Anthony Bourdain put Baja street food on the global map
Anthony Bourdain, the peripatetic culinary tour guide with an acerbic tongue and adventurous palate, had the star power to turn a humble street food cart into a global dining destination.
That’s what happened to Ensenada’s La Guerrerense in 2012, when Bourdain proclaimed its tostadas de mariscos among the best in the world, comparing them to what you’d be served at a Michelin three-star restaurant in Manhattan.
“Le Bernardin-quality seafood in the street,” Bourdain said on his show “No Reservations,” reserving special praise for Sabina Bandera, the diminutive Guerrero-born tostada maker known as La Guerrerense.
“The woman is a genius,” Bourdain said.
After the episode aired, the crowds began lining up at the cart on the corner of First and Alvarado streets in Ensenada — where Bandera has been serving up her fresh seafood tostadas since 1960 — and they’ve never stopped coming.
Today, La Guerrerense is a must-stop for the foodie tourists who flock to Baja from San Diego, Los Angeles, Europe and beyond, snapping selfies with Bandera and a poster of her with Bourdain.
“You have no idea how many people have reached out to me to say, ‘Hey, we saw this on Anthony Bourdain’ … . They ask, ‘What is the famous street food cart that Anthony raved about? Can you take me there?’ ” said Fernando Gaxiola, founder of the travel concierge company Baja Wine + Food.
“Sabina became like a celebrity in Mexico because of (Mexican) big name chefs, but who really put her on the map internationally — all over the world and well-known — was Anthony Bourdain. … He was a great influence and great ambassador for Baja in the world.”
On Friday, the news of Bourdain’s suicide in a hotel room in France hit Bandera particularly hard.
“I am in disbelief, speechless. I just can’t comprehend. I love him,” Bandera said in a text. “He was a huge support and boosted me to international recognition. I am forever grateful and will miss him terribly.”
San Diego celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, who knew Bourdain from their time taping the 2013 season of ABC’s “The Taste,” called his former co-star “a walking encyclopedia of the world.”
“To be able to travel around the world eating like that, it’s a dream — that’s the dream job,” Malarkey said. “Everybody wanted to be Anthony Bourdain, so it’s just devastating.”
Malarkey recalled Bourdain regaling him with travel stories over beers into the wee hours, after the cameras stopped rolling.
“I spent six weeks with him during the shooting and then we did press tours together. He was a sweetheart, our trailers were together and I was just in awe listening to that voice. I had my own, first-person Anthony Bourdain travel adventure show.”
Both Malarkey and Gaxiola said there was a softer side to Bourdain that often got lost in the gritty, tough-talking, I’ll-eat-anything persona the New York City chef had cultivated.
“He wasn’t just a host on a TV show, his palate was always on point. But he always fell in love with the people making the food,” said Gaxiola, who last spent time with Bourdain in Baja three years ago.
“With Sabina, he really fell in love first with this little grandma, with her charming personality — and then he tasted her food.”
Malarkey said Bourdain was quick to pull out pictures of his daughter and swap parenting stories with him and fellow chef and “Taste” judge Ludo Lefebvre.
“As much as we chefs would want to talk about (Bourdain’s headline-making book) ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ the adventures, the hell-raising, we’d spend most of the time talking about the G-rated stories of our kids,” Malarkey said.
In an 2010 interview with the Union-Tribune’s Pam Kragen published before a book-tour appearance in Escondido, Bourdain talked about his personal evolution.
Bourdain said becoming a dad had softened him over the years.
“The second you become a parent, everything changes. I would step in front of a truck in a millisecond if I thought it would save my daughter from the slightest harm. That’s a huge shift in priorities,” Bourdain said. “The whole universe tilted, and I’m no longer the center of the universe, this beautiful 3-year-old girl is.”
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