Palapa is a Spanish word which was coined in the Malay Peninsula on the island of Singapore. And for the armchair travelers who peruse these pages while huddled around a wood stove in the frozen wastelands of the north, a palapa is an open-sided structure with a thatched roof made of palm leaves.
As you might expect, the cost of this type of construction is negligible and the only tool required is a good machete. These primitive huts have been built in tropical locations for hundreds of years, so it only follows that someone, somewhere, decided it would be the perfect structure for a beachfront restaurant.
Even in 21st-century Mexico, these funky palapa restaurants are still to be found in abundance along both coasts.
My very first palapa restaurant experience was in San Felipe on the knoll by the icehouse in 1965. This fish shack was mostly built with ocotillo stalks but it did sport a hastily built palm frond roof. Because of the hurricane the preceding year, the premises looked new with both the ocotillo stalks and palm fronds still quite green.
Several metal tables emblazoned with brightly colored Superior and Carta Blanca logos, were neatly arranged on the hard packed dirt floor. The chairs were a mismatched jumble that could have come from the local landfill, but they successfully held the weight of hungry patrons.
There were no menus and few napkins and the eating utensils looked worse than the chairs, but the barbecued totoaba (sea bass) was to die for. In fact, the totoaba was so good the population of that fish was decimated through the 60s into the late 70s. In 1979 they were placed on the world’s endangered species list.
I do regret the small part I played in this environmental travesty, but at the time the supplies seemed inexhaustible.
Another truly great palapa restaurant I discovered was in Zihuatanejo, on Playa la Ropa, in February of 1978. There it was the perfectly barbecued, whole red snapper which captured my inner epicurean. Even now, just thinking about the way it was cooked, with garlic encrusted slits on the sides and a smoky charcoal aroma, induces some seriously vivid flashbacks.
So as you can see my fragile psyche has been so assiduously seared that even the mere mnemonic murmur of a funky palapa restaurant will cause me to salivate like a Pavlovian street dog.
Here, in my now hometown of Mazatlán, to recapture those pleasurable moments of my past I can catch a water taxi and be on Isla de Piedra (Stone Island, which isn’t really an island) and settle into a comfortable plastic Pacifíco chair within 25 minutes of leaving home.
I can bury my toes into beach sand, swill cold cerveza and feast on fire-roasted food, all while sheltered beneath a funky palapa; lifestyle enhancement at its best.
Last October, Juan, my part-time executive assistant and full-time friend, and I went to a favorite Stone Island palapa for a much-needed therapeutic afternoon. We ordered a bucket of beer and browsed the menu choices.
Since Juan’s father was a fisherman and Juan grew up eating fresh seafood so frequently that he now abhors even the thought of fish or shrimp, we decided on the pollo al carbon (barbecued chicken).
When I told our friendly waiter that we would like to split a whole chicken, he shook his head and told us they did not have chicken at the moment. He immediately sensed our disappointment as our expectations visibly plummeted, so he quickly asked how long we planned on hanging around.
I instinctively glanced at the Pacíficos that bristled from our ice-filled bucket and replied that it would probably be a couple of hours. With a sizable smile he declared that he would retrieve a very fresh chicken and we could eat in about an hour. We watched as he shed his apron, hopped on his scooter and headed off into the village area behind the beach.
Twenty minutes later, half-way through the second beer and well into a spirited and highly informed conversation on the meaning of life, we both thought we heard a muffled squawk emanate from behind the kitchen area. After about a 60-second pause, Juan calmly proclaimed that he believed our chicken would indeed be quite fresh.
When the large platter of dismembered fowl arrived and there were no feathers or visible blood, we devoured every piece.
So if you are seeking a more earthy side of the Mexican beach experience, I highly recommend you spend a lazy afternoon in a funky palapa and enjoy the timeless quality of this cultural adventure.
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at [email protected].