Baja California Norte, Mexico

Tijuana and Beyond

To say that this testament to my love for the region of Baja is overdue is an understatement. In fact it has been 5 years in the making. I have never found the right words to describe the emotions evoked and the experiences I have had discovering the “new” Baja. Trying to convey how innovative, inspiring, artistic and culinary driven this youthful movement is that has infected northern Baja has been a challenge to say the least. And just when I sit down to share my adventures with others, another one happens and I discover something new to add to an ongoing list of “must do and see’s”, uncovering secret treasures in a land that has truly been lost, to Americans at least.

In 2012, I ventured back across what is now labeled as the busiest border crossing in the world. Although only 25 minutes from my doorstep, it seemed worlds away. The anxiety had been building inside after over a decade of avoidance and constant horror stories from the media about the dangers of Tijuana and the surrounding region. Visions of gruesome beheadings and the fear of theft, gang violence and bribery all were in the forefront of my mind after years of being posted on the front pages and breaking stories on the TV 6’oclock news. But this was a quieter time and trepidation of returning to a region of Mexico I once loved was subsiding. I was on a culinary journey with my mentors, Rick Bayless, Ricardo Munoz, Ana Elena Martinez and many of my chef friends from around the country. I had confidence that they would not lead us in the direction of danger, too much liability at stake. We came to explore this untapped gastronomic region of the world and in the Fall of 2012 one could not ignore the many articles from the New York Times, the LA Times and travel magazines about the new food revolution happening in Tijuana and it’s surrounding wine country, Valle de Guadelupe. Lucky for me, I was coincidentally working on a restaurant project at that time inspired by the food of Baja. Food culture tends to blur the lines between politics and gastronomy. The world always has a story to tell, and at this moment in time it was the story of Baja that I wanted to taste for myself.

Over that week in the Fall of 2012, many myths were dispelled, eyes were opened and palates were tantalized. Many of the chefs we met have become my friends. Miguel Angel Guererro, Javier Plascencia and Diego Hernandez, who are all now culinary icons in this region and beyond, were welcoming and excited for us to uncover what we soon discovered to be the best kept secrets of the recent culinary evolution. The concept of bringing together the freshest local ingredients of Mexico and blending them with flavors of Asia and the Mediterranean, preserving the beautiful traditions of authentic Mexican cooking and bringing a modern flare to the presentations has been branded as “Baja Med”. This is more than just “fusion” style cuisine, it is a way of life, a feeling that transports your senses through time and brings an energy to the plate that is like no other. You can taste the freshness of the sea, smell the burning earth and feel the heat from the passion of these chefs. Five years later, these chefs are all doing amazing things and keep raising the bar of Baja cuisine, while introducing it to diners around the world.

From fine dining to street tacos, there is a sense of pride in the ingredients, techniques and traditions. To watch tacos being assembled street-side is like witnessing a live performance, finely diced meat is tossed from the plancha to the tortilla and the condiments are added one by one with such quick precision. And then there is the wrapping, the taco is so perfectly placed on a sheet of thin paper and folded as if an origami master was in charge. Don’t blink an eye because this beautiful dance lasts but just a few seconds before another round is ordered.

My favorite casual gathering spot is Telefonica Gastro Park, a permanent hip gathering of food trucks selling fresh, flavorful food for all ranges of tastes. Smoked sausages, tacos, grilled meats, ramen and coffee, just to name a few. A craft beer bar finishes off the complete experience in which you could spend hours here socializing in the comfortable and casual environment that transports you to the modern day TJ. The clean and creative décor is surpassed by the excellent service and the fact that you can eat off of real plates and silverware, uncommon to most food trucks.

A visit to this part of town should not bypass the famous calle Revolucion with a stop at the classic Caesars Restaurant. A must is the tableside Caesar salad and their famous roasted bone marrow on sopes. Yes, the story is that this was where the original Caesar salad was served, but it happens to be a tourist and locals favorite spot. If you are so inclined and engaging with your server, he might even employ you to mix the dressing for the table. This is your chance for a perfect photo op (almost as good as the Zonkey down the block).Fast-forward to 2017, there are so many amazing food opportunities opening each week that are exceeding expectations of quality,

Fast-forward to 2017, there are so many amazing food opportunities opening each week that are exceeding expectations of quality, design and creativity. It is such an exciting time and because the dollar is still so strong, affordable too! I could go on and on but come see for yourself.

