Mercado Hidalgo- Tijuana, Mexico

The vibrant colors of locally grown peppers, the hefty weight of native root vegetables in your hand, the prickly skin of tropical fruits at its peak, the seductive aromas wafting from busy food stalls that activate your hunger, the energetic sounds of lively exchanges and transactions- these are the very elements that define markets and in turn local cultures.  Whether it’s a visit to your neighborhood farmer’s market in the US, a night market in Turkey or a floating market on the Mekong River, these are the places where you can get a vivid glimpse into the kaleidoscope of the local customs.

Nothing defines our traditions more than the food that we eat, and nothing reflects who we are more clearly than our local markets.  A morning spent weaving through labyrinths of vendors and stalls can transport you into the warmth and comfort of a cocina where families gather for their daily meals.  It is here, in the city’s biggest kitchen, where you can feel the heartbeat of the city’s core from where food trickles through its blood vessels into every household.  In return, bountiful offerings from the land and the sea are brought back to the market every day to continue the endless circle of life.  The market is a place of nourishment and a way of life.

One such market is Mercado Hidalgo, a sprawling indoor-outdoor market in the middle of Tijuana’s urban jungle.  This mercado got its start in the mid 1900′s when a group of Tijuana vendors selling produce out of their car decided to establish a permanent location.  After several moves, it settled into its final and current location at Boulevard Sanchez Taboada and Avenida Independencia in 1984.  In keeping with the true spirit of local markets, Hidalgo is owned by its merchants who run the 80 open air stalls.  3 generations of families have worked here, creating a unique community with its own history and culture.

The market even has its own chapel, honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe, where vendors make their final rite of passage upon passing away.  This market is not only a place of tradition, it is a place of family, home and life.

Even as a tourist, it’s easy to feel the rhythm of this unique marketplace where you can feel, taste, touch and smell the essence of a Mexican pueblo.  There is a palpable richness in the air and an abundance of resonant energy- it’s everywhere you look, in the frijoles, the maiz, hierbas and frutas.  A diversity of dried chiles line the racks, reflecting the unique flavors of Mexican cuisine- chile de arbol, pasilla, chipotle, guajillo, ancho, morita, and California.

Skillful men and women shave prickly spines off of nopales, preparing them for the scrumptious dinners that will nourish the mass. It is in the conversations and interactions with these merchants that one can begin to get an understanding of the deep roots of Hidalgo.

Jamaica, tamarindo and chayote from my memorable dinners in Tijuana were displayed in various shapes and sizes.

Carnicerias and queserias piled high with fresh food stood back to back in the tight hallway spaces that never ceased to attract both locals and tourists alike.  Deep fried crispy chicharrones looked familiar to me, and large jars of pickled white strips of tender chicharrones were a novelty, but nothing grabbed my attention quite like the chicharrones prensado, a gigantic mound of densely compressed pig parts so real that it flaunted the occasional tufts of pig hair.

Little girls squealed with delight in the crammed dulcerias where they jumped in joy for caramels and chocolates while older folks took to tequila flavored gummies and frutas cristalizadas with nostalgia.  Dried and candied oranges, pineapples and papayas proved to be cheap and satisfying treats to chew on while perusing through neighboring stores selling ceramics, tableware, cookware and molcajetes.

It’s not just about browsing and being a passive observer- one must be willing to fully plunge into the rhythm of a market with an open mind, for it is only through meaningful intimate interactions with the vendors that you can even begin to comprehend the local way of life.  Perhaps an old lady will give you a few extra oranges with your purchase and ask you to come back again the following day for her lemons.  A street vendor may invite you to their home for dinner after seeing the way you marveled over their tacos de lengua.  That grumpy old butcher, who isn’t grumpy at all once you get to know him, will tell you which stand to go to for the juiciest tomatoes. You never know what can happen at a market, but you’ll always know that whatever does will become a magical experience and a beautiful memory, and be translated into an appreciation for life that you will take back to your culture.

Go to Mercado Hidalgo on your next visit to Baja California and feel the spirit of Tijuana with your own skin, and be sure to wash down those buttery tacos de sesos with a cup of freshly squeezed cane juice to complete the experience.  Repeat as necessary.

Cebicheria Erizo- Tijuana, Mexico

If you’re down in Tijuana or Ensenada, your journey is not complete until you’ve sampled the fruits of the Baja ocean, whether it’s geoduck and chocolate clams from the Sea of Cortez, or sea cucumbers and marlin from the Pacific side.  There are many places to enjoy fresh Baja cuisine, like La Guerrerense on the streets of Ensenada where Sabina will serve you sea urchin tostada with heaps of avocado and freshly shucked pismo clams, or Mariscos Ruben where Mirta will create a special shrimp and scallop aguachile just for you.  Another such establishment can be added to your list of epic seafood places to visit now- Cebicheria Erizo, run by my favorite Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia and opened almost a year ago in Chapultepec, Tijuana.   Erizo in Spanish means sea urchin, and although a tower of spiny urchin shells greeted us at the counter, they were out of the buttery ocean treasures on the day that we went.  However, Plascencia and his right hand man Chef Manuel Brato made me forget about that crucial absence with what would end up being one of my most memorable meals in Tijuana.

