A Food Lover’s Guide to Mazatlán, Mexico

Plants and a cartful of colorful produce at the entry to El Meson

Plants and a cartful of colorful produce at the entry to El Meson

While there are many reasons to visit the coastal city of Mazatlán, the food is a major enticement, particularly if you’re a lover of fish and other seafood. Located next to the Sea of Cortez in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, Mazatlán is a true shrimp mecca. Aguachiles and ceviches, along with other shrimp and scallop dishes, are omnipresent, as are lobster, baked oysters, smoked marlin, and calamari.

A man sits on his horse on the street in El Quelite

A recent trip to the city known as the “Pearl of the Pacific” made it clear that another of Mazatlán’s most alluring characteristics is its authenticity—it wasn’t created for tourism, as some cities were in Mexico. Its growth has been organic for more than 500 years. The resorts in the Golden Zone are, of course, geared toward tourists, but the Centro Historico (Historic District) and the charming villages less than an hour from town are fascinating and not driven by tourism, giving a sense of the real Mexico.

View of the beach at Mazatlán’s Golden Zone

Learn to make some essential elements of Mexican cuisine in the tiny village of Puerta de Canoas, which has a population of just 300 inhabitants. Here you can hire a local villager, Doña Rosa, to teach you how to make salsa and tortillas. She first had us mash garlic with salt in a molcajete, then brought us some charred tomatoes and Serrano peppers to pound into the salted garlic. Though it used just four simple ingredients, the taste of the salsa was incredible. 

Salsa made with Doña Rosa, Puerta de Canos

Incidentally, Mazatlán and the rest of Sinaloa are known for their superior tomatoes—the local license plates even depict a plump tomato. Doña Rosa also showed us how she makes tortillas with masa harina. We constructed a remarkably simple yet delicious meal by tucking the salsa, a local fresh white cheese called jocoque, and guacamole laden with nopale (cactus) into the delicious hot tortillas, accompanied by a glass of homemade agua de Jamaica (hibiscus iced tea). Though I experienced far more elaborate food on this trip, this was one of the highlights, as each element was so fresh and well prepared.

The dining room at El Meson

A small town 40 minutes from Mazatlán, El Quelite is home to El Meson de Los Lauranos, one of the most visually stimulating restaurants you’re likely to visit. It’s not every day you bite into a lengua (tongue) taco while a chicken and rooster mate just a couple of yards from your table and ducks, a cat, and several peacocks strut around the premises. This expansive, mostly open-air eatery practically vibrates with color issuing from its bevy of caged green parrots, gorgeous textiles, and bougainvillea. It’s becoming quite a destination: Its avuncular owner, Dr. Marcos Osuna, told us, “Nobody visited this area till 15 years ago. But now people are making this a destination to try the foods of rural Mexico.” 

In El Meson de Los Lauranos, unlike most eateries in Mazatlán, you won’t find seafood. You will, however, find rural cuisine including roasted quail, numerous varieties of tasty roasted meats tucked into tortillas hand-made on the premises, creamy artisanal local cheeses, and barbecued goat. You’ll also find a great assortment of regional desserts, such as burnt milk pudding, calabash squash conserves, and arroz con leche. 

Various meats and local stews at El Meson

El Quelite is a quiet town, and that’s part of its charm. It has an old Mexico feel to it: adobe houses, cobblestone streets, a church dating back to the mid-19th century, a tiny leather shop where I bought a perfect locally made belt for just $12, kids and adults alike astride horses and burros, and no tourist shops.

Patio at El Presidio

Located in the Centro Historico, El Presidio is a gorgeous restaurant offering the most elegant, trendy, and sophisticated food and atmosphere I experienced during the entire trip, A true hidden gem, El Presidio isn’t easy to find, as it’s discreetly tucked away within a house dating back to 1870 that’s been transformed into a massive courtyard restaurant that feels both traditional and modern. Abundant with trees and featuring a pair of fishponds, the magical space, flickering with candlelight, is perfect for a romantic date. The mixology program is impressive, while the elevated Mexican cuisine here includes hamachi sashimi, octopus tostadas, duck burritos, and roasted chicken glazed in vanilla and chipotle and served on a bed of asparagus.

Aguachile at El Presidio

If you like the idea of breakfasting on shrimp chilaquiles and fruit-topped homemade horchata, you’ll want to try Panama Restaurant and Bakery or El Shrimp Bucket, two beloved local spots with ocean views and scrumptious local dishes including “Divorced Eggs” (two fried eggs, one topped with green salsa and one with red, separated by a row of refried beans and tortilla chips) and fresh-baked pastries. 

Shrimp chilaquiles at Panama Restaurant

If you love tequila, you should visit La Vinata de los Osuna, a 40-minute drive from Mazatlán. This blue agave distillery (they can’t legally call it tequila as, by law, that designation applies only to Jalisco-made blue agave) dates back to 1876 and produces three delicious varieties of its award-winning Los Osuna blue agave liquors: Anejo (aged in top-quality oak barrels for 12 to 18 months), Reposado (aged in oak for three to 11 months), and the un-aged Blanco. You can tour the factory, taste the three liquors, and buy a bottle to take back with you, as Los Osuna is still hard to find in the US. 

The green grounds of Los Osuna Distillery

Another distillery very much worth checking out is Onilikan. Located in the tourist-friendly Golden Zone, it’s easy to get to this four-year-old artisanal liquor company that sells its own premium blue agave products. You’ll find a wide variety of flavors in this beautiful, colorful storefront that also houses its German-made still and a well-edited culinary gift shop. Try free samples from the wide range of flavored liquors and liqueurs, such as moonshine and hibiscus liqueur. The mango liqueur is particularly noteworthy. Each bottle is made with several pounds of mango purée, giving it an intensely fruity, pure flavor. The licor de café was my favorite, so much so that I took a bottle home with me. Don’t forget to delve into the aforementioned gift shop, which sells such tasty morsels as chocolate-covered bacon and Oaxacan mole infused with mango liqueur. 

Bottles lined up for liquor tasting at Onilikan

Beer choice is definitely a reflection of regional pride. Locally bottled Pacifico is the cerveza of choice for the locals, most of who, I was told, wouldn’t be seen with a Corona in their hands.  

Guava-topped horchata at Panama Restaurant

As far as non-alcoholic drink choices, try horchata topped with fresh fruit, particularly guava or tamarind, or cocochata, a coconut-infused horchata. Another popular local drink is ToniCol, a locally produced vanilla soft drink.

To get around town, you could take an ordinary taxi, but why do that when a pulmonia is so much more charming? These open-air vehicles, similar to golf carts, are unique to Mazatlán. Drink a Pacifico (yes, it’s legal to drink while riding) and enjoy the great views and ocean breezes while your driver blasts the music of your choice. 

Deer statue next to Mazatlán’s Malecón

You’ll want to walk along the charming palm-tree lined Malecón, the longest boardwalk in the world. The liveliest part of the Malecón is in the historic district, which is teeming with food vendors and a fish market on the sand.

Food vendor along the Malecón

If you’d like a local to show you around—particularly helpful if you plan to explore the nearby villages and towns—a company such as Pronatours can assign a well-informed guide (my group traveled with Julio, a kind, knowledgeable local) to check out the sights and give insider info while you ride around in an air-conditioned car or van.