Qulture and La Fina Cocina de Barrio
Written by Marc d’Entremont
An art gallery surrounds diners at Qulture. At La Fina Cocina de Barrio unexpected dishes of great imagination contrast with the intimate, simple space. Although several factors transform a restaurant into a destination in Puerto Vallarta, the competition sets the bar high, often only in economic terms.
What’s often overlooked are the human stories. Location, atmosphere and a quality menu are essentials, but success depends on the human element. The path taken to achieve destination status is often surprising, especially to those involved.
The Restaurants: Location, Atmosphere, Food, the Human Story
Qulture: Restaurant, Bar, Gallery
November 8, 2021, was the Third Anniversary of Qulture. In the restaurant world, that’s an auspicious birthday. There’s a reasonable belief that if the business can survive after three years (hopefully turning a profit), it’s doing something right.
Qulture is doing many things right, especially after a very challenging three years. The location in the western half of Emiliano Zapata (the “Romantic Zone”), which is doing its best to maintain some of the “old” Vallarta vibes, was an excellent choice. The restored traditional early 20th-century two-story open courtyard building was perfect for the founders’ concepts.
Their mission has been to meld cultural, culinary and graphic arts under one “semi-open” roof. The ample and graceful two-story courtyard interior dining space is lined with the studios of 18 artists. The extensive walls display their works in all mediums. There’s an atmosphere of being in an artistic village.
Yet I mentioned a “challenging 3 years.” After popular success, the first year proprietorship was transferred to Gabriel Espinosa, who had been involved with Qulture since the start and Puerto Vallarta’s most talented mixologist. That was February 1, 2020.
Covid upset everything. It ruined many dreams. Yet Qulture managed between working within the restrictions and with a loyal local clientele.
Chef Diego Gomez took the helm as Executive Chef of Qulture’s kitchen just as the pandemic nearly closed the city. Like the art on the wall, Qulture had always favored tweaking the flavors of local ingredients. Fried Chicharron-coated Octopus on Guacamole was a recently featured special.
Like many chefs, Diego started working as a teenager in local restaurants and the experience grew on him. He graduated in 2018 from the Universidad Tecnológica de Bahía de Banderas with a BA Gastronomy and promptly left for Spain. He spent a four-month internship at the famed BonAmb (2 Michelin Star) in Javea under Chef Alberto Ferruz.
Returning to Puerto Vallarta, he was inspired by chefs who were fusing the traditional Jalisco and Nayarit regional cuisines borrowing from each other and the world. It reinforced the sense that a positive cooperative kitchen culture was necessary to foster creativity and customer service (the varied tastes of the clientele) such as offering a savory, aromatic, vegan, coconut milk cauliflower curry or an intense warm Mexican Chocolate Bread Pudding, with its hints of cinnamon, served on a corn husk.
Chef Diego’s kitchen can be a perfect foil to a spicy Tuna Tartar. A crisp iceberg lettuce Wedge Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing and crumbled Bacon throwback to the 1950s. Chef Diego’s own Shrimp Bisque (see recipe below) has an intense aroma, and the drizzle of Black Truffle oil adds an intriguing note of earthiness. Add one head bartender Jose Luis’ stellar Prohibition Era Martini or Manhattan’s and relax within creativity.
When you go: Qulture ( https://www.qulturepv.com/ ) Calle Venustiano Carranza 466, Emiliano Zapata, (Romantic Zone) Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Qulture is open 7 days a week 12:00 noon – 10:00 pm. The menu changes quarterly.
La Fina/Cocina de Barrio
Laura Romero Robles and Chef Emilio Aramburo Osuna sit on the porch of a modest home with plants and colorful walls like so many Mexican houses. The El Caloso barrio (neighborhood) is just off the beaten tourist path. On the banks of the Rio Cuale it feels like a small village, yet it’s within a few minutes’ walk of the Emiliano Zapata Romantic Zone.
I define Puerto Vallarta (originally a consolidation of five fishing towns) as a city that’s still a Mexican village. Even with thousands of ex-pats and snowbirds, Mexican life sets the pace – fortunately. Many grow up, inherit, have families, and are buried nearby.
El Caloso is a charming area next to Gringo Gulch/El Centro (Puerto Vallarta’s most historic and desirable neighborhood – think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). There is nothing in El Caloso to remind you you’re in one of North America’s most popular international tourist destinations.