Cebicheria Erizo, in close proximity to his other restaurants Cafe Saverios and La Tia, features a long menu of ceviches, or ‘cebiches’ as it’s called in Peru, tostadas, grilled seafood and fish stews.   You can get all of the ocean’s jewels right here in this clean and brightly lit space, from clams, crabs, shrimp, abalone and oysters to locally caught fish and squid.  Although everything on the menu is freshly prepared and deliciously seasoned, if you’re lucky enough to have Javier Plascencia give you his recommendations like we were, you’ll have an unforgettable meal that will blow you away.

What better way to start our cebiche feast than a toast with a classic Peruvian cocktail, the pisco sour?  On this particular hot day in Tijuana, the ice cold passion fruit pisco sour with an airy egg white foam really hit the spot.

A dashing plate of vibrant colors and geometric shapes kicked off our cebiche extravaganza in an octopus carpaccio with crunchy sliced nopales, cherry tomatoes, avocado, red onion, ponzu sauce and an earthy chile oil.  Round wheels of compressed octopus legs cut transversely looked like beautiful ocean flowers blossoming under the bright assortment of garden vegetables.  The natural gelatinous coating around the octopus legs held the delicate pieces together in this dish that we all enjoyed.

Cebiche verde de camaron, a shrimp cebiche dish with green tomatillo, diced cucumbers, red onion, cilantro, habanero chiles, serrano chiles and buttery avocado slices was refreshing and sensational.  The raw shrimp was so fresh and juicy that it practically snapped and burst with audible popping sounds inside my mouth.

Cebiche de tres almejas, a remarkable medley of 3 of Baja’s most representative and popular clams, was presented in a green cebiche dish with chopped cucumbers, onions, avocado, cilantro and lime.  Thick wedges of geoduck generosa clam were crisp like summer cucumbers, and pismo clams had a clean lettuce finish while the more briny chocolate clams brought a deeper intensity to the mollusk fiesta.

Petroleo cebiche, a cebiche of shrimp, squid and corn nuts darkened with a splash of black squid ink, was surprisingly light and mellow despite its appearance.  The presence of squid ink brought a distinct black sheen to the seafood while imparting a velvety and briny flavor that brought body and fullness to the dish.

An aguachile de callo made with 2 types of fresh raw scallops, garra de león and callo de hacha, was prepared with serrano chiles, garlic, onions, lime juice and cilantro with crispy wedges of cucumbers.  The meaty and succulent scallops were the perfect vehicle for the exhilarating aguachile marinade that I happily drank with my spoon.

One of my favorite dishes at Erizo was the garra de león scallop tiradito, an elegant and alluring plate of tender scallops embellished with green salicornia sea asparagus stalks, avocado slices, red onion, vivid orange kumquat slices and sprinkles of black volcanic salt.  It wasn’t just the simple beauty and artistic expression of this scallop carpaccio but the celebration of colors, flavors and textures so well thought out and orchestrated to perfection that put a genuine smile on my face.

Peruano Mixto, a cebiche of shrimp, octopus and white fish with lime, cilantro and red onions, saluted the Peruvian history behind this glorious and idiolized dish by featuring fresh corn and cancha corn nuts.

Cochinita pibil, a classic Yucatan suckling pig stew made with annatto seeds and citrus juice, was interpreted in Baja style with local swordfish in Erizo’s cochinita de pez lopada pibil. With a hint of pineapple sweetness and acidity infused into the rich broth and tender fish, we were ready to get our hands dirty in some taco making.

Diced onions, chopped cilantro, creamy avocado guacamole, pickled red onions and pico de gallo with bright and dangerously hot habanero chiles were brought to our table for fish taco assembly.

There’s nothing more satisfying than chomping on delicious food that you assemble yourself and eat with your hands, and with ingredients made by Javier Plascencia and crew, you couldn’t mess it up no matter how hard you tried.  The rich seductive earthiness of the pibil broth fully saturated into each tender fish fiber, juxtaposed against the sharp acidity of the pickled onions, all coated within a soft blanket of creamy avocado nirvana with stabs of crisp radish tartness in a toasty corn tortilla that you stuff in your mouth- it doesn’t get any better than that.

A blue bucket of red birria fish stew arrived at our table for more taco pleasure.  The Mexican fish bouillabaisse was full of earthy essence and firey spices with a light layer of savory oil on top to round out the flavors.

Sopes de chorizo de abulón, abalone chorizo made in-house at Erizo from abalone caught off the Island of Cedros, was topped with shredded lettuce, carrots, avocado, red onions and cilantro.  It was my first time trying abalone chorizo, and I was pleasantly surprised by the dense flavors and spices packed into the light and tender medium.

