Canadians flock to Mexico to escape the long winters. Some fall in love with the country so much that they decide to stay in the warmth and sunshine for good. Few take roots abroad by sharing the flavours from home.
Originally from Winnipeg via Victoria, Sandra Neumann had been travelling to Bucerias, a small resort town 20 minutes northwest of Puerto Vallarta, with her husband Andrew’s family for over 20 years.
“[Andrew’s] father and stepmother were the groundbreakers. They had a restaurant in Winnipeg for years and years, and Andrew’s father and uncle sold it to Andrew, then they just travelled to Mexico,” she said. “They found Bucerias when it was a serious one-horse town.”
Neumann and her family moved to Bucerias in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Though both Neumann and her husband had been in the restaurant industry for years, their original plan was not to open a restaurant.
“When we opened here, our plan was to be an internet café and a deli. I never wanted a restaurant again. I just wanted to, you know, make the shepherd’s pie and have people take it home for dinner, a pick-your-food-up-and-get-the-hell-outta-here kinda thing,” she said. “But then, people would buy the shepherd’s pie and say, ‘Can I sit in the backyard and eat it?’”
Now the “backyard” at Neumann’s restaurant, Sandrina’s, has grown into a lush courtyard teeming with greenery. Soft lighting sets the mood in the evenings, while a water feature near the back of the courtyard babbles softly in the background.
Sandrina’s serves Mediterranean cuisine, including some traditional Greek family recipes passed down from her husband’s grandmother. Neumann is also starting to create dishes with some Mexican influence, like Greek-style stuffed peppers using poblano chiles instead of bell peppers, or nachos with feta, artichokes and kalamata olives.
“We have a couple of dishes that are like ‘Mexican-Greek’ fusion - and I hate to even use that word, ‘fusion’. I truly, truly – don’t even put that word in the article because I really fucking hate that word,” she said. “It’s a beautiful combination of the most favourite flavours of both cultures, which is maybe the way I would say it.”
Sandra Neumann’s daughters help out at the restaurant, and her son, Paul, did as well, until he opened up his own place last October a few blocks down the main drag of Bucerias.
Unlike Sandrina’s, Chin-Gon Asian Flavors is a smaller, quick-service restaurant, serving Asian-inspired dishes – like pad thai, curry, sweet and sour pork and won tons – with an emphasis on healthy, natural ingredients.
“It’s all the kind of food that I really missed eating,” the younger Neumann said, alluding to his years working as a chef for various health retreats around Nelson, B.C. “Healthier, lighter, different – I’ve eaten a lot of tortillas and chicken in the last nine years. Also, working at [Sandrina’s], I hadn’t really done a lot of cooking and I missed that.”
Bucerias is also home to Bistro Limon, the sister restaurant of Teatro Limon in Puerto Vallarta. Chef/owner Bruce Byng, who is originally from Regent Park, Ontario, but has cooked all over the world, took a more unconventional path to Mexico.
“It was actually my staff at one of my restaurants, they bought me a ticket for a holiday. I was under a lot of stress with a lawsuit, so they put me in a room [with a map] and said, ‘Point!’ and right there and then they just sent me to Puerto Vallarta,” he said. “Three days later I phoned my lawyer and said, ‘Sell everything, I’m not coming [home].’”
Byng first opened a hamburger stand called El Pelan (“The Bald Guy”), but soon realized that it was difficult to find quality beef in Puerto Vallarta. He began to work with the Canadian Beef Exports Confederation as well as some cattle ranchers in Alberta (where else?) to import and promote Alberta beef. Once he began sourcing higher quality beef and became more familiar with the local language, laws and culture, Byng opened a steakhouse and chophouse called Bruce’s Back Alley Bistro.
He eventually sold the restaurant and bought the house where Teatro Limon is located today.
“[My wife and I] went back to Europe for a little while, and on the plane I jokingly turned to her and said, ‘I’m going to open a restaurant in the house.’ And of course she said, ‘No, you bloody well won’t,’ and I said, “Oh, honey, I’m just joking,” he recalls. “But it’s a 10-hour flight and your mind starts racing, and she was getting kind of giddy, so I said, ‘What if I get a license?’ and she said ‘You’ll never get a license.’ We get home, and 10 days later I show up with a license.”
Originally a two table dining room, Teatro Limon now serves 50 to 90 people in a typical evening. The concept for Teatro Limon is unique – there is no menu. Byng simply asks his diners their likes, dislikes and dietary restrictions, then creates a meal based on those parameters.
“We get all different cultural backgrounds here,” says Byng. “I am always amalgamating techniques from different cuisines. Not having a menu allows me more creativity and I am constantly reinventing my food and my restaurant.”
All three restaurateurs agree that although it’s easier to open a restaurant in Mexico than in Canada, in terms of cost and obtaining permits, staying open is a challenge due to the seasonality of tourism in Mexico.
“It’s very much geared toward tourism here; Puerto Vallarta depends on tourism,” says Byng. “We’re only busy five months of the year. More people are retiring and buying condos, but there are a lot of absentee owners.”
Despite their successes in Mexico, Byng and the Neumanns still miss small pieces of home.
“I miss halibut and turnips, which you can’t get here because they’re cold weather foods, and Skor Bars,” says Sandra Neumann.
“I miss Christmas dinner, fish and chips, cheese curds, beef jerky, and good Chinese food,” says Byng.