Culinary Tour of Baja, Mexico
Published: April 2010
By Peter Jon Lindberg
Lured by spicy quail,
tuna ceviche, and
Mexico’s best fish tacos,
lights out for Ensenada—and from there,
things just go south.
Ensenada and the nearby Valle de Guadalupe, in northern Baja, are known outside Mexico for three things: the burgeoning local wine scene, which has been hyped ad infinitum; the food, which hasn’t been hyped enough; and the spectacularly bad roads, which everyone warns you about, though you never fully believe them. Really, you think, how bad could they be? And then one night in the gathering dark you take an innocent shortcut across the valley and drive your rented Hyundai into a riverbed. A dry riverbed, but a riverbed all the same. You and your equally baffled companion spend 40 minutes spinning the car’s wheels in what might as well be quicksand, then digging frantically, then panicking, then digging and spinning some more, until finally you resolve to abandon the car and hike the two miles back to the highway—suitcases sinking in gravel, sand filling your socks. And as the coyotes wail in the ink-black hills you decide that you probably should have paid more attention to that part about the roads.
“Ah, the Baja shortcut!” said our innkeeper, Phil Gregory, when, at the conclusion of said ordeal, he collected us and our dusty belongings from the side of Highway 3. “Never a good idea!” Severe rains the previous week, our host explained, had caused the river to flood, washing away a whole chunk of the road we were on. Those tire tracks I’d followed across the sandy riverbed—believing we were still on course—had been left by a backhoe, dispatched to repair the road. No one had bothered to post a sign, let alone erect a fence. “Honestly, this happens all the time,” Gregory said as we rattled down the inn’s rutted dirt driveway. He meant this to be reassuring. “But let’s get you settled, pour you some wine, and we’ll retrieve your car in the morning!”
Gregory’s tone was oddly chipper—maybe this did happen all the time? After showering off the dust, we sampled the inn’s own Tempranillo beside a crackling mesquite fire in the lounge. Not the smoothest specimen, but it worked: two glasses later I gave up worrying about the Hyundai.
The Valle de Guadalupe’s wines get most of the attention here. But it was the food that lured me to this corner of Baja California, 90 minutes south of San Diego. Friends had raved about Ensenada’s plentiful huarache oysters, sweet baby abalone, and ruby-red bluefin tuna. On the Baja forums of chowhound.com, I pored over descriptions of barbecued-quail stands and itinerant sea-urchin vendors, unfiltered honeys and farmstead cheeses. I devoured the posts of StreetGourmetLA (real name Bill Esparza), a Los Angeles–based musician who seems to spend all his days eating his way across northern Baja, then regaling fellow Chowhounds with his discoveries, including an Ensenada ceviche stand “that will change your life.” (Baja Tourism should put this guy on retainer.) Most tempting of all were the fish tacos. Ensenada’s signature snack was invented by Japanese fishermen who migrated here in the early 20th century and introduced tempura cooking to the region. Today the taco de pescado—a perfect storm of double-fried fish, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, lime juice, and mayonesa on a warm corn tortilla—is sold on every corner.
Ensenada had loomed in my imagination since Warren Zevon name-checked the town in his 1976 ballad “Carmelita.” I’d always envisioned a jasmine-scented, hippie-boho idyll—a sort of Laurel Canyon South—where barefoot senoritas danced on beaches to the lilt of Spanish guitars. (Those of you who’ve actually been to Ensenada can stop laughing now.) Stirred by visions of oysters, tacos, warm sunshine, and ice-cold micheladas, I invited my friend Adam to join me for a four-day bacchanal. How could we go wrong?
The trip began well enough. North of Ensenada the coast is quite lovely indeed, recalling that of Oregon or central California: vivid-green slopes tumbling into the silver-blue Pacific. Our first stop was at Casa Natalie Hotel Boutique, an intimate seven-room resort set above a rocky beach six miles north of town; we would spend two nights here and two in the Valle de Guadalupe, 30 minutes inland. With its handsome infinity pool and votive-lit seaside bar, Casa Natalie made for a promising start: here you might convince yourself that Ensenada was a bastion of sophistication and style.
