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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Shigeyoshi 重よし- Tokyo, Japan

Takeshita-dori

Harajuku, a bustling district in the lively city of Tokyo, is the epicenter of cultural juxtapositions where the rich elite collide with eclectic punk fashionistas.  Where Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Christian Dior proudly line the grand shopping boulevard of Omotesando, which sees no paucity of young and old shoppers who are driven by their greed for expensive designer clothes.  Just behind omotesando is the famous Takeshita-dori, the narrow street just yards away which attracts grade school teenagers for cheap casual wear and knick knacks.   Omotesando literally means ‘the front road to the shrine’ in Japanese, and was originally constructed as the main path that led visitors to the grand Meiji shrine just behind Harajuku station.  It’s almost easy to forget that a peaceful and sacred shrine stands proudly at the periphery of this busy shopping district where people are consumed with superficiality.  In addition, the Jingu Bridge, which connects the Harajuku area to the shrine, has become the mecca for cosplay youngsters who don’t hold back in their lavish goth and lolita costumes, acting as a hub for unique and outrageous street fashion.  Do you recall Gwen Stefani giving a shout out to the Harajuku girls?  This is what she was talking about.  If you’re visiting Tokyo for the first time, a visit to Harajuku is a must- you can get a taste for many dimensions of the Japanese culture in a matter of an hour.

A stone’s throw away from the dynamic streets of Harajuku, on the 1st floor of an apartment building right on Omotesando Avenue, is a quiet unassuming restaurant with a wooden sliding door entrance.  In this peaceful haven lies Shigeyoshi, my favorite restaurant in the world.  Shigeyoshi is run by Chef Kenzo Sato, who at the tender young age of 27, opened this restaurant in 1971.  He trained at Taimeshirou in Nagoya, and named his restaurant Shigeyoshi after his mentor.  I have been coming here every year for the past 6 years or so, and it has quickly made its way into a very special place in my heart.  I go back to Tokyo every year over the Christmas and New Year holidays to visit my family, and a trip to Kyubei and Shigeyoshi are the activities which I look forward to the most.  I was proud and ecstatic to learn that Shigeyoshi was recently awarded 2 Michelin stars- these are 2 very well deserved stars, for I know first hand that the food, service and ambiance are exceptional.

The space is a comfortable size, fitting 3 tables and 12 seats at the pristine wooden counter.  There are 2 private rooms upstairs as well, but the golden seat is at the counter toward the right, in front of Chef Sato and the stovetop.  What I love about Shigeyoshi is that despite its Michelin status and its revered reputation in the culinary world, it always feels like I’m hanging out with Chef Sato in his own home.  It’s as if I dropped by his house on a weekend for a casual friendly chat as I sit on the bar stool and have him whip something up in the kitchen for me.  Especially now that he knows my likes and dislikes and even saves my favorite dish for me, I feel comfortable being with him and being in that space.  I almost forget that I’m in one of the best restaurants in Japan, as the place is warm, relaxed and serene.

There’s something to be said about this classic Japanese style of counter dining which is common in sushi restaurants.  When chef and diner are face to face, it naturally creates open dialogue and wonderful conversation.  For the diner, there is nothing more fascinating and wondrous as seeing your food be prepared right in front of you with artistic mastery and care.  For the chef, there is nothing more gratifying and humbling than watching the diner savor every bite of your creation with joy and contentment.  At Shigeyoshi, it’s always an honor and such a treasure to chat with Chef Sato and his trusted crew of 5 chefs as they prepare a meal of a lifetime. Especially with Sato, who has a great personality and calm demeanor, I never run out of interesting topics to talk about.

Chef Sato started our incredible tasting menu with an amuse bouche assortment of 黒豆 kuromame braised black beans with sprinkled gold powder, 唐墨 karasumi bottarga slice and 平目のこぶ締め hirame no kobujime kelp-infused fluke sushi.  It was such a treat to be able to commence my meal with the rich and salty flavors of bottarga.

Fresh raw oysters were quickly and skillfully shucked by Chef Sato and served with a garnish of chopped onions and his version of cocktail sauce.  We had 的矢 Matoya oysters from the Mie prefecture which claim to be 無菌 mukin or sterile and bacteria-free.  It was the first time that I had ever even heard of such a concept, and was very intrigued.  History has it that shortly after World War II, American soldiers and personnel at the American bases in Japan refused to eat oysters in Japan because they were thought to be contaminated and of bad quality.  This criticism angered and fueled scientist Tadao Sato’s quest to create safe bacteria-free oysters.  He eventually patented a process in which oysters are bred in sea water that has been sterilized by UV radiation.  These bivalves had a clean and sweet flavor with a crisp cucumber finish.