Toritos, chile rellenos stuffed with shrimp and crab and deep fried to a crunchy puffy exterior, were served with a smokey soy chile sauce.  These big puff balls were filled to the brim with tender warm seafood that sang to my soul.

We were just hoping to sample a few bites of cebiches here at Erizo, but when Javier Plascencia came by to say hello, we didn’t expect him to pamper us with all of these extra hot items.  The icing on the cake came in a grand finale of big mouth seabass, or callo de lobina, baked in a coarse salt crust and served tableside by a skilled server.

We crowded around our server like eager little children on Christmas morning, snapping away with our cameras at this majestic fish with the determination and fervor of Hollywood paparazzi.  He carefully lifted the whole salt crust away from the fish, then proceeded to remove the skin to unveil perfectly cooked steaming flesh stuffed with citrus and herbs.  The fish was amazing, but the bright yellow sauce made with garlic, ginger, aji amarillo, citrus, butter and white wine that it came with was beyond words.

Although we were so unbelievably full from our wonderful meal that we were practically on the floor paralyzed with pleasure, we still had room for dessert.  In Japanese, they say that everybody has a betsubara for dessert- a separate stomach.  The Killer de Chocolate rich chocolate cake didn’t end our lives, but it ended our meal on a delightful high note.

…as did the torta de guayaba, guava tart with vanilla bean ice cream.

Although I’ve only had the pleasure of dining at 3 of Chef Javier’s restaurants in his large empire, Cebicheria Erizo is hands down my favorite for its fresh seafood and Baja treasures that you can’t savor anywhere else in the world.  He keeps things simple, but combines ingredients in just the perfect ratio to create complex and enriching flavors.  If you haven’t been to Tijuana recently, then Cebicheria Erizo can easily be your sole reason to pay a visit.  In fact, the octopus carpaccio and scallop tiradito dishes alone are worth the drive.

Cebicheria Erizo
Ave Sonora No 3808-11
barrio Chapultepec, south of Agua Caliente

Baja California, Tijuana, Mexico
Tel 686-1564

Random trivia:  Did you know that salicornia, or sea asparagus, is a halophyte, or salt tolerant plant?  Salicornia can grow in inhospitable desert soils on ocean salt water alone.  It can produce biodiesel and it tastes good too.  This plant could potentially solve world hunger and slow global warming…

Villa Saverios- Tijuana, Mexico

Tijuana is no longer a place of cheap booze and juvenile festivities- it’s quickly emerging as a new landmark for fine dining and sophisticated continental cuisine.  A visit to Tijuana’s Gastronomic District will quickly prove that talented local chefs and their distinguished restaurants are capable of challenging and taking down any of its counterparts in Los Angeles or New York.  Grabbing the reigns of the Baja culinary movement with full force and steering it into the future is perhaps the most hardworking and dynamic of them all, Chef Javier Plascencia who runs 6 restaurants on both sides of the US-Mexico border.  It started as a family business for Chef Javier when his father, Juan Plascencia, founded Baja’s first pizza parlor back in 1967.  But it’s not just his family history and pedigree that made these restaurants a success- Javier Plascencia, who did his culinary training at San Diego Mesa College and the CIA, has real skill and unparalleled talent.  On my recent culinary trip to Baja led by Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I had the opportunity to sample exciting cuisine prepared especially for us by numerous distinguished chefs, from Chef Miguel Ángél Guerrero Yaguës at La Querencia to Chef Martín San Román of Rincón San Román to Chef Benito Molina at Manzanilla.  Each chef had a unique, innovative and delicious take on Baja cuisine, but it was Plascencia’s food that made me purr the loudest.

On one of our evenings, Javier Plascencia greeted us at Villa Saverios in Tijuana for a special chef’s tasting dinner.   This restaurant, unlike his others, serves ‘Baja Med cuisine’ which melds fresh local Baja foods with the best of Italian, French, Spanish and Mediterranean flavors and traditions.  One step inside this beautiful restaurant space and you will be transported to a rustic Tuscan villa with a winding staircase that leads to a private banquet room and a wine cellar downstairs that can host a private dinner.

As the charismatic and handsome chef welcomed us at our table and explained what he was planning to prepare for us that night, we sipped on a fabulous tamarind martini made with Beefeater gin and mashed tamarind pulp.   The whole tamarind pod, fully infused with liquor essence and oozing with juicy sweetness, was ripe and ready for enjoyment.

A trio of miniature tostadas commenced our fantastic tasting dinner, from a creamy spider crab tostada topped with cherry tomatoes and a crisp and fresh geoduck clam tostada with cucumbers and jalapeños in the center to a succulent octopus version topped with savory and smokey Sonoran dried beef machaca.  I was hooked on the surf and turf tostada for its stellar combination play of tender octopus legs in contrast with the slam dunk spice of picante beef.  Each tostada was bursting with fresh and vibrant ocean flavors, showcasing the diversity of the local Baja waters.  The tostadas were paired with a fruity 2009 Sauvignon blanc from La Niña L’ Blanc with pleasant citrus and peach undertones.

