Story and photos by Wendy Lemlin
At the sleek campus of the Culinary Art School in Tijuana, alumnus Diego Hernandez, executive chef/partner at Corazon de Tierra in Baja's Valle de Guadalupe wine region, demonstrates a stunning salad of deep green and burgundy amaranth leaves, heirloom tomatoes, Russian kale sprouts, purple borage flowers, golden butternut squash puree and pale ears of baby corn -including the surprisingly sweet silks - all grown in his restaurant's gardens.
The 25 ooh-ing and aah-ing class participants aren't newbie culinary students, however, but a group of well established U.S. chefs and restaurant owners who had come from as far away as Hawaii and Boston to spend several days in the company of celebrity chefs Rick Bayless and Ricardo Muñoz, enthusiastically touring and tasting the border region from Tijuana to Ensenada.
Suddenly, foodies have been making a run for the border in droves, indulging in uber -now Baja Med and locavore cuisines, following in the footsteps of TV celebs like Bayless, Anthony Bourdain ("No Reservations," Travel Channel) and Andrew Zimmern ("Bizarre Foods," Travel Channel).
Plating a dish of his famous marinated duck tacos in the open kitchen at La Querencia, chef Miguel Angel Guerrero says of the cuisine he first named, "Baja Med is what this region is all about. It melds together the street food from Tijuana; the seafood that fills the market stalls in Ensenada; Asian influences from Mexicali; and the Mediterranean-type ingredients, such as olive oils, wines, cheeses, meats and produce from the Guadalupe Valley and local farms."
An avid hunter, fisherman and diver, Guerrero gave his 11-year-old restaurant the atmosphere of a hunting lodge with animal trophies on every wall. "I cook for me, and hopefully my customers will like it, too," he says, as he presents a ceviche that conjures up a day on a Baja beach, with five types of clams surrounded by a citrusy squid-ink sauce and garnished with cucumber, fried leeks, avocado and roasted garlic.
Several blocks away, Guerrero's wife, Judith Medrano, greets customers at the couple's trendy pizzeria, El Taller. The two met while they were in law school, and it was she who encouraged Guerrero to become a chef instead of a lawyer. In an olive grove in the Valle de Guadalupe, Guerrero opened his latest restaurant, Almazara, a year ago.
These aren't $2 taco joints, but prices are far more accessible than those charged by restaurants of comparable quality north of the border. The food is sophisticated, inventive and driven by locally sourced ingredients. At Diego Hernandez's Corazon de Tierra, located in an idyllic setting reminiscent of Napa or Tuscany, floor-to-ceiling windows open onto seven acres of organic gardens, where the cooks are often spotted picking the next course's herbs and produce. There is no standard menu. Instead, chef Hernandez, nominated in 2011 and 2012 as Travel + Leisure's Best Rising Star, serves a $55 seven-course tasting menu based on which ingredients are at their absolute best that day.
"We grow all our own produce - from the ground, not greenhouses," Hernandez says. "Growing in open fields, they have to fight for their lives, taking in the most nutrients from the soil, producing maximum flavor."
If there is a poster child for the Baja chef as a rock star, it probably is Javier Plascencia, whose sophisticated Misión 19 has been garnering mega-buzz from New York to Mexico City since its opening in January 2011. Even Bourdain put aside his usual snarkiness and named it the No. 1 restaurant in Baja. Plascencia downplays the whole rock star thing. "I love it, but I don't see myself like that," he says. "I grew up in the restaurant business and I started in the kitchen 30 years ago, as a kid, at the bottom. I trained at Mesa College and then traveled, gaining inspiration. I put in my time, I grew and now I am doing what I love."
What Plascencia loves is creating masterpieces like dry aged duck breast, its crispy skin topped with guava slices and intoxicated by a glaze of mescal and piloncillo, an earthy, caramel-like unrefined sugar. A tuna parfait appetizer is a celebration of the raw diced fish layered with a cloud of avocado meringue, Persian cucumber, tangy housemade yogurt, umami-rich (savory) soy gel and chicharron (fried pork rinds) pieces on top for texture contrast. His dishes play with straightforward ingredients and just enough molecular gastronomy magic to surprise, tantalize and intrigue.
The restaurant encapsulates Plascencia's belief in the positive future for Tijuana. "I opened Misión 19 when the reputation of Tijuana was at its worst," he says. "I wanted to present the city with something personal and special and give the people a reason to come out and dine."
