The city of Mazatlán stretches along the coast for about 12 miles; much of the beach is fronted with high-rise hotels and condos. Starting from the south, one goes from Centro Histórico and Olas Altas to the Golden Zone, the Marina and then seemingly the end, at Cerritos.
But if you stand on the point there and look out, you see a few buildings, one of which is Surf’s Up Café. Celebrating its 10-year anniversary, the restaurant sits on the beach with a killer view that stretches to the horizon and then north to the unobstructed and slightly wild coast.
The creation of chef and owner Leanne Wright, it has received the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence every year since it opened and in 2020, it garnered the prestigious TripAdvisor Travelers Choice Award, putting Surf’s Up among the top 10% in the world.
Creativity is the key word here, and both the breakfast and lunch menus boast dynamic (and delicious) takes on old favorites like the Barbecue Chicken Quesadilla or the “flavor-bomb” Chilaquiles Torta, as well as classics done perfectly. The Beach Burger has a well-deserved stellar reputation around town.
Leanne’s first idea had been to offer classic Mazatlecan dishes, but local friends convinced her to “do something different.” That freed the former nutritionist and pro boxer to use her talent and expertise to come up with a menu of healthy, tasty foods complemented by specials.
The backstory of how Surf’s Up came about is not a common one; Leanne had planned to be a journalist and was also making her way through the ranks for a spot on the Canadian women’s boxing team when fate intervened: a horrific car accident in 2008 left her with a cognitive brain injury and many months of therapy and recuperation.
Everything she’d planned was derailed.
“When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” she said.
Friends and family had always said she should open a restaurant, but until her accident, that wasn’t something she’d ever seriously thought about doing.
“I loved cooking, but culinary wasn’t my focus — writing was,” Leanne recalled.
As a girl, she’d helped her parents prep for a weekly Sunday roast, a British tradition. Her talent was in creating recipes and flavors.
“Every single person in my family is a phenomenal cook,” she said with a laugh.
Her parents had just retired and were thinking about opening an eco-friendly hotel in Belize. The stock market crash and her accident changed those plans.
Then, while on a vacation in Mazatlán, they all fell in love with the city. On a whim, they made an offer on a beachfront property for sale. When it was accepted, they went home, packed up and moved.
That was the start of the café and of El Sol la Vida, her parents’ B&B that’s now a vacation rental.
From the first year, Surf’s Up created a buzz with both the expat and local communities thanks to the gorgeous location and unique menu and the casual, welcoming atmosphere. Live music on weekend afternoons, a full bar and clever tropical cocktails add to the fun.
Nowadays, Surf’s Up is busy all the time, even through the hot summer and especially on Sundays. Much of the seating is outside, covered in a variety of ways from the sun but with sand between your toes. The most coveted tables are the two closest to the ocean, covered by palapas with views that go on forever.
“I wanted it to feel like a part of nature — that’s why so much is outside,” Leanne explained.
Also impressive (and different) is the freshness of the food: Leanne sources local and organic when possible, orders small batches of organic Chiapas beans for their coffees and cooks everything to order — meaning that the chicken for each dish is cooked fresh, not pre-cooked and reheated.
It may take a few more minutes to get your food, but she believes the taste is worth it. Desserts are made on site too. Leanne points out that there are specific menu items to accommodate dietary issues and concerns and that she’s happy to adjust a dish if necessary.
“I put a lot of thought into making our food healthy,” she explained. “I want people to arrive feeling really good and leave feeling even better.”
I was happy to hear that my favorite dish is also hers, and is the most popular as well. Leanne told me that the “El Sol,” a potato pancake made with bacon, hash browns, onions and more, was the very first original recipe at Surf’s Up. It’s the only original dish still on the menu because it’s so well-liked.
Customers love the muffins too, with banana-coconut the hands-down favorite. Surf’s Up is also known for its signature aioli, made with yogurt instead of oil. Leanne likes to play with food and mix-and-match cultures, so you’ll find things like Chilaquiles Poutine, Potato and Cheese Pierogies smothered in a rajas cream sauce with poblano peppers and corn and a Chicken Burger with Black Beans and Mango Chutney.
With the restaurant’s success, Leanne is starting to think about her next project: a memoir with recipes.
“I want to do everything in my power to create a great experience,” she said. “The goal for me and all my employees is to make the customer’s experience a positive one.”
What: Surf’s Up Café. Breakfast and lunch. Pizza by announcement. Full bar. Espresso
When: Wednesday–Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Monday and Tuesday
Where: Avenida Ernesto Coppel #520, past Emerald Bay Resort, Mazatlán
And: Reservations are suggested for big parties and weekends. Live music on Saturday and Sunday. (Call for details.) Booking for private events available.
Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006.