12 sensational dishes of 2010

The food and beverage industry in Los Angeles saw its share of culinary trends in 2010, from pop-up restaurants, a return to good butchery, local sourcing of food (locavorism), Asian comfort food, a celebration of bacon, mezcal cocktails, house-made charcuterie, head-to-head competition on TV shows, good old fried chicken, snout to tail diningwholesome pies in lieu of cupcakes, celebrity chefs opening up shop in tinseltown, and food and restaurant wars.  It was a busy but fruitful year for me, navigating through these food trends and traveling around the world in search of delicious nibbles.

Through it all, there were 12 dishes that left a strong impression on both my palate and my heart.  I had many delicious dishes this year, but these 12 dishes that I selected had something else that made it truly special.  Food is an expression of a chef’s love and an extension of a chef’s soul.  When a chef cooks from the heart with genuine care and intention, that essence comes through in his or her food, and speaks directly to the diner.  Through personal interactions with these special chefs, I was able to taste, smell and see the beauty of their creations with a higher level of respect and understanding.  Behind each dish was a talented chef with a radiant smile that I will never forget.

Deep fried fugu- Chef Kenzo Sato, Shigeyoshi (Tokyo, Japan)

Despite its 2 Michelin star status, there is no pretentiousness or attitude at this humble 39-year old restaurant in Tokyo.  I have been coming here every year for the last 6 years, of course looking forward to the meticulously prepared food, but more eager to see Chef Kenzo Sato’s lovely smile.  His warm hearty laugh and funny stories are the finishing spices to each delicate dish that is prepared in front of me in the open kitchen.  There is a special comfort and security in coming here, for he knows my likes and dislikes, and prepares a sensational omakase meal according to my palate.  I never have to order or remind him of what I want- it is already understood, and the highlight of each experience comes in my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, the deep fried puffer fish dish, which he saves for me.  It goes without saying that it requires a special license and tremendous skill in preparing the poisonous puffer fish, but it takes special love and thought to prepare this simple but comforting dish of fugu.  The best pieces are from the head, with thick wedges of white tender meat juxtaposed against gelatinous jiggles of fat fugu lips.  Chef Sato smiles as he watches me attack this dish, waiting to resume conversation until I am done licking my fingers clean.

Sea urchin tostada with pismo clams- Sabina Bandera Gonzalez, La Guerrerense (Ensenada, Mexico)

To this day, that life-changing satisfying bite into the crunchy tostada generously topped with sea urchin, heaps of freshly shucked pismo clams, avocado and home-made ‘Chilito Exotico’ salsa, haunts me.  My body craves it, my mind obsesses about it, my dreams are dominated by it.  Matriarch Sabina Gonzalez, who has been operating out of a small food cart on the street corner of Ensenada in Baja Mexico for more than 30 years, creates each tostada to order, smothering it with fresh offerings from the local Baja waters and topping it with motherly love.  It’s a family affair, and her daughter comes down from San Diego on the weekends to shuck clams and oysters as the master cocktailer.  Each bite releases a splash of ocean breeze inside my mouth before the distinct savory spices of the pineapple salsa kicks in.  This is pure Baja, and it doesn’t get any better than this tostada, followed by a big hug, both from Sabina.

Octopus carpaccio with nopales- Chef Javier Plascencia, Cebicheria Erizo (Tijuana, Mexico)

Photo of Javier Plascencia courtesy of Barbara Hansen, of Table Conversation

It wasn’t just the fun geometric shapes or the vibrant color palettes in this octopus carpaccio that won my heart, but the innovative concept of compressing octopus legs into round sausages and slicing them thin to reveal wheel-like cross sections that impressed me in the cebiche themed restaurant of accomplished Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia.  The gelatin coating around the octopus legs acted as a natural food glue to keep the circles together.  The tender octopus slices in ponzu sauce were given a unique Baja twist with the contrast of buttery avocados and crunchy, slimy nopales.  A refined and beautiful dish with unforgettable textures and delicious flavors is sure to be an industry secret, I thought, but I was struck by Chef Javier Plascencia’s openness about sharing his secrets.  ‘Shoot me an email and I’ll send you my recipe’, he told me, ‘and let me know when you come down to Tijuana, I’ll make sure to be there for you’.  Really?  The amazing thing about this incredibly handsome and kind chef is that he actually means every word that he says.  And with 7 amazing restaurants under his belt and a highly successful run at Test Kitchen where his fig leaf wrapped short rib dish was deemed one of the best dishes of the year by Jonathan Gold, he still maintains the same level of approachability and humility.

