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Ajijic, Mexico (Very Long)

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D.H. Lawrence hated Mexico, but loved the light in Ajijic--so much so that he incorporated it into his novel The Plumed Serpent. Nearly 100 years after D.H. Lawrence immortalized Ajijic and the surrounding Lake Chapala area, swarms and hordes of American and Canadian ex-pats have made it home. I arrived this past Tuesday at the Guadalajara aeropuerto and was met by Chowhound buddy Cristina, who whisked me the half hour South to her home in Ajijic. After settling in I was given my choice of where to go for cena -- tacos or posole. I love posole, but I can make a pretty good version at home in San Diego. Really good, Mexican style tacos are not readily available at all in San Diego, so tacos were the choice.

We hopped in her van, drove up to the carretera to a well lit stand with a couple of rickety old card tables for seating. There were 4 choices for tacos - labios (lips), bistec, carnaza or chorizo. Cristina opted for 4 of bisteca and I chose 1 bistec, 1 chorizo and 1 carnaza. We each had a bottled refresco (Pepsi & 7-Up). The tacos arrived on double (stacked) corn tortillas with a quite generous heap of meat, lots of cilantro and white onion. There was a thin table salsa that was very flavorful, but there were also 3 other salsas and some drained, cooked, room-temp beans on the front of the taco stand to add as desired. We each chose to adorn the tacos with both beans and the other assorted salsas. Pure heaven. The tortillas were small (about 4" in diameter), warm and very plushy with a soft velvety texture when bitten into. Each meat played off of the corn base to provide a different flavor profile. The bistec was tender, and full of smokey, grilled beef flavor. The chorizo, like nothing we see on our side of the border. Carnaza is pork from the rib section of the pig and altogether a wonderful taco filling. 7 tacos and 2 sodas set us back $39 pesos, or about $3.50.

Wednesday is tianguis day in Ajijic, so about 9:30 AM we headed the few blocks over from Cristina's house to explore and make some purchases. Everything under the sun, and then some, is available at ridiculously low prices. You can get underwear, CDs or DVDs, bootleg computer programs, T-shirts, jewelry, and of course all kind of food. We worked our way up the hill checking out each booth (and, BTW, Cristina really does know most of the vendors by name) deciding what to buy on the way back down. We also opted for a breakfast of gorditas. I had one of chicken and one of chorizo and Cristina had one chicken and one with cheese and rajas (chile strips). A gordita is a moderately thick (a little bit thicker than 1/4") round of masa that is deep fried, slit and filled. If not made well, they are bascially flat, leaden grease bombs. These were not poorly made. Yes, they were a bit heavy, but not objectionably so and still crunchy on the outside and soft and pliable inside. Large tupperware containers of various salsas and shredded cabbage were on the counter in front of the stand to be added as desired. 4 gorditas, plus 2 large aguas frescas (jamaica) were around $25 pesos, or about $2.75.

We purchased fresh cotija cheese that was crumbly, salty and totally addicting, crema that would panic any U.S. health department since it was sold in plastic cups with plastic wrap over the top held on by a rubber band. We also picked up some blackberry yogurt, which is indescribably good, almost like eating ice cream base, but without the noticeable tang of U.S. yogurt. We moved on to purchase ingredients to make a salsa verde, bulk breakfast cereal, chicken, lard and an assortment of fruits and vegetables including 2 I had not seen before. One was a small, oblong type of plum that has an impossibly huge seed and exquisitly sweet fruit that makes the best agua fresca. We also picked up some small white chayotes. They are part of the chayote family, but used more as a potato substitute.

After stowing the groceries Cristina toured me around Ajijic, including a stop at the Super Lake grocery store. The owner is quite the entrepeneur. He discovered early on that the ex-pats wanted the American or Canadian brands with which they were familiar, and that they'd pay for them. And pay they do. The guy imports a semi trailer full of Amer. and Can. goods each month and justifies his prices by saying he has to cover the duty and import fees, plus additional employees on the US side of the border who add Spanish-language labels to the products. So how bad are the prices? Here are a few examples: 1 box (28 tea bags) of Twinings Early Gray tea = $5.50 US. A box of double stuff Oreo cookies = $8.50US. A large box of Cream of Wheat instant cereal = $9.00+ US. Most US cereals are in the $7-$9US range. A flat can of Chicken of the Sea albacore tuna = $4.75US, a vacuum sealed package of Chicken of the Sea albacore tuna = $5.50US. A 12oz. can of Del Monte Peas = $3.00US. Just under 1/2 gallon of Vanilla Haagen-Daaz ice cream = $12.00US. Nabisco, Kelloggs, and all the other multi-nationals produce identical items in Mexico that are 1/3 the price, or less, of the imported product. Many of the ex-pats claim they can taste the difference between the Mexican and American or Canadian products. Cristina thinks that's bunk.

