The Tastes of Baja: A Fresh Look at the Latest Culinary Trends
Last year, Baja.com published a story on culinary trends in Baja, focusing on the northern region known as Baja California. Since then, the news of Baja’s gastronomic revolution has spread like honey on a hot day; throughout the world, television programs, newspapers, magazines and social media have lapped up and dished out pieces and pics about Baja’s chefs, stand-out restaurants, and even its food trucks. What began as a tentative foray into the world of fresh, organic and sustainable cuisine has been given a name – Baja Med – and it is reshaping the perception of the Baja peninsula – north and south (Baja California Sur) – on an international level.
So what defines the new tastes of Baja?
The basic precepts haven’t changed. Baja Med focuses on some key concepts:
Add to that some new buzz phrases:
- Slow Food (referring to the movement to preserve authentic, regional cuisine that employs ingredients and characteristics of the local ecosystem)
- ‘Campestre’ style, that moves away from formalized fine dining to a more casual, authentic approach.
These words reflect a not-so-subtle shift in the way diners are experiencing Baja’s food. Although, certainly, there is still room for the great steak houses like Rosarito’s El Nido, Ensenada’s Sano’s, and Tijuana’s El Taurino, visitors and locals alike are exploring new ways of eating and appreciating what they are consuming.
Today, Baja’s natural bounty is vast, which is good because it is being consumed with alacrity! Now, menus are rich with descriptive plate details that reflect the peninsula’s seemingly endless acres of tomatoes and strawberries; seafood that is merely hours out of the water; abalone and oysters cultivated in sustainable nurseries. Even venison, rabbit, corn fungus (huitlacoche) and handmade cheeses from local ranchos are making the scene.
And then there are the wines and artisanal beers that are popping up quicker than grasshoppers on a griddle. With literally thousands of wines now made in Baja (from more than 100 wineries) – virtually all from Mexico’s wine country in the Valle de Guadalupe and Valle de Santo Tomas – Baja is showcasing more of its palate pleasers than ever before.
Recently, a gala event atop the new tower of the Rosarito Beach Hotel was held in support of the Rosarito Boys and Girls Club. The name of the event was Sabor de Baja (Taste of Baja), conceived of by Bo Bendana Sein, who recognized that the excitement behind the gastronomic movement is exactly what she wanted to harness for this fundraising evening. Sabores de Baja brought together Baja’s top chefs, all cooking in a single room, showcasing not only the best chef-ery but the most interesting and authentic ingredients of the region. Drew Deckman was there, and so were Roberto Alcocer, Javier Plascencia, Juan Plascencia, Susanna Stehr, Erick Saenz, and others. Most remarkable was not the fact that the event was packed; that everyone wore white; that the food was so diverse and across the board delicious. Rather, it was a symbiotic energy that the chefs and sous chefs exuded – a kind of simmering knowledge that they are Baja’s newest rock stars and that the food they work with stars in its own right.
So where do you find these innovative tastes of Baja? Up and down the Baja. Not every great restaurant or chef is listed here, but rather the following focuses on some who are putting into practice the ‘new’ Baja cuisine and gastronomy.
Tijuana has emerged as Mexico’s culinary powerhouse, with even award-winning chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Rick Bayless calling it “one of the great food cities of North America.”
Here, leading the way, have been food pioneers like Javier Plascencia, the chef-owner of Mision 19, located in the heart of the Zona Rio (River District). Plascencia was one of the first to focus on Baja Med cuisine and his Tijuana restaurant remains supreme in delivering new takes on simple, basic ingredients.
The Plascencia family and Juan Plascencia are behind the all-new and yet delightfully retro Ceasar’s Restaurant in Tijuana. It hails back to its roots (the Ceasar Salad was invented here, and thrives in its new iteration), although the new menu offers delectable twists on things like grilled octopus, carpaccio, and even the amazing tapenade that comes with bread at the start of your meal.
Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero’s La Querencia restaurant in Tijuana remains at the top of the food chain, with consistently imaginative dishes and fresh ingredients. Favorites here are plates like flamed tequila octopus, duck tacos, machacas or sashimi. El Taller restaurant is a casual, hip place to sample a wide array of wood-fired pizzas and other dishes. (Chef Miguel’s culinary arm also stretches into Ensenada’s wine region, with Almazara restaurant. Sashimi, gourmet tacos, and other jewels stud the master’s menu).
And speaking about tacos, how about them tacos? Yes, tacos are indeed turning heads in the culinary world, including those of taco-maker Javier Campos Guttiérez at Tacos Salceados. These are not your Mexican grandmother’s tacos (although who could beat those?), they are whimsical creations using seasonal and fresh products like strawberries and mangos and green onions to sauce up fresh shrimp and cheese. Tacos Kokopelli (named after the Hopi god of fertility) was started by Chef Guillermo “Oso” Campos Moreno and his brothers, and takes a kind of Aztec thrust at food—salsas and cremas with lots of chiles, peppers, and peanuts.
Besides being home to the aforementioned El Nido steak house, this beach town has become famous for its tacos and food trucks. Along with places like Tacos El Yaqui or El Gerente (local hangouts overflowing with carne asada or shrimp offerings), there is also El Gaucho Argentino that offers great sausages, empanadas, and more. Susanna’s is a favorite romantic restaurant for the expatriate community, offering traditional/continental fare with Susanna Stehr’s gourmet twist.
There is a new chef in town, too…Master Chef Erick Saenz, who brings a fresh taste and fusion-style to dining at the oceanfront Casa Blanca restaurant in the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Saenz, a celebrity chef for Bravo TV, particularly enjoys taking the tried and true, like filet mignon or perhaps fresh diver scallops and putting a twist on them – eh, voilά, perhaps a Ceviche Margarita ensues!
Cuisine in Ensenada is influenced by several factors: the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep; the fertile fields of Maneadero just south of town, home to acres of abundant, fresh produce, and the fact that Mexico’s wine country is in the city’s backyard. Just in the past several years, the Valle de Guadalupe has burgeoned from a score of wineries to almost 100. And, where wineries and wine tasters go, restaurants and chefs are sure to follow. The city of Ensenada is full of outstanding eateries and, in the last year, it is estimated that the number of ‘campestres’ in the Valle de Guadalupe has gone from a handful to more than 20.
In September, 2013, an article appeared in Restaurant Magazine noting that of the Top 50 Restaurants in Latin America, two were from Ensenada.
Corazon de Tierra, under the leadership of Chef Diego Hernandez Baquedano, was one of the restaurants selected by Restaurant Magazine’s culinary experts. Part of the elegant La Villa del Valle retreat, and adjacent to the Vena Cava winery in the Valle de Guadalupe, Corazon de Tierra is avant-garde in its design and menu, both of which incorporate nature at every level. Surrounded by towering glass panels, the dining room merges seamlessly with the organic gardens that surround the restaurant. The very herbs and flowers that serve as ambience for diners also decorate their palates in dishes that vary daily, depending on Chef Hernandez’ menu selections. (New to the La Villa del Valle compound is a high-end food truck, Troika, that offers terrific small-plate salads and foods right outside of the winery. These pair brilliantly with Phil Gregory’s acclaimed wines and with the Wendlandt artisanal beers that are also offered at Troika).
But back to those two restaurants selected as among the best in Latin America: the other is an icon in the wine country, Laja (which has been dubbed Baja’s version of Napa’s French Laundry). The masterful Chef Jair Tellez has created a warm, Provencal-type of experience in this white adobe house, where a hot summer breeze can carry the scent of lavender as well as the rich, peppery aroma of searing beef. Here is a place where it is equally as nice to spend the waning day with a platter of cheese and a crisp white wine as it is to indulge in a Sunday afternoon five-course (or three) prix fixe menu that allows the chef to shine.
With success in Tijuana, Chef Javier Plascencia took a look at Ensenada’s wine country and clearly felt compelled to be part of the scene. He opened Finca Altozano in the heart of the Valle de Guadalupe. Here, small plates rule – everything from grilled artichokes to an assortment of tacos that include tongue, lamb, bean and cheese, and others – and the open-air setting fulfills the sense of being at one with nature and its offerings.