Plascencia’s version of chile relleno, an earthy and seductive pasilla chile stuffed with beef cheeks and topped with heirloom beans, arugula, fig granules, ground cacao and pickled red onions was sensational.  The hint of  cacao flavor with the subtle sweetness of figs and beans pulled all of the different elements together for a rustic and memorable dish, beautifully paired with the balanced sweetness of a 2008 Villa Montefiori Sangiovese Rosado from Valle de Guadalupe.

My favorite dish of the evening came from a surprise twist on Peking duck rolls in Plascencia’s interpretation through a duck, cucumber, avocado and cilantro taco wrapped in an almost translucent yet mouthwatering and crisp sheet of thinly sliced jicama.  With a bit of habanero salsa to raise the heat factor and dark magenta hibiscus flowers bringing both honey-like sweetness and a vivid splash of color to the plate, each precious bite of the Mexican duck taco introduced me to a new level of fascinating flavors and sensations.  Paired with a 2007 Mariatinto red from Valle de Guadalupe made with a Cabernet, Petit Syrah and Grenache blend, this delicious dish was one that I will never forget.

2 well-suited servers pulled up to the side of our table each with his own cart stocked full of bowls, bottles and utensils.  One mashed a couple of fillets of anchovies with a flattened fork and whisked in some finely chopped garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, olive oil, Maggi sauce, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a coddled egg yolk, pepper and parmesan cheese to make a classic Caesar salad.

We watched in awe as his rival made a classic Victor salad with equal skill and finesse.  Anchovies, coddled egg yolk, mayonaise, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, A1 steak sauce, parmesan cheese, ground pepper, vinegar and corn oil went into the terracotta pot to be whipped up into a creamy dressing with the speed of a mechanical whisker and tossed with whole Romaine lettuce leaves.

As many of you may know, it is said that Caesar salad was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924 when restaurateur Caesar Cardini improvised with these ingredients when he was low on food supplies and had to make do with what he had to accommodate a party that arrived at his restaurant at Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolución.  The Victor salad is its rival, also born out of a legendary restaurant in Tijuana, although both institutions have since closed down.  Although the Victor salad was delicious,with strong acidity and tartness from the addition of vinegar, I have to say the creaminess and distinct anchovy umami of the Caesar salad was the clear winner.  It probably helped that our Caesar salad maker was a true professional in this art- he worked at the original Hotel Caesar’s and has been making this legendary salad for 17 years.  Javier Plascencia is taking over the old hotel space and reviving the legendary Caesar’s back this weekend .

A stunning dish of farro that Javier’s grandmother used to make for him was reinvented at Villa Saverios with savory chunks of crispy suckling pig, micro cilantro, heirloom ‘eye of the goat’ beans, morel mushrooms and raw cured nopales.  The distinct chewy texture of the farro reminded me of the most perfect bowl of udon noodles with an elastic koshi texture, forming a wonderful canvas upon which the salty pork crisps, crunchy and slightly slippery nopales and spongy morels could shine.  It was a hearty and comforting dish that paired well with the 2007 Tramonte Tempranillo/Cabernet blend that we had.

Meanwhile, Chef Javier Plascencia was busy tending to our final meat course in the wood-burning oven, a perfectly prepared 3 month borrego primal lamb shank cooked in lamb jus and wine with onions, thyme and an indented masa dumpling called chochoyones that was just starting to soak up the beautiful sauce.  The juicy lamb was heavenly, having been cooked to a perfect sear near the crackling flames.  This dish was paired with a 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Kerubiel, an interesting red blend including Syrah, Grenache and Viognier with distinct notes of pepper.

12-14 month aged Ramonetti cow’s milk cheese came decorated with mission figs, pine nuts, a drizzle of honey and basil ribbons.

Thick chunky pistachio ice cream stood out in its minty green hue, accented by a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to enhance the nuttiness of this fabulous dessert.

The Plascencia’s got their start in the business flinging pizza dough into the air, so it only seemed right to end our chef’s tasting dinner with an unusual but heavenly dessert pizzetina topped with quince, Real del Castillo cheese, fig syrup and crunchy pomegranate seeds. 

It wasn’t just the romantic restaurant setting or the flowing wines, but the meticulously prepared and exquisitely flavored cuisine from this seasoned chef that made me an instant fan of the Plascencia legacy.  It’s obvious that Javier Plascencia understands food and how to create magic with it- there wasn’t a single dish that flopped and every bite awakened my senses to a new level of understanding and inspiration.  On a subsequent visit to one of his other Tijuana restaurants Cebicheria Erizo, and a recent one to Romesco in San Diego, I reconfirmed the mastery and savvy of this amazing chef.  Tijuana should be proud of its magnetic culinary representative who is revolutionizing the food culture and reversing the reputation of this once feared city with his bare hands.