La Fina Cocina de Barrio translates into “good neighborhood kitchen.” It’s a very good neighborhood kitchen. It owes its success to Laura and Emilio, exceeding the norm by focusing on the food.
Laura and Emilio had similar Covid related challenges faced by Qulture. Fortunately, their concept and Mexican family tradition worked to their advantage. They opened La Fina Cocina at the end of 2019.
The house that is La Fina Cocina is, not surprisingly, a family home owned by Laura’s father. The seating, only 25 guests at eight tables, all on the covered front porch, was intentional. Word of mouth publicity was always their marketing strategy.
All have worked to their advantage and to Puerto Vallarta’s good fortune. At the beginning of this year’s Winter season, it’s advised to make reservations three days in advance. To be visually pleasured and entertained by the savory taste combinations from Chef Emilio is worth the planning.
Chef Emilio’s training is entirely through experience. His first teachers were his Abuela and Madre (Grandmother and Mother). This is not to sound quaint. For many an ambitious, successful chef in Mexico – Diego Gomez – there has been an inspirational Abuela or Madre passing on the techniques and knowledge of local ingredients that comprise Mexican regional cuisine. It’s the foundation of Mexican gastronomy from which infinite fusions can be created.
Emilio worked with some of Puerto Vallarta’s top chefs. And like many today he is inspired to play with his food because “I love food,” he said with a Cheshire Cat’s grin. (…and wine. La Fina has an extensive and select wine list).
He often creates presentations that deconstruct the traditional recipe and become works of art in their own. A rich, creamy Brie Cheesecake with Pecan Ice Cream looked as if a post-modern architect was in the kitchen.
Lamb Quesadilla bathed in a rich sauce with hints of chocolate and chili. Butter-tender Medallions of Beef paired with leek puree and hibiscus reduction. Shrimp and Marrow Taco was a fusion of unexpected flavors and even a humble hamburger elicited awe: included pineapple, roasted onion and seasoned house-made fried potato wedges.
When you go: La Fina Cocina de Barrio ( https://www.facebook.com/La-Fina-Cocina-de-Barrio-110887070295677/ ) Atmosfera 151, Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, Mexico – open for dinner only 7:00 – 11:00 p.m. Wednesday – Sunday
by Chef Diego Gomez
Qulture, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Ingredients (15 servings)
- Celery: 500 gr (16 oz)
- Carrot: 250 gr ( 8 oz)
- Onion: 250 gr ( 8 oz)
- Garlic: 100 gr (3.5 oz)
- Peppercorn: 50 gr (1.75 oz)
- Shrimp with shells: 1,000 gr (2 pounds)
- Water: 3 lt (12 cups)
- Heavy cream: 1 lt (4 cups)
- Paprika: 100 gr (3.5 oz)
- Salt: 100 gr (3.5 oz)
- Olive oil: 250 gr (8 oz)
- Cornstarch: 100 gr (3.5 oz)
- Water: 1/2 lt ( 2 cups)
- Chopped reserved shrimp
- Truffle oil
- Crouton with panela cheese
How to make shrimp bisque
- Then we cut all our vegetables into large cubes, no matter what shape they take, everything will be cooked together.
- We start cooking the garlic and onions first; after 3 minutes, add the celery and carrot, let them cook for another 5 minutes over medium heat.
- Once everything is cooking, add shrimp in shells. Cook for another 5 minutes and then add the 3 liters of water.
- Let cook for 1 hour over low heat until our mixture is reduced slightly. After the hour, add the heavy cream and cook for another 30 minutes until it boils. Remove 4 to 6 shrimp and reserve for the garnish.
- Puree in a blender, in batches. It is essential not to omit this part since the flavor of the shrimp is extracted, and the shells emulsify into the bisque.
- Once liquefied, strain through a fine-mesh sieve back into the pot, put it on the fire for 10 minutes, add our slurry (starch + water), and let cook for 3 minutes or until the consistency changes creamier. I like to do it this way because people with celiac disease can eat it since we don’t use wheat flour.
- Once cooked, it is ready to be served. At the Qulture restaurant, we serve it accompanied by chopped pieces of the reserved shrimp (peeled), a crouton with panela cheese, and black truffle oil.