The water taxi ground gently onto the beach, and we hopped over the side into warm, knee-deep surf.
It was an appropriate way to arrive in Yelapa, a sunny, secluded oceanfront enclave about 15 miles south of Puerto Vallarta by water. It's a tiny, slightly threadbare fishing village with a broad, open crescent of beach, drawing day-trippers who sun, swim, and drink - and a few tourists who stay longer in this spot on Mexico's west coast.
Well, come for the beach and the drinks but stay for the food. As with the amphibious landing, don't expect anything fancy - think plastic tablecloths, and chairs apparently supplied by the local Corona beer distributor. And don't bother pulling out a credit card. The lure is simple menus with an emphasis on fresh seafood, and a few delightful, unexpected twists.
The village of Yelapa is a tangle of narrow pedestrian lanes. There is no access by road, only by water, and thus no cars. So Ray's restaurant was a bit hard to find in the upper reaches of the town, away from the harbor. But the word of mouth had been strong almost from the time we stepped ashore. By dusk, strings of lights gave the restaurant's veranda and walled courtyard an inviting glow. My wife and I sat under open sky in the shadow of the town church.
We ordered drinks and, almost as an afterthought, guacamole and chips. How can something so simple and ubiquitous be a revelation? The zippy, chunky guac was spiked with jalapeno and cilantro, and the kitchen-made chips were cooked to a nutty, earthy flavor. Our server insisted they were fried, but there was not a hint of oil. And my margarita on the rocks arrived in what would serve as a water tumbler in most restaurants - easily 12 to 14 ounces. We were more than content, even when the entrees were slow to arrive - the Saturday dinner rush is a bad time for the kitchen propane tank to run out.
Entrees included several preparations of arrachera (the traditional Mexican flank steak) and mahi mahi (that night's choices were finished with tequila and cilantro or garlic). But my wife and I both had a taste for shrimp. Her shrimp satay arrived as a pyramid of three gargantuan shrimp atop a salad studded with goat cheese. I opted for the Blue Coast shrimp, three big ones stuffed with mozzarella cheese and wrapped in bacon, paired with rice and sauteed vegetables. Not cutting-edge cuisine, perhaps, but the shrimp were as fresh as could be, and the flavors married perfectly. We shared a dessert, and with a generous tip, the tab was 470 pesos, or about $32.
Cafe Bahia had been our first dining stop as we explored the village. We were drawn by the breakfast-all-day option and the perfect view of the harbor and town pier (yes, there is a place to land and keep your feet dry; we opted for the beach arrival to avoid a long hike with luggage) from the dozen or so umbrella-shaded tables. My wife and I split an avocado, tomato and goat cheese omelet, which arrived with roasted potatoes, chewy house-made bread and a generous spoonful of passion-fruit jam. It was a perfect midday snack for two, and with two cold Pacifico beers, the bill came to just 140 pesos (about $9.60).
That was enough to lure us back the next day for the Sunday brunch featuring eggs Benedict and eggs Florentine. Brooklyn-born, Paris-trained chef-owner Susan Pasko uses juice from locally grown limes, rather than the usual lemon, to give her Hollandaise a distinctive tang. The egg dishes were 130 pesos (about $8.90), and an Olympic-size bloody Mary was 80 pesos (about $5.50).
Yelapa's main beach is lined with eating and drinking establishments that mostly cater to the daytime crowds. Angelina's restaurant, at the far north end of the beach, is one of the few that serves dinner. Getting there was another adventure, down a long staircase from the village, through knee-deep water of a channel that connects the harbor to a lagoon, and down the length of the beach, deserted except for a few beachgoers still nursing drinks.
We were seated no more than 40 feet from water's edge under a palapa, a rustic canopy of tightly woven palm leaves, by Elena, Angelina's daughter. And when I saw "Elena's spicy shrimp" on the menu, well, how could I go wrong? The pile of shrimp arrived with salad, sauteed red onions and four piping-hot corn tortillas, so I took the hint and made myself delicious shrimp tacos. For Yelapa it was a splurge at 220 pesos ($15), but the view of boats bobbing in the harbor in the fading sunlight was completely worth it. My wife's fish tacos were a bargain at 80 pesos ($5.50), and we washed it all down with passion-fruit margaritas, the house specialty, for 60 pesos ($4.10) each.