Next we had tempura of 白魚 shirauo white fish and 蕗の薹 fuki no tou.  I had a tough time researching the English translation for fuki no tou, but I finally found it: Japanese butterbur scape, or butterbur flower stalk.  They look like round plump flower buds with a light green color and a brown center.  Fuki no tou are one of the first wild mountain vegetables to sprout through the layers of melting snow as winter turns to spring.  The slight bitterness of these vegetables is addictive, and it is most popular as tempura although it can also be prepared in braised dishes and miso soup.  The warm crispy tempura was surprisingly light with very little oiliness.

Chef Sato knows my eclectic taste in food, and he was proud to present me with this assortment of Japanese delicacies.  You know when Bugs Bunny’s eyes turn into big red hearts that pop out of their sockets when he sees the sexy Lola Bunny walking by?  Well, that’s what my eyes were doing when I saw this orgasmic smorgasbord of lovely delights.  Top left was a mixture of ずわい蟹のミソと子の塩辛 salt marinated Zuwai crab digestive innards and ovaries with an intense caviar-like flavor.  This was my favorite.  Top middle was sliced sea cucumbers in a ponzu sauce garnished with yuzu zest.  I love the unique textures of fresh sea cucumbers- the outer layer is soft like a fresh mango, and the center layers are more firm, at times even crunchy.

Top right was a small serving of extremely sweet Hokkaido sea urchin which was so fresh that it had a marvelous plump texture.  Bottom right was a piece of コハダ kohada or shad that had been marinated in and mixed with おから okara, which is the dry crumbly soy by-product of tofu.  Shad, due to its fishy taste that spoils easily, is normally marinated in heavy vinegar and salt, so it was a pleasant surprise to enjoy this fish in a light and delicate preparation.  Bottom left was tofu no moromizuke 豆腐のもろみ漬け, tofu marinated in a moromi shoyu that was specially made for Chef Sato by a soy sauce maker in Hiroshima.  Moromi is the fermented mash of soybeans, whole wheat, salt and water from which soy sauce is eventually made.  Tofu was simply marinated in this special moromi for 30 minutes, which rendered it soft and creamy like cheese.  Simply amazing.

スッポンスープ Suppon soup- this is a Shigeyoshi standard in the winter season, and I always look forward to having this cup of snapping turtle soup that warms my entire body down to my very tippy toes.  It’s a common tradition to eat turtle in Japan, especially in the winter time, as it is said to have great medicinal and nutritional powers and is best enjoyed in a hot pot nabe dish.  Shigeyoshi’s soup tastes like refined beef consommé, except with a slightly thicker consistency that barely leaves a silky gelatinous veil on the tongue.

Turtle is high in collagen and can practically make any woman look 5 years younger overnight with its ability to plump up wrinkled skin.  It is also said to enhance virility and sexual stamina in men, especially when drinking its fresh blood.  I’ve tried fresh suppon turtle blood before, many years ago in my early 20’s.  The warm bright red blood was served in a shot glass mixed with sake.  It didn’t taste like anything other than the sake, but I remember feeling flushed and hot all over for a couple of hours, and wondering if that was what menopause was going to feel like.

Next was a fantastic dish of 平目 hirame flounder sashimi from Naruto city, served with a side garnish of flounder liver.  Both the regular meat and the エンガワ engawa, which is the meat from the dorsal fin, were fatty and succulent with a delicate satiny texture.

We had 2 different types of grilled fish, of which my favorite was the マナガツオの西京焼 managatsuo no saikyo-yaki,  Silver pomfret marinated in saikyo miso.  The pomfret fish, which is similar to butterfish in consistency, hailed from Naruto city in Tokushima prefecture where the previous flounder was also from.  I loved the buttery and rich texture of the fish coupled with the sweetness and lingering aroma of the white miso marinade.  Chef Sato told me that he marinates the fish in the saikyo miso marinade for anywhere from 1 to 2 days depending on the quality of the fish, and never more than that to prevent the miso from overpowering the inherent flavors of the fish.

The other grilled fish hailed from Takeoka of Chiba prefecture, a fatty and delicate piece of line-caught 甘鯛 amadai tilefish that was simply seasoned with sea salt. It was interesting that both fish dishes were plated with a small piece of pickled chorogi 長老木 which is a Japanese artichoke, aka Chinese artichoke, aka Crosnes du Japon.  These tiny bumpy vegetables are not artichokes like their name suggests, but actually a member of the mint family.  I love learning about new foods.

