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Archive for January, 2011

Artist in ZihuaZihuatanejo is a bustling town of 120,000 in the state of Guerrero on Mexico’s southwest coast. It started as a sleepy fishing village, but it’s been discovered by tourism and sports fishing, and now it’s a lively spot, at least in the sunny winter months.  Here are my top ten favorite activities there (other than basking on the sand), recommended though not necessarily in order of preference:

1. Stroll the walkway on the marina, where fishermen display the morning catch, restaurants serve grilled seafood on the beach, and shops sell a thousand kinds of souvenirs, not all of them tacky.

2. Browse the Mercado Central off Avenue Juarez. It’s a huge covered market selling fruits, vegetables, honey, vanilla, meats, cheese, chicken feet, purses, shoes, clothing and much more. This is a glimpse of local life. Look for the Virgin of Guadalupe statue, and the tree growing through the ceiling. The nearby outdoor stalls along Los Mangos and Los Tamarindos are interesting, too.

3. Buy a fresh, sweet papaya the size of 2 footballs, right off the truck.

waterfront walk, Zihuatanejo to Playa la Madera4. Walk the curving waterside stone path between town and the next beach, Playa La Madera. It’s lighted and has inset benches along the way. There are lovely views of the bay and even a mermaid on a rock.

5. On Playa La Madera, sit at an umbrella table on the sand at La Bocana, formerly M.J. and Richie’s, and munch on their good guacamole and chips. Maybe include a cold beer with lime and salt, perfect in 80-degree weather.

6. Borrow, buy or rent a boogie board and ride the mostly gentle waves.

7. Dine well at Bistro del Mar on Playa La Madera. The food is expensive for this area but excellent, and the service top-notch.

8. Hang out on Playa La Ropa, the much bigger beach beyond.Zihuatanejo beaches This is the place for parasailing, jetskiing, and other water sports, and there are numerous hotels and worthy restaurants. The Tides and Club Intrawest are pricey, but the food is worth it.

9. Buy a souvenir from one of the vendors in the myriad stalls on Cinco de Mayo, at the north end of town. Mingled with a lot of junk and t-shirts are some beautiful things; I’m partial to the painted plates. It’s fun just to gawk at the array.

Eric Reid  guitarist, Zihuatanejo10. Learn where Eric Reid is playing guitar in or near Zihuatanejo and go to hear him. He is a terrific musician, a virtuoso.

A final extra: tip generously. These are hard-working people, and the economy is tough here, too. They appreciate it.

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Zihuatanejo Bay, on Mexico’s west coast, is scalloped with beaches.  Ours, Playa La Madera, is so small I can walk its distance, from one rocky outcropping to another, in less than 5 minutes. But it’s big enough to have clusters of busy hotels and 3 restaurants, and luckily for us, one is outstanding.

La Bocana, MJ & Richie's, Playa la Madera

Starting at the north end, we have our old hangout, MJ & Richie’s, now called La Bocana (still has the MJ & R sign though). Rafael, who ran the place for years, has left, which we lament because that sweet, friendly man always had something from his great jazz collection playing. The food is still good, though not as good as when Rafael was here (or maybe it was the music and his charm that made it so). The tortilla soup is bland unless you pour hot chili sauce into it, but chicken fajitas and grilled mahimahi are just right with a frosty beer. We sit at an umbrella table on the sand and lazily watch the beach action while we enjoy a Mexican lunch at a reasonable price. Plus the service is ultra-quick.

At the south end of Playa La Madera is La Rena Rene, serving tortillas, tacos, grilled shrimp, quesadillas–a full menu of decent, unexceptional Mexican food, in my opinion.  You’re right on the beach, though, so the setting and view are perfect.