Chocolate, cassis, vanilla and passion fruit macarons- Thomas Haas, Thomas Haas Patisserie (Vancouver, Canada)

As a fourth generation German Konditormeister, or Master Pastry Chef, Thomas Haas was genetically destined to become a sensation in the pastry world, and his talent is evident in every tasty morsel of chocolate ganache and chewy caramel.  At his namesake patisserie in Vancouver, he creates a peaceful haven of sweets where one can enjoy a warm cup of herbal tea with sandwiches, tarts, cakes and chocolates while shopping for hot chocolates and cookies.  I went in for his famous chocolates, but was swept off my feet by the perfection of his macarons, especially the passion fruit macaron.  A perfect crunchy outer shell that gives way to a soft moist merengue, leading right into the flavorful center filling- the textures and flavors were spot on in these delicate little bundles of joy.  Despite being a world-renowned patissier and busy restaurateur, Thomas Haas was behind the counter, packaging chocolates to order, working the cash register, giving advice to customers and even cleaning tables.  I had met him the night before at a restaurant in Vancouver, and he welcomed me with a bright smile to his patisserie, bringing over these wonderful macarons with a pot of tea to my table.  With such a hands-on approach to running his patisserie, I knew that he personally made these macarons by hand, which made them taste even better.

Scrambled eggs with black truffle- Chef Haru Kishi, my house (Los Angeles)

How do you honor an aromatic, majestic piece of black truffle?  Leave it to talented Chef Haru Kishi, formerly at the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in West Hollywood, and now executive chef of Chaya Brasserie.  Perfectly cooked scrambled eggs, patiently prepared at low temperatures, made fluffier with soft boiled egg whites passed through a fine sieve, spooned over a bed of asparagus and bacon, and garnished with dramatic shavings of black truffle that release its pungent aromas with each passing across the sharp blade of a truffle slicer.  The delicate crunch of asparagus, the smokiness of bacon, the soft pillowy texture of warm fluffy eggs, the final strong hit of truffle essence that spreads inside my mouth and permeates up into my nares- a decadent, rich and unforgettable experience worthy of a final meal.  Life is perfect at that moment, and nothing else matters. Everything that this talented chef makes is amazing, and I have personally seen the tremendous amount of thought that he puts into his work.  As a close friend, it makes me happy to see him blossom through his various struggles and finally come into his element at Chaya Brasserie, a most fitting location for his Japanese and French background.

Venison tenderloin tartare, macadamia nuts, beet chips, wasabi cream, lavender- Chef Marcel Vigneron, Venison dinner ( Los Angeles)

Marcel Vigneron has become a household name since he became famous on Top Chef season 2, and currently on Top Chef All-Stars.  Although he has gained a reputation as the Top Chef villain, in real life he is quite the opposite.  Personable, thoughtful, kind and extremely fun to hang out with, he is one of the most hard working chefs in Los Angeles.  He’s obviously talented and gifted with charisma, but behind the scenes he puts in just as much thought and hours into each beautiful and innovative creation.  One such plate that I still think back to is the venison tenderloin tartare with macadamia nuts, capers, pickled cipollini onions, beet root brunoise and walnut oil.  The venison was prepared perfectly with a fine balance of acidity and flavor.  Scooped onto a crispy red beet chip with a smear of wasabi cream and a hint of lavender aroma wafting from the board, this delectable dish transported me to venison heaven at a private dinner party at Terroni restaurant.  Spending the entire day with the chef, from shopping at the farmers market to prepping in his kitchen, I was able to see an inspiration evolve into an idea, an idea into a sketch, and a sketch finally culminate in the most breathtaking dish.

Kikouchi soba- Soba artisans Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai, Soba Pop at the Breadbar (Los Angeles)

Buckwheat flour and water- there are only 2 simple ingredients in making Kikouchi soba, making it that much more of a complex dish.  Soba master Akila Inouye and soba artisan Sonoko Sakai have been working hard all year to spread the culture of soba in Los Angeles.  Many trips to Japan, many suitcases of freshly milled Japanese buckwheat flour, many soba classes in Sonoko’s house and many long hours of preparation for their pop-up soba event at the Breadbar, all in the name of wanting Angelenos to understand the culture of Japanese soba.  Soba is Japan’s soul food, full of tradition and sacred history.  Thanks to these dedicated soba artisans, I was able to have a taste of home and a moment of peace as I dipped these delicate buckwheat noodles into their homemade bonito broth and happily slurped away.

