“If we’re in Mexico, does the menu really have to say Mexican food?”
This from my very astute Kid Two while reading the offerings at Loreto’s La Palapa, a tourist destination-type restaurant conveniently situated between the ocean and the town square. I had a few menu questions of my own, like why are the chicken fajitas and chicken in mole sauce listed under “Fowls” instead of included with the Mexican offerings? And in that spirit, shouldn’t the beef shish kabob have been more properly labeled as “Turkish” instead of under “Meats?” And why didn’t they get someone to spell-check the English translations? – “garlinc” “snaper” and “chesse” all snuck by, preserved forever under laminating paper.
La Palapa was highly recommended by the expat sitting next to me on the plane, a golf-playing blonde of a certain age on her way back from taking care of some business back in Portland. I can picture her there – sunburned nose on a hot summer night, a table with a pitcher of margaritas and her three best friends – a reliable spot to laugh a lot and sing a little, a place to start the night with fresh ceviche and guacamole and end it with a couple of tacos and a plate of fries to soak up the booze.
Anyway . . .
I’m being a little snarky, but I get why people like the place. It’s got energy – mariachi music, splashed with color, and an awesome kitschy thatched palm roof – and the food was fresh and perfectly fine. It has to be tricky, trying to stay in business by catering to the whims of tourists. Based on what I see out in the world, we are an overwhelming fickle and finicky lot. In Loreto, restaurants like La Palapa and Mita Gourmet compensate with quite varied menus, designed to please the palate of any tourist that happens along. Fair game, considering the fierce competition for the tourist dollar, but it does make for some curious combinations; Mita’s menu sections are labeled soups, salads, chicken, steak, fish, shrimp, and specialties – in addition to one called “international” that highlights their spaghetti, teppanyaki, and chop suey dishes.
El Papagayo Cantando, just around the corner from Mita on the town square, has another interesting menu. They do away with any dividing sections at all, just a page labeled “Tapas” offering up an oddly meandering menu that wanders from entree to dessert to appetizer and back again. In order, they are: spaghetti, key lime pie, fried chocolate clams, shellfish paella, crab cakes, serrano ham, date, and goat cheese crostinis, bean and cheese burrito, smoked brisket burrito, goat cheese ravioli, coconut shrimp, jalapeño popper, chili, guacamole, crispy French fries, chile relleno with banana and cheese , quesadilla with tomato, garlic, and spinach, potato skins, sliced tomatoes with blue cheese, a romaine and blue cheese salad with raspberry vinaigrette, poblano chowder, french onion soup, roasted pepper and goat cheese panini, serrano ham panini, burger, and grilled fish sandwich, brisket sandwich, and finishing up with shrimp tostada.
But you know, we ate there twice – the corn and poblano chowder was so great the first night we wanted more. Plus, 13-year old Kid Two couldn’t get enough of the potato skins – something I had never made at home because they reminded me too much of after-work happy hour at Houlihan’s 25 or so years ago.
I really loved the places with more local flair – spots like Mexico Lindo y Que Rico, El Rey del Taco, and Asadero Super Burro – one note joints that served up just a few variations on the theme of northern Mexican fishing village cuisine. But I discovered when you’re traveling with four other people and need something for everyone, a something-for-everyone menu works perfectly.
And something-for-everyone can surprise you. Besides that corn chowder, El Papagayo also gave us he most remarkable item of the trip, and wasn’t even on the menu. When our totally easy-going, friendly server Juan brought our drink orders, he surprised us with an amuse-bouch sort of dish: flour tortillas brushed with olive oil and grilled, served with a small bowl of pineapple-jalapeno salsa. Fantastic. Surprising. Sublime.
“Oh, it’s really simple to make,” Juan assured us. “Just put some pineapple in your pot with some jalapeños. Add some water and cook it for a while. That’s all.” After a moment’s thought, he added, “It’s good with mango, too.”
I followed Juan’s recipe, experimenting at home a few times with both fresh and canned fruit and varying amounts of water, and a few surprises of my own. You can use either fresh or canned pineapple with equal success, but you really must use fresh, seeded jalapeños. Do not go overboard with the cardamom, but it really does bring the sweet and spice together. Here is is for you, a taste of Loreto in the form of a simple, perfect, sweet, hot salsa:
Pineapple and Jalapeño Salsa
- 4 cups fresh pineapple, peeled, cored, and cut into cubes OR
- 4 cups canned pineapple, unsweetened, with juice
- 3 fresh jalapeño peppers, washed, seeded, and cut into strips (don’t forget my pepper warning – cover your hands with plastic gloves when handling the peppers, or better yet, recycle old bread bags for this purpose. The capsaicin from the peppers stays on your hands for a while. Don’t itch your eyes!)
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp cardamom
Just put the pineapple, peppers, and water into a pot, bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for an hour. Add cardamom, cool, and puree in blender or with a food processor. That’s it!
I’ve used it on steamed tilapia, in tacos and burritos, and added it to canned tomatoes as a poaching liquid for chicken breasts. Keep refrigerated.