Villa Saverios
Blvd. Sanchez Taboada
Esq. Escuadron 201
22320 Zona Rio Tijuana

Baja California, Mexico

Phone Number: 0 11 52 664 6502

Random trivia:  Did you know that tamarind pulp, when mixed with salt and rubbed directly onto the object to be polished, is an excellent  brass and copper polish?

Rincón San Román- Baja, Mexico

Tijuana, Mexico a.k.a. TJ- what images come to your mind?  Raging drunks, partying college kids, tequila funnels, street drugs, car theft and kidnappings?  That was partly my perception too, before I headed down to Baja California for a life-changing culinary tour with a lovely group of gourmets a few months ago, led by my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA.  With expectations of eating fish tacos and clams from street stalls all weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the fine dining experience we had at Restaurant Rincón San Román, headed by one of Mexico’s highly acclaimed celebrity chefs Martín San Román.  He’s one of the faces of Mexican cuisine, having appeared on weekly TV cooking shows and competed in the 1995 Bocuse d’Or competition for Team Mexico.  Raised in Mexico City and of Basque ancestry, San Román’s classical French training and continued membership in the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France provides a solid foundation for his Mexican-French style of cuisine where he incorporates fresh ingredients unique to the Baja waters and land with elegant French concepts and flair.

Driving just a few kilometers south of the bustling streets of Tijuana, we found ourselves gliding along the beautiful coast of Real del Mar where the deep blue sea and the vast open skies melded on the distant horizon.  Going up the hill into the Real del Mar golf complex through a security gate, we parked near the terracotta courtyard flanked by magenta bouganvillea vines.  The sounds of chirping birds and soft winds greeted us into this remote haven that seemed far removed from the city.  It felt like we accidentally stepped into a warp zone that whisked us away to Tenerife, or perhaps somewhere on Santorini. On that particular cloudy afternoon, our cheerful and friendly host Chef San Román greeted us in his beautiful 2 story restaurant that he emptied out for a private lunch just for us.

After going through the casual cafe and bar area, we stopped at the foot of the stairway to examine Chef San Román’s many achievements proudly framed on the walls.  A team photo from the Bocuse d’Or competition, many plaques of recognition for his fine cuisine, numerous awards and accolades from all over the world- and of course, the infamous LA Times article from 2002 on Chef San Román and his unique Baja cuisine written by one of our culinary tour members, Barbara Hansen.  Our table was set with pristine silverware and wine glasses, and we had an unobstructed grand view of the Pacific Ocean from the second floor.   On clear days, one can see the Coronado Islands floating in the distance.  In this heavenly and serene environment, we were treated to a wonderful cuisine d’auteur tasting lunch created by this accomplished auteur, or artist.

He started us with a plate of tuna tartare with apples, onions, pine nuts and pumpkin seed oil topped with a layer of wine jelly and garnished with freshly ground black pepper and microgreens.  The honey-like sweetness of the wine jelly brought out the flavors of the fresh tender tuna while diced onions and pine nuts added fun textural crunch.  The earthy mellowness of the pumpkin seed oil rounded out each bite with a smooth finish only to be followed by an unexpected jolt of cactus needles tickling my tongue from ancho chile slivers on the crisp bread.  Our elegant tuna dish was paired with a 2008 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc.

The vibrant colors of the New Zealand mussel dish popped out against the black slate dish.  Fresh corn mixed with its nemesis, huitlacoche, added an earthy and smokey layer of flavor while pico de gallo and fresh marjoram danced in fresh celebration on my tongue, all brought together through the creaminess and richness of lobster reduction and panela cheese.

A salad made with crisp hydroponic lettuce and cherry tomatoes from San Román’s garden in the Guadalupe Valley came dressed with a sweet syrupy hibiscus vinaigrette and bacon bits.  We actually had a vase of live hydroponic lettuce on our table on display.

Our seafood course was a rolled fillet of locally caught sole stuffed with graped leaves and smoked marlin, standing tall atop a bed of savory smoked scallop and fish jus sauce.  What looked like a cylinder of classic gratin dauphinois with potatoes and cream, given the chef’s classical French training background, was actually a Baja twist of chayote lasagna.  This delicious vegetable side, along with the amazing sauce and the smoked marlin, or ‘jamón of the sea’, brought a wonderful level of savoriness and richness to this creation.

An artistic plate of Mexicali beef tenderloin with salsa de pimenta verde was plated with abstract expressionism under the skillful hands of the restaurant’s auteur. A yellow circle of seared guava with crunchy round seeds lay still next to a twig of fresh rosemary from the garden that released pungent freshness into the air to entice our olfactory senses.  Crunchy flakes of chicharrones sparkled on a painted landscape of browned sauce, inviting us to savor its seductive crackles with every bite.  Perfectly paired with a bottle of 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Jardín Secreto, this dish demonstrated the sensitivity and sensuality of Chef San Román.