Spend a day visiting the Mercado Hidalgo market, walk around to see how the locals shop, take home some spices, Mexican sweets and cooking tools, taste some local cheeses, stop for a large cup of fresh cut mango, pineapple, jicama and cucumber doused in lime, chile and salt, or rehydrate with the water from a freshly cut coconut. Walk across the street to the CECUT cultural center and explore their rotating art installations, tour the Tijuana history museum or if you are there at the right time enjoy a concert in the outdoor plaza. There is always something exciting going on at CECUT and well worth the visit.After conquering the many roundabouts and proper border lines in the city, make sure you leave time to explore further south. The toll road between TJ and Ensenada is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Situated directly along the Pacific coast of Baja, on a clear day, the eye can see a crystal clear view of the Coronado Islands, dolphins frolicking along the coast, and the slow but sure development of

After conquering the many roundabouts and proper border lines in the city, make sure you leave time to explore further south. The toll road between TJ and Ensenada is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. Situated directly along the Pacific coast of Baja, on a clear day, the eye can see a crystal clear view of the Coronado Islands, dolphins frolicking along the coast, and the slow but sure development of beach-front property. The toll road is pristine and in about 1 ½ hours you will reach a destination that is well worth the wait. The turn off for Ruta de Vino, the entrance to Valle de Guadelupe, is just past the 3rd tollbooth and before you enter the heart of Ensenada. Take this quick 20 minute drive if you are ready to be transported to another world. The landscape of the fast growing wine region is studded with microclimates nestled into a valley with the ocean to the West, mountains to the North and South and desert to the East. The architecture of each vineyard reflects the winemaker’s personality and each has a story to tell. Take your time, taste the valley, and embrace the surroundings. There is no shortage of amazing eateries in Valle de Guadelupe, although there are fewer places to stay. Many B and B’s have only 4-8 rooms and fill up very quickly. Book ahead and explore your options. Whether in a bubble tent under the stars, a luxury room in a small villa or a simple room with few amenities, spend most of your time exploring the region, dining under the stars and tasting the youthful yet budding wines of the Mexican wine country.

If you have an extra day to wander Ensenada, I highly recommend you do so. Although it is a much more bustling landscape than it’s wine region to the East, Ensenada is much more than a cruise ship destination. The street fish tacos are a must but please do not pass up all of the fresh seafood that has been minimally prepared.

Dining at Muelles 3 will turn you into a raw seafood lover if you are on the edge. The freshest fish, perfectly prepared octopus and mounds of ceviche arrive at your table with crispy tostadas and house prepared sauces. The Asian marinades are overwhelmingly addictive and the last bites on the plate will be fought over. Walk along the newly renovated boardwalk and take in the sights and smells of the fish market. Wander around town a bit but do not dawdle because La Guerrerense closes by 5pm.

Sabina Bandera, who at retirement age has made a worldwide name for herself by serving the best seafood tostadas on a street cart. After decades of growing her reputation and local business, she wasput on the foodie map by Anthony Bourdain and the rest is history. Her recent brick and mortar, 40 feet away, serves the same delectable creations and then some! Do not miss this stop and definitely do not miss the house made salsa with roasted peanuts. You can even buy some to take home! She makes the best seafood coctel I have ever had. If you are lucky, she will be there…working as hard as everyone else, but ask her to join you for some Mescal and get to know this darling woman and this amazing culinary landmark.

For a more youthful culinary adventure with a modern yet rustic feel, wander a bit off the beaten path to Taqueria Criollo. Two young couples out of culinary school are doing beautiful casual food with a hipster vibe. Using innovative recycled materials and commercial kitchen equipment, this outdoor space has been transformed into the hottest gathering spot for breakfast and lunch (and I think they are now serving dinner). Creative and colorful fresh products are sourced. Chilequiles, tacos and tortas are the stars here; salsas are fantastic and definitely try the fresh made jugo verde, green juice.

