When most people think of the Baja region of Mexico, what usually comes to mind are nights of partying, boozing and jumping from bar to bar by local college kids willing to cross the border to find a good time. Delicious food and culinary finds may not be words you'd associate with cities like Tijuana, Ensenada and any other small towns in between. It wasn't until I took a whirlwind one day excursion with Tasty Tours led by Bill Esparza down to Baja, that my eyes were finally opened to many tasty possibilities.
The morning started with us driving into Tijuana and starting with what I'll refer to as the "breakfast of champions" and what others may refer to as the ultimate hangover remedy. Our first stop was at a taco table called Tacos "Fitos", which is only open from 5 am to 1 pm. Only two kinds of tacos were on the menu, goat or tripe. I decided to go for one of each. Both hit the spot. The carmelization from the grilling and also the marinade that was used for both meats made my mouth sing. If I didn't have to pace myself for the rest of the day, I could have easily eaten a couple more tacos.
After our starter meal, we walked to Mercado Hidalgo to get a feel for a Mexican market. I've visited Mexican markets in LA like Alameda Swap Meet and El Mercadito and what was similar were the bright colors of the signage and the exterior walls of the various shops. I have only three words. Crayons gone wild! Just like back home, we saw foods that you normally wouldn't see at your local Ralphs, but we also saw items that you'd only be able to get while you were in Mexico. I'm speaking specifically to the variety of chili peppers and corn that we saw, in all shapes and colors.
Also present were lots of fresh and colorful produce and other foods like cheeses, big slabs of chicharon, candy, mole sauces as well as pinatas, kitchen ware and herbs and medicinals. While at the mercado, I sampled cactus fruit for the first time. Peeled and doused with lime and chili, it was quite refreshing even with the tartness of the lime and the heat of the chili.
Filled up with tacos and cactus fruit, we hit the road to Guadalupe Valley where we were going to visit 2 of the 27 wineries that are currently in that region. For those of you unfamiliar with the history of wine making in Guadalupe Valley, look below for some info.
Wine making came to Mexico in 1597 when the Spaniard Don Lorenzo Garcia started his winery in the Northern Mexican state of Coahuila. This winery, Casa Madero, was actually the oldest winery of the Americas. By mid 17th-century, fearing competition from this new world, Spain banned wine making in Mexico; however, many Spanish missionaries refused to obey this edict and continued to plant vines and produce wine on a small scale.
In 1791, Jesuit priests brought over the mission grape and finding the climate comparable to California's Napa Valley and France's Rhone Valley reactivated the production of wine in Mexico by planting them at the Saint Thomas Mission. In 1834, Dominican priests began growing grapes at the nearby Northern Mission of Our Lady of Guadalupe, now
known by the abbreviated name of the Guadalupe Valley. Between 1857 and 1888, due to Mexico's War of Reform, the Catholic church was stripped of its holdings and all property became part of the state.
Wine making again ceased until the Saint Thomas Mission was purchased by private buyers to become Bodegas Santo Tomas, the first large- scale winery in Mexico. In 1904, Russian immigrants moved into the area and they started purchasing land and devoting portions of it for harvesting grapes for wine making.
It wasn't until decades later when Hugo D'Acosta, a well-respected and well-known winemaker, started educating interested individuals into the world of grape growing and winemaking. He even established a winemaking educational facility where students can learn the trade and share information. Where before there were about 3 major wineries
in the Baja region, there has been a renaissance of sorts where smaller, artisanal wineries are coming into existence. As mentioned before, there are now 27 different wineries that call Guadalupe Valley home.
Our first winery visit took us to La Casa Vieja, family-owned and only a year old. We sampled about 5 reds and roses, paired with cheeses and some of the best olives I've ever tasted. Olive farms also dot the Guadalupe Valley landscape, which is why the locally grown olives we sampled were stellar. As for the wine, I'm not really a wine expert so I can't give you a blow-by-blow account of what each wine tasted like but what I liked was their smoothness and also that the heavy oakiness that I normally associate with red wines was missing, which I appreciated.
Behind the tasting room, their vineyard could easily be seen, including a 200 year old grape vine that still produces grapes. The owner even let us pick a couple of bunches to take with us. There's just something about biting into a sun-touched, sweet, juicy grape from a two century old grapevine that's a little surreal.
From La Casa Vieja, we visited Tres Mujeres, so named because it's a vineyard owned by three women artists whose specialty is painting tiles. To get to this vineyard, you really had to veer from the paved road to a windy gravel road and to help guide you, there were tiles with painted hands to direct you along the way.
Tres Mujeres makes limited batches of wine every year. In fact, when we were led into their wine cave, geometric shelving housed all their wine for that season. The owners actually took classes from Hugo D'Acosta and in this, their second year, applied some of the techniques they learned from this famous wine master. For our tasting, we sampled two reds and when a couple of people in my group purchased wine to take home, one of the owners used a silver metallic pen to write in beautiful script, the name of the wine, its year and the name of the winery on each of the bottles.
