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Unexpected lessons about life while eating and drinking in Mexico

By Staff | Mar 3, 2008

They sure aren’t Bert and Ernie. And they definitely live a long, long way from Sesame Street.

Yet one can learn a lot from these two characters, and I don’t just mean the ABCs.

Their names are actually Al and Ernie. And they live in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for the most part.

Alfred C. Williams was an American G.I. in 1952 stationed in a ravaged and bombed out Germany that was being rebuilt. There he met Ernest Kloeble, an ex-German army cook.

They both returned to the U.S. and decided to move to La Jolla, California, a soon to be up-scale suburb of San Diego. And there, in the 1950s they opened a world class German restaurant. Al was the host, and Ernie was the chef.

Names of famous people who frequented their restaurant roll off their tongues. Movie stars, singers, politicians. Every name you can think of from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Al and Ernie filled the restaurant with famous people, gourmet food, and art work that they collected from around the world — especially Germany, where they still keep a beautifully restored old family home that they live in for four months of the year.

Then they sold the restaurant for a ton of money and settled down on some ranch property in California that they owned.

Soon they sold that too. The two moved to Puerto Vallarta, a Mexican village they had loved to visit, and bought a hacienda right smack in the middle of Centro (Old Town Puerto Vallarta.) That is a long way from the new resorts and time-shares that are being built at the rate of about $3 million a month.

Their hacienda is a short walk away from the hacienda that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor bought and lived in after they made the movie “Night of the Iguana.” That movie turned a sleepy little Mexican village of a couple of thousand residents into a major resort city of several hundred thousand residents.

(Puerto Vallarta is one of the few Mexican resort cities that started as a real Mexican town — others like Cancun were developed to be full of resorts. But I digress.)

Al and Ernie decided to make the hacienda a bed and breakfast called Casa Fantasia. They have been running it ever since.

It is a beautiful place, surrounded by brick walls to keep out the city noise. Or potential thieves. The decor is pretty much “Mexico collides with Germany.” It is definitely Spanish, but with heavy, dark German furniture and lots and lots of artwork. I guess they did not sell their fabulous art collection along with the La Jolla restaurant.

They are one block from Bahia de Banderas (the 25 mile wide Pacific Ocean bay that Puerto Vallarta sits on — called Bay of Flags.)

There is breakfast served there every day to the guests who occupy the five bedrooms. And champagne cocktail hour every day at 6 p.m., with some type of fabulous hors d’ourves that Ernie rustles up.

But this is the best part. Ernie loves to cook. And Ernie is a world class chef. So at least once a week Ernie and Al invite a dozen or so people over for champagne cocktails AND dinner.

They try to only invite people who they think would enjoy good food and wine, and who will create some interesting conversation.

Some (but certainly not all) of their guests are invited to the once a week dinner. They also invite folks like a local real estate agent who books their B & B, local politicians, writers, or artists.

Or a newspaper editor from Blue Earth, Minnesota.

I originally got an invitation when a friend smelled sauerkraut coming from the hacienda as she walked by, and tried to make a reservation for dinner. “This is a private home, not a restaurant,” Ernie bellowed at her.

Then he invited her and her friends to dinner. And he still invites us, although he calls us the “Freeloaders from Minnesota.”

And we are, because there is no charge for this dinner. We are Al and Ernie’s friends and we are their guests.

So if you are thinking of a trip to Mexico, here is a travel tip. Don’t stay in a resort or a time share. Stay as far away from them as you can. Stay away from the Wal-Marts, Coscos, Sam’s Clubs, McDonalds and other American institutions that are being built in this beautiful country that has its own style and architecture and culture and certainly does not need ours.

There are other options. Small apartments, or beach hotels near — or in — the real city.

And there is also Casa Fantasia, a place as interesting as they come. And if you are also interesting, you might get lucky and get invited for dinner.

But you better hurry, because Al and Ernie say this is their last year of operating their retirement business. Ernie turns 80 on this Thursday, March 6th. He is inviting 50 or 60 (or more) of his close personal friends and chilling the champagne and hiring a mariachi band.

And cooking of course. Lots and lots of cooking. I can smell the sauerkraut from here….