Fun in Acapulco

Elvis Presely in Fun in Acapulco, 1963

Everybody goes on vacation once in a while, even food writers from the big city. With a light heart and a backpack I set off on an expedition to uncharted waters: Acapulco. In over thirty years of travel in Mexico, I’d never been to that fabled land of fun and sun. I avoided what I assumed would be a tacky, vulgar, ruined place. My mother, artist Esther Gilman, waxed poetic over its sandy shores. The story went that she and a hunky Italian lifeguard named Johnny had traveled there but had a big fight. My mother had forgotten the name of her hotel and wandered for hours, Spanish-less through the streets. She found her lodging and made up with the boyfriend. Upon returning to New York, she met and married my father, a skinny bespectacled Jewish intellectual. This was in 1947. She never went back to Acapulco but always extolled its virtues and insisted I go: “It’s so beautiful…” she would say, not realizing that things had changed in 40 years. Moral of the story, I figured, is that anyplace you go with an Italian stallion looks good.
Sadly, time has not been kind to Aca’s sandy shores. The powers that be have done little to conserve the loveliness of this spectacular natural spot. Rocky virgen bays are overlaid with leprous-looking commercial spread. Shameless, avaricious hucksterism has begotten endless chain stores, repetitive tacky tourist gee-gaw shops and over-built hotels. An enormous government building, plopped in the middle of the once graceful ‘costera’, which runs along the sea, is a real eyesore that is “swallowing our money” as one taxi driver put it to me.
News of wars between angry narco gangs emanates with alarming regularity. Heads roll. So why, you ask, would anyone go? I wondered too, as B. and I set off on the five hour trip in Estrella de Oro’s finest ‘Diamante’ autobus, visions of Buñuel’s Mexican Bus Ride dancing in my head. But I was curious to see this iconic Mexican vacation spot about which I’d heard so many mixed reviews. Thoughts of fresh fish propelled me. And Elvis slept here!
Greenish brown undulating country gave way to dark and jagged mountains, scarred peaks soaring until they blended with gray-blue misty skies. Then, in a few ear-popping minutes we descended to sea level and coconut palms began to wave at us, friendly tropical hosts. I could smell the sea air through the sealed bus windows – or so I thought.
We arrived in downtown Acapulco, to a shrill, messy area somewhere behind the market. Instead of tropical perfume, exhaust fumes seared my nostrils as I stepped outside. My heart was sinking as we boarded a taxi whose price we had to haggle down to take us to our hotel. But things started to look up when we got to Hotel Boca Chica in Caleta, the old part of Acapulco (I always go for the old, whenever possible). The Boca Chica - http://www.hotel-bocachica.com/ - is a retro gem, whose tiled mural facade was featured in the opening credits of Elvis Presley’s eponymous - to this article - 1963 classic film (a clunker to some critics). It has recently been restored/renovated to its original stylish fabulousness.
Comfortable 21st century all-white rooms are punctuated with mid-century modern furniture and knick-knacks from the best DF antique shops. Cute white clad workers scurry about offering everything ‘vacation’, from Margaritas to massages. The lozenge shaped pool surrounded by ‘50’s woven chaises beckons. And best of all is the view, visible from the ample terraces of all the rooms. This, after all, is ‘old’ Aca, and there isn’t an ugly building in sight, just those breezy palms, lazy bananas, craggy, rocky bays, and the sea. Next-door is La Caletilla, a beach ‘popular’ in the Mexican sense –happy families recline, frolic, imbibe soft drinks, eat boiled shrimp and oysters. At night, the empty (and surprisingly clean) sands are home to a few joint-smoking fishermen back from a hard day’s work.
I was happy to check in here and never wanted to leave, but I was hungry, and food’s my business. So we headed out to explore.

El Amigo Miguel
This seafood classic, with four locations around town, just about sums up Acapulco’s comida típica, the standard marine preparations offered all over Mexico : ceviches, cocktails, fried and sautéed filets, lots of salsa, lots of catsup. No surprises, but good fresh fish.
The standout at Miguel’s is the ceviche Acapulco style. Catsup, usually not my favorite ingredient, fills out the sauce, but here it is used discriminately, and imparts an appealing hint of sweetness; the fish is obviously fresh.
Here’s my recipe, the way I think it should be done:

