Careful steps are required to navigate the slippery, sandy ramp that drops you into Bahía Maguey, a popular tourist beach in the municipality of Santa Maria Huatulco, 166 miles southeast of Oaxaca City. At first glance, the tight palapa-lined cove seems not unlike so many other great Pacific beaches in Mexico, dotted with marisquerías and cold chelas. But a few clues let you know immediately that you’re on the Oaxacan coast: Coronas and Vickys (Victoria beer) are de rigueur, shots of mezcal in vasos veladoras (glass cups for candles) are on nearly every table, and corn tortillas are cooking on a clay comal outside the unparalleled seafood shrine known as Ay Caray.
Head straight to that restaurant’s worn thatched roof and recline in one of its plastic chairs for a front-row seat to families playing in the bay’s gentle blue waters and the hum of the pangas whisking groups away for ocean excursions. As the micheladas, piña coladas, and shots of mezcal arrive, you sink deeper into the soft, golden sand, and you might just drift away entirely if it weren’t for the sudden gleam off a silver platter that is heading your way, laden with a pile of fat, spiny lobsters, shimmering parrotfish, and rosy red snappers — the catches of the day. You choose one or, better yet, all and sit back as your soon-to-be feast succumbs to the smoke and flames of the restaurant’s traditional clay oven, inlaid with stone, the way Zapotecos in the eastern Costa region have been cooking seafood here for hundreds of years — and now for you, here, at what’s probably the best seafood restaurant in all of Oaxaca.
Santa Maria Huatulco was a sleepy coffee-growing town before Mexico’s National Tourism Fund developed it into a beach resort destination in the 1980s. Today it’s one of the major cities in Oaxaca’s Costa region — a mostly rural area that’s home to a dense population of Afromexicanos and a multitude of Oaxacan Indigenous groups, including Mixtecos, Zapotecos, Amuzgos, Chontales, and Chatinos. Huatulco itself consists of nine picturesque bays, an irresistible year-round tropical climate, and ecological and historic wonders like the 87-hectare Bocana de Rio Copalito Eco-Archaeological Reserve with breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. International tourists make up a fraction of visitors, but locals from Oaxaca City and CDMX are drawn to its family-friendly beaches and famed marisquerías.
In Mexico and abroad, the seafood-centric cuisines of Nayarit, Sinaloa, and Baja California are the standard-bearers of mariscos mexicanos, a reputation based on an abundance of fine seafood products, an esteemed ceviche technique, and an expansive canon of tantalizing fish dishes. In Oaxaca, it’s typically the moles, tlayudas, quesillo, chapulines, and cured meats of the Valles Centrales that garner the most attention, but the seafood-focused cooking of the Costa region is not to be overlooked.
Here you’ll find tamales de tichinda (mussel tamales); a variety of spicy moles with fish, shrimp, and iguana; pescado a la talla (wood-roasted whole fish); fiery seafood soups; and the showstopping piña rellena — a seafood-stuffed baked pineapple. “They can’t get this food there [in Oaxaca City],” says Sandra Cardenas, the chef and proprietor of Ay Caray, a 20-year-old mainstay of Bahía Maguey.
Even among the great seafood traditions of the region, Ay Caray stands apart, thanks to the dedication of its chef and the aforementioned domed clay oven, or horno de barro, at the restaurant’s heart. This pre-Hispanic mode of cooking seafood evolved alongside the region’s Indigenous cuisines. “Cooking seafood in a clay oven is a tradition here, but most people don’t do it anymore because it takes longer to cook and you need to take extra care, but it’s important to keep this alive,” says Cardenas. “Our ancestors used them to make a variety of dishes, but it’s ideal for seafood. The fish comes out fresher, juicier, and has a unique texture that you don’t get on a grill.”
Any proper feast at Ay Caray begins with the piña rellena. With smoke billowing from the oven and a bright yellow fire cracking at the back end, Cardenas slides in a halved pineapple packed with a mixture of octopus, shrimp, fish, and pineapple chunks topped with a blanket of manchego. Costa-grown pineapples are especially plump, sweet, and plentiful, and for decades tourists have driven hours from Oaxaca City just to experience them. At Ay Caray they emerge from the oven slightly charred, cheese blistered, and imbued with the savory scent of mesquite smoke.
The pez loro, or parrotfish, is an Ay Caray exclusive. Cardenas likes its sweet, light flavor, which she enhances with a spicy adobo rub of charred red chiles — including the pungent chile de arbol and chile guajillo — as well as mayonnaise, garlic, onions, orange juice, and white wine. The extra time required to cook the whole fish in the horno de barro gives diners the opportunity to take advantage of the roaming vendors passing by with freshly shucked wild oysters and flesh-toned strips of salty raw clams. When the barbecued parrotfish finally arrives, it’s a deep brick red from the spicy adobo and served with warm tortillas for pulling the soft white flesh straight from the bone.
The lobsters Cardenas serves are local Pinto spiny lobsters — bulky, horn-studded creatures with shells the color of polished brown leather. They’re caught daily by free divers just beyond the cove, and Cardenas rubs them in adobo, too, before splitting them down the middle, searing them in the blazing-hot oven, and serving them on a platter surrounded by elaborately cut radishes, twisted lime slices, and avocados. Use a tortilla to drag a bit of the sweet flesh through the black bean paste perfumed with epazote, and top it with smoky salsa for a lobster taco unlike anything on earth.
This is Oaxaca, so there’s mole, of course — a rich seafood mole amarillo that Cardenas will make on request. The reddish-orange mole can be served with fish or shrimp (traditionally, iguana) and tastes of hoja santa, cloves, and the smoky, tart chilhuacle amarillo, which gives the mole its name.
Traditional Oaxacan cooks are often thought of as austere defenders of tradition, yet Cardenas happily borrows recipes from other regions. “I really like the food and renditions from Juchitán de Zaragoza,” a town just three hours east of Huatulco in the neighboring Istmo region, explains Cardenas. “I make puré de papa horneado in the busy season.” The baked, creamy dish of which she speaks features mashed carrots and potato, enriched with Mexican cream and stained with yellow mustard. It’s a popular dish with Ay Caray’s regulars, given a smoky touch from her oven, and the perfect rich foil to a meal of roasted spiny lobsters and Cardenas’s divine pescado a la talla.
When Oaxacans from the Valles Centrales began to open restaurants in Los Angeles in the mid to late ’90s, Costa specialties like the piña rellena were on just about every menu. But there’s something different about eating it all here now: It’s your feet in the sand, the smell of smoke and salt in your hair, the whir of pangas backed by the sound of a roving musician’s strumming guitar. It’s the allure of the sea.
Bill Esparza is a James Beard Award-winning writer and author of LA Mexicano, covering Latino food and culture. Juan de Dios Garza Vela is a photographer specializing in food and travel. When he isn’t doing photo work he also does illustration work and murals. Based at the moment in Guadalajara, he can’t imagine life without tacos.