A gastronomic adventure in Xalapa, Mexico / Side Trips
Travel a few miles out of the city in any direction, and you will find that every village has its own culinary surprise. You can hire a car and driver through your hotel for $30 to $50 a day, or else local buses go to each village for just a dollar or two. The cheapest/smartest way to travel would be to rent a car once you get to Veracruz, use it for side trips during the day, and take cabs around Xalapa. If you do this, though, buy maps (see Logistics) before you get to Mexico.
You can make a lovely picnic by buying provisions in Las Vigas and La Joya, then driving toward the towering, snowcapped, 14,000-foot summit of the volcanic Cofre de Perote, also known as Nauhcampatépetl. To do this, take the dirt road leading out of Sierra de Agua (on Highway 140, not far past Las Vigas, to the left). Stop anywhere to eat—it’s all beautiful.
It’s hard to tell where Xalapa ends and Coatepec, five miles to the southwest, begins. It is, however, the official center of Mexico’s coffee production. Every square inch of arable land is planted in high-grade arabica, shaded by banana and other fruit trees, the seductive aroma of roasting beans permeating the air. Houses and churches are grand affairs built by wealthy coffee exporters in the late 1800s, with iron balconies and tile facades, a war of color waged between primary and pastel.
On the main square, vendors sell exotic fruits, including mamey sapote (a type of melon that tastes like a cross between pumpkin, chocolate, almonds, honey, and avocado).
Try the fruit liqueurs and toritos (cream liqueurs) found at the locally famous family-run Licores Finos de Frutas Bautistas y Gálvez. Anyone in town can direct you there.
Restaurants specialize in seafood, from the Gulf and nearby rivers, especially local acamallas (crawfish) in either chipotle sauce or a green sauce of jalapeños, tomatillos, cilantro, garlic, and lime. Eat at Casa Bonilla (corner of Juárez and Cuauhtémoc, 228-816-0374) or Arcos de Belem (Miguel Lerdo No. 9, at the front of the Parque, 228-816-2873), the latter of which also has an old-fashioned soda fountain!
Seven miles south of Coatepec is the lush mountain village of Xico, home of the fantastically beautiful 264-foot Texolo waterfall. Each year, the colorful Festival de la Magdalena (July 19-25) sees the streets decorated in sawdust paintings of religious scenes, after which there are bullfights and a running of the bulls.
The bakeries here are some of the best in the area. Try Blue Danube, a.k.a. Danubio Azul (Av. Hidalgo No. 192, 228-813-0223), or Panadería la Bruja, a.k.a. Bakery of the Witch (no listed address/phone, but locals will know where it is). Xico is also known for its sweet and fruity mole sauce and its tlatonile (nut, seed, and chile pastes). Buy both by the jar, tub, bucket, or plastic bag at Derivados el Acamalín (Av. Hidalgo No. 150, 228-813-0283) or Mole Charito de Cazuela (Av. Hidalgo No. 176, 228-813-0389). Also look for the locally made licore de verde, similar to crème de menthe, and try the plentiful rainbow trout.
Eat at Casa Xiqueña (Miguel Hidalgo No. 32, 228-813-1530), the incredible restaurant described in the first paragraph of this story, or try the trout specialties at El Paraje Coyopolan (Prolongacción de Venustiano Carranza, 228-812-0022), which also offers several cozy rooms for rent.
The 20-mile drive north to Naolinco from Xalapa takes you on twisty mountain roads through the Actopan ravine. It’s like driving through the Spanish Pyrenees: colonial architecture and stunning views back down the valley of the waterfalls, vertical cliffs, and layered landscape. En route, stop at Las Flores bakery in Coacoatzintla (La Gloria No. 7, 279-842-8488) and choose from 75 different kinds of luscious breads and sweet breads made in the proprietress’s brick oven.
Naolinco, founded by Totonac Indians in 1313 then later resettled by Basques and Andalusians, has a long history of leather making. A huge statue of a cobbler greets you when you arrive, and you can find scores of shoe and boot makers throughout the village. You’ll also be treated to another distinctive local take on mole, more assertive than that found in Xico, as well as an overwhelming variety of sweets. Among them are gelatina, miniature works of psychedelic Jell-O art typically given as hostess gifts; and jamoncillo, little animal figures made of fruit, milk, and sugar, reminiscent of Spanish marzipan figures.
Eat at Restaurante Karla Josefina (a short way past the cobbler statue on the left), and try the chipotle rellenos (pork-stuffed and battered chipotles), chilatole picoso (very spicy red chile stew), and mole Naolinco (a spicier and more savory version of mole sauce).
An excellent, fast, four-lane highway takes you 15 miles northwest from Xalapa to the tiny town of La Joya. Blink and you’d miss it, were it not for the 25 or so cheese shops and the crowd of cheese buyers massed around them. It’s cheese pandemonium. Queso Lyz has one of the best selections: The aged Cotija is superb, and the manchego añejo (aged Manchego) is as good as you’ll find in Spain. There’s also Port-Salut, smoked Goudas, and a pie of fresh cheese and pineapple that makes a dandy refresher, the crust golden and flaky, the filling sweet and salty.
Back in the car, five miles north of La Joya, Las Vigas appears. You’ll find great hard cider (sidras) here, as well as killer cured pork products. Buy both at Lagar Embutidos y Sidras, on the south end of town next to the church, which is the first thing you see when you enter the village. You’ll find slabs of jamón serrano (dry-cured ham) hanging, as well as links of chistorra and longaniza sausages.
On the roads leading to and from Las Vigas are numerous pulque stands (tequila’s more rustic, less robust cousin). It’s made from the maguey plant, a type of agave. The liquor starts tasting weird after a day or two, which is why you don’t typically see it outside Mexico. Therefore, try it while you can.