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.
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.