After visiting Tres Mujeres, we veered again off the main road to check out La Casa de Dona Lupe, a small winery and gourmet food shop. Owner, Doña Lupe, is one of the first women to run a full-scale wine production, using sustainable practices since the 60's. Along with selling organic wines, this shop also sells fruit preserves, olives, olive oils, fragrant herbs and other items. My interest were geared towards the fruit preserves. I saw combinations there I've never seen before like nopales and green apple, mango and lime and then there was the tomato and chiltepin jam. Chiltepin, by the way, is a wild chile pepper that rate 50,000 to 100,000 scoville units.
The great thing about La Casa de Dona is that they weren't shy with the free samples. There were bread and crackers available to try out with the various jams. The would also pour their olive oil and vinaigrettes over bread and tomatoes so you could try those as well.
If you wanted to try their wines, then you'd have to shell out the cash.
Afterwards, it was on to Ensenada. Thankfully, it was a nice little drive because between the goat and tripe tacos, the wines, the olives, the jams and jellies, etc., I needed a little break because what was waiting for us at our destination were true Ensenada fish
and shrimp tacos. Yum!
While in Ensenada, we did an A to B comparison between two different taco stands where we sampled both a fish and shrimp taco from each location. One interesting tidbit that I learned from our guide, Bill, is that proper fish and shrimp tacos are double-fried, similar to Belgium fries. They're fried once, set aside to drain and cool and than re-fried right before serving. What you get is golden crispy seafood goodness.
The basic Ensenada fish taco starts off with naked fish on two corn tortillas. Your basic toppings will include shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and Mexican crema, a thin mayonnaise-based cream sauce. Squeeze some lime and you can chow down. However, if you're looking for more pizzazz, you can add any or all of the following: fresh onions,
pickled carrots, onions and jalapenos and any number of fresh salsas.
After taste testing the two taco stands, I can say without a doubt that the first one we went to was the absolute best. The batter was amazing and was both light and non-greasy. All the condiments were fresh and even better, there were 7 or 8 different fresh salsas to choose from. I didn't even recognize half of them, but they all looked really good. I have to say that I'd almost be willing to make a special day trip back to Ensenada just for those tacos. They were just so unbelievably good.
Filled with fish and shrimp tacos, we stopped by Black Market, a local fish market, to check it out. Across the fish market were a whole row of taco joints so if you wanted to, you could actually do a fish taco crawl, but we've already had our fill. Whatever seafood
fancy you had could be found at Black Market, from octopus with their long tentacles reaching out of boxes to sea snails to an endless variety of shellfish and fish.
Done with our Ensenada explorations, we hit the road back to Tijuana to end our tour with a delicious multi-course meal at La Diferencia. By the time, we got back to Tijuana, I wasn't sure if I could fit anything more in my system, but after perusing the menu, Bill placed our order and somehow, everyone was revitalized again. Our meal started with tamarind margaritas, a perfect combination of sour, tart and salty.
Not including the chips, salsa, black beans, dinner rolls, tortillas and rice, we shared 10 dishes, family-style. The highlights for me included:
1) Huitlacoche Crepes (crepes stuffed with cuitlacoche on top of poblano sauce) - I've only had huitlacoche a couple times back home and didn't understand the appeal, but fresh huitlacoche really makes a difference, because I really enjoyed the savory-earth flavors as I
never had before.
2) Chiles en Nogada (poblano chile stuffed with ground pork, fruits and spices topped with walnut sauce and pomengranate seeds) - Luckily, this dish was still in season, so we were still able to order it. I recently found out that the poblano chile for this dish can either be battered and fried or not. The La Diferencia version was battered.
What made this dish a standout was a walnut sauce that wasn't overly sweet and with a distinct nutty flavor and a filling that was a great mixture of savory and sweet. Fruit and plump raisins definitely made an appearance; whereas, other chiles en nogada I've experienced in the past were usually too meaty.
3) Shrimp a L'Orange with Tequila (shrimp with spices, orange juice and tequila) - Normally, I don't really care for citrus sauces, because I find them too sweet, but let me tell you, I'd happily drink a glass of this particular sauce. The tequila added a body, a richness to the orange juice that was just addicting.
4) Chicken with Chipotle Cream (chicken breast chipotle cream, bacon, garlic and a white wine sauce) - Although I found the chicken itself a little dry, the combination of the other ingredients were like a fiesta in my mouth - savory, a little salty, smoky, a little fruity -
5) Tres Leches Cake (made with 3 types of milk: milk, evaporated milk and condensed milk) - creamy, creamy and creamy without being soggy, what more can you ask for?
After our meal and in fact, after our entire day of eating and drinking, we all could have been rolled out the restaurant doors quite easily, but we did make it back to the van under our own steam and what better way to rest from a food orgy than nap our way across
the border and back home.
Overall, this was truly an unforgettable day and an awesome foodie experience. I look forward to doing a longer tour in the future for even more culinary adventures down Baja Way.
To see pics, go to:
Culinary and Wine tours of Northern Baja
(1 day; weekend; or custom tours)