The last time that I crossed the border down to Baja California was back in 1997 when a group of us piled into a pick up truck with sleeping bags and bathing suits for a week long vacation. There were 8 of us, adventurous and reckless hippie students, who made the long trek through the chaotic streets of Tijuana, along the beaches of Rosarito, past the town of Ensenada and through the barren Dr. Seuss deserts of Baja Norte until we parked our vehicle at Mulege. From there, we loaded up sea kayaks with a week’s worth of food and water along with a tortilla press that we borrowed from a local fish taco stand, and paddled off into the Sea of Cortez for an island hopping adventure. Our daily proteins had to be hunted and scavenged; the men went line and spear fishing while I skin dived with a hunting knife in hand for mussels and clams. The Sea of Cortez was rich with fresh and tasty offerings, and we ate like kings and queens. We honored the food that was given to us by the spirits of Baja and we never took more than what was necessary. We slept on the beach under the shooting stars, took midnight dips in the warm bioluminescent waters and kayaked in tranquil waters alongside pods of dolphins that numbered in the 300’s. Baja California is and will always be a special and magical place for me where I felt at one with the energy of the land and the sea.
When my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA invited me to join him for a weekend culinary Baja trip, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. A chance to revisit my long lost love, Baja California? Tears almost welled up in my eyes as I flashed back to how peaceful and happy I felt on my 2 previous sea kayaking trips to Baja. But Bill’s itinerary wasn’t bound for the Bay of Concepción- it was for Tijuana and Ensenada. The crazy city where college kids party at Senor Frog’s? I cringed for a split second, but by this time I knew Bill well enough to completely trust that he had something special up his sleeves. With Chef John Rivera Sedlar, food writer Barbara Hansen, and gourmand Brian Saltsburg in tow, we crossed the border down to Mexico for what would end up being an unforgettable weekend.
Bill knows these cities like the back of his hand, and he knows all of the chefs and owners like his family. One of the most memorable stops that we made was on the street corner of First and Alvarado in Ensenada, a small unassuming food cart under the watchful eye of the majestic flag of Mexico. At this cebicheria called La Guerrerense, matriarch Sabina Bandera Gonzalez whips out the most mindblowingly scrumptious seafood tostadas to a never ceasing crowd of locals and tourists.
Crunchy tostadas are made with a variety of fresh ocean delights, from fish, shrimp and octopus to clams, abalone and even sea cucumbers. Due to the ocean-to-cart concept of this wonderful tostada cart which is famed for being Chef Benito Molina’s favorite lunch spot, there may be days when they’re out of certain products. Much to my dismay they were out of sea cucumbers, pata de mula black clams and abalone which are some of my most favorite foods, but I was quickly distracted with Sabina’s first offering, a rich and flavorful bacalao lincod tostada teeming with earthy chili aromas and a spike of green olive saltiness.
The flat tortillas were light and crunchy, but sturdy enough to withstand falling apart to my big bites, allowing for smooth and mess-less eats. Within seconds the bacalao tostada was in my happy belly and I contemplated my next move, to which Sabina handed me an erizo sea urchin tostada with a wise and knowing nod. I quickly pounced on it and was surprised by the first bite.
I was expecting a mild buttery uni but La Guerrerense’s version had an overpowering salty flavor like conserved uni, leaving me a bit confused- only then did I realize that I had pulled a rookie move by biting into this tostada right away before Sabina could finish garnishing it. I thought she would give me an ‘Ay, hija…’ look, but instead she responded with a loving smile before topping it off with succulent chunks of freshly shucked almejas pismo clams, slices of avocado and a few splashes of hot sauce. This was when I had an epiphany about life, similar to the one that I had many years ago when I was knee deep in the Sea of Cortez on a deserted island with a net full of fresh mussels, salt crusted hair blowing in the hot wind as I engaged in a distant tête-à-tête with a curious sea lion. The tender and sweet clams engaged in a joyous dance with the brininess of the sea urchin and the silky textures of the buttery avocado, awakening my taste buds to the bountiful harvests of the local waters.
Thick slices of freshly prepared caracoles, sea snails, had a splendid meaty flavor with the texture of steamed abalone.
I couldn’t get enough of the almejas, pismo clams, that came with my sea urchin tostada, and I asked for a whole plate. Even then, I wanted more of this heavenly clam that tasted even more fresh with a squirt of lime juice, a pinch of sea salt and a tinge of hot sauce. The flesh had a nice subtle crunch like a geoduck clam, but was tender on the bite like a scallop.
We got to meet Sabina’s daughter Mariana, the master shucker and cocktailer who prepared all of the fresh clams for us. With the precision, grace and confidence that Mariana worked with, you would think that this was her full time job, but she’s actually a full fledged PhD at UCSD who comes down on the weekends to help with the family business.
Another round of chopped pismo clams came on the shell with a half serving with avocado and salt and the other with lime and hot sauce. Clams this fresh with the smell of cucumber and lettuce just can’t be found in California, even with expert handling, refrigeration and speedy transportation. That’s the beauty of La Guerrerense- it’s an exceptional place that offers exclusive delicacies native to the region, and these discerning locals who run it really understand the food. You will never find this type of seafood stall anywhere else in the world. This is pura Baja.
We finished off our inspirational meal with a tostada of pate de pescado, smoked tuna fish pate, that paired magnificently with the house made pineapple salsa.
Many Mexican food trucks in Los Angeles will offer a salsa verde and salsa roja in addition to the bottled hot sauce staples like Tapatio and Cholula, but down on the coast of Baja, you’ll find homemade salsas of all colors and types. Even then, it’ll be hard to top the impressive collection at La Guerrerense where Sabina and Mariana line the counter with endless jars of their original creations. Each salsa has a unique name like ‘Beso de Angel’, ‘Chilito Exotico’, ‘Pepino Endiablado’ and ‘Chilito la Guerita’ which reflects its concept and flavor. I was blown away by the ‘Chilito Exotico’, a pineapple based salsa with Japanese takanotsume pico de pajaro chiles. The earthy and smokey aromas of the ‘Chilitos de Mi Jardin’ made with dried chiles, garlic, almonds and peanuts was too phenomenal for words. I bought a jar of each of these favorite salsas to take home with me, and I savor every spoonful like liquid gold.
When I found out that Sabina had been operating this street cart in the same location for more than 30 years, I almost fainted- oh, if I only knew about this little treasure on my previous trips to Baja. How my life would be different now- perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. Had La Guerrerense been on my radar back then, I may never have made it past the stand to make the virgin passage down to Bahia de Concepción where I bathed my body in the sacred waters of the Sea of Cortez. I may never have had the opportunity to study and understand the mystical properties of the Baja waters had I not fished its treasures with my bare hands and nourished my body with its salt. There is a reason for everything that happens, and thankfully I’m now at a place in my life where I can appreciate the true magic of La Guerrerense. Unfortunately, I’m presently also at a place that’s not close enough to La Guerrerense.
La Guerrerense is open every day from 10am to 5pm, except Tuesdays
Corner of 1st and Alvarado
Zona Centro, Ensenada
Baja California, Mexico
If you’re a fan of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, you may have watched the recent Baja episode. Recognize the guy chomping on the tostada in the photo above? That’s Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA, my trusted culinary Baja guide who not only guided Andrew Zimmern through the episode, but scouted out and chose the locations for the shoot. You’ll be seeing posts on my blog about some of the same locations that were on the show. If you didn’t get a chance to catch the episode last night, you can watch reruns or check out the Bizarre Foods website for more information.
Random trivia: Did you know that the succulent orange flesh of sea urchins that we enjoy as buttery delicacies are technically the gonads?