Well. The reality was decidedly less dreamy, with blocks of sleaze and tackiness between the occasional nice parts. Most of Ensenada’s 325,000 residents are employed in fishing or shipping (this is Mexico’s second-busiest port), but in the compact, low-rise downtown, you might think everyone works as a mariachi, a souvenir vendor, a strip-club tout, or a pharmacist. Dozens of farmacias line the main drag, their billboards advertising cheap prescription drugs: Ultram, Cialis, Propecia. (Orange County retirees seem to be the primary target.) It’s a reminder that Ensenada is still a border town, albeit a slightly more refined one.
Fortunately our meals made up for it. We tasted raw perfection at La Guerrerense, StreetGourmetLA’s beloved ceviche cart, where just-caught shrimp, octopus, and pismo clams are marinated in lime and soy sauce—another gift from Japan—then dressed with avocado and pico de gallo and served on crisp tostadas. The bill: $3. (We discovered a near-identical cart down the street, called Mariscos El Gordito, that was just as good if not better.) And at Tacos Mi Ranchito La Fenix, a corner stand no uninformed visitor would think to stop at, we found what may be the best fish taco ever. It’s a DIY affair: they give you the tortilla and double-fried nuggets of angelito shark, then you build the rest from a counterful of trimmings—though it hardly requires a thing, so moist and flavorful is the fish. (A note for nervous eaters: food from busy street stalls is generally a safe bet, given the high turnover.)
The trip highlight, however, was a four-hour lunch at Manzanilla, owned by acclaimed chef Benito Molina. The Mexico City native started his career in Boston, working under Todd English at Olives, where he fell in love with the bold, direct flavors of the Mediterranean. Returning to Mexico, he found in northern Baja a Med-worthy combination of rustic wines and stellar ingredients from land and sea. Molina takes full advantage. Local Manila clams arrive in a bacony broth tinged with saffron. Baby abulón, farmed in nearby San Quintin, is sliced into thin disks and seared on a hot rock, then sauced with mesquite-smoked tomato and cream; the delicate flesh is nothing like the outsize abalone so cherished in Asia. Tender grilled rib eye is seasoned with rosemary and served with strong mustard (how Mediterranean is that?); on the side come buttery morsels of fat, twice-cooked to resemble crispy chicharrones.
After nine years downtown, Manzanilla moved last year to an industrial garage in the shipyard district, which makes a funky stage set: raw-concrete floors offset by zany canvases and pink Plexi chandeliers. It’s a fine place to while away the day. Adam and I were due to check in that afternoon at La Villa del Valle—Phil Gregory’s inn in the Valle de Guadalupe—but we wound up lingering at Manzanilla over chamomile panna cotta and didn’t reach the valley until after sunset.
That was our first mistake. Our second mistake was taking that left in the dark. Only now do I realize (a) how insane we were to attempt a shortcut, and (b) how lucky we were not to wind up someplace worse. Oh, and (c) how foolish it was to take a two-wheel-drive Hyundai Sonata on a road trip in Baja. Back in San Diego, our rental company had charged us an extra $25 a day in mandatory insurance just to bring the car into Mexico. At the time this struck me as suspect. Now, with our Hyundai in the riverbed, $25 a day seemed entirely fair.
We hiked back to the car the next morning, accompanied by Gregory, his handyman Juan Paredes, and four shovels. It took a half-hour to uncover the wheels. Finally we were able to push the car forward a few feet—and then it promptly sank back into the sand, unmovable. Clearly we needed a tow. But what vehicle could negotiate the riverbed? Paredes suddenly pointed at a distant plume of smoke. “Retroexcavadora!” he cried. A backhoe—likely the same one whose tracks we’d followed the night before. So off we trudged, across a mile of floodplain, to enlist the operator’s help. I offered him $50 to haul us out (in Baja there’s probably a going rate for backhoe rescues), and soon the Hyundai was bouncing and rattling down the pitted valley roads once again.
