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Culinary Tour of Baja, Mexico

Sabina Bandera Gonzáles at La Guerrerense, her ceviche cart.

Photo: Steve Kepple

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.

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