This week’s Good Food show is the result of a whirlwind two-day trip to Baja. It began at 5:30 on a Thursday morning with me (hi! I produce Good Food), Evan Kleiman, Mr. Baja himself Bill Esparza and photographer Oana Marian, our collective eyes barely open, driving south on the 5 Freeway. In less than 48 hours we shopped the local market, ate birria and tasted craft beer in Tijuana, drove to Ensenada where we ate uni tostadas and pickled pigs feet on oysters, continued inland to the Valle de Guadalupe for wine tasting, architecture site-seeing and even stopped for apple pie. If you’re a road warrior this itinerary is for you. If not, spread out these stops over 3 or 4 days.
First order of business: coffee. We stopped at Caffe Sospeso for some much needed cappuccinos. I noticed that the barista poured milk from a glass Straus Creamery milk bottle. When Evan inquired about the milk, we learned that the bottle was just for show – the milk was from Mexico. Most amusing to me was the rampant signage; “No Sugar. No Milk” was written everywhere in both Spanish and English. Clearly, the cafe’s owner had spent some time in the Bay Area where Straus milk and coffee restrictions are widespread. We heeded their advice and the coffee was indeed delicious.
Next stop: the Mercado Hidalgo.
The Mercado Hidalgo is one of the largest central markets in the city where vendors sell everything from produce and dried goods to cheese and local honey. Javier Plascencia who helms the restaurants Misión 19 in Tijuana and Romesco in San Diego says he shops there at least once a week. He always looks for special regional chiles (like pasillas from Oaxaca), seeds, local honey, Mexican cheeses (he has a cheese cart of only Mexican cheese at Misión 19), clay pots and regional Mexican candies like plantains or yams in syrup.
Our need for breakfast had reached near panic levels. So we walked across from the Mercado Hidalgo to Tacos Fitos. Not only do they serve amazing beef birria tacos, the taquero manning the grill just might be the fastest taquero in the world. (If you need a refresher on how to order a taco on the street, listen here.)
Next we drove across town to visit with Ruben Valenzuela who co-owns Baja Craft Beers (BCB) with his brother. The pub at BCB has over 40 beers on tap and at least six refrigerators stuffed with bottles of craft beer from Mexico and around the world. There you can find Mexican craft brews from Agua Mala, Border Psycho, Insurgente, Monastika, Ramuri Cucapa and Tijuana Brewing Co. He says that Baja’s craft beer scene has grown exponentially in the last 12 years. With such close proximity to San Diego the brewers in Baja are heavily influenced by Stone Brewing, but prefer to brew beers with more malty profiles instead of the hoppy flavors favored in San Diego.
Next stop: Ensenada, a two hours drive south of Tijuana.
In Ensenada we visited with Sabina Bandera – aka La Guerrerense – and her daughter Mariana Oviedo. Bandera runs a unique street food cart serving some of the freshest seafood delivered each morning from the fisherman in Ensenada. She is famous for her uni tostada topped with fresh pismo clam and avocado. Also on the cart you will find cocktails of seafood we don’t see in the States, such as chocolate clams, sea snails and enormous huarache oysters. Bandera also sells 16 different homemade hot sauces from her cart. (Watch Anthony Bourdain gush over her tostadas in this No Reservations clip.)
It was nearing 4 o’clock and we were still peckish after our birria tacos and uni tostadas. So Bill drove us further into town for fish tacos – beer battered, fried and topped with the must-have crema agria and sliced cabbage. I had a quiet moment of panic at the salsa bar that lined the stand – there were too many options calling my name. Evan was particularly enamored by a bowl of bright green jalapeño salsa flecked with fiery red specks of chile de arbol. We took a siesta before dinner which was at Manzanilla, chef Benito Molina’s restaurant in Ensenada. We enjoyed oysters with pickled pigs feet, local wines, simply seared fish and bread dipped in local olive oil.
Lights out. We have another long day ahead of us.
Day one was a sprint. Day two was what you might call mosey, or perhaps a sashay. We left Ensenada at 9am in search of breakfast. Bill promised us huevos rancheros.
Fifteen minutes inland from Ensenada we began gaining elevation and seeing vineyards on the foothills. We turned off the main thoroughfare onto an unmarked dirt road with potholes that could swallow a Mini-cooper whole. After a short, bumpy ride we arrived at Doña Esthela’s. Technically it’s a restaurant, but it feels more like walking into your grandmother’s kitchen. (Evan writes about it in depth here.) We stuffed ourselves on the aforementioned huevos rancheros, Borrego Tatemado, chilaquiles and enough fresh flour tortillas to knit a small quilt.
Onwards we went to wine country.
Nothing can prepare you for the Valle de Guadalupe’s wine country. Largely untouched by development, the valley is a throwback – reminiscent of a former era of the California wine growing regions. Aside from admiring the grapes on the vines, the benefit of visiting in the summer months are the campestres – seasonal open air “campsite” restaurants helmed by some of the most famous chefs in Baja.
We stopped at Silvestre, Benito Molina’s campestre which has a 180 degree view of the valley. We arrived just a few days before his season began, but the walk through the olive orchard and the view of the vines made us sure we would return once the restaurant was in service. He explained that when the restaurant is open, he stretches hammocks between the olive trees and parks La Escuelita’s RV turned wine shop at the base of the property. The food, is all cooked over live fire and served mostly family style.
There are afternoons worth of wine tasting to be done in the valley, but we stopped by Las Nubes, a winery run by Victor Segura. He gave us a tour and we chatted amidst oak barrels of aging wine. We had intended to also visit JC Bravo, a former Middle School P.E. teacher turned winemaker, but time was short.
Our next stop was La Escuelita. Formally it’s the La Estación de Oficios de El Porvenir, but everyone knows the local wine school as La Escuelita, meaning little school. The school is owned and operated by Hugo D’Acosta, credited as the leader of the modern Baja wine movement. Tomas Egly, the school’s director, described the school as a wine “incubator” for everyone from grape growers to house wives. The goal is to give prospective winemakers the tools to make wine.
Aside from the program, the school is well known for it’s funky reuse and recycle-style architecture, designed by Hugo’s brother Alejandro D’Acosta. Gates are constructed with used irrigation hoses. Rusting mattress springs are incorporated into walls, as our used wine bottles and barrel stays. The cafe on the premise also happens to serve what might be the best iced coffee in the world. (No exaggeration.)
On our way out of town, we stopped by Finca Altozano, Javier Plascencia’s campestre. With our bellies still full from breakfast, we managed to gobble up tacos of suckling pig and tender lamb, ceviche tostadas, beans, stewed goat and some of the most surprisingly delicious brussels sprouts I’ve ever had. The patio and grill are slightly more buttoned up at Finca Altozano than at Silvestre. There is a full kitchen in addition to three wood fired grills and like Silvestre, 180 degree views of the surrounding vines and mountains. The sun was setting and time moved very slowly.
It was hard to leave, but we managed. It was past midnight when we hit the 10 Freeway, after what seemed like a week of traveling a world away.