From street food to gastronomy, the food in Puerto Vallarta is diverse and delicious—authentic Mexican, pulling from many regions. Traditional PV gastronomy got largely lost over the years, but there’s a movement among certain of the city’s best chefs to reintroduce it and get it officially recognized as part of Jalisco’s (the state Puerto Vallarta is in) heritage. Get to know this Mexican port city and you’ll see; certainly it has great seafood, but there’s more to the menu than that.
Smoked marlin tacos are a must-try, featuring the flavorful big-game fish that these waters are famous for, simply piled on a fresh corn or flour tortilla with perhaps some crunchy veggies or salsa.
Where to find it: Locals and visitors agree that Mariscos el Guero (corner of Avenue Francisco Madero at 296 Col Emiliano Zapata) in Old Vallarta just off the Malecon serves some of the best in the city—as well as other seafood signature bites like marlin-stuffed chilea.
Another typical local bite, Pesacado en barazado, this translates to “pregnant fish” but is actually fish on a stick. (It’s a Spanish-language pun…don’t ask.) Usually it’s made from marlin or a small-ish local shark. The preparation is so simple—meant to enhance a perfect piece of just-caught fish. It’s roasted over coals or wood embers with lemon slices on top.
Where to find it: If you dare, order this traditional takeout favorite from one of the food vendors on Los Muertos Beach in Old Town. The fancier ones might even have a table on the beach where you can sit while you eat your fish off the stick, like it was a shish-kebab.
This rich slow-cooked meat can be similar to stew or more like barbecue, depending on the recipe. It appears in typical holiday feasts in Jalisco, where every family has their own generations-old recipe.
Where to find it: Birria Los Robles is a no-frills taco stand in the Romantic Zone that’s known to have the best birria tacos in the city and is located at Calle Constitucion 264, between L. Cardenas and Carranza.
There are a few typical white cheeses in Mexico. This is not one of them. It’s much better, if you like decadent food experiences. It is actually Mexican caramel sauce, made with goat’s milk and lashings of cinnamon. You may know it by its other name: dulce de leche.
Where to find it: If you’re only in port a day, the bakery/specialty sweet shop Dulces Tipicos Mexicanos (address: Plaza Caracol, Av. Los Tules 178, Local 207, Versalles) is a local favorite. Find the shop in the Zona Centro 3 blocks away from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
Shrimp is prepared every-which-way on the Mexican Riviera: raw, grilled, fried, in tacos… But this is a very regional way to serve the ubiquitous shellfish: in a tomato-based soup spiced with chile and cooked with hominy. There’s also a green version made with tomatillo.
Where to find it: El Arrayan Restaurant is a standout for all of its traditional Mexican gastronomy, including pozole. However, if you want a more basic version, closer to what people cook at home, head to Cenaduria Celia (Lazaro Cardenas #506) less than 10 minutes walking distance from the Malecon.
Another classic way to grill fish—this recipe calls for the whole fish to be split in half and served that way so diners can enjoy the tender flesh in the middle and the crispy, garlic rubbed and marinated skin. Many presentations also come with the same vegetable “fixings” you’re used to seeing on hamburgers.
Where to find it: Marisco’s Tinos is an absolute legend for this dish particularly. It has two PV locations—one at La Laguna and one on the Malecon, a 10-minute walk from Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
The coconut custard traditional of Puerto Vallarta has some similarities to flan or dulce de leche—specifically, the texture. However, it’s got a tropical flavor, not the vanilla-sugar taste of standard Mexican puddings. This is not a common dessert even in PV; it’s more of a throwback recipe.
Where to find it: At the acclaimed Gaby’s Restaurant, the chef strives to recover traditional PV gastronomy, including this as a dessert option.
This is not exactly a regional food, but one very talented baker (who has now brought on a couple others to meet demand) has sold enough of her dessert pies to land on nearly all must-try lists of PV’s most memorable foods. Even though she’s not actually IN Puerto Vallarta. Chelly makes her namesake Chelly’s Pies in the quaint beach town of Yelapa, about 20 minutes from the city. If you go on an excursion to this boat-up fishing village, look for a lady coming out to greet your boat the beach with pies on her head. Then, buy every different kind that she has.
If you like sweet refreshers like chocolate milk, iced chai or bubble tea, you should definitely try this local beverage. It’s a coconut juice-based drink sometimes flavored with almonds or walnuts. Not to be confused with the fermented alcoholic version sold in other cities in Mexico and South America.
Where to find it: Typically sold by tuberos on the Malecon.
Anyone with an interest in craft spirits should skip the tequila shots and instead look for raicilla – Puerto Vallarta’s own kind of mezcal. Actually, the flavor profile is even different from the Oaxacan spirit, though many people refer to it as “the other mezcal.” Made from fire-roasted agave, it’s sweeter and more herbal—and quite a bit harder to find. As moonshine is to whiskey, this spirit is to tequila: It used to be a home distilled favorite, with the unsophisticated profile to match, but as tequila is so mass market now, craft liquor aficionados are realizing that raicilla might be the hipster beverage they want.
Where to find it: El Arrayan has a good selection of this spirit, in keeping with its “best authentic regional Mexican culinary” reputation.
Note: If your preferred way of touring a city is via its cuisine, you may want to book an excursion with Vallarta Food Tours, a locally recommended tour provider that will get you straight to the city’s best restaurants for these dishes.