On your way back up the coast, don’t miss the opportunity to experience the fast growing craft beer movement. Learning and collaborating with the neighbors in San Diego, the brewers from Baja are doing amazing things. This is another example of cross border relationships that know no mile marker or border fence. The pride taken in making these craft beers are on the same level as the food and wine from the region. Agua Mala has an extraordinary artisan brewing facility in Ensenada constructed inside shipping containers stacked two stories high with a second story tasting room with a view of the ocean. Call for a tour or come by for a tasting, hop heavy in case you are wondering. A new gathering spot is Baja Brews Cervecero, a collective of 11 craft brewers of Baja. Beach front real estate, beer, food, Mexican sunset….what is more enticing than that?

There are so many “adventures” to be had when crossing south. How often do you consider a trip to the waters edge an adventure in the US? Packing up the car, fully equipped for the sun and sand is generally the thought process. For one of my favorite adventures in Baja, I do not know if it is possible to be fully prepared for this experience.

A small fishing village, tucked next to the FOX studios, looks like a movie set on it’s own. Rough asphalt and a dirt parking lot, buildings held up by wooden stilts, a mosaic of paint and concrete, chipping away from the salt water and air. The entire facade looks like it would collapse with one strong gust of wind, but day after day, this little gem still stands. It is not for the faint of heart, or those looking for a health inspector approved venue. It is, however one of the most incredible opportunities to dine from the sea on the edge of the sea, literally minutes after you obtain the fresh catch of the day. Around 11 am, Fishermen in small wooden boats approach the shoreline of the small bay of Popotla.

Curious shoppers approach to see what Mother Nature has to offer for the day. You purchase directly from the fisherman or vendor at one of the many umbrella or tarp covered tables along the beach. The first picks are the Marcianos – a spider crab that can span over 3 feet in length- that only live in a few parts of the world. This prized crustacean is sought after for its sweet meat hidden beneath the thick shell that is best cooked up for you on the beach with a garlic and chile-butter glaze.

Choose a restaurant or what looks like a temporary beach BBQ set up with a vinyl sign and find a space at their designated picnic bench like tables nestled into the sand. Come prepared with sandals to accommodate the rising tides throughout the day. Soon after you sit and agree how they will prepare the crab, lava rocks and a block of wood arrive at the table. With your first expression being bewilderment and then laughter as you look at those you are on this adventure with, an attitude of “we are all in this together” seems to penetrate the space. I will not lie, the first thought that crossed my mind was, “I guess if we are going down, at least we are all doing it together!” But after 3 experiences in this small fishing village, I crave the next visit, and have come out unscathed each time.

Also try a whole fish Zarandeado style, butterflied and grilled with an ancho-mayo glaze, onions and tomatoes, always served with rice, beans, tortillas and salsa, all for a nominal fee. Come equipped with hand sanitizer, baby wipes and an open mind. Over the years I have taken many friends and family to places in Baja that I have found a connection with. Where I have experienced life, growth, innovation, creativity and cultural community. Yet, the initial feelings of newcomers are generally still full of anxiety and fear, of being mugged, getting sick from the water or even being kidnapped. I have not experienced any of the above. Like any traveler, be aware of your surroundings and travel smart. Within the first 30 minutes of arriving at any of the aforementioned destinations, one will be astonished with the quality, ambience and service provided throughout the hospitality industry. The sense of community and pride is apparent. It is important to realize that as Americans we sometime live in a bubble, protected from the unknown and fed information digitally through someone else’s eyes. Although we all may not see the same way, we are all human and enjoy many of the same things. A wall cannot keep us from wanting to enjoy life, food, drinks, music, family and camaraderie. It is your willingness to experience the things you already enjoy from another perspective, through another cultures eyes, that will shape your experiences and who you will become tomorrow. Food is a universal language and as I continue to study, I continue to grow and crave my next adventure! Until we meet again on the other side, Buen Provecho!