Between the two is Bistro del Mar, connected to Hotel Brisas del Mar.  This is where we go when we want something special and are prepared to pay accordingly. The tortilla soup, served in a large, tilted bowl, is a rich red broth with crisp tortilla strips, avocado slices, cheese, onions, and sour cream. Mahimahi with shrimp sauce, Caesar salad, sweet-and-sour jumbo shrimp in tequila–they’re all wonderful.  This is as close as La Madera gets to elegance. We dine on linen-covered, candlelit tables under a swooping, tent-like roof, drink sauvignon blanc wine from Chile, and are served by expert waiters.  And because this is a beach, after, all, we have first stepped out of our flip-flops and washed our feet in the little pool set into the entrance steps.

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view from Pacifica Grande resortJose greets us with a smile after we’ve gone through the Immigration and Customs routine in the airport. We’re headed for a taxi to our hotel when he says, “Hola, amigos!” and offers to reimburse the cab cost and give us a free brunch if we’ll visit his resort. Jose has that friendly Mexican charm, the authentic kind, and we say sure, why not. Then he tells us he needs $10 to reserve our table.

In times past, we’d have said no thanks and shrugged it off as another scam, an easy way to lose ten dollars. But now, after a great many travels, we’ve grown more trusting. You might think it would be the opposite because there are lots of scammers in the world, but we have learned that most people aren’t out to cheat us. And experience has taught us to trust our instincts.  So John gives Jose a ten-dollar bill and he hands us a piece of paper and says he’ll pick us up on Tuesday morning. Adios, Jose. We’ll see what Tuesday brings.

Zihuatanejo, on Mexico’s west coast, was once a sleepy fishing village and now is a sizable town that caters to tourists but retains its own character and busy life. Fishermen still bring the catch of the day to the beach for their customers to inspect.  We’re staying above a beach south of town, Playa la Madera, in a pleasant room with a kitchen on the terrace and a partial view of Zihuatanejo Bay. We’ve left the cold gray drizzle for a sunny beach and fresh papayas every morning. Perfection.

 It’s Tuesday. John and I go down to the road and see no sign of Jose.  But I know he’ll be there, and sure enough, a few minutes later he rolls up in a white van and drives us to the far arm of the bay, where a new resort sits against a high hill. Jose’s English is better than many Americans’–he lived in the U.S. for awhile, he says.  In the resort’s restaurant we’re seated with another affable guy who tells us of the wonders of the place and then says, “Let’s go for the important stuff. The buffet.” So we eat an excellent breakfast as we gaze over the lovely bay, sparkling in the sun, dotted with sailboats.

We knew this jaunt would come with a tour and a sales pitch; that’s always part of a time-share promo. No problemo. I’m a travel writer and always interested in seeing what’s new. The rooms are well-designed, the architecture striking, the views outstanding.  The place is only partially finished, but it’s beautiful.  They’ll make us a great deal if we buy a week a year for 30 years (not that I’ll be around in 30 years, but they’ll negotiate). No? How about an even better deal, one we couldn’t possibly pass up?

Zihua streetThe one thing the genuinely nice salesman can’t understand is that it’s not about the money. Sorry, it’s just not our style, we say, thinking of our little place where laundry hangs on the roof across the street and the Virgin of Guadalupe stands in a niche surrounded by Christmas lights. Beer bottles and plastic flowers are close by a riot of red and white bougainvillea cascading over a wall, and the dusty shop on the corner sells neatly wrapped garlic heads for 80 cents apiece. And we’re a 3-minute walk from the beach. No contest.

Unfailingly polite, they give us back our $10, plus the $36 we paid for the taxi from the airport, playa la maderathank us for coming and wish us well. They are puzzled though: why don’t these crazy Americans want luxury like this at a good price? Isn’t it always about money? We don’t see Jose again. Maybe we’ll pass him in the airport and say “hola.”

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capellini at kuletos san franciscoMy other two favorite SF restaurants have been around awhile, and they never fail to please. Even ordinary dishes like pasta with marinara sauce are served with flair and a twist. It’s lunchtime again, and we’re munching excellent Italian food in Kuleto’s, in the Villa Florence Hotel near Union Square.  A simple plate of capellini, crammed with tomatoes and garlic, is perfect. More unusual is the grilled radicchio with pancetta,radicchio kuletos san francisco which looks like a burnt hedgehog but is delicious.