The most memorable and striking of all dishes that afternoon was the Tijuana crepe cake, copied by many throughout Baja but never equaled by its original creator, Chef Martín San Román himself, who created this delightful dessert back in 1989.  I fell in love with the crepe cake when I had it for the first time at Chef Yaguës’ La Querencia, but the one and only original here at Rincón San Román was beyond perfection.  Fine layers of crepe interspersed with feathery soft and light creme simply melted in my mouth along with thin shavings of white chocolate, as I licked the strawberry and raspberry sauce squeaky clean off the plate.

Tijuana was the last place that I ever imagined sitting down for an elegant meal with paired wines and white tablecloth fine dining, but here I was, enjoying an amazing meal prepared especially for us by a distinguished and notable chef.  My preconceived notions of Tijuana and Baja Mexico were slowly but surely changing through this eye opening culinary trip.  Baja is no longer a place that’s solely famous for fish tacos, spring break partying and sleepy fishing villages.  It’s emerging, much to my delight, as one of the most fascinating locations in the world with a contemporary and sophisticated style of cuisine that cannot be mimicked by others.  Many talented and motivated chefs are flocking to this peninsula to test their skills with the local seafood that is unique to the 2 bodies of water that sandwich this rich land.  Notable wines are being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe that are as good as the wines in Europe.  Organic farming and hydroponic cultivation are creating sensational produce that are rich in nutrients and flavor.  Beautiful Baja California is now a food lover’s paradise.

Restaurant Rincón San Román

Km. 19.5 Tijuana – Rosarito toll road
Blvd. Real del Mar 1074 – 21 Real del Mar Golf Resort
Zip Code 22565

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels secrete a highly adhesive protein through their hairy ‘beard’ that makes them stick to rocks in turbulent waters, a substance so adhesive that it can even make a mussel stick to Teflon?  Due to the highly sticky nature of this unique mussel glue that remains adhesive even in wet environments, research is being done to see if this substance can be used for ophthalmologic and orthopedic surgeries.

La Querencia- Tijuana, Mexico

The earliest human species 2.5 million years ago, Homo habilis, lived primarily by scavenging.  A million years later,  Homo erectus and Homo sapiens began hunting and gathering.  In the Paleolithic period, hunter-gatherers began creating specialized tools like bone harpoons and fishing nets for sophisticated hunting.  Development of agricultural practices in the Neolithic period revolutionized the way that man eats.  Nowadays, the 21st century modern man provides for himself by inserting coins into a 6 foot tall rectangular machine or by driving up to a window through which a paper bag of deep fried potatoes and meat with buns magically appears.  Survival is no longer a matter of spearing a mammoth to provide for the long winter; it’s about taking cholesterol lowering agents or ordering an Ab-flex through an infomercial site.  Where have all of our rugged and powerful hunter-gatherers gone?

On a recent cultural expedition across the North American-Mexican border, our team of highly trained culinary anthropologists made a startling and exciting discovery of a lone hunter-gatherer who still exists among the civilized people known as Tijuanenses.  Our expedition was led by renowned culinary explorer Sir Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, who has ventured tall and wide throughout Northern Mexico and Mesoamerica.  On previous Baja expeditions he made note of this sole hunter-gatherer who is named Miguel Ángél Guerrero Yaguës, and he brought his research team back to Yaguës’ establishment called La Querencia to study this anthropological anomaly.  This brawny and manly chef, of fourth generation Baja decent, is not only the chef behind the Baja Med movement, but also a hunter, diver, fisherman, farmer, winemaker and chef (and a lawyer).

La Querencia, which has been open for 4 years, is the birthplace of Baja Med cuisine which celebrates the marriage of fresh local ingredients with Mediterranean techniques and a touch of Asian influence to reflect the diversity of its population and culture.  The hip urban alta cocina (haute cuisine) space lined with steel tables and flanked by two open kitchens is always brimming with stylish patrons who come for the innovative menu that is driven by the chef’s catch of the day.  Bears, deer and boar mounted on the walls of the restaurant along with photos of Miguel Ángél as a successful hunter in his youth salute all who devour the fresh game.  “This is who I am!”, the chef proclaimed, as he explained why he left his law practice to pursue his passion.  “I grew up diving and hunting.  This is my way of life.”  And in sharing his passion with the Baja community, he named his restaurant La Querencia, which means a place of comfort and familiarity, because he wanted this to be a place from his heart.

He made us feel right at home for a spectacular dinner experience at La Querencia on the first night of our weekend culinary Baja trip.  We toasted to the evening with tepache, a sexy drink made of 20-day fermented pineapple skin sweetened with brown sugar and finished off with a chile salt rim.  It’s one of the most mesmerizing and seductive drinks ever, with a deep and rich sweetness that’s well balanced with just the right amount of mellow sourness from the fermentation.  The red chile added a swell touch of zing to this drink that won me over.  Bread was served with an assortment of 5 chiles, from habanero, chile de arbol, tomatillo and tomato to my favorite, a heavenly smoked oyster with chipotle.

