One of things I love about Mexico is the country’s embrace of the make-shift; people are great at rigging what they need with whatever they have access to. Inventive solutions to all kinds of problems and needs are everywhere, as I discovered on a recent vacation in Sayulita, Mexico, a fishing village-cum-surfer-paradise about 35 miles North of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. On a riverbank, away from the touristy bustle of Sayulita’s central plaza, I came upon a Mexican woman cooking on an inventive, multi-use wood-fired stove rigged out of loosely-placed bricks, stones, and metal parts repurposed from other appliances.
On a grill set over wood coals sizzled halved chickens and steak, an onion, some chiles. A sheet of iron served as a griddle to warm tortillas, cactus paddles and pots of menudo, a tripe stew traditionally served on Sunday for family gatherings. A pot of birria was kept warm on hot bricks in one corner of the stove: a perfect bain marie.
This was the kitchen of a small restaurant — four or five tables under a palm frond roof. At a workstation made from a folding table, another cook fed fat kernels of dried corn, soaked overnight in water, into an ancient hand-crank meat grinder. It was attached to a rough motor that whined from the hard work of grinding the tough kernels into a fine dough for tortillas. This was then rolled into balls, flattened in a press and cooked on the griddle: handmade tortillas for each order.
Some enterprising soul forged the multipurpose stove and grinder to found this charming restaurant by the river, with really good “homemade” food. It bore out my private theory: that make-shift is often a good guide to REAL local food.
I’ve filed the stove photos in my “outdoor oven file”, an on-going reference for the the back yard cooker I will one day build. It’s a reminder of the possibilities inherent in ordinary materials.