Part of our travels took us out to the Western end of Lake Chapala and the little town of Jocotepec. We were actually in search of raspberries since Driscoll grows a great many in the area, but alas we found none. But on our trip back through Jocotepec, Cristina spied a street vendor on the corner of the zocalo and we found something way better than raspberries. She asked me if I'd ever had tejuino. Of course, I hadn't, so what choice was there but to stop and investigate. Tejuino is one of those Mexican items that kind of defies American interpretation. The vendor started off by putting a small amount of fresh squeezed lemon juice (somewhere between 1-2 oz) in an 8-oz plastic cup. He then took a ladle and scooped up some rusty/brown icy liquid that had been made from corn masa. With great ceremony he passed the liquid back and forth between the cup and the ladle until it was mixed to his satisfaction. With a paddle he then scraped what amounted to lemon sorbet around the rim of half the glass. Add a straw and you've got tejuino. The drink has body, a slight grittiness from the corn, undertones from the lemon juice, but not to the point where it was bitter, sour or overpowering. It was very refreshing and reminescent (sort of) of a margarita without the tequila.

After totally wearing our selves out touring we returned to Cristina's house for cena. We prepared a salsa verde from the tomatillos purchased that morning and some chile peron, which resembles the habanero in shape--only larger and yellow--but it packs a similar kick. The salsa and crema were poured over corundas that Cristina had brought back from Patzcuaro in Michaocan on a trip a few weeks earlier. More masa; a corunda is sort of a Michoacan version of a tamal, in that it's stuffed cornmeal, only wrapped in fresh corn leaves (not dried husks) in a triangular shape. The ones we ate were very large and had been stuffed with the doble crema that Michoacan is so famous for and rajas. I was surprised to find that they will freeze well (for about 2 months) and are easily nuked. Refried beans made with some of the lard and a chile serrano was our accompaniment along with the plum agua fresca. Que sabroso!!

On Thursday we met up with a friend of Cristina's and headed back towards Guadalajara and Restaurante El Chololo where the specialty is birria. El Chololo is huge, seating nearly 1,000, and is full or nearly so every weekend. We asked to be seated outside on an immense covered patio and placed our order. And it's pretty easy to order at El Chololo because there is only 1 thing on the menu, birria, or goat in English.

While waiting for the Birria to arrive we had some baked totopos (think tortilla chips only thicker and not as salty) and a salsa cruda that was brought to the table in a very large molcajete along with a small side dish of salt to be added as needed. The salsa was okay, but not great and the chips tough, but they weren't the objective of the meal (and they had to be ordered, they didn't automatically come with the meal). The birria arrived soon enough. The waitress has a plastic pitcher of consume, the juices that accumulate as the goat roast, that she pours into wide, shallow soup plates. The goat here is boned and then glazed before being placed on the platter, which ends up in the middle of the table along with the ubiqitous plate of diced white onion and limon wedges, refritos and a styro basket of fresh, hot and soft corn tortillas made on the premises. Eating birria is a lot like eating many other Mexican dishes, squirt in the limon, spoon in the chopped onion, add a healthy dash of whatever table sauce is there (in this case a thin, very spicy house-made salsa in a plastic squeeze bottle), toss in some slices of meat so they can flavor the consume and soften up. Grab a tortilla, smear on some beans, top with the meat and and chow down. Eat the consomme as you would any soup. They will refill the consomme whenever you want. Birria for 3, 3 Coca Lights, totopos and 2 postres cost all of $225 pesos, or about $21 for the 3 of us. El Chololo rocks on the weekends when families, extended families come to spend leisure time together. There is a playground for the kids and full mariachi (i.e. the kind with 10-12 musicians) can be hired very reasonably for a song or as long as you want. Of course Cristina, who's lived here a long time, is also a friend of the leader of the mariachis!

In 2 days in the Lake Chapala area I've eaten mostly street food, shopped the markets and haven't even scratched the surface. It helps to have Cristina as a guide since she knows the vendors and where to go for the "best of".

