Sitting under a shady thatched roof in an open-air restaurant on a wide beach, I'm enjoying a study in ceviche. A Mexican specialty of raw fish "cooked" in lime juice and served with green chilies and tender corn tortillas for wrapping, it's the sushi of the south – a light snack that's a refreshing antidote to the tropical heat. And here in San Blas, a traditional fishing village on Mexico's wild Pacific coast, the ceviche comes in many guises.
We start with the finely chopped local grouper, combined with bits of minced onion, jalapenos and tomatoes. It comes topped with guacamole to scoop up with crisp tortilla chips. Then there's the local specialty, aguachile, a ceviche made with delicious local shrimp marinated in sweet lime juice with spicy green tomatillo salsa and cooling chunks of cucumber, a particularly winsome combination of hot and cold.
San Blas, a two-hour drive north of the busy tourist hub of Puerto Vallarta, is a historic seaport, dating to the 1700s. Cathedrals and counting houses, built by the Spanish, are now just crumbling stone shells still surrounded by cannons on the high cliffs. But for the last 150 years, fishing has been the lifeblood of San Blas – local fishermen still supply the shrimp, mahi-mahi and tuna served in restaurants and resorts from Mazatlan to Acapulco. We actually smell the smoky mangrove fires of street-side fish vendors before we see them as we drive into town.
Fresh fish is sold in street markets and the popular grilled-fish dish, pescado zarandeado, is on the menu everywhere. Perch on a stool at a portable kiosk in the historic plaza, head to a fine hotel restaurant, or come to one of the many beaches that skirt the bay (where river estuaries thick with mangroves empty into the sea), and you'll be served incredible fish.
Las Islitas is just one of the many wide sandy beaches lined with outdoor, thatched roof restaurants. At Mysis 3, a spot at the end of the road, Pedro Garcia is busy seasoning a large snapper to lay across his makeshift grill. Basted with a spicy, garlicky butter flavoured with citrus and achiote paste, the zarandeado comes to the table garnished with sliced onions, tomatoes and oranges, smoky and juicy and ready to wrap in tortillas with a splash of Salsa Huichol hot sauce.
It's a seafood feast that starts with his crispy fish chicharrones – deep-fried strips of battered fish that mimic the usual crunchy pork cracklings (or pork rind) – and shrimp ceviche on tostadas. Perfect with an icy, long-necked Pacifico beer.
The scene is repeated throughout our stay in San Blas. Whether walking the streets around the historic square or exploring the wide beaches, there's always a place for a little ceviche snack and a fresh fruit juice or agua fresca.
At Hotel Garza Canela, the comfortable hotel run by chef Betty Vazquez and her siblings, the elegant Restaurant El Delfin serves intriguing guava and chili martinis and fine wines with an upscale menu. We especially enjoyed fish ceviche with oregano and serrano, and marinated shrimp with the fruity local guajillo chilies and orange sauce.
Ms. Vazquez says there's an ongoing debate about the origins of ceviche – Peruvians say they were the first to cook seafood in acidic citrus juices, but Mexicans "have a unique way with fresh fish and seafood" – adding cilantro, cucumber and avocado to the traditional combination of raw seafood, onions, chilies and lime or bitter orange juice.
But it's also the sweet freshwater shrimp found near San Blas than make the aguachile such a special treat.
La Cevicheria, a popular family-style restaurant in the capital of Tepic, is devoted to ceviche and the San Blas shrimp. The menu ranges from shrimp soup and shrimp pâté to tuna sashimi to tostadas topped with ceviche of snapper, smoked marlin, scallops and tuna. There's ceviche mixto verde of scallops and shrimp mixed with shredded apple and red onion, ceviche acapulqueno chopped small and mixed with tomato ketchup, and the local aguachile de camaron, with shrimp, serrano chiles, lime, avocado, cucumber and red onion.
Along with fish and seafood, corn is produced in the area, so fish tacos, gorditas with crispy pork carnitas, and a traditional shrimp soup thickened with corn flour are also on most menus. You'll even find delicious corn ice cream and street vendors selling the traditional fermented corn drink, tejuino.
It's a two-hour drive from San Blas to Nuevo Vallarta and we stay overnight at elegant Villa La Estancia, where chef Eugenio Villafana works wonders with raw food and has seven kinds of ceviche on the menu.
En route to the airport, there's just time for a final ceviche fish and we spot La Cevicheria's big shrimp statue next to a supermarket parking lot and veer off the highway. Like the main restaurant in Tepic, the menu is vast and we order a variety of different fish and shrimp ceviche with big glasses of cold beer.
The cured shrimp in the aguachile are as crisp and sweet as the cucumber, and the perfect foil to the burn of green chilies. We linger over each plateful, savouring the fresh flavours that will forever remind us of Mexico's Riviera Nayarit.
STAY, AND EAT
Hotel Garza Canela, San Blas: Run by chef Betty Vazquez and her siblings, this boutique hotel has a fine restaurant – easily the best in town. Garden suites, pool, great gift shop with works by local artisans, and connections with guides for birding expeditions. From $76 (U.S.). garzacanela.com
Casa Roxanna Bungalows, San Blas: Clean bargain bungalows, with pool and air conditioning. From $55 (U.S.). casaroxanna.com
Villa la Estancia, Nuevo Vallarta: Posh time shares along this new strip of hotels and condos – and young chef Eugenio Villafana who offers cooking classes and a very creative ($80) six-course menu. 1-888-844-8169. villagroupresorts.com
La Cevicheria: A fun family-style spot for shrimp, fish and ceviche of every kind. lacevicheria.com.mx
Special to The Globe and Mail