Manzanilla- Ensenada, Mexico

On a recent culinary adventure down to Baja California with my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I was introduced to a whole new world of Baja food culture that centers around fresh seafood unique to the 2 beautiful bodies of water that flank the peninsula.  Sea urchin tostadas topped with freshly shucked pismo clams, smoked marlin taquitos, manta ray and tuna fin soup, chocolate clam shooters, smoked oyster with chipotle sauce, abalone chorizo sopes and octopus carpaccio are just a few of the sensational dishes that changed not only the way that I view Baja cuisine, but also my life.  My mind was opened to a myriad of new flavors that I had never tasted before, and through meaningful interaction with the various people who prepared my food, my soul was graced with a newfound appreciation and respect.

Of the people that I met on this trip, none peaked my curiosity and interest quite like Chef Benito Molina, an eclectic individual whose signature long curly mustache, reminiscent of Salvador Dali, left just as strong of an impression on me as his cuisine.  There are many fine and distinguished chefs who are leading the gastronomic movement in Baja, but of them all, Molina is a contemporary artist who is way ahead of our time.  Similar to Basquiat’s graffiti or Warhol’s silkscreen pop art, Molina’s avant-garde food art grabs your attention with its bright splashes of color and bold presentation of forms.

His restaurant in Ensenada, called Manzanilla, is like a hidden artists’ loft tucked away on a dark and quiet industrial street across from a shipyard.  There is no sign outside, only a wooden fence, but once you step through the large doors it’s a sexy and mystical warehouse space that looks like a scene from a Stanley Kubrick movie.  A long beautiful wooden bar with vintage decor and intricate carving occupies almost half of the main dining space, illuminated by chandeliers that give off eery red lights.  Large contemporary paintings and sculptures by local Mexican artists decorate the space in such a way as to make me think that I’m just a pawn in a large surrealist installation.

Chef Benito Molina runs Manzanilla with his wife Solange Muris, also a chef.  If you’re a Bizarre Foods fan, you may recognize Chef Molina from the recent Baja episode with Andrew Zimmern, and his wife who took Zimmern through Mercado Hidalgo.  Molina is originally from Mexico City but did his culinary schooling and training on the East Coast where he worked at Todd English’s original Olives restaurant.  Perhaps this is his inspiration for naming his place Manzanilla, after the Spanish olives that were served as an appetizer.  Molina and his wife welcomed us with open arms to their dramatic restaurant that was packed with diners.  I instantly fell in love with the artwork and the seductive restaurant decor, and I knew that we were in for a fantastic dinner.  When I looked into Molina’s kind but intense eyes that sparkled with a tinge of mischief and burned with fiery passion, I was certain that it was going to be an experience of a lifetime.  Fresh local seafood and meats prepared with dynamic seasoning and presented with innovative artistic expression were paired with local wines from Valle de Guadalupe for a memorable tasting dinner.

Light flakes of sturgeon mixed with tomatoes, garlic, chile and herbs were served on crispy toasts as a lovely warm canapé.

A Kumamotor oyster garnished with shallot vinaigrette looked longingly across the vast burnt salt bed in hopes of being reunited with its companion, a Pacific oyster topped with soft gelatinous chunks of chopped pork trotter.  Unfortunately for the oysters, we gobbled up these briny little treasures in a matter of seconds before moving on to the next dish.

Small but intensely sweet Manila clams and a larger White clam were served raw on a bed of ice with soy sauce and habanero on the side and a few lime wedges to heighten the fresh flavors.

More bivalves arrived at our table, this time a duo of oyster and littleneck clam both smoked to order and still bubbling at the edges from the oven heat.  The smoked clam went surprisingly well with Gorgonzola cheese, and I was impressed with the pairing of tarragon butter with the locally grown Kumamoto oyster.  A fruity bottle of 2008 Viñas Pijoan Silvana, a Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Moscatel and Sauvignon Blanc blend, went particularly well with this dish.

During a pre-dinner kitchen tour with Chef Benito Molina, we saw one of his chefs filleting a sturgeon, apparently a catch quite rare in these areas of the water so he bought it at the fish market without hesitation.  It was amazing to be able to see the whole fish first before savoring its flavorful meat in a tiradito prepared 2 ways- one with capers, onions and the distinct tart sweetness of raspberry vinegar, and the other with chile verde, soy sauce and ginger.

When I tasted the fresh sardines, cured in salt and vinegar and topped with chile verde and ginger, my taste buds immediately recognized the flavor as being distinctly Japanese.  The side garnish of cultured cream, cucumber and wild fennel from Molina’s garden injected Mediterranean influences into the dish.  Chef Molina later told me that he learned how to make the sardines from a Japanese chef.  Sardines spoil easily, and it’s difficult to master the art of curing them, but Molina did a fantastic job.