Potato mousseline, poached egg, chorizo crumble- Chef Ludovic Lefebvre, LudoBites 5.0 (Los Angeles)

Chef Ludo needs no introduction- he took command of the Los Angeles culinary scene with his sensational and popular pop-up events, LudoBites 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 in 2010.  Every dish was whimsical, colorful, flavorful and creative, delighting diners with his ever changing menu ideas.  There were many favorites, but the stand-out dish for me was the silky potato mousseline over a perfectly poached egg, bursting with warm yellow yolk that melted right into the fatty chorizo crumble.  Every bite made me want more and more.  I wanted to share this wonderful dish with my friends, but I also didn’t want to share this wonderful dish with my friends.  What was I to do?  Order another round, of course, which I did at every visit to LudoBites 5.0, my favorite of the 3 this year.  Ludo’s talent and success got much deserved praise from critics on both coasts, but there were always people who wanted to criticize, scrutinize, dissect and rip him apart.  People love to hate this handsome charismatic chef, but what they don’t know is that behind each artistic and poetic dish was a lot of blood, sweat and tears- literally.  Despite a debilitating medical condition that would normally deem a person completely disabled and incapable of working, Ludo fought hard through each day of LudoBites to cook for his dedicated fans.  He gritted his teeth to endure relentless pain and gave his best smile for at least 20 photos a night, but I could see the pain in his eyes. Dedication and hard work never meant more to me than at LudoBites this year, and for that, hats off to this amazing chef.

Quinoa crème brûlée, purple corn- Chef Ricardo Zarate, Mo-Chica (Los Angeles)

Mo-Chica and its star chef Ricardo Zarate are now on Los Angeles’ Best of list, and in the next few months we will be seeing the opening of Mo-Chica’s new downtown location and Zarate’s new anticuchos restaurant Picca, but he almost never made it this far.  In the first year of business, Mo-Chica nearly went under.  People didn’t think to try this new restaurant that was serving lamb shanks and arroz con pollo for close to $10 a plate, when adjacent taco stands in the Mercado la Paloma food court were offering $3 plates.  Zarate had a vision, and he didn’t want to compromise on quality or preparation.  He knew that some day, people would understand his food and how good it was.  Almost a year went by, and he was paying out of his own pocket to sustain the business.  Finally, food critics caught wind of this amazing Peruvian chef, and just like that, the news spread like wild fire and Zarate was well on his way to recognition.  His food is fantastic, each bursting with vibrant flavors, with a delicate sensitivity that reflects his training in Japanese cuisine.  The regular menu is solid, but every last Thursday of the month he offers a 6 course tasting menu for $30, possibly the best deal in the country.  I have had grilled octopus with cilantro pesto on a bed of aji mashed potato, mackerel tempura on seabass ceviche, and braised short ribs to satisfy even the most stern critic, all memorable and stellar.  However, it was a quinoa and purple corn crème brûlée on one such tasting dinner that made me gasp with delight.  Not too sweet, perfectly creamy, with a beautiful deep purple hue, and most of all a surprisingly delicious way to enjoy quinoa. ‘I was supposed to use kiwicha, but I didn’t have any, so I substituted quinoa at the last minute.  I hope it’s still good?’, the ever so humble, honest and kind chef told me.  Even such accidents, under Zarate’s spell, become a delicious miracle.

Cabrit, goat meat fricassee- Chef TiGeorges, Test Kitchen (Los Angeles)

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that shook Haiti in January, no dish tasted more soulful than the goat meat fricassee that Haitian chef Georges LaGuerre, affectionately known as TiGeorges, cooked for his Test Kitchen dinner.  TiGeorges himself lost his restaurant to a fire while working hard to raise earthquake relief funds, and this Test Kitchen dinner was the first time that he was able to cook for Angelenos again.  Goat meat was baked with key lime, boiled in vinegar, then grilled over a fire and served with a sauce of key lime juice, olive oil and habanero chiles.  The long process of cooking the meat resulted in an incredibly tender juicy plate of meat that fell effortlessly off the bones.  Haiti is a beautiful country that has endured years of foreign occupation, slavery, poverty, corruption and now one of the worst natural disasters that the modern world has ever encountered.  This cabrit dish represented Haitian pride, strength and soul, just like its talented chef TiGeorges.