MY RECOMMENDATIONS IN BAJA (and still exploring)

Tijuana

Restaurants:

Ceasars
Don’t miss the tableside Caesar salad and Roasted Bone Marrow with Sopes.

Telefonica
Great outdoor venue, go for the grilled steak and a variety of tacos and tortas. stay and enjoy the craft beers.

Andares
Creative pizzas and delicious cazuelas. perfect mescal presentation.

Tras Horizonte
Wood fire grilled items, innovative combinations and sauces.

Oryx Capital
Comfort foods with a modern flair, small plates, outstanding craft cocktails.

Mision 19
Fine dining in a modern setting, impeccable service, creative, local and seasonal tasting menus. Don’t miss it!

La Querencia
Casual setting bringing foods from the land and sea together in the “Baja Med” style. Don’t miss the Tuna Tostadas.

Verde y Crema
Eclectic and hip décor with outdoor seating.  Try many small plates to share.

Kool 52
The newest brick and mortar for Creto from Telefonica Gastro Park. Specializing in grilled meats.

La Diferencia
Authentic preparations of Mexico’s best dishes, a great place for breakfast.

Mercado Hidalgo
Open market of food, candy, produce, cheeses, kitchen tools and eateries. A first timer to TJ must!

El Mazateno
A bit of a drive from the heart of TJ, this must visit taco spot has put the Shrimp Enchilado taco on the map.  Enjoy the complimentary seafood consome while you wait for your food.  Also try the Chicharon de Pescado Taco, you will not be sorry!

Food Garden
2 locations of a collective of local eateries. Burgers, Tacos, Pizza, Crepes and Chilequiles, just to name a few.

Taco Nazo
A taco stand featuring made to order tqcos from all parts of the animal. Simple toppings and salsas are great.

Tortas Wash Mobile
Newly renovated torta stand at the car wash. Only one item is on the menu, Carne Asada Tortas. Get it with the works and ask them to dip the bread in the meat jus.

Mariscos Ruben
The seafood “taco truck” with the most accolades.  Fresh, high quality, locally sourced seafood is prepared into tostadas, and coctels and served with a wide array of salsas.

Tacos El Franc
The hottest spot in town late at night. Classic tacos are served in an  open and fun atmosphere.  Opens at 4 pm and is famous for the adobada.  The beans (with the works- chorizo, salsa fresca, etc) are delicious too!

Bars:

Sotano Suizo
This staple TJ bar is famous for their gigantic sausage sandwiches, but the escargot is delicious too. Be prepared to walk back into the 80’s with the musical selection of this iconic gathering spot.

Dandy del Sur
A classic cantina bar just off of Avenida Revolucion, get your basic cocktails here or stop in for a shot of tequila and some music from the jukebox.

Playas

Alga Bien
A second location for this restaurant owner. Located off of the street, on a deck overlooking the beach.  Not only is the view fantastic, but so are the tacos and ceviches.  A popular spot for sports fans during a game.

Los Arcos 2 
A great place to go for live music, drinks, watching the sunset and a especially a huge platter of seasoned fried shrimp (cucaraches) – eat the entire thing, heads and shell!

La Michoacana
My favorite way to end the day at the beach, fresh made Mexican popsicles (paletas), if you are ready for a treat, indulge in dipping one in chocolate and nuts.  My favorite is the coconut (coco con crema).

Valle de Guadelupe

Wineries:

Villa Montefiori
Paolo Paoloni is the only Italian growing and producing Italian varietals in the Valle.  They are delicious and he has an incredible view of the valley from his tasting room.

Alximia
An extraordinary piece of architecture, this winery prides itself on innovation, science and delicious flavor profiles.  Easy to access directly off of the paved road.

Paralello
A collaborative project with Hugo de Acosta (the godfather of winemaking in Valle de Guadelupe).  This small production vineyard is all about quality and their whites are fantastic!

Lechuza
A small production winery, in the heart of the valley with lovely wines, try their whites and rosés.

