Baja Home Cooking – At Doña Esthela’s

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Whenever I travel my holy grail is to have conversations with actual people of the area and check out a regular person’s kitchen.  There is no better way to do this than to cadge an invitation to dine at someone’s home.  But sometimes you are really “dining”, not just eating.  The whole event can be over burdened with expectations and formality on the part of you, the traveler, and your hosts.  The best scenario is to somehow back into a casual invitation to come on over, perhaps to hear the words “no really it won’t be any imposition, we’d love to have you”.  That’s what eating breakfast is like at Doña Esthela’s house in the Valle de Guadaloupe.  But you don’t have to hope you run into her in the market to start a conversation.

Coricos in the beehive oven. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

We were twelve hours into the trip and I was still longing for a plate of tortillas, beans and salsa. I asked Mr. Esparza – our Baja guide – where we were having breakfast . His response? At Doña Esthela’s house.  As we drove from Ensenada into the Valle de Guadaloupe past ad hoc stores, kids playing by the side of the road and happy dogs, a quiet peace fell over us. Soon the famed vineyards of the area appeared. We turned off the paved road onto a dusty, rutted track.  As we bounced along occasionally bottoming out on rocks I had one of those moments, are we doing the right thing? And then we arrived at the house to see a large beehive oven being watched by a group of relaxed folks enjoying their morning coffee chatting and playing with the a rambunctious dog and a languid cat. I made a beeline for the oven and they opened it, letting me see the coricos, Sinaloan ring cookies that were the last load of the morning for the wood fired beauty. Doña Esthela is from Sinaloa like lots of folks who live in Baja. The weekly bake of sweet empanadas was already complete and I was really to join my friends who were already at the table in the ranch house.

Yes, you are really eating in her house, in a simple addition added to one side where there is another beehive oven inside. The menu was a difficult choice between huevos rancheros (the area specialty), machaca, “bricklayer’s” breakfast, and various egg, meat and chile combos. The specialty was the Borrego Tatemado, braised lamb, shredded and cooked on a griddle to a mystifying crispiness, served with its juices and onion, cilantro, chile and tortillas. Between us we had almost everything including chilaquiles, wonderful café de olla, and corn and flour tortillas that made me weep. Oh yeah, and the empanadas. We snuck a peek inside the house to see ladies in a nice ranch house style kitchen working away.

I didn’t want to leave.