Winter grain porridge- Chef Dominique Crenn, Atelier Crenn preview Test Kitchen dinner (Los Angeles)

Michelin starred and Iron Chef conquering female chef Dominique Crenn, who is opening her own restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco next month, graced us with her presence and her sensational talent at the Test Kitchen in Los Angeles for one special evening this month.  After having eaten at more than 12 Test Kitchen dinners this year, I can honestly say that her dinner was the single most impressive and delicious dinner of them all, displaying graceful beauty and culinary elegance.  As a speaker at the TEDx Bay Area Women event earlier this month, she shared her vision of using food as a medium for honoring nature as our ultimate nurturer, and her pledge for caring for our food sources by ‘returning to the soul’.  Indeed, every dish at her 5 course Test Kitchen dinner was a poetic tribute to mother earth and her plentiful bounties that sustain our lives, and was worthy of taking the top 5 places for my best 12 dishes of the year, but one stood out above the rest.  The winter grain porridge, a new type of dessert, that evoked a garden on a sloping hillside with its soft bed of red Peruvian quinoa cooked in chamomile tea, poached quince braised with Tahitian vanilla, hazelnut milk, nougatine, and micro chamomile and hibiscus flowers that sprouted from the soft earth, strewn between orange and green leaves that all together illustrated a portrait of nature.  The textures were soft, light, chewy and crunchy, and I felt like I was digging my spoon right into the earth.  It made me feel happy to be alive.

Seared toro, ankimo, caviar- Chef Hiroyuki Urasawa, Urasawa (Los Angeles)

Stepping through the entrance of Urasawa for the second time, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief, for I knew that I could just relax, sit back and get the best food and the most stellar service of my life.  Beer poured in a ceramic beer mug was at the perfect temperature, the cypress countertop sanded down every day with 3 types of sandpaper was soft and supple, and when I took my camera out of my bag, Chef Hiro summoned his server to lay a white cloth napkin on the counter upon which to place my camera.  It was like being back home in Japan, where attention to detail and meticulous service was the standard.  Here, in this Beverly Hills haven, I had many amazing dishes, one of which was a seared toro wrapped around monkfish liver and myoga ginger, neatly tied in the center with a strip of Kyoto turnip and topped with a heap of caviar.  Little yellow flecks of yuzu rind added a refreshing aroma to the ponzu sauce, all perfectly presented on a golden ceramic pedestal.  Chef Hiro is a true professional who exemplifies the Japanese culture of precision and obsession.  What people don’t know is that despite Urasawa’s reputation, Chef Hiro doesn’t make much money from his business.  He pays an enormous amount of rent, to honor the same space that his teacher, Chef Masayoshi Takayama of Masa, has given him, and he spends most of his money in preparing the best quality ingredients for his meals.  He lives in a rental apartment in downtown LA, and doesn’t even own a computer.  Oblivious to the fact that Urasawa has been on numerous blogs, he thought about it for a second, and then asked, ‘so…these blogs…it’s like, free advertising?’  Indeed, Chef Hiro, indeed.

Thank you to all of these wonderful chefs for making 2010 a special year for me, and bringing beauty and meaning to my life.  Their dedication and hard work to their craft is admirable, and is reflected in their food.  May 2011 be an equally delicious year for all!

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Cebicheria Erizo- Tijuana, Mexico

If you’re down in Tijuana or Ensenada, your journey is not complete until you’ve sampled the fruits of the Baja ocean, whether it’s geoduck and chocolate clams from the Sea of Cortez, or sea cucumbers and marlin from the Pacific side.  There are many places to enjoy fresh Baja cuisine, like La Guerrerense on the streets of Ensenada where Sabina will serve you sea urchin tostada with heaps of avocado and freshly shucked pismo clams, or Mariscos Ruben where Mirta will create a special shrimp and scallop aguachile just for you.  Another such establishment can be added to your list of epic seafood places to visit now- Cebicheria Erizo, run by my favorite Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia and opened almost a year ago in Chapultepec, Tijuana.   Erizo in Spanish means sea urchin, and although a tower of spiny urchin shells greeted us at the counter, they were out of the buttery ocean treasures on the day that we went.  However, Plascencia and his right hand man Chef Manuel Brato made me forget about that crucial absence with what would end up being one of my most memorable meals in Tijuana.

