Byron Recommends: Vallarta Al Gusto

The first time I alighted on Puerto Vallarta was just over fifty years ago. I was a young hitchhiker (saw every spectacular corner of Mexico “by-thumb” in six unforgettable months of traveling) and Vallarta was all about its downtown with the Malecon and the cathedral and the relaxed, beach-side, arty lifestyle its major attractions.

Today’s luxurious Zona Romantica was a distant dream in those days, when that same district across the river was Vallarta’s poor barrio with posadas whose rooms cost about a dollar a night (to accommodate up to six hippies) and its beach- front a string of palapas and fish-fry stands.

I’ve been back here countless times since, and I’m quite resigned, even awed with the progress, not only by the renovated Zona, but also by the major hotel area, the Marina, the Nuevo, the super-markets, the fine airport, the world-class entertainments, the whole package. On the other hand, I like to be able to participate in all that, only when I’m in the mood. For my every-day, I prefer the timeless ambience of the city’s unchanged nooks and crannies, such as my current residence in an area just inland from the Mega.

Here’s how I describe it in the novel that I’m writing these days:

My neighborhood is called Primero di Mayo — named after Mayday, the Day of the Workers — its flowering-tree shaded streets nestled in a wondrous valley on the skirts of a mountain that is covered in jungle. It is an Ordinary district of an Extraordinary city.

Normal, everyday people live here, tranquil and respectful of each other, dressed for work in a rush weekday mornings and letting loose weekends in sexy clothes and street fiestas with loud music, tequila and even fireworks. There are many children in each family and dogs and cats and horses in corrals and chic- kens in coops behind the houses. It could be Anywhere, Mexico.

And yet, it’s only twenty minutes on the bus to the Extraordinary: Vallarta herself, the majestic bay, the endless turquoise pools, the sumptuous hotel rooms with parlor-size balconies extending over sapphire oceans, easy access to waterfalls and heavenly ponds and canopy- rides and snorkeling among technicolor fish, wall-to-wall art galleries, luxe restaurants, relentless partying, the perfume of tropical flowers commingled with Mexico’s signature earthy smell of flesh sizzling on charcoal, free-flowing cappuccinos, open buffets loaded with an extravagance of food: a paradise carved out of the jungle for hordes of sun-seeking vacationers — most in the glory of their “golden years” with some young-gay just for spice — a place to escape whatever mundane besets one’s circumstances back home, a place to sit back and be diverted.

In a resort-city such as this the ordinary becomes extraordinary, because it’s not even perceived to exist. It is off the map, and that’s what I like about it best. It’s never about my own anonymity; on the contrary. In as Mexican a surrounding as this my foreigner-presence is most conspi- cuous. All my neighbors know who I am, even if only a few can pronounce my name.

I have been a famous caterer of film shoots and know enough tricks to prepare salubrious, tasty meals wherever I am, as long as I have a working kitchen like the one in my current apartment. Of course, a chef is only as good as his/her ingredients, which is where Primero di Mayo really kicks in for me. In my immediate area I have a fully stocked, humanely priced fruit/ veg store and, just as important for a over of fish/seafood like myself, the Pescaderia Liz.

Deceptively compact, Liz is fully stocked with daily- fresh produce. The owners Mary and Oscar know me and my tastes well, and they go out of their way to accommodate me and my budget. They understand my fetish for bonita-tuna (which I prefer raw as a tartare topped with lime-dressed avocado), for the heftier variety of ocean prawns (in a garlic, three-citrus stir fry along with mushrooms), octopus (slow-boiled as sashimi, and just as scrumptious in a tomato-based pasta sauce) and, at least once a week, dorado (in a soup or, alternately, breaded-fried).

Thing is, even a star-chef (I was dubbed “the best” by Robert De Niro and “food god” by Jason Alexander) gets bored with cooking about twice a week, and when that happens I have a wide choice of affordable eateries minutes from my flat. I can go for superb fish tacos, the ubiquitous chicken (grilled or roasted), menudo on Sundays, two-course comida corida lunches any weekday, Guadalajara-style grilled meat tacos, even sushi.

What I enjoy most in the eating-out category is all the little impromptu “restaurants” that my neighbors operate out of their homes, with improvised seating and idiosyncratic hours. I love Signora Teresa’s pozole on Saturday afternoons and I’ve become addicted to the chorizo quesadillas of Signora Josefina on weekend nights, to recall just a couple of them.

There is no proper coffee bar in the barrio, so I make my own. On Sunday mornings I take my cuppa to the gate of my garden to watch the weekly amateur-league soccer game in the futbol field just across the alley. Most of the players are in their late-forties but they own the “moves” that they’ve been perfecting since they were toddlers.

It is especially great fun to watch a game that features the local Primero di Mayo team, which draws the atten- dance of all the locals who bring out their own chairs to sit around the edges of the field and cheer. And a superb celebration when our team wins, as they did last Sunday with a last minute goal, winning 3-2 (yay, team!).

Vallarta. Wonderful any way you serve it.

Byron Ayanoglu
Byron Ayanoglu is a writer of many hues. Memoirist, travel columnist, cookbook author, film-scenarist, playwright, restaurant reviewer, novelist. His most recently published novels are A Traveler's Tale and Fresh Blood, which followed Istanbul to Montréal (simultaneously published in a Turkish version); a memoir, Crete on the Half Shell (published in four languages; optioned for film); and a satirical romance Love in the Age of Confusion. Widely traveled, Byron speaks five languages and lives about forty miles north of Montreal.