Manzanilla restaurant is one of Mexico’s most influential, thriving under the powerful talent of renowned Chef Benito Molina and his wife Solange. Located in the port area of Ensenada, the industrial-looking bistro is innovative both in its rather stark restaurant design and in its offerings. Focusing on its location, this is where seafood, oysters (yes, especially oysters on the half-shell seasoned to perfection), clams and abalone (try it seared) get special treatment. Chef Molina, one of the early pioneers of Baja’s new cuisine, doesn’t just focus on seafood, though…his tapas-style menus are broad, with things like huitlacoche (corn fungus) risotto, sliced beef tongue, and more.
Chef Drew Deckman has quickly become a legend in Mexico’s wine country, even though his restaurant is currently operated on a seasonal basis. Deckman’s En El Mogor graces a little knoll adjacent to the Mogor Badan winery. It is surrounded by oleanders, pine trees and vineyards, and from its outdoor kitchen waft the scents of grilling seafood, beef and lamb and other meats, and the subtle aromas of fresh herbs and lightly charred vegetables. The chef, who returns in winter to his restaurant in San Jose del Cabo, prides himself on using only the finest local ingredients, such as regional cheeses, and pairing them with Mogor’s Chasselas or other complementing wines. Deckman’s En El Mogor also offers locally brewed beers and even a mezcal. With white-linen topped tables adorned with fresh flowers and rosemary, it is hard not to feel at one with the land at this charming outdoor bistro.
Muelle Tres, right on the pier, is crazy busy most of the time (it is open only in the afternoons). Owner David Martinez welcomes everyone to this petit eatery and soon the Agua Mala beer is plentiful as is the house ceviche, mussels in broth, sea bass seared to perfection, and all fresh from the boat that has barely docked outside. This is a true favorite for sampling the bounties from the Pacific Ocean that are staples of Baja cuisine.
Boules is near the famous San Miguel surf spot, adjacent to the Ensenada toll booth. Javier Martinez Garza runs the restaurant, replete with a boules court (petanco, or bocce ball). Marrow bone appetizers, anyone? That is just the beginning; if you opt for Garza’s tasting selections, a whole series of mouth-watering plates with an edgy presentation will be brought to your table…which, by the way, just might have one of Ensenada’s most spectacular views.
Barra Azul is not a tourist spot, which is one reason why those who go there enjoy it so much. Many feel that the most consistently outstanding seafood dishes are found at this off-the-main-drag restaurant, located on 11th street. The tempura fried oysters (from sustainable oyster beds south of Ensenada) scream for attention. Luckily, owner Alain Genchi has also created the Ultramarino oyster bar on Ruiz street near Hussongs, so that tourists can get their fix, too.
As its name implies, Malva Cocina de Baja is riding the ‘campestre’ wave by bringing local ingredients to the table. This is one of Ensenada’s newest restaurants, located in the wine valley in San Antonio de las Minas, at Mina Penelope, the winery of Veronica Santiago. Chef Roberto Olcocer plays a starring role here, along with homemade sauces, cheese and fresh picked herbs that harmonize wonderfully with local wines.
Last but not least in today’s notes: La Guerrerense, on the main shopping street of Ensenada. Here is what celebrity/author Anthony Bourdain said about it: “La Guerrense, a humble street cart, is about as simple as it gets. Doña Sabina Bandera Gonzalez serves up the most mind blowingly fresh, sophisticated and colorful tostadas imaginable. Absolutely phenomenal…”
There might not be a celebrity chef attached to Gloria and Patrick Greene’s Flora’s Field Kitchen, but the kitchen itself is truly a ‘rock star’ in the world of sustainable, farm fresh eating. Flora’s Field Kitchen is set in the middle of a 10-acre organic garden, and the kitchen uses its own farm-raised poultry and pork (wood-fired pork chops, anyone?) as well as produce and herbs. Cured meats and eggs come from a nearby ranch. Meals are wholly organic; even the cocktails take on a farm-fresh twist, using things like home-grown carrots to create a ‘Farmarita’. Located just outside of San Jose del Cabo, Floras Field Kitchen is offering a fresh look at what Baja’s land – and environmentally conscientious cooks — can put on the table.
