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.