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.