Kuleto’s light, pretty room has a casual but sophisticated atmosphere, a nice spot to meet friends over a meal and whatever wine the waiter recommends. The service is excellent; our waiter is happy to oblige all requests, friends at kuletos sfincluding taking our picture.  Fun facts: 1) Kuleto’s was once a go-go bar, and the dancing girls’ pedestals still stand in the front window. 2) Outside the entrance is a time capsule that was filled when the Villa Florence was built in 1986, the year Halley’s comet last appeared. The capsule will be opened when the comet comes around again–in 2061. I will likely miss that event.

Here’s my fourth choice (I don’t mean by preference, just one more great spot) for special dining during a long weekend by the Bay: Cafe de la Presse, downtown on Grant Avenue.  Under new management since 2005, it’s a French-style bistro serving French food and wines from Europe and California. It would feel right at home in Paris.  I’m nibbling sea bass, tasting the duck confit with mushrooms, and chevre salad cafe de la pressesavoring a green salad with chevre cheese on toast. The final touch is melt-in-the-mouth creme brulee.  The Cafe is said to serve terrific breakfasts; next time I’m in The City, I’ll try one.  Unique to Cafe de la Presse is its collection of international literature. The racks hold 200-plus foreign magazines and newspapers. international magazines, cafe de la presse

All four of the restaurants I’ve mentioned are expensive, and the credit card is taking a beating. “But this is San Francisco,” the taste buds whine, and they win. I can go back to rice and beans when I’m home.  I’m already looking forward to the next SF visit and checking on more places that please the senses.

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I don’t come to the City by the Bay only to eat, but it’s a dandy reason to stay awhile. So here I am, starting with a lunch of outstanding Vietnamese food  in The Slanted Door. A few raindrops slide down the wide windows, giving a watery view of the Bay Bridge and ferries chugging back and forth, while we feast on grilled tiger prawns, rice noodles with chicken and broccoli, and other delectables. Plus several glasses of Sauvignon Blanc. Our waiter, Sam, has again steered us in the right direction.

The Slanted Door is in the restored Ferry Building by the Embarcadero. It seats 150 people, plus 44 more on the heated patio, and it’s always packed (we reserved a table 4 weeks ago). Executive Chef grilled tiger prawns, slanted door SFCharles Phan and his collaborators know what they’re doing, serving fabulous food in a festive but never rushed atmosphere. Later, we stroll around the Ferry Building shops, browsing in the Book Passage and the stalls that offer honey, exotic mushrooms, chocolate, pastries and a thousand other treats. Then we amble up the viewing platform to admire the bay and city skyline.

Suddenly it’s time for dinner, and here we are at a new hot spot, Sons & Daughters. This downtown place, on Bush Street, is headed for stardom. It has a modern black and white setting with crystal chandeliers for contrast, waiters all in black, and incredibly good service that’s attentive but not smothering. And the food, oh my. sablefish, sons&daughters SFHere’s my 4-course fixed price meal: An amuse-bouche (a complimentary starter, in case you’re wondering) of delicate oysters on the half-shell. Beet soup with creme fraiche. Sablefish with watercress puree and honey-lemon foam. I know, it sounds precious, but the foam adds a nice citrusy touch. Salad on curds and whey–Little Miss Muffet isn’t the only one who gets c&w–and dessert of persimmon cake with fennel ice cream. Plus a spoonful of strawberries with vanilla powder. Also, there’s a diverse wine list. On the downside, no decaf coffee is served.

The young owner/chefs Teague Moriarty, Matt McNamara, and Lindsay Fair chefs at sons & daughters sftrained in a San Francisco culinary school, and Matt traveled in Europe developing the cuisine. They learned their craft well.  It’s pricey, but I’ll be back. Next post: the other 2 irresistible SF restaurants

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