I had one of the most pleasant and personally rewarding days today, not to mention it was just downright tasty.
4 friends and I headed south for the border this morning, but insteady of going to Tijuana, we wanted to check out Tecate. With just 320,000 inhabitants it operates at a much slower and much less hectic and stressful pace than either San Diego or Tijuana.
The first place we headed was bakery El Mejor Pan de Tecate (walk straight ahead after crossing to the first stoplight. Go left and then just follow your nose). Open 24/7 the racks are lined with pastry after pastry, cookies, donuts, empanadas, tarts and more, each one more enticing than the one next to it. We each purcahsed several and happily munched away as we walked back to the Parque Hidalgo. All I have to say is thank god I don't live anywhere near this panaderia, or my will power would be toast. Probably some of the best panaderia pastries I've eaten on either side of the border.
We knocked around town for a bit checking out second hand stores and the (excellent) Kumeyaay museum and then headed up the hill to Asao. Literally just a few feet from the (incredibly ugly) border fence, Asao is part of a hotel and conference center that is stunningly beautiful and serene. The dining room is contemporary and beautifully appointed with some massive pieces of folk art and very comfortable chairs. One wall of the dining room is nothing but floor to ceiling glass that affords dramatic views of the surrounding hills, and both sides of the border. The opposite wall contains an almost equally large window into a kitchen which is dominated by a gorgeous hammered copper hood and nicely accented by the indigo blue, cream and yellow kitchen wall tiles.
But would the food measure up to the ambiance? In a resounding word? YES.
There is a short election of "entradas", starters/appetizes, none of which we tried. There are 3 soups, also untried, and 4 salads, 3 of which we did. The salad of mixed greens came with a lightly crumbed round of goat cheese, a gratineed pear and tamarind based vinaigrette. The spinach salad was topped with nuts, bits of plaintain, an amaranth crisp and an agave nectar based dessert. The last salad we tried - Caesar - had the most unique presentation. The romaine leaves were stacked and drizzled with dressing and then topped with a massive amount of parmesan cheese. Thin, very crisp slices of baguette stood in for the usual croutons. All 3 salads were well prepared and satisfying. The bread basket served with the salads was extremely hard to resist, thankfully the slices were small :-). The bread was great, the seeded cracker sheets even better
For the mains we tried 2 duck dishes, a steak, tuna, and a chile relleno. All of them were artfully plated and absolutely delicious. The steak was a filet that had been napped with a spicy salsa verde that paired well with the beef. To compliment the meat a melange of zucchini, onion and a nicely grilled chunk of corn still on the cob finished off the plate nicely. The chile relleno had been stuffed with a rich smoked marlin mixture and was accompanied by quenelles of guacamole and cheese and a frico-like cheese wafer. The tuna we think may have been done sous vide style, or at least that was the best definition we could come up with for the menu description of "Atun Sellado". Whether it was sous vide or not is probably not terribly relevant as it was a pretty spectactular dish. 2 generous triangles of luminous tuna were set on an ocean of lightly dressed, slightly salty, sea beans and garnished with an ice cream that may have been wasabi or avocado based. We weren't sure, but it sure was good! The 2 duck dishes were both confited. One was finished with a pipían verde and contrasting green beans. The other in a tamarind based sauce, some sea beans and red fruits. Both were delicious, though the tamarind was just a bit too sweet by the end of the dish, but stopped well short of cloying.
We had decided we were all too full, but I never turn down a dessert menu, so we all took a look. It contained a lot of the usual dessert suspects, but the the first one on the list caught my eye and that of one of my friends. Espuma de Atole con Dulce de Frijol y Buñuelos. Atole foam? Sweet beans? That certainly got our attention and even though all 5 of us were totally stuffed we had to get it just to see what it was. So, so glad we did. It is probably the single best dessert I've had so far this year. It was spectacular. The foam was ethereally light yet tasted sinfully rich. Atole is a corn based drink that can be an acquired taste for those not accustomed to it. The corn flavor in the foam was clearly atole but it was subtle and nuanced; the corn flavor did not hit you over the head. The sweet bean was a smooth, silken puree, also rather nuanced in flavor. Compared to the rest of the dessert, the buñuelos were a little underwhelming. What was fun about this dish was watching the reactions to the first bite we each had. Our faces lit up, we got big grins and it was kind of like being a kid again and eating something you really, really like.
Service was excellent. Very efficient and friendly without being stuffy or overly formal. For 4 sangria preparadas (excellent), 1 michelada, 5 salads, 5 entrees and 1 dessert, our bill, including tax but not tip was $168. We rounded up and each of us paid $40. The delightful location, superb quality of the food and service made this one of the best dining values and experiences in the San Diego/northern Baja region.
Asao is open Thursday - Sunday Noon to 8:30 or 9 pm
214 Esteban Cantu
It is walkable from the border and would take about 15-20 minutes is not speed walking. Be advised that if you elect to walk, the last 2 blocks are uphill, steeply uphill, but still walkable.
Tecate is an easy day trips from San Diego, but highway 94 from Spring Valley to the border is 2 lanes in each direction, not well lit and the last 8-10 miles before the turn to Tecate as rather curvy. Unless staying in Mexico, it is probably more advisable to go for midday comida. The hotel at Asao is slated to open later this month, which might make evening dining more of an option, at least until Daylight Savings Time kicks in again