Award-winning chef Tadd Chapman has not one but two restaurants in Baja Sur – Don Sanchez and Habanero’s Gastro Grill. He is referred to as a ‘celebrity’ chef, but that is clearly not what keeps him motivated. Chapman’s restaurants, while populated to some degree by tourists, also attract a goodly volume of full-time residents who are lured by the consistency and freshness of the Baja Fusion/Baja Contemporary Cuisine menus. Both establishments work with local purveyors, including fishermen who bring in the catch of the day (try the gingered tuna ceviche) along with fresh clams and oysters. Chapman’s menu is extremely diverse (as is his vast assortment of wines) but it resonates with the tastes of Baja: stuffed poblano chiles with filet tips and mushroom duxelle; grilled corn, chorizo, panela and cilantro that create a roasted poblano cream, and even a Baja Cioppino seafood chowder are just a few of the Baja Med dishes featured.
Mi Cocina and its co-owner and chef Loic Tenoux are giving San Jose del Cabo a true lesson in Baja Med fusion – things like lobster risotto, marinated octopus and nopal cactus salad. There is something remarkably sunwashed and light about Casa Natalia (home to Mi Cocina), but somehow the food and its presentation underscore this feeling of being on a sunny European coast. The ubiquitous fresh Baja seafood in combination with unusual home-made products (Chinese noodles, for instance) are helping make people’s experiences at the chic boutique hotel Casa Natalia even more delectable.
He’s here..and he’s there (up in Baja California, at the outdoor Deckman’s En El Mogor). But Deckman’s San Jose restaurant by Chef Drew Deckman showcases all-Mexico products more, perhaps, than any other in Baja Sur. Drew Deckman is truly one of the Baja kitchen rock stars, probably even has groupies, and he is often seen in the company of some of his fellow chef friends. He spent 10 years in France, Switzerland, and Germany cooking with masters such as Paul Bocuse and Jacques Maximin, earning a coveted Michelin star for his work as executive chef at the Four Seasons in Berlin. His forte, perhaps, is his ability to absorb and represent the region in which he is working…and he does that with impeccable skill at his restaurant, bringing Baja’s wines to the forefront as an integral accompaniment to the meals he is serving. Diners get to try many of Chef Drew’s specialties through 3-, 5- and 7-course samplings…why wouldn’t everyone go for the 7?
The hip Bar Esquina in Cabo San Lucas has the advantage of being right on Medano Beach. But it also has executive chef Rogelio García whose deft menu choices focus on Mexican-influenced Mediterranean plates like spicy Yellowtail, cucumber and avocado rolls or chorizo pizzas, and organic coffees from Chiapas and Oaxaca. Although the restaurant is part of Bahia Hotel and Beach Club, it stands on its own, attracting a foodie clientele looking for high-end dining at a good value.
Tre Galline is a northern Italian restaurant in Todos Santos…and it is also a northern Italian restaurant in the wine country near Ensenada (seasonal). Owned by Chef Angelo Dal Bon and his wife Magda Valpiani, this restaurant uses age-old Italian recipes but tweaks them with local Baja ingredients and flavors, truly representing the farm-to-table experience.
Sometimes, great restaurants don’t even try to be great. ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Slow Food’ are ways of life, rather than theories put into practice. Secretos del Jardin (the Secret Garden) is just such a place. Run by Laura Martinez and her family, this is an ‘off the beaten path’ kind of dining experience that involves vegetables picked daily from the garden, sauces made on the spot, fresh squeezed juices from local mangos or guavas or strawberries, or chiles rellenos stuffed with shrimp fresh from the net.
If fresh is a trend, then good for us. If ‘campestre style’ means eating healthy, sustainable foods that are produced by real people (not giant corporations) and prepared by cooks who value the ingredients, then what can be wrong with that? And if this part of Mexico is becoming world-renowned for its gastronomy, its rock star chefs and its unique dining experiences, then who’s to argue (and why would they)? These are some of the tastes of Baja in 2013.
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