Fresh clams that are local to the waters of Baja, like chocolate clam, are one component of what makes Baja Med cuisine so unique.  Freshly shucked chocolate clams were served in a shot glass with vodka, Sriracha chile sauce and what Miguel Ángél called ‘sashimi salsa’, which is a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sake.

Thinly sliced beet carpaccio bled with vibrant color and flavor with the mint vinaigrette and blue cheese garnish.  All of the herbs and many of the vegetables used at La Querencia are grown on the chef’s farm.  He’s not only a traditional hunter-gatherer, but also a skilled agriculturalist and culinary master, a superman of his species.

Oysters were served two ways, one raw in Asian style with wasabi, lime peel, ‘sashimi salsa’, chives and dried fish which was good, but the other that was smoked with a chipotle sauce was too amazing for words.  The concentrated flavor of oyster all beautifully nestled within a veil of smokiness and a strong infusion of earthy chipotle fire was one of the most memorable bites on my Baja trip.

It’s Chef Miguel Ángél’s primitive and strong hunting skills that set this Tijuana chef apart from all others in the rising culinary city, and we got to sample a platter of deer salami, deer carpaccio and duck paté that was created from his bulls eye shot.  The large platter was served with an assortment of salsas to enjoy the charcuterie with, such as cranberry sauce and a special 9 chile sauce made in-house.  Unlike dainty salamis and dried meats made with beef and pork, La Querencia’s version was more rustic, gamey and full of wild flavors.  The tender and moist carpaccio was refined, yet animalistic and raw at the same time, reflecting the attractive spirit of the hunter who slaughtered it.

Marinated tuna was served as a tostada with avocados, leeks, shiitake mushrooms and garlic chips, and finished off with a generous drizzle of aromatic oil infused with toasted garlic and leeks.  Every dish at La Querencia was paired with local Baja wines, and the 2008 Barón Balch’é 2B made with a sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc blend went particularly well with the tuna tostada.

Hunted rabbit was transformed into a conejo en mole negro taco alongside a duck meat taco with fresh crisp lettuce from the farm.

Grilled mero, a type of local seabass, was served on a bed of risotto with a generous topping of crunchy fried lamb meat.

Succulent braised short ribs were marinated for 8 hours before being cooked in a white wine broth until the meat became so tender that it fell off the bones.  The beef was tossed with thyme, guajillo pepper and oyster mushrooms and served over linguine.

As if his hunting skills and cooking skills weren’t enough to impress me, this multi-talented chef also has a sweet spot.  A dessert smorgasbord arrived at our table, with delicate slices of gingerbread cake, layered crepe cake, nutty pound cake and chocolate cake.

To top it all off, our gracious and dynamic host Chef Miguel Ángél, who stayed with us the entire night, concluded our spectacular meal with a bottle of 5 year La Querencia orange liqueur that he aged in a barrel with mezcal, wine, herbs and orange peel that was divine.  By the end of the feast, I was starting to feel dizzy and hot.  Was it the flavorful food or the endless glasses of wine that I consumed, or was it the magic of this magnificent human being who in every essence of his existence defined a real man?  His thick muscular arms waved in the air as he talked about his passion for food and life; those same arms that dug clams from the bed of the ocean floor, that speared large vigorous fish, that pulled the trigger on the powerful rifle, that filleted animals, that sautéed seasoned meats over high flames and yet also delicately plated beautiful food with grace and sensuality.  This man is the only one of his kind, one who skillfully survives off the land and sea using centuries old techniques while adapting his skills to reflect the aesthetics and engagements of modern day civilization.  On this highly successful culinary expedition down to Baja Mexico, I made a striking discovery of a rare yet highly evolved and brilliant species.

La Querencia

Escuadron 201 No. 3110
Tijuana, Baja California Norte, Mexico
01 664 972 9935

Random trivia:  Did you know that the antlers that deer have on their heads are made of living tissue, and are in fact the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom?  They grow an average of 1-2 inches per week during development.

Mariscos Ruben- Tijuana, Mexico

I was never a big fan of the so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks in Los Angeles that serve anything from kalbi tacos to shrimp har gow and rainbow rolls.  It’s a whole different story though when it comes to delicious Mexican street food trucks such as the ones that Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has introduced me to.  I’ve enjoyed clayudas, tacos, huaraches and vampiros that exemplify the pure essence and spirit of street food.  Even then, the excessive food truck craze has somewhat miffed me enough to create a personal aversion to all trucks in general, including U-Hauls.   I’m more comfortable eating these tasty morsels off of a table or a cart on the sidewalk.

Fortunately, I got some positive biofeedback therapy for my mobilogrubophobia through Dr. Esparza when he took me down for a weekend culinary Baja trip a few months ago.  The fresh seafood tostadas at La Guerrerense in Ensenada were so unbelievably delicious that my strong yearning for Sabina’s food causes an anginal chest pain.  Another such place that still haunts me with its succulent and tasty food is Mariscos Ruben in Tijuana.   Given the scene in LA, I was imagining that the streets of Tijuana would be flooded with food trucks, but it was quite the opposite.  Mariscos Ruben is one of the few trucks in all of Mexico- in fact, it’s a truck, stall and grill squeezed into one delicious establishment.