越前ガニ Echizen crab was at their peak during the winter season, and we enjoyed the incredible sweetness of the moist and juicy meat along with a small but tantalizing serving of its green innards.

The next dish exemplified the concept of understated beauty in Japanese art and cuisine.  A simmered 煮物 nimono dish of Kyoto turnips with fuki butterbur stems was prepared simply in a flavored broth and garnished with grated ginger.  The flavors and the presentation were both simple, yet in its simplicity and nakedness, it was beautiful.  These winter treasures were prepared to a perfect consistency in the way that would most respect its purity and essence.  The dish was warm, comforting and peaceful.

And finally, the dish that I had been waiting for.  This is my favorite dish at Shigeyoshi, and I have this every year.  河豚の唐揚げ deep fried fugu puffer fish is sure to convert even the most hardcore fried chicken fan.  Most of the pieces served this particular evening were from the fish’s head, and I thoroughly enjoyed nibbling on the moist tender meat that fell right off the bones and the big fat gelatinous lips.  This is the kind of dish that makes you so engrossed in the food that all conversation comes to a halt.  For those precious few minutes, it’s just me and the fugu, and nothing else matters.  I can honestly say that this is one of my most favorite dishes in the world.

We had some special pickled vegetables before our final rice course.  The 沢庵 takuan pickled daikon radish on the right was made at Shigeyoshi, but the 奈良漬け narazuke, pickled white melon, was made by one of my dining companion’s sisters.

At Shigeyoshi, you can choose any one of many rice dishes to end the meal.  Choices include rice with deep fried oysters kakifurai カキフライwhich I ordered.  Lovely.

Another option is rice with toro, or fatty tuna.  Scrumptious.

The kakiagedon, mixed vegetable tempura over rice, is a classic rice dish.  Delectable. Other choices include oyakodon chicken and eggs over rice, gyudon braised beef over rice, and really if there’s anything that you want, Chef Sato and crew will make it for you.

A warm and nourishing bowl of しじみ汁 shijimi jiru clam miso soup rounded out the savory portion of our incredible meal.

Delicious seasonal domestic fruits were sweet like honey and refreshing on my palate.

A traditional Japanese dessert of ぜんざい zenzai, a warm bowl of red azuki beans with mochi, was served in beautiful red lacquerware.

As if this extravagant meal wasn’t special enough, Chef Sato gifted me with a signed copy of the Shigeyoshi book that is no longer in circulation.  This beautiful book, which features Shigeyoshi’s seasonal specialties like turtle soup, doesn’t have many recipes but rather highlights the story behind each dish.  It talks about Chef Sato’s inspirations, memorable anecdotes and stories about the artisans who produce the high quality ingredients that are used in the dishes.  I especially love the essays that Chef Sato writes about certain regular customers with whom he has established a long lasting friendship, and their favorite dishes at Shigeyoshi.  It’s an amazing and touching book about the intention and the human spirit behind this wonderful restaurant.

As Chef Sato shed his chef’s jacket and joined us at the counter for an after dinner beer,  I got an even more personal look into the soul of this magnificent chef.  His gentle eyes, so full of life, lit up with each new conversation topic as his engaging exchanges revealed his genuine curiosity for life.  His calm yet uplifting sense of humor is one that I can only imagine comes from years of hardships and adversity.  It is impossible for this marvelous chef to not affect your spirit, for his vitality is infectious.  I mean, look at that smile.  If you could only have one meal in Japan, have it at Shigeyoshi.  Go with an empty stomach, and let the beauty of the chef, the restaurant and the food permeate your heart.

Shigeyoshi 重よし

6-35-3 Corp Olympia 1st floor

Jingumae, Shibuya-ku Tokyo

Tel 03-3400-4044

Random trivia:  Fugu, or puffer fish, is notorious for containing lethal amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin in its liver.  The poison acts as a paralytic and kills its victims in a slow and agonizing death from asphyxiation as it paralyzes the respiratory muscles.  To date, there is no antidote.  For this reason, only specially licensed chefs can prepare this potentially deadly fish.  A chef must undergo a 3 year apprenticeship before being allowed to take the licensing exam.  The examination process consists of a written test and a practical portion where the chef must prepare the fish and eat it.  The passing rate is only 35%, and some of the failed challenges result in death.