A Taste of Baja: Tijuana Cultural Center Hosts Culinary Expo
On Friday October 25th and Saturday October 26th, the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT) highlighted the best cuisine from Baja’s many and varied restaurants, vintners, craft brewers and other culinary artisans and producers. The Culinary Expo held at CECUT (and free to the public) was part of a larger array of organized dinners, tastings, tours, demonstrations, street opera and other events that took place this year around the 2013 Baja Culinary Fest. El Gringo rolled onto the scene at CECUT with his amigo Roberto (former resident and current business owner in Tijuana) to see what’s tasting good and going down easy in Baja right now.
As we walked past CECUT’s famous spherical structure (complemented by the more recent construction of a cube on the other side of the building), we came upon the esplanade where a number of vendors were displaying, offering samples of and selling their wares. We were thirsty after our trip down from San Diego, so the cervecerias were our first stop. Influenced by the craft beer movement happening just north of the border in San Diego, Tijuana now boasts over 20 craft breweries that produce excellent beers…many made from mostly locally-sourced ingredients.
Our first stop was at Valle de Guadalupe’s Cerveceria Guadalupe, who offer a number of fine beers including a Vanilla Ale, BPA and an IPA. They also make a blonde ale named “Tonantzin”, the Earth Mother of Aztec lore, mythically related to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the region’s namesake. Master Brewer Raul Deju gave us a tasting of all they had on offer. The BPA was the standout for El Gringo and contained honey, thyme and other locally sourced herbs. Raul indicated that this savory beer would be great with a sandwich. We agreed and wished we had one!
After our tasting Raul urged us to visit “the other Raul,” Raul Aispuro Funes of Funes Hand-Crafted Baja Beer from Tijuana’s Zona Centro, and to guess the “secret local ingredient” of his Saison Belgian beer. So we headed over to the Funes booth and introduced ourselves to Señor Funes. Saison was traditionally brewed in Belgium for the fall season to refresh farm workers during the harvest, and then stored for the following fall’s harvest. Funes’ interpretation of the Saison was citrusy, slightly herby and completely refreshing. And the secret local ingredient? Rosemary.
We continued our trek through the vendor tents and arrived at one from Oaxaca…La Niña del Mezcal. As they’ve just started selling their mezcal in the states, it made sense for them to exhibit in Baja California as the liquor (made from the maguey plant and stored in burned barrels for that “smoky” taste) is becoming popular in many parts of Mexico. Your Gringo is trying to get a taste for mezcal before our family trip to Oaxaca over Christmas, and this particular tasting went a long way in expanding that effort!
Beers and mezcals tasted and heads somewhat lightened, it was time to try out some of the food from the vendor booths at the Culinary Expo. And there was no shortage of amazingly fresh and delicious options to be had. We started with Tijuana’s Hunabku. Roberto had a tostada with tuna ceviche and pomegranates. El Gringo tried the smoked marlin con queso tostada. We spread liberal amounts of Hunabku’s homemade salsas on our tostadas, which were flavorful, spicy, authentic and delicious!
Next, we stopped by Tacos Kokopelli to say hello to Pablo Campos and his brothers, whom El Gringo had met at an earlier outing with Club Tengo Hambre back in September. Campos greeted us with a hearty, “Hey, A Gringo in Tijuana!” Having heard of my legendary tales of their specialty, “The Kraken,” Roberto had to try one for himself. This combination of pulpo (octopus) and pesto knocked it out of the park. The octopus was grilled to perfection, and the crunchily-toasted tortilla in which it was nested added to the Kraken’s crispy goodness. As Snoop Dogg would say, the Kraken was Kraka-laken!
For our final course, Roberto and I tried the three cheese quesadillas from Lacteos Santa Brigida. El Gringo loves a good Mexican queso, and this cheese did not disappoint. Salty and delicious, we ordered a couple of quesadillas. Mine was stuffed with smoked marlin and Roberto had his with corn and squash. Both were fantastic and I vowed to seek out this quintessential queso and bring some back to San Diego with me the next time I come down to Baja. I washed the quesadilla down with an excellent and hearty Vino Tinto from Ensenada’s Castillo Ferrer Winery, poured by Sr. Edgar Perez de Castillo himself. Gracias y Saludos Edgar!
Other food vendors included Furrashu Sushi (hey, Asian influence is key in Baja Med and a lot of other Mexican cuisine, after all); Horenero Restaurant in Tijuana, who pulled fresh, crispy pizzas out of their wood fired “oven on wheels;”and Reposteria Casa Guadalupe, who donate proceeds from their baked goods to Tijuana-based drug rehabilitation centers.
We went inside CECUT’s sphere to see what else the Baja Culinary Fest had on offer. What we found was a variety of artwork created, judged and displayed within the dome as part of the festival’s activities. We dug the selection of two dozen or so pieces that directly correlated to food, wine and other themes of the culinary fest. The gallery showing was sponsored by L.A. Cetto, CONACULTA and others.
As we strolled toward the gates of CECUT, we meandered just a bit more to get the total vibe of the event. A quintet of guitarists were lining up to play on the main event stage. Tijuana music producer DJ COASTRAL “spun” chill mixes on his Macbook Pro with the CECUT sphere as his backdrop, giving the impression of an intergalactic Ibiza. Later in the evening, Tijuana theater troupe Santini & Cardini would give an operatic performance called “Una Historia Con Sabor,” about the creation and presentation of the Caesar Salad at Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana (also owned by the Plascencia family).
Well fed and wholly satisfied, we left the Culinary Expo and headed toward Avenida Revolucion for craft beers and reflection (inadvertently running into and fighting off a Zombie Horde, documented here). The Third Annual Baja Culinary Fest was a big tasty success again this year and El Gringo is already looking forward to next year…salud!
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