By Carla White via Baja.com
Last year, Baja.com published a story on culinary trends in Baja, focusing on the northern region known as Baja California. Since then, the news of Baja’s gastronomic revolution has spread like honey on a hot day; throughout the world, television programs, newspapers, magazines and social media have lapped up and dished out pieces and pics about Baja’s chefs, stand-out restaurants, and even its food trucks. What began as a tentative foray into the world of fresh, organic and sustainable cuisine has been given a name – Baja Med – and it is reshaping the perception of the Baja peninsula – north and south (Baja California Sur) – on an international level.
So what defines the new tastes of Baja?
The basic precepts haven’t changed.
Baja Med focuses on some key concepts:
Add to that some new buzz phrases:
Slow Food (referring to the movement to preserve authentic, regional cuisine that employs ingredients and characteristics of the local ecosystem)
‘Campestre’ style, that moves away from formalized fine dining to a more casual, authentic approach.
These words reflect a not-so-subtle shift in the way diners are experiencing Baja’s food. Although, certainly, there is still room for the great steak houses like Rosarito’s El Nido, Ensenada’s Sano’s, and Tijuana’s El Taurino, visitors and locals alike are exploring new ways of eating and appreciating what they are consuming.
Today, Baja’s natural bounty is vast, which is good because it is being consumed with alacrity! Now, menus are rich with descriptive plate details that reflect the peninsula’s seemingly endless acres of tomatoes and strawberries; seafood that is merely hours out of the water; abalone and oysters cultivated in sustainable nurseries. Even venison, rabbit, corn fungus (huitlacoche) and handmade cheeses from local ranchos are making the scene.
And then there are the wines and artisanal beers that are popping up quicker than grasshoppers on a griddle. With literally thousands of wines now made in Baja (from more than 100 wineries) – virtually all from Mexico’s wine country in the Valle de Guadalupe and Valle de Santo Tomas – Baja is showcasing more of its palate pleasers than ever before.
Recently, a gala event atop the new tower of the Rosarito Beach Hotel was held in support of the Rosarito Boys and Girls Club.
The name of the event was Sabor de Baja (Taste of Baja), conceived of by Bo Bendana Sein, who recognized that the excitement behind the gastronomic movement is exactly what she wanted to harness for this fundraising evening. Sabores de Baja brought together Baja’s top chefs, all cooking in a single room, showcasing not only the best chef-ery but the most interesting and authentic ingredients of the region. Drew Deckman was there, and so were Roberto Alcocer, Javier Plascencia, Juan Plascencia, Susanna Stehr, Erick Saenz, and others. Most remarkable was not the fact that the event was packed; that everyone wore white; that the food was so diverse and across the board delicious. Rather, it was a symbiotic energy that the chefs and sous chefs exuded – a kind of simmering knowledge that they are Baja’s newest rock stars and that the food they work with stars in its own right.
So where do you find these innovative tastes of Baja?
Up and down the Baja.
Not every great restaurant or chef is listed here, but rather the following focuses on some who are putting into practice the ‘new’ Baja cuisine and gastronomy.
Tijuana has emerged as Mexico’s culinary powerhouse, with even award-winning chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Rick Bayless calling it “one of the great food cities of North America.”
Here, leading the way, have been food pioneers like Javier Plascencia, the chef-owner of Mision 19, located in the heart of the Zona Rio (River District). Plascencia was one of the first to focus on Baja Med cuisine and his Tijuana restaurant remains supreme in delivering new takes on simple, basic ingredients.
The Plascencia family and Juan Plascencia are behind the all-new and yet delightfully retro Ceasar’s Restaurant in Tijuana. It hails back to its roots (the Ceasar Salad was invented here, and thrives in its new iteration), although the new menu offers delectable twists on things like grilled octopus, carpaccio, and even the amazing tapenade that comes with bread at the start of your meal.
Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero’s La Querencia restaurant in Tijuana remains at the top of the food chain, with consistently imaginative dishes and fresh ingredients. Favorites here are plates like flamed tequila octopus, duck tacos, machacas or sashimi. El Taller restaurant is a casual, hip place to sample a wide array of wood-fired pizzas and other dishes. (Chef Miguel’s culinary arm also stretches into Ensenada’s wine region, with Almazara restaurant. Sashimi, gourmet tacos, and other jewels stud the master’s menu).
And speaking about tacos, how about them tacos?
Yes, tacos are indeed turning heads in the culinary world, including those of taco-maker Javier Campos Guttiérez at Tacos Salceados. These are not your Mexican grandmother’s tacos (although who could beat those?), they are whimsical creations using seasonal and fresh products like strawberries and mangos and green onions to sauce up fresh shrimp and cheese. Tacos Kokopelli (named after the Hopi god of fertility) was started by Chef Guillermo “Oso” Campos Moreno and his brothers, and takes a kind of Aztec thrust at food—salsas and cremas with lots of chiles, peppers, and peanuts.
VIDEO : A day with Tacos Kokopelli
Besides being home to the aforementioned El Nido steak house, this beach town has become famous for its tacos and food trucks. Along with places like Tacos El Yaqui or El Gerente (local hangouts overflowing with carne asada or shrimp offerings), there is also El Gaucho Argentino that offers great sausages, empanadas, and more. Susanna’s is a favorite romantic restaurant for the expatriate community, offering traditional/continental fare with Susanna Stehr’s gourmet twist.
There is a new chef in town, too…Master Chef Erick Saenz, who brings a fresh taste and fusion-style to dining at the oceanfront Casa Blanca restaurant in the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Saenz, a celebrity chef for Bravo TV, particularly enjoys taking the tried and true, like filet mignon or perhaps fresh diver scallops and putting a twist on them – eh, voilά, perhaps a Ceviche Margarita ensues!