Some people come down to Ensenada for the sport fish that swim off the Baja coast; others come to measure their afternoons in emptied Corona bottles. The town has long been famous for two loud, boozy cantinas—Hussong's, Papas & Beer—whose stickers adorn the bumpers of half the 4 x 4's in southern California, and if you spend most of your time within a few blocks of downtown, it can seem as if the city exists as a sort of tequila-fueled satellite of San Diego, less than two hours up the coast.
But the port city is also, implausibly enough, something of a culinary center. The fried-fish tacos sold down by the waterfront are only the most obvious specialty, copied all over Mexico and southern California. Californians have always known about the rather formal El Rey Sol, an old-fashioned French restaurant right in the middle of town. Ensenada is also the gateway to the Guadalupe Valley, Mexico's premier wine region, only 15 minutes and a ridgetop removed from the city but a world away. It is possible to experience la dolce vita Ensenada-style without once tasting a margarita. And on a sleepy Sunday afternoon around the oceanfront dining table at Billy Cross's cooking school, sipping pomegranate punch and slicing bright Swiss-chard stems into rough red and yellow batons, we couldn't feel farther from the tequila mills and cheap souvenir stands of downtown.
We are making chard tamales, eight of us including my four-year-old daughter, Isabel. Cross shows us how to spread blanched chard leaves with buttery masa (a mixture of ground corn and water) and the briefly sautéed stems, and how to wrap them up like little Christmas presents. When they're done, he puts them in a hot steamer, and it's not long before they're magically transformed into our lunch.
Every culinary region needs an ambassador, and Cross knows this city—its markets and its vintners, its bakers and its restaurants—as few Americans do. With his late partner, Michael James, Cross started Napa Valley's Great Chefs of France Cooking School, the first winery-based program in the world, and he has taught cooking in Mexico for 25 years. (His International Cooking Expeditions de México is based at his new outpost in Ensenada from May to September; beginning this month, he'll open another branch of the school in Puerto Vallarta.)
Cross has a lot of fans in the California food world: other guests this weekend include Chez Panisse chef-owner Alice Waters, cookbook author Marion Cunningham, San Francisco restaurateur Patty Unterman, and Gourmet editor Laurie Ochoa, all of whom look as intent on absorbing how to make Cross's mole manchamanteles de pollo—a peppery blend of chicken, fresh tomatoes, fruit, and herbs—as they are enjoying the spectacular view of Bahía de Todos Santos out the windows.
If you've spent any time at a cooking school, you know the drill: prep, cook, clean; prep, cook, clean. Cross's program is in no way less rigorous, and you leave knowing how to cook a dozen things more than you did when you went in. But it somehow seems more like hanging out at a friend's pad as he makes brunch than attending a class. Of course, it is practically a friend's pad. The school, located in a modest house a couple of miles north of town, does double duty as Cross's digs; students generally stay at the pleasant beachfront resort Las Rosas four miles down the road.
Still, Cross has a gift for making his students feel at home. If you admire his handsome glazed-crockery coffee cups, Cross will drive you to the Ensenada shop where he buys them for 60 cents apiece. If you ask a question about Mexican seasonings, he may lead you to a supermarket that stocks 40 or 50 fresh herbs you've never seen before. A weekend at the school is bound to include visits to fragrant tortilla factories and bakeries with the crustiest bolillos (rolls), fish-market stalls with fresh tuna stacked as neatly as cordwood, and a vast old building through whose tanks course much of the world's supply of Pacific spiny lobster. And fish tacos! Down by the docks, crisp, batter-fried strips of halibut are folded into warm corn tortillas with green-chili salsa, shredded cabbage, a squeeze of lime, and a generous dollop of thick cultured cream. Entire religions have been founded on miracles less profound than the Ensenada fish taco.
One afternoon, we all pile into Cross's Cadillac and drive into the golden Guadalupe Valley, admiring the endless rows of vines. It reminds us of Napa Valley in the sixties, before the vineyards were snapped up by investment bankers and frozen-food magnates. (The wines from local vineyard L. A. Cetto are ubiquitous on better Mexican wine lists.) And then it's back to the kitchen for a glass of L. A. Cetto Fumé Blanc, from grapes we've just seen growing, and a glorious lobster-and-grapefruit salad assembled by Unterman and Waters.
My four-year-old is put in charge of slicing the avocados. "Daddy told me to curl my fingers under my hand like this," Isabel tells Cross, "so I don't cut them off with a sharp knife." Cross nods, and Waters and Cunningham beam, happy to witness an early conversion to the cult of cuisine. Isabel industriously starts chopping. I don't think I've been happier in my life.
International Cooking Expeditions de México, 518 Calle Jacarandas, Colonia Alta Vista, Puerto Vallarta; 52-32/223-961 or 52-32/941-246, fax 52-32/223-961; $165 per class including meal, $45 extra for an excursion (such as a tour of Ensenada's markets or a night on the town).
Jonathan Gold is the New York restaurant critic for Gourmet.