Lili Cipriani Restaurant Bar. The name conjures up images of a cozy bistro tucked away on a side street in Paris. And the owners, mother Liliana Pineda Guillen and daughter Jesica Zamudio Pineda, look very French-like indeed with their perfectly coiffed hair and form fitting sleekly fashionable dresses.
But Lili Cipriani is a beach bar on Isla de Ixtapa, accessible only by panga (water taxi), a 10-minute boat ride away from Ixtapa, the once sleepy fishing village now turned major resort area on Mexico’s Pacific coast. But as busy and built-up as Ixtapa is, Isla de Ixtapa (Ixtapa Island) is anything but. Here it’s all open air beach restaurants, families swimming in the surf, fishing boats bobbing in the water and people escaping the sun under the thatched roofs of the restaurants. There’s nary a high rise in sight.
On our own, I wouldn’t know which one to pick, but our guide who lived in Ixtapa from a decade when he worked at the Club Med there says he knows the best and leads us to Lili Cipriani.
Like the other restaurants on the beach, it’s narrow, stretching from Playa Varadero to the much quieter Playa Coral, a secluded cove edged by large black boulders and outcroppings of rocks covered with tall sticklike cactus.
The floors here are sandy but mother and daughter navigate effortlessly even though they’re wearing heels. Large cooking clay vessels standing over open fires and fish sizzles on grills set above wood burned down to coals. Want to snorkel in the clear warm waters of the bays? Lili Cipriani rents snorkeling equipment and sells sunglasses and water wings. Massages, the real kind, are available upstairs. Vendors sell jewelry, ironwood carvings and perfectly hand-embroidered blouses.
And the panga that bought us? Navigated by Liliana’s husband.
This family seems to have their business model down pat which may be why their restaurant is twice as crowded as all the others lining the beaches.
Under umbrellas on Playa Coral sipping pina coladas from hallowed out pineapples decorated with happy faces, we watch as a fisherman with a cooler begins laying out his catch on a large platter. There’s lobsters, large shrimp, giant snappers and other fish I don’t recognize. Net bags filled with oysters are given to young boys, maybe around 12 in age, who deftly shuck them using with mallet and dangerously sharp knives. Choose what you want and they’ll cook it immediately. Can’t get much fresher than that. Someone at the table next to ours orders the snapper in garlic and the flavor wafts over, the garlic sweet smelling after being cooked.
When I ask for recipes, Pineda happily obliges though she tells me nothing is really written down. It’s a little garlic, a squirt of lime kind of thing.
“It’s all very simple,” she said. “Even the coconut shrimp.”
There seems to be some sort of honor system here. We consume a large order of coconut shrimp (which cost $12 and was more than we should have eaten) and then wander down to the end of the cove but no one comes running after us to ask us to pay our bill.
But, of course, they don’t need to. There’s no way we’re not coming back to eat some more.
Filete de Pesca al Mojo de Ajo
(Fish in Garlic)
1½ tilapia, snapper or other fish fillet
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ olive oil
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
Season fish with salt, pepper and lime juice. Set aside while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Heat oil at low heat in a large frying pan. Once hot, fry the garlic slices until they are golden. Make sure to remove promptly once they are light golden, if you leave them longer they will get a bitter taste. This step takes a few seconds, so be very careful.
Increase heat to medium high using the same pan and oil in which you sautéed the garlic. Once hot, add the fish and cook on both sides for about 2-3 minutes per side for fish that’s approximately 1/3-inch-thick; 5-7 minutes for thicker fillets. Turn only after one side is golden brown to cook on the other side.
Remove this from the frying pan; drain.
To serve, top with chopped parsley and golden garlic slices.
Camarones al Coco
24 jumbo shrimp, peeled, leaving the tail and first segment of the shell intact
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup flour
2/3 cup milk
1 ½ cups corn flakes, slightly crushed
1 ½ cups dried, sweetened shredded coconut, coarsely chopped
Oil for frying
Soak the shrimp for one minute in cold water to cover, with the lime juice. Remove and pat thoroughly dry with paper towels.
Mix the flour, eggs and milk to make a batter. Add salt to taste if desired.
Holding each shrimp by the tail, dip into batter shaking off any excess.
Coat the shrimp with a mixture of the cornflakes and coconut. Place on a platter and let dry so the coating will stick.
While the shrimp is drying, heat a heavy skillet with enough oil to fry, about 350º F.
Fry the shrimp in batches in the hot oil, turning once, until golden, for a total of 1 minute per batch. Remove and drain on paper towels.