We’re back to city life these past couple weeks—in La Paz, and now in Mazatlan, which is our first stop on mainland Mexico and already a highlight of our cruise. With 650,000 people, it has the energy of a big city, set along a beach-lined bay with beautiful views of the Pacific coast.
Mazatlan’s famous El Faro is one of the tallest natural lighthouses in the world. (It’s built on a 500-foot-tall hill.)
As the port city closest to active gold and silver mines in the late 1800s, Mazatlan has loads of European influence. Germans established Pacifico Brewing here, and French architects designed many of the buildings in Old Mazatlan.
Historical facts are nice, but what we remember most about our city travels is the food (and the coffee, can’t forget the coffee). When we were in Berlin a couple years ago, we went on our first food tour. After adding Paris, Healdsburg, and now Mazatlan to our food tour list, we’re big fans.
Of course, it’s cool to eat at restaurants and food stands we never would have found ourselves. But what we love about food tours is how they leave us with a much greater appreciation for a city. The guides we’ve hired (all solo entrepreneurs) carefully craft their tours, with detailed explanations of why each stop is included and plenty of history lessons along the way. The tours are personal and the groups are small (our largest was eight people). They give us an intimate, local perspective, and a glimpse of the sense of pride they feel for their city—these things are hard to come by, unless we happen to have know someone living in the city we are visiting.
By now, we have high expectations for our food tours. Plus, I’ve accumulated a long list of questions about food culture in Mexico, and I was counting on Maaike at Flavor Teller to answer them. We signed up for her tour focused on Mazatlan’s central market, in hopes that I would learn helpful lessons for the rest of our journey south through Mexico.
How was it? In short, the tour was totally awesome and is a must-do if you are in Mazatlan.
Maaike started the tour by explaining a typical day of eating in Mexico:
- First breakfast (desayuno) is early and simple, usually coffee with some type of sweet pastry. Here’s a variety from the bakery in the market.
- Second breakfast (almuerzo), yes, second breakfast, what a glorious concept, is between 10am and 11am. Almuerzo is heartier, and that’s where dishes like chilaquiles, huevos rancheros, and in our case, menudo (beef soup), come in. As we walked toward the market, our first stop was Señora Conchita’s diner:
Conchita’s promises the best menudo in Mazatlan (“If you don’t like it, you don’t pay!”), and it is fantastic. This photo is before we topped the soup with onions, lime, jalapeño, and mint. You’ll notice the broth is clear, not red. In Mazatlan the menudo is made without chilis and eaten with bread instead of tortillas.
Do you know what part of the cow is used for this soup? The stomach! And what a great tasting stomach it was.
- Anyway, a late lunch (comida) is the main meal of the day, between 2pm and 3pm.
- Finally, a light dinner is eaten between 7pm and 9pm. It may be as simple as a milkshake or sandwich for some families.
This explanation solved so many mysteries for me. First, we’ve seen tons of restaurants that close at 6pm, and now we know why—lunch is their main meal! Similarly, we’ve wondered why some truly amazing restaurants are completely empty. Now we know it’s because our early dinner makes us their last customers, and we’re the only thing standing in the way of closing for the evening. Oops!
Walking through the market, Maaike pointed out the foods that make Mazatlan unique. Fresh seafood is everywhere in Mexico, but here the shrimp and marlin rule. This stand sold smoked marlin, and has been open since 1952.
Across the aisle, we sampled the gamut of Mexican cheeses. Helpful, because they all look the same: white and crumbly. Now we know the spectrum of saltiness and creaminess when we head to the grocery store.
This family, letting us sample smoked marlin dip (to die for!) is getting ready to transition their stand to the 4th generation.
The meat section of the market was remarkable. The cuts look pretty different than in the U.S., so I asked a lot of questions here too. Each company had the meat in these open coolers. It’s not a novelty in Mexico to use the whole animal, so you’ll see pig hooves, cow legs (the circular discs), and brains, along with more recognizable cuts like pork chops. The metal pan has the cow stomach (tripe) used for the menudo.
As we wandered, Maaike continued sharing fascinating details. Did you know the Mexican government regulates the price of tortillas? A fixed price ensures everyone can afford tortillas, which are part of every meal. Right now the price is set at 16 pesos per kilo, which is less than 1 US Dollar.
And then, Maaike solved my greatest mystery. I’ve been seeing this in the produce section of every grocery store. Do you know what it is?
It’s raw sugar cane, used to make Mexican coffee: boil water with sugar cane and cinnamon, add ground coffee, steep, then enjoy! (Mexicans love their sweets, so I’m sure they have other delicious uses for the sugar cane, too.)
We finished the tour with a pork shoulder torta (sandwich), a local Sinaloan soda (ToniCol, below), and some artisan ice cream.
See what I mean? Food tours are more than just a chance to eat and drink. They’re a unique opportunity to learn about places and cultures—lessons that are often in plain sight, but difficult for the visitor to understand. That’s why we love food tours, and why we’ll keep doing them in virtually every city we visit.
Finally, food tours are practical! When John and I went back to the market to buy a few of our new favorite foods, we still looked like a couple of dorky gringos. But at least we weren’t completely clueless.