Cebicheria Erizo, in close proximity to his other restaurants Cafe Saverios and La Tia, features a long menu of ceviches, or ‘cebiches’ as it’s called in Peru, tostadas, grilled seafood and fish stews.   You can get all of the ocean’s jewels right here in this clean and brightly lit space, from clams, crabs, shrimp, abalone and oysters to locally caught fish and squid.  Although everything on the menu is freshly prepared and deliciously seasoned, if you’re lucky enough to have Javier Plascencia give you his recommendations like we were, you’ll have an unforgettable meal that will blow you away.

What better way to start our cebiche feast than a toast with a classic Peruvian cocktail, the pisco sour?  On this particular hot day in Tijuana, the ice cold passion fruit pisco sour with an airy egg white foam really hit the spot.

A dashing plate of vibrant colors and geometric shapes kicked off our cebiche extravaganza in an octopus carpaccio with crunchy sliced nopales, cherry tomatoes, avocado, red onion, ponzu sauce and an earthy chile oil.  Round wheels of compressed octopus legs cut transversely looked like beautiful ocean flowers blossoming under the bright assortment of garden vegetables.  The natural gelatinous coating around the octopus legs held the delicate pieces together in this dish that we all enjoyed.

Cebiche verde de camaron, a shrimp cebiche dish with green tomatillo, diced cucumbers, red onion, cilantro, habanero chiles, serrano chiles and buttery avocado slices was refreshing and sensational.  The raw shrimp was so fresh and juicy that it practically snapped and burst with audible popping sounds inside my mouth.

Cebiche de tres almejas, a remarkable medley of 3 of Baja’s most representative and popular clams, was presented in a green cebiche dish with chopped cucumbers, onions, avocado, cilantro and lime.  Thick wedges of geoduck generosa clam were crisp like summer cucumbers, and pismo clams had a clean lettuce finish while the more briny chocolate clams brought a deeper intensity to the mollusk fiesta.

Petroleo cebiche, a cebiche of shrimp, squid and corn nuts darkened with a splash of black squid ink, was surprisingly light and mellow despite its appearance.  The presence of squid ink brought a distinct black sheen to the seafood while imparting a velvety and briny flavor that brought body and fullness to the dish.

An aguachile de callo made with 2 types of fresh raw scallops, garra de león and callo de hacha, was prepared with serrano chiles, garlic, onions, lime juice and cilantro with crispy wedges of cucumbers.  The meaty and succulent scallops were the perfect vehicle for the exhilarating aguachile marinade that I happily drank with my spoon.

One of my favorite dishes at Erizo was the garra de león scallop tiradito, an elegant and alluring plate of tender scallops embellished with green salicornia sea asparagus stalks, avocado slices, red onion, vivid orange kumquat slices and sprinkles of black volcanic salt.  It wasn’t just the simple beauty and artistic expression of this scallop carpaccio but the celebration of colors, flavors and textures so well thought out and orchestrated to perfection that put a genuine smile on my face.

Peruano Mixto, a cebiche of shrimp, octopus and white fish with lime, cilantro and red onions, saluted the Peruvian history behind this glorious and idiolized dish by featuring fresh corn and cancha corn nuts.

Cochinita pibil, a classic Yucatan suckling pig stew made with annatto seeds and citrus juice, was interpreted in Baja style with local swordfish in Erizo’s cochinita de pez lopada pibil. With a hint of pineapple sweetness and acidity infused into the rich broth and tender fish, we were ready to get our hands dirty in some taco making.

Diced onions, chopped cilantro, creamy avocado guacamole, pickled red onions and pico de gallo with bright and dangerously hot habanero chiles were brought to our table for fish taco assembly.

There’s nothing more satisfying than chomping on delicious food that you assemble yourself and eat with your hands, and with ingredients made by Javier Plascencia and crew, you couldn’t mess it up no matter how hard you tried.  The rich seductive earthiness of the pibil broth fully saturated into each tender fish fiber, juxtaposed against the sharp acidity of the pickled onions, all coated within a soft blanket of creamy avocado nirvana with stabs of crisp radish tartness in a toasty corn tortilla that you stuff in your mouth- it doesn’t get any better than that.

A blue bucket of red birria fish stew arrived at our table for more taco pleasure.  The Mexican fish bouillabaisse was full of earthy essence and firey spices with a light layer of savory oil on top to round out the flavors.