Continuing on with Asian flavors native to my tongue, Molina served a plate of grilled mackerel and sardine on a bed of baby mizuna freshly picked from his garden in Valle de Guadalupe.  The crisp sharp flavors of the mizuna greens were the perfect complement to the smokey fatty flavors of the fish.  I almost wished that I could eat this dish with a bowl of white rice, but instead I enjoyed it with a glass of 2008 Estación por Venir Palomino blend.

Clam chowder was reinterpreted Manzanilla-style in a dish of Manila clams with smoked bacon, potatoes and saffron.  I loved this classy version where the intense appetizing aroma of saffron and bacon perfumed my nasal passages.

One of my favorite dishes of the evening was a powerful composition of thinly sliced 3 year abalone, lightly grilled in the wood-fire oven and splayed dynamically across the plate with a tomato, onion, serrano chile and pasote sauce.  A distinct appetizing smokey aroma wafted up from this masterpiece that seemed to explode with life and vigor out of the shell right into my mouth.

Calamares Manchez is a signature Benito Molina dish, one that has been enjoyed and written about by many who have been struck by its dramatic display and delicate flavors.  Grilled calamari was body painted in bright red with a concoction of roasted beets, ginger, orange juice, lime juice, garlic and habanero for a dish that tickled my taste buds with alternating sensations of sweet, tart and spicy.  Around this time, a bottle of 2007 Viñas Pijoan Domenica, a blend of Grenache, Petit Syrah and Cabernet, came to our table for the last portion of the meal.

Cabrilla sea bass, with perfectly seared crispy skin, was flavored with garlic and herbs and served on a bed of Swiss chard and poblano chiles.

Tender smokey white seabass was excellent with a garnish of radish salsa, but the table unanimously swooned over the rich and smokey huitlacoche risotto, a rendition of risotto so sexy and delicious that all future risottos that follow in its footsteps will never satisfy me.

If we didn’t give Chef Molina the red light on our meal, he would have gone all night, effortlessly pulling ideas and dishes out of his bottomless magic hat.  Our minds wanted to continue on with the Manzanilla dinner extravaganza, but our stomachs were feeling full and heavy and it was time to call it quits.  As if to remind us of how full we were, he finished our savory meal with a hefty serving of stewed offals cooked in chile guajillo and garnished with a sheet of homemade pasta.  Many diners have a separate stomach for desserts, and I have one specifically for offals.  I was the only one at the table who not only finished the dish, but also savored every bite of tender tongue, stomach and hoof.

We had the pleasure of having cheese maker Marcelo Castro Chacón of La Cava de Marcelo sit with us through our dinner.  He’s a fourth generation cheese maker from a family who has been producing cheese for 130 years in Ojos Negros.  He took his time in explaining the intricacies of cheese making and how he develops the unique flavors for his products that are loved by local chefs.  We got to sample 3 queso frescos with basil, pepper and rosemary, and 2 creamy and luscious añejo (aged) cow’s milk cheeses, aged 4 and 7 months.  Strawberry wine reduction and sliced green apples were paired with our fantastic cheese plate.

Even after all of this food, we somehow managed to squeeze in warm molten chocolate cake, mango coulis on shortbread cookies and mango flavored cream.

By the time that we were winding down from our dynamic and artistic Manzanilla journey around 12am on a Saturday night, the restaurant was just starting to fill up with local diners who were sitting down for dinner.  This isn’t Madrid, this is Ensenada- who starts dinner at midnight in Baja, I thought.  Turns out that the place was packed with local chefs like Guillermo Jose Barreto from El Sarmiento, wine makers like Hugo D’Acosta and the 3 women from Tres Mujeres, seafood distributors, vegetable farmers and the artisanal cheese maker that we had already met.  Benito Molina has a charismatic personality and magnetism that I found hard to resist, and the very fact that everybody in the industry came to Manzanilla to spend their Saturday night with him showed that they too were drawn to his allure and his food.

Manzanilla
Teniente Azueta #139

Zona portuaria

Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico

52-646-175-7073

Open from 12pm – 12am, Wednesday through Saturday

Random trivia: Did you know that abalone are hemophiliacs, meaning that they have no blood-clotting mechanisms, so even a small cut or puncture wound can be fatal?  For this reason, it is impossible to culture an abalone pearl, as the process may kill them.  If you see an abalone while diving, do not try to pry them off of rocks, as the smallest tear in their muscle will kill them- simply observe this beautiful creature from a distance.

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?