Vallarta Living | December 2008
|Chelly: The Pie Lady of Yelapa|
Ken Hoffman - Intelligencer Journal
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This week I reached out for a big ol' piece of banana cream pie from the Pie Lady of Yelapa, a small fishing village that time forgot on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
|Her only retail outlet is that box on her head. Her storefront is the beach. Her backdrop is the Pacific Ocean. Her overhead is the sky. Her cash register is a fanny pack.|
Admittedly, this is one of the stranger prepared delicacies I've reviewed for this column. But I heard about this incredible pie that's sold only in Yelapa … and I've had flimsier reasons for picking a vacation destination.
Once, I planned my whole summer vacation around eating lunch at Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba in Naples, Italy — the world's first pizza joint. It opened in 1738. I ordered a medium sausage pie and a Coke Light. It would have been nicer if the cook had taken the cigarette out of his mouth when he made my pizza.
I took a three-day vacation in Mexico because a buddy told me about a Pie Lady who makes the most incredible pies in Yelapa, 45 miles south of busy, sunbathing Puerto Vallarta. Pie? I'm so there.
It's easy, just a little tricky, to get to Yelapa. First you fly into Puerto Vallarta. Then you take a cab to the dock, and hop a boat to Yelapa. There's no paved road to Yelapa, and no airport. The boat costs $10 each way and takes about an hour. Sit in the back and strap yourself in for a thrill ride. It's a speedboat.
Beware of imitations. When the boat tied up, a woman met me on the dock and practically shoved pie in my face. "Best in Yelapa," she said.
"That's not her," the boat skipper said. He pointed to the other end of the beach. "She's down there."
The Pie Lady is Chelly Rodriguez, and she's been baking and selling pies in Yelapa for more than 20 years. Her mother created the business, and Rodriguez took it over when her mother "got too old." Now Rodriguez starts baking pies at 6 a.m. every day. And I mean every day — she couldn't remember her last day off. "Years ago," she said.
She trudges up and down the beach barefoot, like Carmen Miranda in those old tropical paradise movies. But instead of wearing a hat made of fruit, Rodriguez balances a large Tupperware container filled with pies on her head. She wears a T-shirt that says "Pie — El Original Sabor de Yelapa." The Original Flavor of Yelapa.
She's big business, and tourists make sure they've got pie money in their pocket when they hit the beach. She sells a ton of pies and, yes, she's even into merchandising. Chelly Pie T-shirts, just like the one she wears, are $10.
The Pie Lady bakes 10 kinds of pie: chocolate, banana cream, lemon meringue, cheesecake, coconut, chocolate-coconut, nuts, apple, pumpkin and pineapple. Her pies are made with all-natural ingredients, many of which she picks by hand in Yelapa. My favorite is apple pie, but I asked for banana cream because it's funnier.
Rodriguez charges 30 pesos (about $2.50) for a slice, served on a paper napkin with a plastic fork. She doesn't get a lot of points for presentation, except for the balancing act on her head. Whole pies are 150 pesos. But it's pretty much a "by the slice" business. She doesn't box them up nice and pretty for the flight home. She doesn't use preservatives. Her pies don't travel well.
I took my first bite of banana cream pie and thought: "Only Puerto Vallarta? I would have flown much farther for this."
The pie has sliced bananas sitting on top of soft pudding on top of a flaky crust. While she says "bananas," they're really tree-ripened plantains from her backyard.
After telling me that her ingredients were "a secret," she rattled off each one: milk, condensed milk, bananas (plantains), flour, butter, eggs and vegetable oil. Nothing else. No preservatives, no fillers, no long Latin words. That's her secret — there is no secret. Just fresh ingredients and knowing how to bake a pie.
The pie was incredibly sweet, and I asked, "No sugar?" She said the sweetness was from the bananas and condensed milk. The crust was so soft that I suspected pork fat, but she waved me off: "vegetable oil."
Rodriguez does not sell to stores in Yelapa. There is no Chelly's 24-hour House of Pies. Only 750 people live in the village. There are only a few primitive hotels. Most tourists are day-trippers. She does not bundle up pies and take them to Puerto Vallarta, where restaurants would love to feature them. She's already working at full capacity.
Her only retail outlet is that box on her head. Her storefront is the beach. Her backdrop is the Pacific Ocean. Her overhead is the sky. Her cash register is a fanny pack. "I have a big oven now. I can bake eight pies at once, and I bake all morning." As soon as one batch is done, she makes another. During the busy tourist season, she gets up extra early and bakes more pies. She does everything herself.
After each day's pies are sold out (I asked her what she does with her leftovers; she said, "I never have leftovers"), she puts on an apron and waitresses at her brother's beachside seafood restaurant, called Marlin. The Pie Lady's pies are NOT on the menu. A brother is family. Pie is business.