First, let's get this straight: I really like spices. The trouble is, they don't like me. Anything with even a tiny chili in it gives me an instant heartburn. So when I'm in Mexico, enchiladas are out. So are quesadillas. Ditto for huevos rancheros. I can't even be in the same room with chipotles a la poblana.
Where can a spice-challenged traveler chow down south of the border?
As a travel writer, I've been there lots of times. Over the years I've learned to look for big hotels that cater to families -- because their restaurants tend to offer simple fare for kids. Like hamburgers, hot dogs and pepito (steak) sandwiches.
What about side dishes? I order papas fritas (french fried potatoes) to go with my burgers. Can't go wrong there. Well, usually.
At night, I make a bee line to restaurants of the ilk of Senor Frog's and Carlos'n Charlie's (among a bunch of fun restaurant brands in the Grupo Anderson's chain). Such places serve up stateside-type burgers and fried chicken and even fairly tame barbecue dishes, like Carlos' "Moo-Peep-Oink" (barbecued steak, chicken and ribs). Ay caramba! That one scores a big 10 on my non-spicy meter.
Munching around Mazatlan
I came across some great spots for the spice-impaired during a recent trip to western Mexico's beach resort at Mazatlan. One was a chili-less breakfast at El Shrimp Bucket in the La Siesta Hotel in the city's downtown Historic District. The restaurant has some history of its own, having opened in 1963 as the first location in what became the Grupo Anderson chain.
Another eatery offering my kind of dishes is a country and western version of Carlos'n Charlie's called La Casa Country. There, I chewed away on ribs to die for (but not from heartburn) while waiters dressed like cowboys pranced around doing line dances.
The next day, I walked away from the Panama Restaurant out in the Golden Zone (Mazatlan's hotel strip, about eight miles from the Historic District) without even a tinge of heart fire. Panama has three Applebee's-like restaurants around town along with nine bakeries, the latter with a menu full of sugar rolls, muffins, beignet fritters and other artery cloggers right out of the oven.
I should note that the places I've mentioned, like most of Mazatlan's other restaurants, typically have lots of hot Mexican stuff on their menus, too. Some also feature international gourmet dishes.
La Mazatleca, for instance, is happy to serve customers like myself a two-inch-thick filet topped with a mild Gorgonzola cheese sauce. Other customers might opt for hotties like Los Monos Biches (fried shrimp in garlic, chilis, onions and butter served with chili beans and cheese and topped with - quick, call the Fire Department -- chili-based adobo sauce).
El Presidio, another gourmet restaurant, came up with some yummy lamb chops and a baked potato for me. More adventurous diners at this elegant, old-world mansion went for an appetizer called Fideo Seco (spicy fried Mexican noodles with grilled garlic- and chili-based Zarandeado shrimp).
Freshly caught shrimp dishes show up on just about all of Mazatlan's menus. Arguably, the area's champion shrimp joint is a place called El Cuchupetas in the little city of Villa Union about a half-hour ride from Mazatlan. There, you can get anything from just breaded shrimp (one of my favorites) to the demoniac Shrimp Diablo among some 50 shrimp dishes.
Back in Mazatlan, Pedro & Lola on the corner of the Plazuela Machado in the Historic District serves an awesome breaded shrimp plate (all the spicy things come on the side) with the hands-down best papas fritas in town.
In a real bind, on those rare days when I simply can't find anything spice-less in Mazatlan or anyplace else in Mexico, I can get by with a bowl or two of tortilla soup.
All photos by Bob Schulman