This Sonoran seafood truck in Tijuana that Bill called a ‘seafood love shack’ on the Baja episode of Bizarre Foods is run by husband and wife team Ruben and Mirta Elena Rodriguez.  They’ve been in this business for 20 years where they started off in Mirta’s home town in Ciudad Obregón in Sonora, and have spent the last 15 operating out of this truck on this street corner in Tijuana.  On any given day there will be a crowd of locals both young and old, who line up along the counter for the freshly shucked clams and outstanding aguachiles skillfully prepared by Mirta and staff.

When our clan arrived at Mariscos Ruben, matriarch Mirta gave us a bright smile when she saw Bill’s face, but a split second later went back to her molcajete with a serious and stern look.  She was in the middle of preparing her famous aguachile brew in the volcanic rock mortar, using ground dried chile tepin, chipotle purée and lime juice, and she wasn’t about to let a few out of towners interrupt her tight operation.  Succulent raw shrimp and firm Sinaloan scallops were briefly marinated in the ‘firewater’, and served in the molcajete with a circumferential array of sliced cucumbers and cooked shrimp.

Meanwhile, in the tent behind the truck, patriarch Ruben tended to the marlin taquitos on the mesquite grill.  The pink marlin meat was as savory and hearty as pork, surprising me with its incredibly complex flavors.  The chargrilled taquitos, topped with cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, avocado salsa and a delicious chipotle mayo, were life changing for me.  At first there was the crunchy exterior of the perfectly grilled taquitos, followed by the smokiness of the juicy and salty marlin meat, intertwined with the freshness of the shredded cabbage and texture of the diced onions, mellowed out by the creaminess of the avocado salsa only to be invigorated again by the chipotle sauce.  How could this small parcel of food be so elaborate and intricate, and one of the most delicious unions of sea and land that I’ve ever tasted, yet served on an otherwise barren street corner out of a small truck in Tijuana?

One of Mariscos Ruben’s specialties is the Caguamanta con Aleta de Atun, a classic Sonoran soup of manta ray and tuna fin that used to be made as a turtle soup, but no longer so due to the ban on consumption of the endangered species.  Axial cuts of tender tuna fins with white gelatinous flesh and dark skin looked like little sailboats floating in the rich tomato based broth that was packed with comforting flavors, while delicate chunks of white manta ray meat were contrasted by the slight crunch of the finely chopped red onions and cilantro.  Like homemade chicken soup for a bad case of the flu, this bowl of caguamanta was comforting, soulful and therapeutic.

Freshly shucked Pismo clams were wrapped in foil with queso blanco and Maggi seasoning, and cooked in its shell over the mesquite grill for the clams au gratin dish.   Once the grilled clams were re-opened, a bit of Worcestershire sauce was splashed onto the succulent flesh for a flavor boost and served hot and steaming.  We got to sample another take on the dish, the mixto gratin with octopus, shrimp, scallops and clam, with an equally sweet and smokey flavor packed full of seafood essence.

We were lucky enough to have visited Mariscos Ruben on a day that they had fresh pata de mula, small mangrove cockles from the local waters.  Freshly shucked by the skillful hands of the Mariscos staff, and flavored with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, these crunchy clams with a dense black color were perfectly and sensationally briny, teeming with the flavors of the Baja sea.  They were served alongside a generous serving of fresh Pismo clams with salsa fresca.

They were out of the house specialty, crab claws, but with the inspirational marlin tacos that rocked my world, and a virgin encounter with pata de mula cockles, I wasn’t the least bit upset.  I was fully enraptured by the workings of this food truck, where I had fresh clams being thrown at me from one side, and smokey grilled treasures being tossed from the other.  It was a tight ship that this couple ran, and with such fresh Baja treasures that were being made in this mobile joint, I was healed from my phobia of food trucks and converted into a believer.  After our meal, Ruben took me outside to the small park by the truck to show me the local vegetation and give me a botany lesson.  “In our culture, we would take these flowers and leaves…”, he would say, as he explained Baja folklore and superstition to me over the sound of local traffic.  Meanwhile, dining companions Barbara Hansen munched on the last of the Pismo clams as she listened to a street singer who broke out in a loud performance and Bill climbed into the truck kitchen to check out Mirta’s cooler full of Sinaloan scallops as Chef John Rivera Sedlar was getting his shoes shined at the front of the truck.  The true essence of street food culture…it doesn’t get any better than that.

Mariscos Ruben
Corner of 8th & Quintana Roo
Tijuana, Mexico

Open 7 days a week, 8am-8pm

Random trivia:  A molcajete is a Mexican mortar and pestle, a 3 legged bowl carved out of basalt volcanic rock.  Since the porous basalt absorbs flavors, molcajetes are known to ‘season’ with time and use much like a cast iron skillet, and are passed down through generations.