Back to the Beach: Film, Fun & Food at the Festival del Puerto
The Film Festival in Puerto Escondido
I’ve always loved the movies. My father, who began his career as a critic reviewing them, passed on a fascination for the silver screen when he took me to a revival of Singin’ in the Rain. I was 4. Gene Kelly was in attendance and I shook his hand, so the story goes. At six, I acquired a portrait of Judy Garland, signed to me. I had learned to love Chaplin and the Marx Brothers by 9. In high school, as other kids hung out on the bridges in Central Park after hours to throw eggs at passing cars, I, a card-carrying member of an Italian Neo-Realist Film Club, attended Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini flics. I even toyed with becoming a cineaste myself and made a 15 minute dramatic film, in Super 8, at the age of 15. Here in Mexico, I drifted away from my first cultural love—the Cineteca is far from me—plunging full time into the foodie world.
So it was an honor to be invited to attend the 4th edition of the Festival del Puerto, a small but tight weekend of cinema held in the laid back beach town of Puerto Escondido.
Friday was opening night. An enormous screen had been set up on the beach at the Villa Sol Beach Club. A crowd of at least 500 gathered. The screening was to be of the much anticipated and up-for-an-Oscar Cuarón film ‘Roma’. Every chair was occupied, many sat on the sand. Hushed anticipation hung still in the briny air as an occasional star fell and seabird called. I love that the festival’s featured film was in black & white, the screen reverting to the silver of yore. Roma is a masterpiece. Its storytelling varies between intimate psychological close-ups and astonishing drama, including crowd scenes worthy of C.B. De Mille. It is both tender and gritty and recalls such classic directors as Fellini, Bergman, Capra and the aforementioned De Sica. What a privilege to view it in focused detail, the sound emanating clearly from all sides, the roll of waves lulling the audience even deeper into the womb-like presence of the night.
The only problem with scheduling was that the following day’s stellar offering, Carlos Reygadas’ Nuestro Tiempo, a drawn out look at a crumbling relationship that recalls Bergman’s 1973 Scenes from a Marriage, invited unfair comparison. Minds blown by the previous day’s emotional roller coaster ride were less open to this quirky but slow moving vision from that talented Mexican director.
Other well curated screenings followed. Eva Villaseñor’s heavy docu-portrait “M” was a standout. A prize was chosen in the category of cortometrajes (short films) for El Pulso de la Tierra a moving, plotless, impressionistic film.
Eating Around Town
The festival did not incorporate gastronomy per se; disappointing snacks were proffered at the screenings, an aspect that could be improved given that Oaxaca harbors superb culinary offerings. But it was a thrill to this big city critic to discover that the town is now home to a number of fine eating establishments, several of which are linked to and support the festival.
Almoraduz: Cocina de Autor
I love the lack of pretense at Almoraduz, whose simple, open-to-the-street locale reveals a surprisingly urbane kitchen. Young chefs Quetzalcóatl Zurita and Shalxaly Macías offer a menu based on local products and Oaxacan tradition, dishes being invented or tweaked versions of classics. We started with a beautifully balanced aguachile de tasajo, the local dried beef, sailed through a few buttery grilled oysters, were impressed by the ‘ducky-ness’ of the little stuffed tetelas (triangular empanadas of corn masa) which lazed on a bed of smoky mole negro. And I could have gone for a second taco of lightly tempura-ed soft shelled crab in a spiky cilantro and rosemary dressing. It was heartening to find a sophisticated aesthetic so far from the madding crowd.
Pirata, a Culinary Speakeasy
At Cocina Pirata, former Vermonter Travis Limoge (yes, he’s related to the French ceramic town) has recently inaugurated an intimate tasting-menu-only restaurant. After entering through nearly hidden speakeasy-like doors, diners are seated in an amorphous space (blackened walls, low, golden lighting) and presented with seven little dishes which all utilize products from Verde Puerto, a local organic farm . The protocol here is that the plates are neither named nor explained. Diners are left to taste, analyze, discuss. This procedure could easily become a shtick, a twee rebuttal to the waiter’s usual lengthy listicle-like explanation while the food gets cold. But instead, each course becomes a game and a fun one at that. There’s no time for selfies or whatsapping. “It’s flor de calabaza…” Jorge assured of the little puddle of yellow cream dotted with green and red swirls of chile extract. “No, I think it’s squash itself,” I proposed, fooled by the thick texture. “But I taste corn,” exclaimed El Gordo. We were all right, it turned out. Dishes run the gamut from a bijou-like composed salad to “real food”— what appears to be a nicely grilled pork chop with black-eyed-peas, and is.
Chef Limoge explains that he ran a kitchen or two in L.A. before coming to Puerto where he sensed a growing market for more fine dining options. Pirata is to be lauded for raising the intellectual bar on the town’s dining scene.
Eating Local at the Market
Of course, local cooking must not be overlooked, we were in Oaxaca after all. A few of us explored the centrally located Mercado Benito Juarez on Saturday morning led by local chef Simon Estrella whose Nautilus, an open stall in a new market that affords a view of the sea, offers smart, home-style cooking. At the bustling central market we sampled quesadillas stuffed with local string cheese, colorful huaraches topped with Oaxacan chorizo and an enormous tlayuda filled with grilled, salty beef tasajo.
El Viejo Smoked Fish Tacos
The final stop was my favorite hole-in-the-wall, El Viejo Smoked Fish Tacos, located in front of a menacing, half-built, fortress-like cathedral that I doubt God himself would dare to set foot in if they ever finished it. Smoking fish is common up and down the pacific coast, and the market houses stands full of specimens warm out of the oven. But I have never seen the fish utilized as well as here. Smoked pez vela (related to tuna) is flaked, piled on a warm flour tortilla and dressed with a creamy cilantro/chile tartar sauce and thin slices of avocado. Barney Greengrass’ best sturgeon couldn’t compete with this tart, spicy smoke-infused morsel.
It’s noble to bring Culture to the far corners of the Republic and I applaud the young producers of this small but growing film-fest. I also hope to see the 2019 edition of the Festival del Puerto incorporate local restaurants, both high end and popular, into its official program. The sun may set and the curtain may go down, but something is always cooking.