Today we ventured in to Guadalajara and the Abasto market, Mercado Libertad and Karne Garibaldi. I will post about this later. Tomorrow I leave here for 8 days in Oaxaca cooking with Roberto Santibanez and Ricardo Munoz, who is one of only 7 Master Chefs in Mexico. Eating one's way through Mexico is a great adventure for the mouth.

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  1. Oh, I'm so jealous! It sounds like such a wonderful experience. I had no doubt Cristina would be such an outstanding guide, based on her background and love of her city. And she's just a whole lot of fun, too :) Ajijic is high on my list of places to visit. Do keep us posted on the rest of your journey, Gayla, and have fun!

    1 Reply
    1. re: phee

      and a continuation of Phee's message . . . and don't forget to come home!

    2. Reading one of your posts is almost as satisfying as food itself. Thanks again, Gayla, for sharing your meals with us.

      ed

      1. I am writing from Oaxaca. A lengthy trip report will follow, but, do not miss the Toscana restaurant. It is a delight. Several blocks east of Parque Juarez and a bit hard to find. Very elegant Italian cooking.

        A terrific take-out place is Super Cocida Panoramica, up I Allende west from Santo Domingo, a few doors past the modern old folks home. Its way upthe hill. They begin serving at 1:30 and are about sold out by 3. Everything is spooned into plastic bags, so you will need your own service.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Travis Lerow

          Travis, I loved Cafe La Flor de Oaxaca, on Armenta y Lopez near Cristobal Colon. Very traditional and tasty.

          I also ate at the puesto in the notch in the church wall a half block up toward Santo Domingo from there (turn right at the corner)...fine street food.

          People kept recommending Mariscos La Red over near Mercado Benito Juarez to me, but I don't eat seafood.

          If you make it out to the Zaachila market, find the mezcal booth outside right by the vegetable vendors. The labels aren't fancy, but it is some of the best mezcal I tried (and I tried a lot).

          What I wouldn't give for some chiles de agua right about now!

          1. re: snackish

            Thanks for the post. I may try La Flor de Oaxaca tomorrow. I am trying to eat at a different place every time, for my report to Chowhound. So far I have pretty much loved everything I have eaten.

            1. re: TravisLeroy

              I envy you! I had the same experience of loving everything so much. What I wouldn't give for an alegria right now. Or some nieves de tuna.

              1. re: TravisLeroy

                Did I read that you are coming to Ajijic? Email me and we'll go out chowing if you have time.

                piensalo44@hotmail.com

            2. re: Travis Lerow

              Is the Camino Real open now - we were there at the first phase of the riots and high tailed it to Puerto Escondido but heard it had to close. Great food!

            3. I live in Ajijic.
              I am no millionaire so my wife and I avoid the American products. It was good to see a little article about our "pequñno pueblo". I was surprised to see that Mario's and Pedro's weren't mentioned, however. People come from Guadalajara (Mexicans) on the weekend to eat at Mario's. My wife and I had lunch there today. I had shrimp Veracruz style. My wife had filete de pescado al mojo de ajo filet of fish with garlic. "Excellente", and washes down with "agua de jamaica".

              1. I live in Ajijic.
                I am no millionaire so my wife and I avoid the American products. It was good to see a little article about our "pequñno pueblo". I was surprised to see that Mario's and Pedro's weren't mentioned, however. People come from Guadalajara (Mexicans) on the weekend to eat at Mario's. My wife and I had lunch there today. I had shrimp Veracruz style. My wife had filete de pescado al mojo de ajo filet of fish with garlic. "Excellente", and washes down with "agua de jamaica".

                1 Reply
                1. re: Thomas Hally

                  One point about Cotija cheese, which is, as Gayla mentions, addicting - a bit like a combibnation of parmagiano and feta. Absolutely great on pasta.

                  We found it, quite sanitarily wrapped, in the Soriana supermercado in Chapala (along with some chorizo that made most NOB varieties taste like second-rate hot dogs.). I'd love t find it in Canada, however.

                2. Birria in tacos?? Birria is best when consumed as a soup... BTW, that's technically not consommé, but a Caldillo, which is tomato based.

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: cookiejesus

                    Well, cookiejesus, I have to disagree with your assessment of birria. IMHO, the best birria is served at El Chololo, just a few kilometers south of the Guadalajara airport. I ate there on Saturday afternoon for the umpteen zillionth time.

                    El Chololo's birria (de chivo--goat) is served plattered and glazed, with the consomé (Spanish spelling) on the side. The goat meat is tender and delicious. You can eat it with your fork or your fingers, dip it in the consomé, or wrap it in a house-made tortilla to make (yes) a taco. The consomé is seasoned perfectly--and you can add minced onion, a squeeze of limón, and El Chololo's special salsita to your own taste.

