Or Gayla and Chilepm's excellent adventure
After a week of mega-traffic jams, FBI investifations of the City Council, and various and sundry workplace annoyances, Chilepm and I decided a Saturday get-away would be a perfect restorative.
So yesterday morning, I cruised through the new Cuppa Cuppa drive-thru java place at Mission Gorge and Zion Rds., picked up a Grande Mocha w/Mexican chocolate and whipped cream and made my way into Mission Valley to meet Chilepm. 15 minutes later we were headed South on I-15 to make our great escape. A quick stop in San Ysidro to pick up Mex Insurance, and we were across the border before 9 AM. Two more hairy minutes making sure we were in the middle lane and following the "Cuota" signs and we were on the road South, final destination - Ensenada.
Traffic was light, the weather overcast and the drive beautiful in spite of the over building on the coast. First stop - La Fonda for breakfast. La Fonda is located in La Mision a little over half way to Ensenada, and has been an iconic, kind of quirky, destination for a long long time. Many of us have fond, if not rather hazy memories, of sunny afternoons spent on the patio slurpping down beer or Margaritas and eating nachos, or of getting slightly more dressy and making short work of tasty quail dinners. The original La Fonda location was closed a couple of years ago (due to a Union dispute) and reopened about 200 yeards North of the original space (the loophole around the Union dispute). The new space seems larger, but has the same feel, the same ambiance and the same ownership. There is an attractive and inviting outside patio overlooking the ocean. Every table has a palapa umbrella to provide shade, chairs are wooden, some with cushions, some without. It was a little too chilly outside so we opted inside for a wobbly window table.
There is no printed menu at breakfast. The waiter brings a framed, easel-style chalk board tableside. It sits on the floor and is about 5 feet tall by about 18 inches wide. All the selections are written on it, none of them much over 45 pesos (or about $4.50). There are 2 or 3 variations on the traditional American Eggs & Bacon or Sausage theme, a steak and eggs combo, the famous banana pancakes with coconut syrup, a chile verde and a chile colorado with eggs. We chose the last 2. Chilepm had the chile verde with eggs and I had the chile colorado with eggs. The menu does NOT warn you that portions are trencherman. Neither of us could finish the entire plate
The plates arrived with an extremely generous portion of stewed meat, over which 2 eggs had been drapped. The plates were finished with a jumbo dollop of mashed potatoes and an equally large serving of well seasoned refried beans that had been topped with a addictively salty cotija cheese. The chile verde was well done with numerous strips of soft green chile and meltingly tender chunks of pork. The chile colorado was tasty and also contained strips of jalapeno, though the meat was not quite as tender. We chuckled at the mashed potatoes, an unexpected replacement for the usual cottage fries or hash browns. The texture on them was smooth and creamy, but they were a little dense. Both of us had eggs over medium and they came eggactly (sorry) as ordered. The slightly runny yolks, when combined with chile colorado were perfect. The yolks smoothed out some of the rough edges of the chile and the chile enhanced the flavor of the yolks.
Service was lax. We requested corn tortillas and got flour. We asked that they be replaced by corn, but we never got them. The check also never came. We finally had to go directly to the cashier station to pay ($13.00 for 2 entrees, 2 coffees and a tip). We shared our window table with a good number of flies. They didn't land on the food or the table, but they were a nuisance. Enteraintment was provided by a fine specimen of a rooster on the patio. He strutted his stuff making sure everyone knew that he was fat, sassy and the "el rey del patio". Obviously well fed. The ladies room is behind the bar. It was clean and stocked, but VERY, VERY dimly lit.
Properly fortified, we headed on down the coast, leaving the stress of the past week behind mile by mile. The weather co-operated and the sun began to burn off the cloud cover. By the time we arrived in Ensenada it was sunny and pleasantly warm. We drove down Avenida Costera (a.k.a Lazaro Cardenas), took a short tour through town hitting Lopez Mateos and Ave. Ruiz before finding a place to park. Chilepm has a friend who owns several shops on LM, we spent some time with her friend and family before turning our attention to some serious shopping.
After a while the sameness of the products and the stores all begins to run together and it gets harder and harder to distinquish between what may be a real bargain and an overpriced doo-dad. (The street urchins and beggars are not nearly as persistent or aggressive here as they are in other parts of Mexico.) It is possible to find silver from Taxco and Talavera pottery in Ensenada, but it also helps if you have a little bit of background or experience with them so that you don't get ripped off. Prices in the stores are a little on the high side and they almost never bargain anymore. They don't have to, the cruise ships provide thousands of customers every week (and the Carnival Exstacy was in port yesterday). Good English is spoken in almost all stores, but not all stores will accept credit cards.
We had nearly completed our circuit through the shops when we stumbled into Spirit Galeria de Artes Internacionales. It's located at 871 Lopez Mateos and is a real find. Here you will not find the usual silver braclets, platters, paper maiche, T-shirts or Mexican wedding dresses. What you will find is an amazing collection of items produced by local artesans working in a contemporary style. There was a wonderous collection of items from Asia including hand carved buddhas, chinese dragons, afghan rugs, kilim rugs and some pretty good quality (i.e. many, many knots per inch) persian rugs. In addition, there were some pretty fine non-traditional Mexican craft works by artists working in Baja Norte. Prices are reasonable, quality excellent. It's really worth a stop in to see their items.
