La Guerrerense- Ensenada, Mexico

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

La Guerrerense
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?

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Tapas, tapas, tapas! – Barcelona, Spain

When one thinks of Spain, the first thing that comes to mind is probably ‘tapas’. A visit to Spain without going to a tapas bar is an incomplete and boring experience.  I love dropping in to tapas bars to grab a quick and tasty bite to eat with a cup of cava, and to meet interesting locals who can teach me more about the wonderful Spanish culture.  Where did this wonderful concept come from?  One theory states that it started when bar owners used to place a slice of bread or ham over glasses of sherry to deter flies.  ‘Tapas’ means ‘lid’ or ‘cover’ in Spanish, so this certainly makes sense.  Another legend states that while King Alfonso X was sick, he was only able to eat small bites of food with his wine.  After he recovered, he ordered all taverns to offer small dishes to accompany alcoholic beverages.  Whatever the case, it’s one of my favorite ways to savor simple and delicious local food.  During my short trip to Spain, I tried to visit as many tapas bars as my schedule would allow.

The Mercat de La Boqueria, the large covered market near the Gothic Barrier in Barcelona, is perhaps one of the most famous markets in all of Europe.  Infinite numbers of food stalls offer fresh seafood, meat and produce.  There are also many charcuterie stalls that specialize in sausages and hams, namely the famous Jamón Iberico de Bellota that is to die for.  I started my tapas adventure here in the Boqueria market, where they have about 20 bars.

Perhaps the most famous of the Boqueria tapas bars is Bar Pinotxo, ideally situated at the entrance of the Boqueria market.  Legendary server Juanito Bayen, sporting a bright green vest with a green bowtie, works with a smile and a wink to serve a never-ending crowd of locals and tourists who wait patiently for a bar stool to open up.  This place is always crowded, and although there are tables to the side of the food stall, it’s worth waiting for a seat at the bar.  That way you can get an up close look at the busy happenings in the small kitchen, and a chance to have a nice chat with Juanito.

We had deep fried bacalao, which is a must-try in Spain.  These dried salt cod fillets are superbly delicate and tender once re-hydrated, and have the most wonderful salty flavor.  The ones at Pinotxo had a nice light crunchy exterior that gave way to a generous chunk of steaming hot moist cod.

My favorite dish here was a plate of tripe stew that Juanito quickly brought over for me after he saw me drooling over my neighbor’s plate.  Absent in any gameyness whatsoever, this stew was rich in flavor and intensity.  A few dollops on torn baguette pieces, washed down with a few gulps of cava,  and I was transported to a different world.

By the time we ate at Pinotxo at around 3pm, most of the food was gone.  The only last item available was this dish that resembled a hamburger patty.  Although it was good, it wasn’t my idea of eating tapas in the Boqueria market.  I learned a valuable lesson at this point- go to Pinotxo early before the food runs out.  They’re actually quite famous for their breakfasts too.

Just around the corner from Bar Pinotxo is Kiosko Universal that specializes in fresh seafood.  All of the fresh selections of the day can be prepared a la plancha or grilled with olive oil.  I was really excited to try this tapas stall, as I heard that they served great razor clams, or navajas.  I love the oblong succulent flesh of razor clams, and I haven’t been able to find a place in Los Angeles that serves them.  Kiosko Universal is much larger than Bar Pinotxo, and has a bar counter that goes all the way 360 degrees around the central kitchen, in addition to extra bar table seating to the side.  We started with a plate of Salteado de Setas, grilled wild mushrooms. The great assortment of fungi was dressed with olive oil, parsley, garlic and sea salt.

I was very excited to finally be reunited with razor clams, but the dish was a bit of a disappointment.  It had the same flavoring and garnishing as the mushrooms, and was even a tad bit undercooked.  I longed for the delicious razor clams at Mary’s Fish Camp in New York City.

The mussels weren’t that great either. Again, same flavor, same garnish, same degree of being undercooked.  We were ready to move on to the next stall.

El Quim de la Boqueria is another tiny tapas bar, farther way from the market entrance, deep into the central area of the market where the seafood vendors are.  I ordered a plate of huevos fritos con chipirones en su tinta, fried eggs with baby squid and squid ink.  Wow, what an amazing dish.  The tender and delicate baby squid, softly enveloped in a veil of runny egg yolk and black ink with just the right amount of saltiness, was divine.  This was perhaps the most memorable and delicious plate that I had in Barcelona.

I struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting next to me at El Quim.  He was born and raised in Barcelona, and swore by the tapas at El Quim, stating they were the best in the city.  By the way the baby squid dish tasted, I didn’t doubt his claim.  He told me proudly that he’s been coming here for as long as he could remember, at least once a week.  I asked him where else he could recommend for me, and he did not hesitate to give me the directions to Taktika Berri.

The gentleman told me that the waiting list for table reservations is about 2 months long, but the place to go isn’t there anyway- it’s at the pintxos bar up front.  Similar in concept to tapas, pintxos are more representative of Basque cuisine and are small bite-sized morsels held together with toothpicks.  Pintxos, or pinchos, means ‘spike’ in Spanish, precisely because of the way these delicate eats are speared with a toothpick or a skewer. Taktika Berri specializes in montaditos, which are pintxos featuring ‘mounted’ heaps of meat, seafood and vegetables on a slice of bread, held together by a toothpick.

As soon as I walked through the glass double doors, I was glad that I trusted that gentleman’s advice.  This place was packed with locals only, and there was not a single tourist in sight.  This was the real deal, and I knew I was in for some authentic Basque delights.  We squeezed our way to the bar and managed to grab a couple of seats.  The system here is such that you must first ask for a plate, which lets them know that you’re ready to start eating.  Then the pintxos commander behind the bar will come around with a plate of one type of montadito at a time, setting it on your plate if it’s something you want to eat.  This process happens only once every 10 minutes or so, reflecting the cultural notion behind pintxos that it’s an adjunct to drinks and long conversation, and not necessarily the main act.

We tried some lovely pintxos here, including deep fried ham croquettes and a savory bacalao cake with potatoes and eggs.  Montaditos included fresh anchovies with diced peppers, chorizo wrapped in bacon, fried sausage, and smoked salmon.  All were simple but flavorful and simply satisfying to the palate and stomach.  I loved the lively atmosphere here, and by being a part of this wonderful experience, I could really see how this style of eating and drinking is such a crucial part of socializing in Spain.  I met a lot of interesting people in the hour that I was at Taktika Berri, including an architect and a science professor at the local university.

At the end of the meal, you get charged for the number of pintxos that you ate, made apparent by the number of toothpicks on your plate.  A simple and smart system.  Ahhh, tapas.  What a joyful way of experiencing food and life!

Bar Pinotxo- Stall 466, Mercat de la Boqueria

Kiosko Universal- Stall 691, Mercat de la Boqueria

El Quim de la Boqueria- Stall 584, Mercat de la Boqueria

Taktika Berri- Carrer Valencia, 169, Barcelona, 08011.  Tel: 934-534-759

Random trivia: Did you know that the Norwegians were exporting salted fish like bacalao as early as 875 AD?