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.
Ave Sonora No 3808-11
barrio Chapultepec, south of Agua Caliente
Baja California, Tijuana, Mexico
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…