We never thought we'd get hungry again after our gargantuan breakfast, but after having spent hours shopping and walking all over Ensenada we knew it was time to eat again, and we knew where we wanted to go. We were in search of Barkissimo, a 5-week old restaurant right on the waterfrong. Disclaimer - Chilepm and I work for the same employer and our boss is friends with the guy that owns Barkissimo. Our meal was not comped.
Finding Barkissimo proved to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated and resulted in even more walking. It is located at the North end of the Malecon (a pedestrian promanade right on the water that very few tourist seem to bother with), right behind the fresh fish market and in the same area as the sport fishing boats for hire. The restaurant is an old 80 foot trawler. It is not handicapped accessible as it is reached by going down a very steep gangway ramp onto the dock. It is a floating reataurant. It does move with the motion of the water, if one is sensitive to motion this might not be the most ideal restaurant choice. Tables are covered with linen clothes, and set out on the aft deck and up on a top deck. Both decks are covered by awnings to provide shade and protection from the resident sea birds. Things looked promising, but the dining experience would prove to be more like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
We quickly found out that half the staff had failed to show up for work that day. Been there, done that, have a lot of sympathy for any operator who has to try and run a business understaffed. In spite of that, drinks, chips and salsa arrived with little delay. I had the Barkissimo, a refreshing combination of Squirt, limon and tequila. This may be my new favorite summer drink. The salsa was the smooth variety, but a little lacking in assertive taste and punch.
As we were trying to decide what to order, smoke began billowing from one of the vents and the bathroom. A little unsettling when you're sitting on a wooden boat with limited exits. Still even more unsettling when you see the staff rushing up the stairs with fire extinguishers in hand. Anyone who's ever worked in a commercial or restaurant kitchen knows how dangerous a hood fire can be. This hood fire was finally extinguished after running water down the hood, which, oddly enough, flooded the bathroom. Don't ask, it's Mexico. At this point we were ready to leave, thinking that they'd have to close. But, also being Mexico, the owner said they were staying open and they'd work their menu around what they could still use and do in their kitchen. And I'm writing, because despite having half their staff not show up (The Bad), a hood fire (The Ugly), what they were able to produce was really quite respectable and above average (The Good).
Here's what we ended up with, and we split everything. An appetizer of stuffed mushrooms. Medium mushrooms stuffed with a combination of shrimp, crab, butter, onion, a binder of some sort and seasoning, garnished with fine shreds of a cheese I could not identify. Very rich, but a nice melange of flavors. The mushrooms were followed by a huge bowl of steamed clams. The clams are farm raised in San Quentin. They were fat, and tender and very briny. Best of all, they had absolutely no trace of grit, making them a real pleasure to eat. They are steamed in a broth of (among other things) Reisling, butter and Italian seasonings. The broth is excellent and lots of warm crusty bread is provided for dipping. One caveat though, this dish was a little salty. Upon asking, we were told that they've removed all added salt from the recipe due to the brininess of the clams. These clams, a small green salad, bread and a glass of wine would make an extremely satisfying lunch.
We finished with two of their shrimp entrees. 6 beautiful, butterflied (size 15) shrimp per order. In the first plate the shrimp came napped with a Buerre Blanc type of sauce studded with crab and other seafood. The accompaniments on the plate were a timble of rice and fresh caulfilower, carrots and peas (the peas were fresh). The second entree was the stuffed shrimp, which used the same stuffing as in the mushrooms. Both Chilepm and I had liked the stuffing in the mushrooms, but liked it even better with the shrimp. Two drinks, 2 apps, 2 entrees and tip cost us $40.
The menu includes an assortment of entree size salads, salmon, sea bass, whatever other fresh fish may look good in the market, a hamburger and BBQ ribs. There is also a childs menu.
For what they went through yesterday, we both thought the meal they produced under duress was very good. I will go back and try them again under less trying circumstances.
When we crossed the border in the morning, the line for the crossing back into the U.S. was MILES long. Since we still had a couple hours of sunlight left, we decided to take Mexico 3 up through the Guadalupe Valley and cross at Tecate. Narrow road, lots of curves and lots of big trucks (thankfully, mostly going the other way), and gorgous scenery. About 20 miles up the road is a check point manned by 4 heavily armed Federales. A little unnerving, but we were eventually waved through. The border crossing at Tecate is easy. We were asked our country of citizenship and that was it. There are 2 booths and we waited in line for about 15 minutes to get across. Hwy 94 is more curvy than Mex 3 and not lit either. But almost exactly 12 hours after we left, we arrived back at my car. Tired, well fed, remarkably relaxed, and happier than when we left.
The toll road and Mex 3 were both in pretty good condition, although Mex 3 could use a little paving about 30 miles South of Tecate. Toll is $2.30/toll booth, for a total of $6.90 in tolls one way. Don't recommend the Tecate crossing at night due to curves in the road and lack of adequate lighting. Gas plentiful, lines short.