words & images: Laura Hobbs
About an hour north of the hustle and bustle of Puerto Vallarta’s beach resorts and high-rise hotels is the sleepy fishing village of San Francisco, affectionately nicknamed San Pancho by locals. Tucked into a bay that hugs Mexico’s pristine Pacific coast to the west and the densely forested Sierra Madre mountains to the east, San Pancho is home to 1,600 residents, about half as many dogs, and twice as many chickens. San Pancho’s more popular and party-centric neighbor, Sayulita, lies just three miles south. When the tide is right, you can walk there, scrambling over the rugged rocks that separate the two towns with a proud jut into the Pacific.
Tourism’s throng hasn’t quite made it to San Pancho yet. There are horseback rides, jungle hikes and boat tours offered, but the town’s demographic doesn’t reflect much gentrification. There are a couple of small groceries, a handful of modest restaurants and a “fish shop” that’s nothing more than a well-traveled Igloo® cooler sitting in a local fisherman’s backyard. If you’re looking for a quick bite, many locals offer homemade tacos, gorditas and other handheld snacks from their patios.
Life in San Pancho is slow, but it’s a loud kind of slow: dogs bark, roosters crow, Mexican music blasts from houses, kids ride squeaky-wheeled bikes, locals host parties in public parks, trucks blast announcements from loudspeakers winched into their truck beds, horses clop along the cobblestones and scooters whiz unmuffled through the streets.
Back to the homemade tacos. While San Pancho offers many snacks, the taco stand that’s mentioned most is Tacos con Eva, a streetside setup of plastic patio furniture and a propane-fired griddle. Eva’s menu changes by the day; weekly staples include gooey chiles rellenos, hearty tortilla soup, and tacos embellished with a condiment table that will knock your socks into next week: heaping bowls of chopped cilantro, minced onion, shredded cabbage, tiny pinto beans, and a rainbow of salsas.
And that’s just the food. Cherubic and giggly Eva hosts her guests with a casual, motherly demeanor, making small talk between shifts at the griddle in a fluid mix of Spanish and English that’ll keep you on your toes. “You wanna eat?” is often followed with a swish of Spanglish and plenty of pink-cheeked laughter.
In addition to her street-side restaurant, Eva offers cooking classes on Wednesdays in her open-air kitchen. Each week, eager and hungry gringas gather around Eva’s cooktop to learn the secrets of her trade, fumbling through her Spanish-only instruction and quickly learning new words, new ingredients, and the value of gesturing.
On this sweltering Wednesday morning, Eva made chilaquiles, Mexico’s quintessential breakfast junk food. Using her homemade totopos (Mexico’s thicker, better version of tortilla chips), Eva dunked them in a smooth tomatillo-based sauce and served them with a fierce chile salsa alongside. Topped with fire-extinguishing crema, diced onion and crumbly queso fresco, this hearty breakfast is perfect for a pre-hike meal or as remedy for a late night out. The addition of a fried egg, sliced avocado or a few strips of grilled steak is highly recommended, as long as you serve them with a smile and a laugh.
Want to try it yourself? Perfect. I’ve included the recipes for your dining pleasure.
Chilaquiles con Salsa Verde
2 lb. thick-cut tortilla chips
1 1/4 lb. whole tomatillos, cleaned and rinsed
1/4 white onion, halved
1 clove garlic
1 bunch cilantro
2 heaping teaspoons chicken bouillon (powdered)
2 Tablespoons cooking oil (your choice)
Salt and pepper to taste
For the toppings: crema/sour cream, diced onion, queso fresco
In a large pot of salted water, bring the whole tomatillos to a boil and boil for 10 minutes, until soft. Remove tomatillos from water and set aside, reserving the tomatillo water.
Place the boiled tomatillos in a blender and add half of the onion, garlic clove, entire bunch of cilantro (stems and all!) and chicken bouillon. Blend until smooth.
In a large frying pan, heat the cooking oil and add the other half of the onion, cooking over med-high heat until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the blended tomatillo mixture to the frying pan, along with 1/4 cup of the reserved tomatillo water, stirring to combine. Once boiling, add an additional 1/4 cup of reserved tomatillo water. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Once the sauce is boiling, remove from the heat and fold in the tortilla chips. Allow the chips to sit in the sauce, off the heat, about 5 minutes to soften. Serve with toppings of crema/sour cream, diced onion and queso fresco.
Salsa de Tres Chiles
1/2 cup water
12 tomatillos, cleaned, rinsed and halved
1 clove garlic, whole
1/2 white onion, sliced
1 bunch cilantro
2 poblano peppers
2 large jalapeño chiles, chopped into large chunks
4 serrano chiles, chopped into large chunks
1/2 c. cooking oil (your choice), divided
1 heaping Tablespoon chicken bouillon, powdered
1/2 Tablespoon ground black pepper
On a gas grill, gas range or in the broiler, char the poblano peppers until the skin is blistered and blackened on all sides. Place the poblanos in a sealed plastic bag and allow them to steam for about 10-15 minutes (this helps to peel the skin off easier).
In a frying pan, heat 2 Tablespoons of the cooking oil over med-high heat. Add the onion and whole garlic clove and cook until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped jalapeños and serranos to the pan and cook about a minute. Add the chopped tomatillos and cook a minute longer. Lower the heat to medium-low and allow to slowly sauté for 5 minutes. “When you start to cough, you know it’s done!”
While the chiles and onion cook, peel the poblanos and cut them into large chunks, discarding the stems, ribs and most of the seeds (don’t be too concerned with getting all the seeds – leaving some of them is traditional.)
Remove the chile/onion mixture from the heat. In a blender, add the chile/onion mixture, poblanos, cilantro (stems and all!), chicken bouillon, ground pepper, the remainder of the oil and 1/2 cup of water. Blend until mostly smooth.
Serve the sauce alongside the chilaquiles (or anything else) for a serious kick!
There you have it, your own taste of San Pancho! Try the recipe, and then plan your trip. You’ll learn a lot, meet great people, and get a taste of life in one of the best small towns in Mexico.