you can’t beat sitting in the front row outside and watching the sun set over the bay as you dine.

Archie’s WokThai /Asian fusion.  The food rivals any Thai back home in Boston.  There’s no view, but the ambiance is nice enough (we’ve only done takeout). Get take-out and sit at the bar while you wait. The Mint Rain cocktail is a phenomenal, thick blend of Mango, coconut, mint and rum.  In the Zona Romantica near the pier.

La Dolce Vita – Italian. This place is as good as any decent Italian place in New York or Boston and if you can get a seat upstairs in the front, you might see the sunset over the bay.  There’s a large menu with a number of good seafood options such as the linguine with clam sauce. The octopus carpaccio salad is to die for.  You can get away with very affordable meal with their large selection of pizzas cooked in a wood burning oven.  Movie stills adorn the walls and the waiters are dressed in the classic black and white.  At first I couldn’t get over feeling that such a stereotypical Italian joint sitting on the Mexican coast somehow felt contrived, but is any other Italian place in the US or Canada any closer to Italy?  Just go with it and it’s all good.  On the Malecon.

If you want to cook at home, go to Rizzo’s market near the river.  It’s a large supermarket that accepts credit cards.  They also have beer and wine, but I’ve yet to find a wine in PV that I really like.  I think storage must be a problem.

Where to Eat Chocolate in Puerto Vallarta

There’s a relatively new shop called Xocodiva right in the Zona Romantica next to the San Marino Hotel.  They have truffles, drinking chocolate and bars.  This post is getting rather long, so later I will do a separate post on my visit there.

What to do in Puerto Vallarta

Art Galleries – definitely do the art walk every Wednesday from 6-10PM.

  • Galleria Dante – in the Zona Romantica on Basilio Badillo. A large gallery with both indoor and outdoor spaces.  We like the artist Brad Smith.  Closed Sat / Sun.
  • Galeria Uno – one block from the Malecon.  We really like the paintings by Manuel Adria.

Zip line Tour – We’ve done the Canopy El Eden tour up in the jungle near Mismeloya on The Predator movie set.  I highly recommend this tour.  It’s a well thought out, safe experience and the tour guides are a lot of fun.  Buy tickets at the beach through Vallarta Adventures or find their office in town.

For a most entertaining guidebook on PV, read “Puerto Vallarta on 49 Brain Cells a Day” by Gil Gevins, a local expat who gives a hilarious account of his many sordid experiences living in PV and Mexico in general.

If you have any questions about PV, please feel free to enter a comment or contact me.


One response to “Chocolate Notes from Mexico

  1. Pingback: The Early Recipes: Preparation and Consumption of Cacao as a Reflection of Reverence | Chocolate Class

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