Ceviche Acapulqueño
The fish
750 gm. (3/4 lb) huachinango (red snapper) or sierra (mackerel) filets cut into 1 cm (1/2”) dice
(in Mexico, your fish monger will do this for you free of charge). Here I like to sterilize the fish in a strong solution of the same drops you use on your vegetables. Elsewhere, you can use a couple drops of chlorine, or buy very good fish for sushi and forget it.
For the marinade:
1 medium (Spanish) onion, finely diced
2 fresh jalapeños (or to taste) finely diced
3 firm plum tomatoes, seeded (but not peeled) and chopped into ¼” dice
3 tb. each chopped cilantro and parsley
½ cup catsup
¾ cup fresh orange juice
¼ cup lime juice
a large pinch dried Mexican oregano
1 ts finely grated orange rind
1 ts Tabasco sauce (optional)
1 ts salt

Combine marinade ingredients in a glass or high-fired ceramic bowl at least a half hour in advance. Fold in fish and marinate for about an hour (a little more for huachinango, less for sierra). Serve in small dishes with home-fried tostadas. Alternatively, small cooked shrimp can be used but these don’t have to be marinated for more than a few minutes.
We also tried Miguel’s pescado a la talla. But Maria Cristina’s was better (see below).

Pie de la Cuesta: Bungalows Maria Cristina
Pie de la Cuesta is a natural, unspoiled beach area about a half hour’s drive from the city. One day, we commandeered a taxi to take us. The nearly empty beach is peppered with thatched palapas and a few rustic bungalows. There are very few vendors, few people at all.
We settled into old-fashioned wooden beach chairs under the first inviting palapa we saw and sat sipping icy beer, chatting with passing shrimp vendors and small beach boys
who should have been in school. Then we had Maria Cristina, owner of the place, prepare us another Pacific classic: pescado a la talla. This is a whole fish splayed open, slathered with an ‘adobo’ or chile mixture, then grilled. It was perfectly smoky, the deep red chile just spiky enough not to overwhelm the perfectly succulent fish. The rolling waves, warm caressing breeze, heady sea air and lazy mood of the place made it taste even better. We tried to take a bus back to town but the bus ran out of fuel after 5 minutes and we had to hitch a ride. Best to arrange transportation with a taxi. Or stay the night. But B. wanted to go dancing.

Restaurante Bar El ZorritoCostera Miguel Alemán 212
Acapulco is located in the state of Guerrero and pozole is the region’s signature dish. It always seems to cool down enough at night for a bowl of hot soup, so we headed to El Zorrito, on the costera. Red, green or white pork-based chilli and hominy laden pozole was being consumed left and right. My favorite is the pumpkin-seed thickened green version, hard to find in the capital. We ate surrounded by happy local families and strolling mariachis. A few European tourists peered in curiously, then headed off to the foreigner-friendly Señor Frog’s down the street. Their loss.

Don’t be a drag, be a queen
Market food is always the best and the main Mercado Municipal is bustling with fresh fish – I wished I had brought my freezer bag to take home some of the freshest looking sardines I had ever seen. Closer to home base, we chose to lunch at the Fonda Amayrany in the middle of the small market near Caletilla beach. It’s an ordinary fonda ubiquitous throughout Mexico. What makes the difference here is the fact that this one is run by a group of transvestites. The gals will fry up a nice milanesa, fish or chicken filet, or prepare a plate of enchiladas. Simple is better in this kind of setting so I chose a filete de pescado al mojo de ajo. It was done to garlicky, crispy perfection. A family with several small children was our only company, and they seemed not to notice nor to care that these lady’s were not.
We thought we’d return for breakfast the next day, but found the stand closed. “Drag queens aren’t morning people,” ‘B’ speculated.

Diego Rivera designed this mural for collector Dolores Olmedo's house in the fifties

So with a tanned torso and a torta in hand I boarded the bus for the journey back to Mexico City while B. stayed on to look at several ‘50’s beach houses he wants to buy. Acapulco, ultimately, doesn’t try to be what it isn’t. There’s no pseudo-colonial architecture like in Puerto Vallarta. It’s either still-here retro (the best part), or in-your-face unapologetic new. I like the contrasts– big city gaudiness vs. natural beauty; urban energy vs. provincial slow pacing; tourist-town hawking vs. small-town friendliness. It's clean. The weather's always nice. And it's a few hours from the biggest city I know. There’s no culture here, well not the kind with a capital ‘C’, anyway. And gastronomy is too big a word for the food in this working class city whose brow stays low. But I never once felt the sinister mafia-tinged aura I feared. “The crime doesn’t affect tourists” I was assured from all sides. I'll stay away from weekends and Easter week. But I’ll be back.

The author at work
A note to my Mexico City readers: Don't fail to check out the Mercado de 100, this Sunday (May 29) from 9:30-2:30 in the Plaza Rio de Janeiro, Colonia Roma, under the plump naked David.