Sopes de chorizo de abulón, abalone chorizo made in-house at Erizo from abalone caught off the Island of Cedros, was topped with shredded lettuce, carrots, avocado, red onions and cilantro.  It was my first time trying abalone chorizo, and I was pleasantly surprised by the dense flavors and spices packed into the light and tender medium.

Toritos, chile rellenos stuffed with shrimp and crab and deep fried to a crunchy puffy exterior, were served with a smokey soy chile sauce.  These big puff balls were filled to the brim with tender warm seafood that sang to my soul.

We were just hoping to sample a few bites of cebiches here at Erizo, but when Javier Plascencia came by to say hello, we didn’t expect him to pamper us with all of these extra hot items.  The icing on the cake came in a grand finale of big mouth seabass, or callo de lobina, baked in a coarse salt crust and served tableside by a skilled server.

We crowded around our server like eager little children on Christmas morning, snapping away with our cameras at this majestic fish with the determination and fervor of Hollywood paparazzi.  He carefully lifted the whole salt crust away from the fish, then proceeded to remove the skin to unveil perfectly cooked steaming flesh stuffed with citrus and herbs.  The fish was amazing, but the bright yellow sauce made with garlic, ginger, aji amarillo, citrus, butter and white wine that it came with was beyond words.

Although we were so unbelievably full from our wonderful meal that we were practically on the floor paralyzed with pleasure, we still had room for dessert.  In Japanese, they say that everybody has a betsubara for dessert- a separate stomach.  The Killer de Chocolate rich chocolate cake didn’t end our lives, but it ended our meal on a delightful high note.

…as did the torta de guayaba, guava tart with vanilla bean ice cream.

Although I’ve only had the pleasure of dining at 3 of Chef Javier’s restaurants in his large empire, Cebicheria Erizo is hands down my favorite for its fresh seafood and Baja treasures that you can’t savor anywhere else in the world.  He keeps things simple, but combines ingredients in just the perfect ratio to create complex and enriching flavors.  If you haven’t been to Tijuana recently, then Cebicheria Erizo can easily be your sole reason to pay a visit.  In fact, the octopus carpaccio and scallop tiradito dishes alone are worth the drive.

Cebicheria Erizo
Ave Sonora No 3808-11
barrio Chapultepec, south of Agua Caliente

Baja California, Tijuana, Mexico
Tel 686-1564

Random trivia:  Did you know that salicornia, or sea asparagus, is a halophyte, or salt tolerant plant?  Salicornia can grow in inhospitable desert soils on ocean salt water alone.  It can produce biodiesel and it tastes good too.  This plant could potentially solve world hunger and slow global warming…

Mariscos Ruben- Tijuana, Mexico

I was never a big fan of the so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks in Los Angeles that serve anything from kalbi tacos to shrimp har gow and rainbow rolls.  It’s a whole different story though when it comes to delicious Mexican street food trucks such as the ones that Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has introduced me to.  I’ve enjoyed clayudas, tacos, huaraches and vampiros that exemplify the pure essence and spirit of street food.  Even then, the excessive food truck craze has somewhat miffed me enough to create a personal aversion to all trucks in general, including U-Hauls.   I’m more comfortable eating these tasty morsels off of a table or a cart on the sidewalk.

Fortunately, I got some positive biofeedback therapy for my mobilogrubophobia through Dr. Esparza when he took me down for a weekend culinary Baja trip a few months ago.  The fresh seafood tostadas at La Guerrerense in Ensenada were so unbelievably delicious that my strong yearning for Sabina’s food causes an anginal chest pain.  Another such place that still haunts me with its succulent and tasty food is Mariscos Ruben in Tijuana.   Given the scene in LA, I was imagining that the streets of Tijuana would be flooded with food trucks, but it was quite the opposite.  Mariscos Ruben is one of the few trucks in all of Mexico- in fact, it’s a truck, stall and grill squeezed into one delicious establishment.

This Sonoran seafood truck in Tijuana that Bill called a ‘seafood love shack’ on the Baja episode of Bizarre Foods is run by husband and wife team Ruben and Mirta Elena Rodriguez.  They’ve been in this business for 20 years where they started off in Mirta’s home town in Ciudad Obregón in Sonora, and have spent the last 15 operating out of this truck on this street corner in Tijuana.  On any given day there will be a crowd of locals both young and old, who line up along the counter for the freshly shucked clams and outstanding aguachiles skillfully prepared by Mirta and staff.

