The first time I traveled to Mexico, I went by myself. I didn’t have much of a plan other than that I wanted to live mainly in for two months and experience everything about the culture there. And, because food is a huge part of the culture, I ate out at restaurants and small local food stalls a lot.
The great thing about going out all the time in Mexico instead of cooking at my Airbnb was that, compared to living in the Bay Area, everything in Mexico is so much more affordable. I could go out to eat three times a day, every day if I wanted to, and still, save money compared to buying food from the grocery store and cooking back home.
One evening not too long after I’d arrived in Vallarta, I decided to find and try yet another new spot for dinner. It was the rainy season when I was staying there, which simply means that it’s often very hot and sunny during the day, and then it monsoons in the late afternoon and into the evening.
On this evening, there was a break in the rain and the heavy downpour that had been beating against the windows of my studio apartment had just stopped. I took the opportunity to go get some food.
Everyone else seemed to have the same idea, and it was nice to see all the families walking the streets with their children running circles around them as we all went out to get some dinner.
I walked the wet cobblestone streets near my apartment and was thankful that the rain had cooled the outside air. Eventually, I came to a small local restaurant, the kind that is one room with mismatched tables and chairs and nothing fancy going on in terms of decorations—these kinds of places have the best food in Mexico, in my opinion.
I walked in and used my limited knowledge of Spanish to ask for a table, then sat down and looked at the menu, which was printed out on a small rectangle of paper.
I wanted to try something new. I love tacos and tortas and had been eating plenty of both since I’d arrived in Mexico.
Rather than pull out my phone and use Google Translate to get the exact translation of the menu, I decided to wing it and pick something that sounded good based on my limited ability to translate on my own. One menu item caught my attention immediately: aguachile.
While I didn’t know specifically what aguachile was, I assumed it was some kind of seafood with chile salsa because, you know, “agua” and “chile.” I ordered that and a Coke, which is what I often saw Mexicans drinking with their dinners.
I remember the man who took my order looking a little bit surprised when I ordered my food, and I immediately understood why when the dish came in what felt like seconds later.
The wax paper-lined plastic diner-style basket placed in front of me contained several crispy, plain tostadas, a small dish of salsa verde, and what looked like a pile of grey shrimp mixed with thin slices of cucumbers and red onions. It looked that way because that’s exactly what it was.
I was confused for a moment. Growing up in the U.S., my parents had made it very clear to me that grey shrimp was uncooked and, therefore, unsafe. I didn’t want to be rude or look like a dumb American tourist (though, really, how could I look like anything but that?) so I bought myself some time drinking my Coke while I quickly Googled aguachile and if eating the raw shrimp it contained was safe.
It turns out that, yes, eating grey shrimp is safe if you’re eating it the way Mexicans prepare it. If you’re familiar with ceviche, this seafood dish also contains raw fish that, in a way, is “cooked” using the acids of lemons or limes, and mixed with salsa. Aguachile is prepared the same way.
So, while the shrimp still looked grey, it had been made safe to eat by being immersed in citrus acids. Satisfied that I wasn’t going to eat something that was dangerous, I picked up a piece of the shrimp with my fingers and quickly popped it in my mouth.
The flavor was incredible. It was light and fresh and citrusy, with the bite of the red onion cutting through. The shrimp didn’t taste much different than normally cooked shrimp to me, and I found myself eating most of the aguachile without even using the tostadas, though I did break one up scoop shrimp onto the pieces before popping them into my mouth.
I think that was one of the fastest meals I ate in Mexico. Not because I was in a hurry or didn’t want to take my time, but because I loved the taste of aguachile so much that I basically inhaled it.
I’ve since tried aguachile at various other restaurants in Mexico and, aside from the one touristy restaurant that white-washed it by actually cooking the shrimp and pretty much ruining the dish, it’s always fabulous when prepared authentically.
Though it was just a meal, this experience solidified for me the idea that trying new things really is rewarding, and that looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to food.
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