The Valle de Guadalupe’s terrain alternates between harsh (cacti and agave; acres of dust) and graceful (olive and citrus groves; grapevines receding into the hazy distance). Watching skinny horses graze in scrubby fields, I was reminded of Tuscany’s Maremma. Needless to say, the valley is far more attractive than Ensenada itself. The bulk of the region’s few visitors come for the wineries—more than 60 of them along a stretch of Highway 3 known as La Ruta del Vino. The valley’s arid microclimate, cooled by ocean breezes, is near ideal for wine cultivation, and though the product is still mostly uneven, the wineries, farm stands, and restaurants of the Valle de Guadalupe form a remarkable little foodie universe. We savored buttery diver scallops, seared bluefin tuna, and local roast lamb at Laja, the valley’s most famous restaurant. Amid the orange groves at convivial Restaurante Los Naranjos, we feasted on spicy Guadalupe quail and slow-cooked pork shank marinated in tequila, beer, red wine, garlic, orange juice, and rosemary. There was fig jam and tangy Real del Castillo cheese from the humble provisions shop Cremería Los Globos in the one-stoplight village of San Antonio de las Minas. And for breakfast there were eggs collected that morning from the coop at La Villa del Valle.
Poised on a lone hilltop with 360-degree views, La Villa del Valle occupies a handsome, two-story hacienda that was built in 2002 but looks as if it has belonged here forever. Phil Gregory and his wife, Eileen, imbue the place with thoughtful touches: bottles of mint-infused water at bedside; sprigs of lavender on your pillow. Guest rooms are basic, but the public areas are gorgeous, especially the main living room, with its cowhide ottomans, pressed-tin lamps, and burnished-oak bookcases filled with bird-watching and wine guides.
As the sun descends, cool air sails in from the mountains, carrying the scent of rosemary, mint, and citrus blossoms up the hill to the inn, where it mingles with the primal aroma of mesquite burning in the hearth. No better time to take a snifter of tequila reposado to your balcony and gaze out at those Georgia O’Keeffe hills. In the fading evening light you can trace the trajectory of the riverbed in the near distance—which, really, looks so much nicer from up here.
Fly to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field and rent a car for the 90-minute drive south to Ensenada. Be prepared for long waits at the border—up to 90 minutes—on your return. Note: most rental companies permit only certain vehicles to cross the border and add a premium for Mexican insurance (around $25 per day).
The climate in Ensenada is more secure than some border areas, but travelers should exercise caution. For more information, visit travel.state.gov.
Great Value Casa Natalie Hotel Boutique Book the waterfront Agave Suite or the sprawling, second-floor Yuca Suite. Km 103.3, Hwy. 1, El Sauzal de Rodríguez; 52-646/174-7373; casanatalie.com; doubles from $250, including breakfast.
Great Value La Villa del Valle Km. 89, Rancho San Marcos, Camino a Toros Pintos, Ejido Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe; 818/207-7130 or 52-646/156-8007; lavilladelvalle.com; doubles from $195, including breakfast.
Eat and Drink
Cremería Los Globos Humble shop selling local cheese, wine, honey, olives, and jams. Km. 92, Hwy. 3, San Antonio de Las Minas, Valle de Guadalupe; 52-646/120-5092.
La Guerrerense Corner of Avda. Alvarado and First St., Ensenada; 52-646/174-2114; open 10:30 a.m. until late afternoon; lunch for two $7.
Mahi-Mahi Tacky maritime interior; sublime oysters and seafood coctels (try the octopus). 33 Paseo Hidalgo, Ensenada; no phone; lunch for two $36.
Mariscos El Gordito Corner of Avda. Ruíz and Avda. Ryerson; no phone; open daily from morning to mid-afternoon; ceviche for two $6.
Muelle Tres On the boardwalk near the fish market, Benito Molina’s casual seafood joint has a daily changing chalkboard menu; come for mussels and local wine. 187 Teniente Azueta, Ensenada; 52-646/176-0318; lunch for two $28.
Restaurante Del Parque Chic new downtown restaurant with an olive tree–shaded terrace and an excellent wine shop. 623 Avda. Moctezuma, Ensenada; 52-646/178-8587; dinner for two $25.
Restaurante Laja Km. 83, Hwy. 3, Valle de Guadalupe; 52-646/155-2556; prix fixe dinner for two $87.
Restaurante Los Naranjos Km. 82.5, Hwy. 3, Valle de Guadalupe; 52-646/155-2522; lunch for two $31.
Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix Corner of Espinosa and Avda. Juárez, Ensenada; no phone; tacos for two $6.