                    I've eaten birria here in Mexico for many years, and there's just flat none better than what is served at El Chololo.

                    Link: http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com

                    1. re: cristina

                      I am with you.... Eat_Nopal's proper technique for birria involves rolling it up in a homemade tortilla along with onions & cilantro... then dipping the taco in the consome prior to each bite.

                      That is also the de facto way to eat birria in Los Altos.... where there are many very good birrias many of which are "enterradas"... which is not so true in Guadalajara anymore.

                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                        Well, I've been "trained" into birria in the tianguis of Guadalajara, then in the Chino's birrieria, never did I reach for a tortilla. But that's probably because my mom wasn't raised in southern Mexico, so she made us stay clear of them. Not that we don't enjoy them...

                        But I insist, It's technically not a consommé... Escoffier would turn in his grave.

                    2. re: cookiejesus

                      Was with one of my amigas mejor desde Guadalajara, Rosalba and we tried to eat at El Chololo on our way to Lago Chapala. She said it was the best. But it was New Year's Day and it was the only place open for miles so the lines were insanely long, more even than usual. So will try again next trip. Look at my profile for my favorite restaurants in Guad.

                       
                      1. re: USA tapatío

                        Wow, El Chololo is insanely big for a restaurant, I'd guess they must have seating for 700 - 800 people easily, maybe even more. For them to have lines there must have been thousands of people. Do make it a point to try it when you return, I honestly don't think you'll be disappointed. I was there again last April, in fact I went straight from the airport!! It was the absolute perfect way to ease into tiempo Mexicana...and the food's good too ;-)

                        1. re: DiningDiva

                          Spoke with my friend Rosalba in Guad yesterday, and Martha de la Cruz, the manager of our office there, and they both promised to take me on my next trip. Also to Karne Garibaldi.

                          1. re: USA tapatío

                            Here are some photos from Karen Garibaldi. They should take you to the original location which is centerally located.

                             
                             
                             
                             
                            1. re: USA tapatío

                              On Thursday, I was at El Chololo for comida with a group of friends. The owner spent some time with us. He told us that the restaurant seats 1,000 people. On Sundays (the busiest day for the restaurant), they turn the tables four times and serve birria for FOUR THOUSAND people.

                              The food is superb. We all ate till be were ready to burst: exquisite birria, its consome, frijoles refritos con queso, and thick, hot, hand-made tortillas.

                              Mmm...

                              Link: http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com

                              1. re: cristina

                                Hello Cristina, My husband & I are going to be in Ajijic Nov 27-Dec 12th. Which restaurants would you recommend either in town or even up to an hour away? We like everything, especially something "non" American. Also, are there any places near by (we'll have access to a car) to buy decent wines...local or otherwise? Could you also recommend any places to see, such as monuments, hidden villages, day or over night trips, etc??? My husband has never been to Lantin America & I would love to awe him so he begs to come back!
                                Muchas gracias !

                                1. re: klanca

                                  Hi Klanca,
                                  Since you have so many non-food-related questions, why don't you email me and we can correspond about the things you've asked. Email addy is piensalo44@hotmail.com.

                                  http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com

                            2. re: DiningDiva

                              Since you're talking about Birria, there's one that I like just as much, or maybe even a little bit more, than Chololo's called Birrieria San Miguel.
                              It's at the entrance of a town called San Miguel Cuyutlan which is between Tlajomulco de Zuniga and Cajititlan. It must be about 10Km past Cajititlan if you're driving from the Guadalajara-Chapala highway or about the same distance past Tlajomulco if you are coming from Lopez Mateos Ave. (i.e. GDL- Manzanillo Highway ).
                              It's a very small place on the north side of the road at the west entrance of the town (left hand side coming from Tlajomulco) but the Birria there is a bit softer tasting than Chololo's, juicer and generally fresher and better tasting IMO. In any case it serves for a good day trip adventure. I haven't been there in about 4 years but I will definitely go if I have a chance in a couple of weeks when I'll be in town.

