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John Keeling's 2009 Restaurant Guide (Chapala, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta)

Reviewed by James Tipton

John and Rosemary Keeling live in Ajijic, home to many American and Canadian expatriates, and the focus of the 2009 Restaurant Guide is clearly Ajijic and the nearby villages. You'll find lots of restaurant listings for Ajijic, Chapala, Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, Jocotepec, Riberas del Pilar, San Juan Cosalá, and San Juan Tlayacapan; but you'll also find selective listings for Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta.

The Introduction to the just-released 2009 edition announces: "The big news on the restaurant scene at Lake Chapala this year is the arrival of two new higher-end restaurants - El Jardín de Ninette and Number FOUR. In all, 19 new restaurants have been added to the guide this year, and 14 have disappeared from the scene."

The financial crisis, however, is affecting local restaurants and now "we have fewer tourists and visitors and less spending by the foreigners who have retired here." As a consequence, there are "too many restaurants" in Ajijic, and "many of them are hurting financially."

Discouraging news for the restaurant owners, but for those of us who like to dine out, it is good news - because "we the customers are currently enjoying a special low-price environment." Although "in Guadalajara prices have been going up steeply," in Ajijic and along the Chapala Riviera, prices remain the same.

Although Keeling does not mention it, the recent peso devaluation makes it even more attractive to dine out… much more attractive. That American or Canadian dollar you bring in now converts to 30 - 40% more Mexican pesos than it did a year ago, meaning that your dining-out bill is going to be 30 - 40% less than it was a year ago, assuming you eat where prices have remained the same.

Keeling has adopted a methodology that he has used over the years to develop really accurate ratings on each of the restaurants in his 2009 Restaurant Guide. For each new edition, he interviews at least 40 people "asking them where they eat and what they like." Each restaurant is rated for Food, Ambience, Service, Cost, and Washrooms.

What are The Most Popular Restaurants in the Lake Chapala area based on Keeling's survey?

Ajijic Tango comes in number one, followed by Roberto's, Manuel's, Pedro's Gourmet, and La Nueva Posada.

The 2009Restaurant Guide also addresses Health Concerns, gives us a Tipping Guide, and even tells us how to order our steak when the waiter asks, "¿Qué término?" (How Do You Want Your Meat Done?)" Rojo, for example, is "rare," medio rojo is medium rare, and bien cocido is well done.

The Menu Dictionary for Jalisco, a twenty-page listing of several hundred useful words for diners, is itself worth the modest price of the 2009 Restaurant Guide. Here we discover albóndigas are meat balls, aderezo is "a 'dressing' such as salad dressing, mustard, ketchup, BBQ sauce, or Tabasco sauce," arrachera is "marinated skirt steak, also used for fajitas," and chilaquiles are "fried tortilla chips with a red or green chile sauce, and sometimes shredded chicken, baked, with crumbled cheese and often sour cream on top (a breakfast dish)," and mostaza is mustard.

Most of the 2009 Restaurant Guide is, of course, descriptions of and ratings on dozens and dozens of restaurants. A feature I particularly like is the "try this" section of most of the listings. For example, at Ajijic Tango (Ajijic), which offers "reliably high quality food including very good steaks cooked on a mesquite grill," "The flap steak (vacio) is recommended (95 pesos), also the 26 oz. filet mignon for 2 (175 pesos), the rack of lamb for 2 (275 pesos)…."

At the vegetarian restaurant Secret Garden (Ajijic), "We enjoyed the Cuban eggs" and the 2009 Restaurant Guide notes, "Occasional India food nights are usually oversubscribed." At the Beer Garden (San Antonio Tlayacapan), "Try the Chapala omelet with cheese, bacon and vegetables (45 pesos) and the fish filet (80 pesos). We enjoyed the canasta rellena - taco salad in a basket (45 pesos). Mom's (Riberas del Pilar) is "A rendezvous for consistently good comfort food…." Be sure to "try the daily lunch specials, the hot Reuben sandwich on Tuesday (60 pesos), the meatloaf on Wednesday (70 pesos), the fried chicken on Thusday (70 pesos)," etc."

Quality food at a bargain? Check out El Zapote (Chapala), "A 'find'. This is the place to take visitors to offer them real pre-Hispanic Mexican food. Popular with the local populace…. Try the burrito de cochinita pibil (20 pesos), the cheese enchiladas (3 for 30 pesos) and the tamarindo agua fresco (10 pesos)." Or stop by for breakfast at the American Legion (Chapala), where for only $35 pesos you can enjoy a western omelet with fries, toast, and coffee.

Guadalajara favorites include Adobe (Tlaquepaque) where you can "Try the margaritas, the cilantro soup, the steak, the fajitas, and the specials." Like Thai-Mex fusion? Go to Anita Li (Zona Rosa), "rated one of the eight most 'in' restaurants in Mexico." You can try their pescado achiote.

Pescado achiote? What's that? The Menu Dictionary in the 2009 Restaurant Guide tells us pescado is fish and achiote is "traditional seasoning paste made from red annatto seeds (known as achioite) ground with lime juice and other spices….

We used to live in Vallarta, and so I was happy to see a few old favorites in the listings: Barcelona ("Delightful ambiance, with a great view over the town and the malecón. Arrange to arrive before sunset," or Café des Artists ("this is the leading restaurant in Puerto Vallarta."), and our favorite, La Palapa, "A delightful location on the beach with a palapa roof, romantic lighting and live entertainment in the evening. Arrange to arrive before sunset. We were impressed with the Thai chicken soup, the juicy perfectly cooked red snapper and the melt-in-your mouth mango cheese cake."

Who is this man working so diligently to feed accurate information to all of us who like to dine out? John Keeling, who says he always had "a healthy appetite," grew up on a farm in England. Hitchhiking around the world, he discovered the pleasures as well as the mysteries of international cuisines: he "managed all the hot curries he was served in India, but was surprised when scrambled eggs in Mexico City were absolutely too hot to eat." In Toronto, where he was a professor of business and computer studies, he depended on the local restaurant guide and when he and his wife Rosemerry moved to Ajijic six years ago, he was determined "to create a comparable guide for the Lake Chapala Riviera."

It's a good time to be eating out in Mexico. With over $13 pesos to the US dollar, you can dine in high style (at much less than a year ago) and at the same time help these fine restaurants survive the difficult times. That 26 oz. filet mignon for two offered by Ajijic Tango, the "most popular eating-out place," at $175 pesos, is actually, assuming $13 pesos to the dollar, only about $$13.46 US for TWO dinners! Try finding that in the States!

John Keeling's 2009 Restaurant Guide…the real cost? $85 pesos, which is currently a little over $6.50 USD.

Well, I've worked on this review long enough to work up an appetite. I think I'll surprise my wife and daughter tonight with a place we haven't tried before.

¡Buen provecho! (Enjoy your meal!)

Published or Updated on: February 1, 2009 by James Tipton © 2009
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