notes from the mexican kitchen
Chef's Travels/

My Latest Trip to Baja

Having just returned from a research trip to northern Baja after having been away for a couple of years, I am amazed at what has happened. Tijuana continues to evolve as a major place for great dining (if your image of Tijuana is still that ’80s hideousness that pandered to ugly American tourists, you won’t recognize anything). You have to go to the super-upscaleMisión 19 and to La Querencia, Verde y Crema, Cebichería Erizo. And that just scratches the surface; my time was short and I’m sure that list is woefully incomplete. Taco culture in Tijuana continues strong, but it’s been matched by a great craft beer movement, too. Though I have to say I dream of the shrimp tacos from El Masateño and the carne asada torta at Tortas Wash Mobile, if I only had one meal, I’d go to the collection of outdoor taquerías called Las Ahumaderas where you can find some pretty fine traditional flavor. Friends in Tijuana are enticing me back with descriptions of newer taquerías that they say are unforgettable. (Stay tuned for another round of Tijuana taco crawl notes.) The best place to get an orientation to the great craft brews of Tijuana is at BCB (across the street from Jair Tellez’ wood-fired Verde y Crema restaurant). They have dozens of delicious libations on tap and in bottles and cans.

When you’re heading south toward Ensenada, if you’re up for an adventure, stop off in Popotla, a rough little fishing village. There are a bunch of restaurants that make a lot of wood-fired specialties like fish zarandeado. I’m sure they’re good, but that’s not what we opted for. We went to the stalls on the beach and had the large white pismo clams “preparados.” Just the raw clam (the only raw clam I really like) cleaned, chopped and mixed with salsa, lime, red onion, tomato and cilantro. That was one of the most memorable dishes I had on the whole trip.

I didn’t get to spend much time in Ensenada on this trip. Just a quick classic Baja fish taco at the original El Fenix (done SO right, SO classic) and a sea urchin tostada from the internationally famous Sabina at El Guerrerenseseafood cart (dreamy). I needed to get to the Valley de Guadalupe to taste wine and eat in places everyone is raving about.

The first meal was at the beautiful Malva restaurant, outdoors on the grounds of the small winery Mina Penelope. Chef Roberto Alcocer is making some delicious food that reflects the valley’s terroir, climate and cultural diversity. The dish I’ve not stopped thinking about is a coarse-cut tartare of beef, part of it simply raw, part seared on directly on the embers, and part aged. It was topped with a fermented salsa that edged toward kimchi. Another standout was escolar (from the waters off Ensenada) in a creamy sauce thickened with a puree of the restaurant’s namesake green, Malva. The plant is in the geranium family and used pretty extensively in Puebla and Oaxaca. I have no idea why people everywhere don’t eat it. The wines of Mina Penelope are lovely, especially the white we drank (not something you often say in Baja): affordable, lively, well-made, food friendly.

The next morning we started with a substantial super-traditional breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela. Some cooks just have the gift for understanding food and knowing just how to get the most deliciousness out of it. I would drive for hours to eat Esthela’s machaca con huevo. She thin slices the meat, salts it, dries it, pounds it to a fluff, then cooks it with onion and chile before scrambling in some eggs. It’s one of my favorite dishes in the world and almost no one makes it with as much care or talent. The gorditas are great (make sure to get the espinacas — spinach — and chicharrón ones.) They make hand-crafted flour tortillas that will be a revelation to you. Rolled around (burrito style) with sautéed vegetables and nopales was one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. Though we were there too early, she agreed to make an order of her borrego tatemado, a tender-cooked lamb that’s seared in a hot pan before serving. You’ll thank me for the recommendation.

