The Significant Other and I went to Tijuana for an early birthday weekend. (Providence, here in L.A. will be my birthday dinner this week.)
Dinner the first night was at La Querencia. It was great. We hadn’t been before, the place is comfortable, kind of nice casual and the service was excellent. There were almost too many fantastic sounding dishes to choose from but we did our best. We started with the soup of the day: ejote, squash blossoms, chile cascabel, goat cheese and crema topped off with crisp fried shallots & garlic. The main ingredients were blended together into a creamy broth and the shallots and garlic set it off perfectly. The soup was incredible. We originally shared one bowl figuring that would allow us to order more dishes, but we ended up getting a second bowl for dessert. One of the greatest soups that either of us has ever had. We then had two carpaccios – the fresh marlin and the Baja scallops, both were superb. They tasted so fresh you could almost imagine the thin slices had been carved off the still live fish. The toppings complemented them almost perfectly, although the marlin did get slightly lost in the tomato based topping that was on it. The scallops were incredible, the capers, bits of olive, olive oil, sea salt and a couple of other things I can’t recall serving to enhance their flavor. Then the marinated duck taco. I can never remember the name of the particularly bitter Mexican herb that is sometimes used, but there was some of it in the taco and neither the SO or I like it very much. Once we removed the few shreds of it from the meat and squirted a little lime over it, we were much happier and it was very good. We also had two stuffed chile Gueros – hers with crab, mine with smoked marlin. Hers wasn’t quite crabby enough. There was one bite in which she got a large chunk of crab and loved it, other than that though the crab got kind of lost in everything else. The smoked marlin, however, stood up very well to the chile and the other stuffing and I loved it. I also had a roasted duck tostada that was excellent, somewhat gamy, tasting almost more like wild than farm raised duck. We washed it all down with a very good, slightly tart La Cetto Privada Reserva Chardonnay, 2009. At the beginning of the evening an array of salsas was put on the table – a habanero, a rojo, a verde with tomatillo and a crema with tuna – they were all superb and nicely complemented much of what we had, though as much as I love well-made salsas the dishes stood up very well on their own without them. The bill came in somewhere in the neighborhood of US$60 for the two of us, which seemed more than reasonable with the bottle of wine.
Breakfast the next morning was at the highly touted La Espadaña. We were a bit disappointed. The place is fun – big, nicely decorated, filled with families enjoying a weekend breakfast, but the food was merely ok. I had machaca ranchero and it was too dry without a whole lot of flavor. I had to ladle a lot of salsa onto it to get much out of it. The SO had chilaquilles verdes that were far too light on the sauce and too heavy on the cheese. (I make much better myself.) There was nothing all that special about the beans that came with everything. The tortillas were fresh, the orange juice not so much. We both wish that they had café con leche or espresso rather than simply a fairly dull regular coffee.
But then we walked around all day enjoying Mercado Hidalgo – great place; and the Centro Cultural – another great place.
That night was Mision 19 – the primary mission of our foray down to Tijuana. It more than lived up to its billing. The place is beautiful. Elegant, simple, very comfortable, just festive enough seeming without all the clamor and conversation killing decibels of too many nice restaurants in Los Angeles these days. The service was perfect, not at all too formal, but also not aggressively friendly. We even had a star sighting – Robert Redford was sitting at a table near ours. He seemed to be enjoying himself with three friends. As for the food, we had the six course tasting menu with drink pairings – all wines and everything else were local, the wines all from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja. There wasn’t a wrong note to be found. Each course built on the last and seemed like a very logical progression, but with some elements of surprise built in.
We started with special cocktails – which we seldom do but we figured we’d give it a try. I had a “Mescalero.” Not being a mixed drink sort of guy I can’t quite recall what was in it other than mezcal but it was delicious, if sweeter than the sort of thing I usually drink. The SO had something I can’t remember the name of but involved vodka and cucumber and mint and some sort of chile and it was fantastic – utterly refreshing, a perfect summer drink. While we sipped our drinks they brought us an amuse bouche of mini sliders that had a huge burst of flavor in their one bite. They tasted like the very best street hamburgesa you could possibly imagine having from a cart in Tijuana. It was fun and delicious.
Then to the food. (I’ll copy and paste the translated menu listings.) The first course was "PARFAIT" OF SCALLOPS, Merengue avocado / meyer lemon Candy / Persian Cucumber citrus / spicy Buttermilk corn and chile Arena chiltepin. - Holy shit! This was amazing, a truly spectacular blend of flavors that you could taste individually but at the same time worked to bring out the flavor of the scallops. One thing that isn’t listed in the description, near as we could tell, are little gelatinized beads of soy sauce that we at first thought might be some sort of small black bean or fungus that added a bit of salt to everything. It was wonderful. It came with a La Cetto Chenin Blanc that was one of the great Chenin Blancs either of us has ever tasted and perfectly complemented the course.
Then came GRILLED OCTOPUS, Black garlic jelly / Pistachio / Garbanzo fresh / burnt habanero sauce. The SO doesn’t normally like octopus, she sure loved this one. As did I. Again, it was perfect, surprising, a great mix of flavors that both stood on their own and at the same time created a blend of flavors that was something else. This came with a La Cetto Chardonnay – also perfect.
Next was ROAST SUCKLING [pork shoulder] Cornmeal crepes for taquear / Cilantro / Sauces street. It almost tasted like a truly great Peking Duck, but pork. The salsas were a habanero with tomatillo that was like nothing I’ve ever had and was sharp and citrusy without being overwhelming, an arbol rojo that was perfect and a bit earthy, and a sweet soy (like an Indonesian kecap manis.) It was the closest we came to what most of us think of as Mexican food, but playfully so and in a very interesting way that fit perfectly into the rest of the meal. It was served with a light but flavorful – ale, I think – from a small brewery in Tijuana that I think the waiter said only produces beer for the Plascencia family’s restaurants.
Next was RISOTTO ARBORIO [although in our case it was made with faro rather than Arborio], Italian and Mexican truffle / Epazote / heirloom bean / Wild Mushrooms [actually huitlacoche – corn fungus]. Another astounding dish. Funky and powerful with the truffle and huitlacoche, the perfect complementary grainy flavor from the faro and beans. It was almost good enough to simply hold it up to your nose and inhale the scent, but then eating it was even better. It came with a Tres Tintos – a blend of three red wines that was just light enough to provide a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the dish.
Then – I can’t find it on the menu to copy and paste – was a NY steak – two thick but small slices each – from a ranch in Sonora, served with a cauliflower puree, crispy lentils and thin sliced small crispy potatoes. It was perfectly seared and cooked with extremely beefy flavor, almost like a really great waygu steak but not so fatty. It was one of the best steaks either of us has ever had and the accompaniments did a great job of helping to highlight the flavors. It came with a La Cetto Malbec that tasted almost like it had been raised alongside the cows especially to accompany them.
Neither of us are very big on desserts, but the two types of chocolate and the crema and the panna cotta with banana and strawberry were excellent. As was the Muscat de Vallejon that came with it. Still, looking at our neighbor’s table we did wish we had requested the assortment of Baja cheeses instead.
The whole works with a good tip came out to about US$150. For the sort of meal it was, with the drinks and everything else, we’re pretty sure it would be at least that per person here in Los Angeles. And it would still have been more than worth it at that price. It was one of the great meals of my life and I can hardly wait to go back for more.