                              1. re: Alberto

                                SuperLake also has many other imported products which have no Mexican equivalent, i.e. Asian foods, Patak's Indian spice pastes, German mustard (although they ran out of it and didn't get any more for 2 years), cheddar cheese, etc which is why most of the local foreigners shop there. Yes, they are higher than Soriana and the Wal-Mart in Guad, but for these things it is about the only store that has some of these items. I agree with Cristina that many of the products with Mexican equivalents the Mexican products are just as good and less expensive (particularly if you go to Soriana or Wal-Mart). Pedro's Gourmet and Mannix are two of the really good restaurants there, as is Pizzeria Toscana. The Lake is overbuilt with restaurants and some of them really don' have very good food. I have seen restaurants open and close within a month or two after opening.

                        2. My husband and I just returned from ten days in Mexico, including four in Ajijic--and we were disappointed not to find better Mexican cuisine in Ajijic. Admittedly, we didn't sample much of the street food (our adventurous eating in Tequila earlier in the trip had caught up with us), and we could only go as far as our feet took us. But the restaurants we were directed toward seemed heavily geared toward accommodating American retirees' tastes: so I got used to bizarre, mixed-bag offerings like crostini, "super nachos," chicken cordon bleu, chile rellenos, and antipasto--all on the same menu. (Factor in the cheesy "jazz" combo background music such places often offer--by middle-aged American fugitives entertaining their parents--and that's one disappointing meal experience.) Feeling caught between two cultures, we tried to get into the swing of things and went to an apparently new, pretty hip-looking place, Number Four. Contemporary Italian/Mediterranean style and steaks. I had some very good shrimp in cilantro sauce (pesto-like) with arugula salad, and my husband had a pretty good prosciutto and arugula pizza. Decor and atmosphere very cool, with rooftop dining under a thatched-style roof. So I'd go just for the interiors. But the entire ethos of the place felt imported and derivative (of some so-hip-it-makes-your-teeth-hurt new restaurant in any large American city), down to the uneven service and the boorish behavior of some of the Americans patrons (including a middle-aged guy coming on hard to the Mexican hostess, with an assist by her loud, blonde American boss). That said, on our last night we had a wonderful, non-Mexican meal at Tango, where we kept it simple (and good) with Argentinean sausage, watercress salad, and filet mignon with Provencal fries. This place managed a kind of relaxed cool without trying too hard--meaning, it felt more authentically Latin American--and the sight of a good many vacationing Mexicans among the clientele made us feel that we had finally landed in a place where Ajijic's strangely segregated cultures might comfortably comingle. Plus, a good steak and a copita of nice tequila (Arrete, a small producer in Tequila) are always a happy pairing. Still, it's a town crying out for a good fusion restaurant--where Mexican food and drink might be reinvented within the sort of context affluent American and Mexican residents/tourists seem to expect--something that honors Mexican food traditions. I apologize if I sound cranky or overly critical of Ajijic--our experience was no doubt colored by having spent the first part of the trip in Tequila, eating local among a decidedly less monied and sophisticated population of residents and tourists, and befriending some of its citizens. But next time--and I do think there will be a next time, as the natural and constructed beauty of Ajijic is so compelling--I'll be a little better prepared for the town's complicated cultural personality--especially the influence of so many older American residents who show little interest beyond disdain in the local culture (and the understandable whiff of resentment among those locals). Ah, but that's no doubt just one of many surfaces. Next time we'll dig a little deeper.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: mw66

                            Interesting post about Ajijic, mw66. I'd agree with 99% of what you said--I lived in Ajijic for six years.

                            IMHO, foreigners make the mistake of thinking that because there is a large foreign presence in Ajijic, there's a degree of sophistication in the town. For the most part, that assumption is incorrect. Ajijic started life about 450 years ago as a tiny village and to a great degree, it maintains that village mindset to this day. It's still a village, albeit a two-community village. A mixed bag of foreigners (some say that people from more than 60 countries live there) and predominately rural Mexicans creates an inequity in class and education. For the most part, Mexicans and foreigners do not mingle, although the two communities live cheek by jowl.

                            Upscale Mexicans from Guadalajara do dine in some of the local upscale restaurants: Ajijic Tango is a good example, Number 4 is another. But service-class Mexicans take their business to the local taquerías, birrierías, and fondas that few if any foreigners frequent.

                            If you want a few recommendations for extraordinary food in unlikely locations around the lakeside villages, email me.

                            Link: http://www.mexicocooks.typepad.com

                          2. I found both Ajijic and Chapala to warrant little more than a yawn, but as a vegetarian I can say I enjoyed my meal at The Secret Garden in Ajijic (right off the main plaza). They had an Indian dinner special that night that was quite good, and all of the people working there were very friendly. I was the youngest person in the restaurant by about forty years, however! :)