What are the gastronomic Baja buzz words these days?
And what do they mean?
The buzz words reflect the revolution in Baja’s food and dining culture: a 180-degree shift from heavy, traditional dining to new-age cuisine that takes full advantage of the abundant bounties Baja offers.
From vast acres of tomatoes and strawberries to an ocean rich with Yellowtail and Bluefin tuna—from abalone and oysters that are cultivated in sustainable nurseries to quail eggs and venison from local ranches—from boutique wine vintages that are rocking the world of enology to artisan beers that are available in burgeoning brew pubs.
This is what Baja California tastes like in 2012.
So where do you find these tastes?
All up and down the 800-mile-long Baja peninsula, but with special intensity in some of the major destinations: Tijuana, Mexicali, Tecate, Rosarito, Loreto, La Paz, Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos. But for now, let’s just talk ‘north’ and quickly visit Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada—with a couple of pauses along the way.
Arguably the most influential city in Baja’s gastronomic movement, Tijuana—which has for so long been famed for its more controversial issues—has surfaced as an international culinary powerhouse. Award-winning chef-restaurateur and cookbook author Rick Bayless has called Tijuana “one of the great food cities of North America.”
Over the past two years, Tijuana has seen the emergence of innovative chefs and restaurants that have been attracting attention from food writers, bloggers and newspapers across the world. Take Javier Plascencia, for example, the chef-owner of Mision 19, located in the heart of the Zona Rio (river district): Plascencia focuses on a food style that has become known as Baja-Med (Baja Mediterranean), featuring the products that thrive in Baja California’s coastal climate – foods like olives and olive oil, abalone, zucchinis, arugula and more.
La Querencia, also Baja-Med and fusion cuisine, is a Baja.com favorite. Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero’s restaurant is trendy – even with the decor of deer heads and antlers – but user friendly, and the food is consistently fabulous and imaginative. Small bites are the way to go here, focusing on light dishes like tuna-fin stew, duck tacos (our favorite) or sashimi.
There are also the tried-and-true La Differencia, which offers gourmet fare using local, regional products as well as iconic ingredients such as huitlacoche (corn fungus); the reinvigorated Ceasar’s (owned by the Plascencia group), home of the Ceasar Salad and Ceveceria Tijuana, with great bites and handcrafted beers.
A special shout out: To the east of Tijuana is Tecate, a charming, authentic burg with its own (quieter) border crossing that leads up into eastern San Diego. Here is one of Baja’s most interesting, sophisticated restaurants, Asao. This place – the name Asao means ‘eat’ in the language of the Kumeyaay tribe — literally backs up to the border and, with its own hotel, offers a great place to spend a night when visiting the area. But you go to Asao is for the food, which is stunning in its flavor development. The origins of the menu can be found in the traditions and ingredients of indigenous tribal peoples, but each item is its own gastronomical experience. Duck in tamarind sauce, nut-crusted shrimp with hibiscus flower mole, and so much more are all served in an elegant dining environment. A must-do in northern Baja!
Rosarito: home of spring break and the famous Rosarito Beach Hotel. But what is the dining scene here? It bears no resemblance to those of Tijuana, to the north, or Ensenada, to the south. It is not the bastion of new age cuisines. Frankly, it is more traditional beach-town fare, but what’s wrong with rockin’ tacos and burritos from Tacos El Yaqui or El Gerente, overflowing with carne asada or shrimp? (There are also tacos de cabeza…but let’s not go there.) Then there’s the comfort food of Mexican combination plates and rib-eye steaks at area steakhouses, or even a smattering of Italian and French restaurants. To be fair, some of these are top notch: Take note of Susanna’s, with its continental style, El Nido and Tapanco steakhouses, with their excellent meats and game, and the famous Chabert’s French fine dining restaurant in the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Okay, it’s back to upscale eating but, frankly, in an even broader sense that that of Tijuana. Cuisine in Ensenada is influenced by several factors: the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep, Mexico’s wine country as its backyard, and the fertile fields of Maneadero just south of town, home to acres of abundant, fresh produce. This abundance has nurtured the culinary industry, and the culinary industry has, in turn, nurtured an explosion of gastronomic offshoots: The UABC (Universidad Autonoma of Baja California) has started a culinary school here; there is a wine school in the Valle de Guadalupe, not to mention a university wine program; chefs from throughout Mexico and the world are arriving in Ensenada weekly to work with their Ensenada counterparts. It’s exciting and dynamic. But where do you go to taste some of the outcomes of these efforts?
Manzanilla restaurant, under the powerful charge of Benito Molina (a Javier Plascenscia counterpart), is innovative both in its rather stark restaurant design and its offerings. Focusing on its location, which is adjacent to the port of Ensenada, this is where seafood, oysters and clams in particular, get special treatment. Ophelias is located just north of Ensenada, in an area called El Sauzal. It is hip, capturing a local, high-end crowd with its food that ranges from outstanding tapas (shitake mushroom tostadas, for instance) to fabulous creations with bluefin or yellowtail tuna and even rib-eye steak. This is food created with a deft hand and a knowledge of herbs and savories in combination with fresh local ingredients. Ophelias is also known for its extensive wine list, especially for Baja, California. This is a great place to really experience food and wine pairing.
Boules is actually near the famous San Miguel surf spot, adjacent to the Ensenada toll booth. Javier Martinez Garza runs this nifty spot, replete with a boules court (aka petanco or bocce ball). This is a cool place to be, especially on Mondays, when hip locals drop by to play the game and gorge on Javi’s sliders, marrow bone, arrachera cones, and more. What is equally nice is that his brother David owns Muelle Tres down on the Ensenada dock, one of the in-crowd’s favorite lunch spots for Ensenada’s best ceviche. In fact, the best way to taste what this bistro (being here is like being in Marseilles, because you can watch the passing parade of fisherman, vendors and tourists go by) has to offer is just to ask David for a degustacion (tasting).
Barra Azul is not a tourist spot…but many expats 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 scream for attention. Luckily, just at the main-drag, owner Alain Genchi has created Ultramarino oyster bar, so that visitors can get their fix, too.
A special shout out: So much has been written about the spectacular Valle de Guadalupe just outside of Ensenada. But never too much can be said. With now more than 50 wineries, the area is beginning to flourish with restaurants and even hotels. The food ranges from campesino-style (basic but tasty farm-style food) to gourmet and even uber-gourmet. But virtually all of it is created from what the land has to offer. Famed Chef Diego Hernandez and Corazon de Tierra, the stunning restaurant of La Villa del Valle country retreat, reflect the cutting edge of cuisine that utilizes organic produce, highest quality meats and ingredients, and the most modern cooking techniques to create dishes that are worthy of – and have received – accolades from throughout the world. Laja restaurant offers a Provencal experience, in its setting and rustic facility, combined with finesse and flavor in its prix fixe menus.
The culinary movement in Baja California has been driven largely by what is here: grapes and wine, seafood, and produce. It is not a coincidence that as the Valle de Guadalupe has emerged as a powerhouse, producing about 92-95% of Mexico’s wines, the food industry here has realized the need to elevate from beer and tacos to pairing its Zinfandels, Tempranillos, Cabernets, Merlots and other wines with foods that complement them. Baja is to food and wine what Napa Valley was 25 years ago.
It’s exciting, fresh, organic, and sustainable. Hey, wait a minute–maybe that’s where those buzzwords came from.
Any dining hints for Baja Norte? Tell us which restaurants and dishes tantalize your tastebuds!