There are 151 wineries in the area now, ranging from tiny to huge, so any visitor has to make a plan of which to visit. We chose five. Here’s my summary:

  • Magoni: Though this winery is just getting started, Camillo Magoni is the grandfather of winemaking in the valley, having worked with the very large L.A. Cetto for 50 years. Yes, 50 years. He knows every piece of terrain, every technique, every twist and turn of Baja’s wine making. There’s no tasting room yet (so you’ll have to look for it on restaurant lists), but I can tell you that they are some of the most well-made wines I’ve tasted in a long time. Camillo was raised in Italy where wine is made to go with good and he follows that tradition. Beautiful stuff. And affordable.
  • Adobe Guadalupe: How is it that these wines just get better and better? Uriel, a complex rosé that’s one of my house favorites. Miguel, a Tempranillo that’s so easy-drinking. Kerubiel, an echo of a great Rhone wine. Gabriel, a wine with the structure of a Bordeaux. Syrah, a Cabernet with the richness of Syrah. And Rafael, Cabernet with the suppleness of Nebbiolo. There are mezcales now, too (all made for them in Oaxaca), and a craft beer in a wine bottle. And a food truck by their shop that serves great snacks in a Spanish tapas tradition. Oh, and they have a small bed and breakfast, too, so you can stay there and taste wine, ride horses (!) and have lunch and dinner. This place is amazing.
  • La Lomita (right across from Doña Esthela) has some pretty delicious wines and a simple wood-fired restaurant (you’re picking up on the main theme of Baja cooking) that turns out really delicious tostadas that were perfect with the wines. We especially loved their Págano (Grenache) and Sacro (Cabernet-Merlot), in square bottles that make a beautiful pair side-by-side.
  • Torres Alegre is probably the most unusual winery in the valley. It’s a family operation with Victor Torres, who received his Ph.D. in wine making in Bordeaux, at the helm. His approach is meticulously hands-on and the result tastes of his unique vision. Some I liked more than others, but the 2005 (!) Zinfandel they were pouring was really, really delicious.
  • Vena Cava, owned by Eileen and Phil Gregory and located on the grounds of another beautiful bed and breakfast, La Villa del Valle, is a wonder to behold. Designed by Alejandro D’Acosta, who has fomented a style of architecture that has become emblematic of the area. It focuses on found objects and earthy elements that reflect this desert landscape. Vena Cava is built in a cross — Alejandro says it’s like a church where grapes are transformed into wine — and the roof of each point of the cross is an upturned fishing boat, echoing the reliance of the region on the sea. And the wines are beautiful and appealing. I really LOVED their Brut Rosé sparkling. And their Tempranillo. You really can’t go wrong with these wines.

Dinner at Corazon de Tierra on the Villa del Valle property is a wonderful experience. It’s a tasting menu that changes regularly, but chef Diego Hernandez has gained a tremendous following for his use of local product that shines in the simple elegance of his food. Food and wine come together beautifully in the space designed by Alejandro D’Acosta’s wife.

I could go on about the outdoor restaurant Finca Altozano from Chef Javier Plascencia, perched above an expansive vineyard. Simple foods from the wood grill that people drive from San Diego to eat. Or Deckman’s en el Mogor, where chef Drew Deckman has created an incredibly loyal following for his wood-fired cuisine on the property of the prestigious Mogor Badanwinery (why wasn’t it open when we were there?). Or Laja, the original great restaurant in the valley, where Jair Tellez has been turning out great cuisine for years. I will never forget a suckling pig from a wood-burning oven I had there three years ago.

And the wines of Hugo D’Acosta (Casa de Piedra, Paralelo) revolutionized wine making in the valley. While you’re there, you need to stop by his school, his escuelita, officially titled Estación de Oficios del Porvenir, where many of the winemakers in the valley have trained. You can taste and snack there, too, and get a beautiful perspective on his brother Alejandro’s architecture. All of the buildings are made from found or discarded items.

So little time, so many wines. Montefiori, Pijoan, Maria Tinto, Monte Xanic, Las Nubes, Norte 32, Vinistera. And those just scratch the surface of the best.

You really need to plan a trip to Tijuana, Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe. It’s desert-stunning, rustic (most of the roads aren’t paved), elemental and superbly delicious.

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