He and his family own about a dozen restaurants, but Misión 19 and the more casual seafood showcaser, Cebicheria Erizo, are his creations. In August, Plascencia opened Finca Altozano, a seasonal al fresco restaurant set in the bucolic midst of the vineyards of Valle de Guadalupe. Last chance to catch it until next May will be Thanksgiving Day, with a six-course dinner featuring locally raised heritage turkeys.
It's not just Baja Med that's knocking off TJ's dining socks. In the trendy, somewhat Bohemian neighborhood of La Cacho, a South African chef and his Tijuana-raised wife have turned a 70-yearold house into the city's only French restaurant, L'Escargot Bistrot. Ryan Steyn and Susan Monsalve met while she was studying oenology in South Africa, where he had already been a chef for 10 years. When he followed her back to Mexico, he was amazed by what he found.
"I fell in love with Baja," Steyn says. "I couldn't believe the variety of local ingredients available right here - the seafood, like bluefin tuna, octopus and sea urchin; the olive oils; organic produce; the meats - they are all so fantastic."
L'Escargot Bistrot rocks authentic French dishes as well as what Steyn dubs "Baja cooking with French tendencies." A beet terrine shines ruby-like, its fresh sweetness contrasting delectably with the bite of sharp goat cheese truffles and sprinkling of French sea salt. Tender tentacles of crispy grilled octopus crown a deep black squid-ink risotto with huge depth of flavor. Crusty bread, fresh from the wood-fired oven outside, enfolds a filling of mushrooms and asiago cheese, awaiting a slathering of pesto made from the basil growing in the intimate restaurant's courtyard garden.
About 25 miles east, the quiet town of Tecate might seem to be the least likely place to find an elegant restaurant serving shrimp with hibiscus flower mole, chile-crusted ribeye with Kahlua and espresso sauce, or duck confit in tamarind sauce. However, hidden away on a hilltop commanding a scenic view south towards mountains and the Guadalupe Valley sits beautiful Asao Restaurante, whose executive chef, Roberto Alcocer, serves up contemporary Mexican cuisine, combining local ingredients and classic Mexican flavors with international influences and avant-garde techniques.
Alcocer, who trained in Bordeaux, France, and Belgium, assumed the helm at the four-year-old restaurant in July. "Tecate is Baja's best kept secret," he says. "As the heart of the Tijuana/Ensenada/Mexicali triangle, all roads lead here, and it is exciting for me to incorporate the ingredients and influences from these areas into my personal style."
Alcocer's first month's tenure saw Asao placing first in a prestigious region-wide restaurant-and-winery-pairing competition held in Ensenada. His winning dish, lamb in rosemary and prune sauce, will be featured in season as part of a weekly changing eight-course tasting menu. Asao's little sister, the more casual Bistro Med, opened this past summer in a portion of the same beautifully landscaped and richly appointed structure to serve pastas, pizzas and other Italy/Baja fusion delicacies.
In the Valle de Guadalupe, chef Jair Tellez started a wine/ food obsession 13 years ago at his Laja, which continues to be a standout destination. At Adobe Guadalupe Winery, guests of the onsite B&B (and diners with advance reservations) can enjoy a four-course wine pairing dinner prepared by chefs Martha Manriquez and Marcela Ruiz Chong.
In Ensenada, chef Diego Hernandez's wife, Krista Velasco, opened her own kitchen last April at Cerveceria Wendlandt, one of the newest in a growing crop of trendy craft breweries. Everything there is made fresh in-house and locally sourced; Velasco doesn't believe in freezers or processed foods.
Last month, the second annual Baja Culinary festival (with four days of dinners and events throughout the region), as well as the multidiscipline Tijuana Innovadora exposition's two days of culinary events and U.S./ Baja Battle of the Chefs, drew record numbers of visitors from Southern California to eat, drink and make merry.
A year ago, few people were venturing into Mexico, but these days, the two Californias are coming together at the dinner table. Baja is back, and it tastes delicious.
U.S. citizens must have a U.S. passport; a passport card; a trusted traveler card such as NEXUS, SENTRI or FAST; or an enhanced driver's license to reeneter the U.S. from Mexico. Non-U.S. citizens must have compliant documentation as well. If you plan to drive in Mexico, stop in San Ysidro (or Tecate, CA) to buy car insurance for Mexico. U.S. insurance isn't valid in Mexico - if you're in an accident and don't have insurance, you will be held responsible (and may be jailed), no matter who is at fault.