When our clan arrived at Mariscos Ruben, matriarch Mirta gave us a bright smile when she saw Bill’s face, but a split second later went back to her molcajete with a serious and stern look.  She was in the middle of preparing her famous aguachile brew in the volcanic rock mortar, using ground dried chile tepin, chipotle purée and lime juice, and she wasn’t about to let a few out of towners interrupt her tight operation.  Succulent raw shrimp and firm Sinaloan scallops were briefly marinated in the ‘firewater’, and served in the molcajete with a circumferential array of sliced cucumbers and cooked shrimp.

Meanwhile, in the tent behind the truck, patriarch Ruben tended to the marlin taquitos on the mesquite grill.  The pink marlin meat was as savory and hearty as pork, surprising me with its incredibly complex flavors.  The chargrilled taquitos, topped with cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, avocado salsa and a delicious chipotle mayo, were life changing for me.  At first there was the crunchy exterior of the perfectly grilled taquitos, followed by the smokiness of the juicy and salty marlin meat, intertwined with the freshness of the shredded cabbage and texture of the diced onions, mellowed out by the creaminess of the avocado salsa only to be invigorated again by the chipotle sauce.  How could this small parcel of food be so elaborate and intricate, and one of the most delicious unions of sea and land that I’ve ever tasted, yet served on an otherwise barren street corner out of a small truck in Tijuana?

One of Mariscos Ruben’s specialties is the Caguamanta con Aleta de Atun, a classic Sonoran soup of manta ray and tuna fin that used to be made as a turtle soup, but no longer so due to the ban on consumption of the endangered species.  Axial cuts of tender tuna fins with white gelatinous flesh and dark skin looked like little sailboats floating in the rich tomato based broth that was packed with comforting flavors, while delicate chunks of white manta ray meat were contrasted by the slight crunch of the finely chopped red onions and cilantro.  Like homemade chicken soup for a bad case of the flu, this bowl of caguamanta was comforting, soulful and therapeutic.

Freshly shucked Pismo clams were wrapped in foil with queso blanco and Maggi seasoning, and cooked in its shell over the mesquite grill for the clams au gratin dish.   Once the grilled clams were re-opened, a bit of Worcestershire sauce was splashed onto the succulent flesh for a flavor boost and served hot and steaming.  We got to sample another take on the dish, the mixto gratin with octopus, shrimp, scallops and clam, with an equally sweet and smokey flavor packed full of seafood essence.

We were lucky enough to have visited Mariscos Ruben on a day that they had fresh pata de mula, small mangrove cockles from the local waters.  Freshly shucked by the skillful hands of the Mariscos staff, and flavored with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, these crunchy clams with a dense black color were perfectly and sensationally briny, teeming with the flavors of the Baja sea.  They were served alongside a generous serving of fresh Pismo clams with salsa fresca.

They were out of the house specialty, crab claws, but with the inspirational marlin tacos that rocked my world, and a virgin encounter with pata de mula cockles, I wasn’t the least bit upset.  I was fully enraptured by the workings of this food truck, where I had fresh clams being thrown at me from one side, and smokey grilled treasures being tossed from the other.  It was a tight ship that this couple ran, and with such fresh Baja treasures that were being made in this mobile joint, I was healed from my phobia of food trucks and converted into a believer.  After our meal, Ruben took me outside to the small park by the truck to show me the local vegetation and give me a botany lesson.  “In our culture, we would take these flowers and leaves…”, he would say, as he explained Baja folklore and superstition to me over the sound of local traffic.  Meanwhile, dining companions Barbara Hansen munched on the last of the Pismo clams as she listened to a street singer who broke out in a loud performance and Bill climbed into the truck kitchen to check out Mirta’s cooler full of Sinaloan scallops as Chef John Rivera Sedlar was getting his shoes shined at the front of the truck.  The true essence of street food culture…it doesn’t get any better than that.

Mariscos Ruben
Corner of 8th & Quintana Roo
Tijuana, Mexico

Open 7 days a week, 8am-8pm

Random trivia:  A molcajete is a Mexican mortar and pestle, a 3 legged bowl carved out of basalt volcanic rock.  Since the porous basalt absorbs flavors, molcajetes are known to ‘season’ with time and use much like a cast iron skillet, and are passed down through generations.

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?