Vena Cava
The tasting room that is hidden under the upside down boats, worth exploring the history of this vineyard and tasting their award winning sparkling.

Sol y Barro
A Swiss immigrant moved to the area and has built each stucco structure with his own hands.  Visit to taste wines, olive oil and enjoy some snacks in the rustic outdoor patio space.

Santo Tomas
The oldest winery in the region, has an amazing educational tour I recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the varietals and the winemaking process.  Also take home some fantastic local olive oil.

Adobe Guadelupe
A beautiful property complete with a vineyard, Bed and Breakfast, pool, spa, horseback riding and of course wine tasting.

Restaurants:

Deckmans
An intimate outdoor venue with a full view of the well orchestrated outdoor wood fired kitchen. Drew Deckman has an intense passion for his sustainably sourced seafood and locally grown produce and creates a memorable more upscale dining experience.

La Cocina de Dona Estela
Not to miss for breakfast or lunch. My top picks are the birria (wet preparation), nopales gorditas and the elote (corn) pancakes.  Café de olla is also a favorite among locals and visitors alike.

Finca Altozano
Javier Plascencia’s casual hang out spot for adults and kids.  There is a large la patio space to dine from the large shared plates menu, or grab a drink and climb the stairs to the top of one of the many oversized wine barrels to overlook the vineyards.  Observe the farm animals or peek into the constantly evolving garden.  If you want a change from the menu at Finca, walk across the parking lot to the permanent food truck specializing in tortas.

La Esperanza
On the LA Cetto property, Miguel Angel Guerrero brings his rustic Baja Med style to the wine country.  Delicious starters and grilled meats are the stars here.

Corazon de Tierra
For a fine dining experience, indulge yourself in the tasting menu for lunch or dinner (menu changes daily)  Modern techniques highlight farm grown vegetables and herbs from just outside the dining room doors.  Chef Diego Hernandez brings a unique style to the Valle that should not be missed.

Conchas de Piedra
A new dining experience from Drew Deckman and the owners of Casa de Piedras winery.  A stunning tapas style eatery focusing on local seafood and sparkling wines.

 

Shops:

Sol de Media Noche
A large shop set up for tastings of wines, jams, cheeses and other delicious goods.  A fun way to taste the flavors of the valley and to take a bit of it home with you.

Cremeria Los Globos – Tienda de Quesos y Vinos
This cheese shop is situated along the main highway just as you come into town from Ensenada.  A large variety of locally produced cheeses, olives, oils, and condiments are showcased here.  Workers are ready for you to sample.  A perfect snack to go with your wines you will enjoy later.

 

Ensenada:

Restaurants:

Muelle 3
A must stop for ceviche and crudo dishes.  Fantastic flavors and the freshest of fish make for a light and healthy meal.  Located at the north end of the boardwalk.

Tacos El Fenix
Street cart tacos with a classic batter and fried preparation.  Fish or shrimp, and you garnish with all of the condiments you like.

Churros Rellenos
Hiding behind this small window are freshly fried strips of dough, dusted with sugar and filled with chocolate, custard, cajeta, raspberry or sweetened condensed milk.

Taqueria Criollo
A new hip outdoor dining spot serves breakfast and lunch – open until 6pm.  Chilequiles, tacos and tortas are all winners with house made salsas that are as beautiful as they are tasty.

La Guerrerense
The famous seafood tostada cart now has a fast casual restaurant 40 feet away.  You can’t go wrong at either spot, but do not miss it!

Bars:

Wendlant
A large selection of their locally made beers as well as upscale bar food in a warm and inviting modern setting.

Hussong’s Cantina
The oldest bar in town, still loud and packed any night of the week.  After a few drinks, don’t worry about throwing those complimentary peanut shells on the ground….it is part of it’s charm.

Agua Mala
A small scale craft brewery and tasting room just north of downtown Ensenada.  Visit for a tour and stay for a tasting flight and some bar bites with a view of the Pacific.

By | 2017-06-20T06:10:24+00:00 June 16th, 2017|Uncategorized|0 Comments