Tijuana: If you don't have a SENTRI or Ready Lane pass, the easiest thing to do is to park at one of the lots in San Ysidro (about $5) or take the trolley, walk across the border, and then take a taxi to the restaurant (about $5). When returning to the U.S., the pedestrian line is usually fairly short after 9 p.m., so linger over dinner and have the restaurant call you a taxi when you are ready to leave.
Tecate: Follow CA 94 east from San Diego through Jamul (about 40 miles), then take CA 188 (about 2.8 mi) to Tecate, the country's easiest border crossing. This is a beautiful drive, but curvy and very dark at night. Crossing back into the US, Tecate is a much easier and shorter crossing compared to Tijuana (except sometimes on Sunday afternoons and evenings). The border crossing at Tecate closes at 11 p.m.
Valle de Guadalupe: There are two main routes to the Valle De Guadalupe from San Diego. Option 1: Cross the border at San Ysidro, take the toll road (Cuota) along the coast towards Ensenada (see directions below for Ensenada) and, just before Ensenada, take Route 3 towards Tecate and the Ruta del Vino (wine route).
Option 2 (scenic route): Almost identical to the Tecate border crossing, follow CA 94 east from San Diego through Jamul (about 40 miles), then take CA 188 (about 2.8 mi) to Tecate. This is where things change from the Tecate crossing. Once across the border, follow Calle Lazaro Cardenas for several blocks and look for the signs for Mexico Carretera 3 and the Ruta Del Vino. Follow Route 3 south for about 40 miles to the Valle de Guadalupe.
Ensenada: After crossing the border at San Ysidro, stay in the second lane from the right. Follow the signs that say "Rosarito Beach, Ensenada Scenic Route." This road will take you along the Mexico/U.S. border. As you come to the top of the hill, move into the right lane. At the bottom of that hill, take the fork to the right. It is marked with arrows Rosarito/Ensenada/Ensenada Cuota. (Cuota indicates the toll road). There are three tollbooths in total (a little over $2 each).
After the last toll booth, it's about six miles to Ensenada proper. About one mile before you get there, you'll come to a fork in the road; stay to the right, and this will take you into the front end of town. At the first signal, you will be on Boulevard Costero. The drive is about 1 1/2 hours once you cross the border.
Take a Tour
Don't want to drive and have a group who wants to wine and dine through Baja? Five Star Tours and Charter Bus Company has regularly scheduled wine tasting and culinary tours from San Diego to Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe, and will custom-design tours for groups.
*All phone numbers shown are for calls placed from the U.S. Calls placed from Baja require dialing only the last ten digits of each number.
Misión San Javier 10643,
2nd Floor, VIA Corporativo Building, Zona Urbana Rio
Av. Escuadrón 201 No. 3110,
between Blvd. Sánchez Taboada
and Blvd. Salinas
Av. Rio Yaqui #2969-B
Gobernador Ibarra 2730 at the
corner of Jalisco
Valle De Guadalupe Restaurants
Note: these restaurants are all at varying distances off the main road, Route 3, (aka Carretera Tecate Ensenada). The closest kilometer marker is given, at which point there are signs pointing the way.
Corazon De Tierra
Rancho San Marcos Toros Pintos,
San Antonio de las Minas.
Shares a property with La Villa Del Valle Hotel and Vena Cava Winery in the El Porvenir Ejido,
off a dirt road between kilometer markers KM-87 & KM-88 on Route 3.
For the best directions, go to lavilladelvalle.com.
KM-85, Route 3, Carretera Tecate
Ensenada, Rancho Olivares
KM-83, Route 3 Carretera
Seasonal. May not be open every day in November. Last day scheduled will be Thanksgiving Day.
KM-83, Rte 3 Carretera
Adobe Guadalupe Winery, B&B and dining room in town of Guadalupe (aka Fransisco Zarco)
Off Route 3, explicit directions on website.
Reservations required to be let through the gate.
Asao Restaurante and Bistro Med
Part of the Santuario Diegueno property including a conference center and brand new hotel
214 Esteban Cantu, Tecate
Provides pickup from the Tecate border crossing if diners prefer to park on the U.S. side and walk across (contact in advance).
Blvd. Costero #248, 22870,