As a San Diego-based writer of Mexican food, culture, and travel, I'm in a fortunate position both geographically and gastronomically. The international border and gateway to Baja California is only twenty tasty minutes away by car. Across the frontera lies a plethora of culinary delights from street food to fine dining, from traditional to modern Mexican, and from the unquestionably famous to the decidedly hip. This list covers those categories, and more.
A Gringo in Mexico's Top 25 Baja Bites 2016 are presented here in no particular order. This is not meant to be a definitive or a "best of" list by any means you can vote for your favorites during SanDiegoRed.com's Best of Baja awards. These are simply "top bites" that I've personally enjoyed with friends, family, and colleagues during frequent visits to the region throughout 2016.
As final disclaimer, there are top bites from past years that would have absolutely made this list if I'd had them again this year I'm craving the carne asada at Tijuana's Tortas Washmobile right now, and the tasting menu at Valle de Guadalupe's Malva was one of my top meals in 2015.
This list began with nearly 50 picks and took several gut wrenching rounds of omission to narrow it down to just 25 my self imposed limit. I offer my apologies to those serious contenders not represented here.
Feel free to leave us a comment letting us know what we missed in 2016 so we can try it out for next year's list. ¡Provecho!
1. Pacific Oysters at El Clavo, Valle de Guadalupe
The Pacific oysters at chef Ryan Steyn's seasonal campestre kitchen El Clavo at Quinta Monasterio were some of the best I enjoyed this year. The bivalves were bright, full of liquor, and topped with just enough mignonette to complement, not overpower, the oyster's delicate and briny flavor. A sprig of salicornia added a nice crunch.
2. Sirloin of lamb at Almazara, Valle de Guadalupe
Sierra Blanca-raised lamb is what's for dinner (and lunch) at Almazara a "gastro pub" founded by chef Miguel Angel Guerrero on the grounds of an olive tree ranch. The generously portioned sirloin is served medium rare, hot off the Santa Maria grill, perfectly seasoned, and plated with crisp garden vegetables, squash, and mashed potatoes.
3. Short rib ravioli at La Cayetana, Tijuana
Lunch at new restaurant La Cayetana in Tijuana's tony Paseo Chapultepec mall began with a few good, but fairly rote, Baja Mediterranean appetizers, such as an ahi tuna tostada. It's the pastas that seemed to be the standout here. Short rib ravioli pays homage to a regional staple, which is slow brazed, enveloped in supple handmade pasta, and covered in a rich, savory ragout.
4. Cilantro risotto with grilled shrimp at Asao, Tecate
The owners of Tecate's Asao worked with renowned Mexican chef Martin San Roman this year to design their new menu highlighting his fusion of European and Mexican recipes and ingredients. One such fusion is the risotto, bathed in a creamy cilantro sauce and topped with a perfectly seasoned and grilled shrimp.
5. Taco de chicharrón at Tacos Aaron food truck, Tijuana
I've never quite acquired a taste for chicharrón (fried pork skin) served wet. I love the crunchy "cracklings", but wet, it seems sad, limpid, and somehow wrong. The difference with Taco Aaron's taco de chicharrón is the amount of chunky, savory pork that still clings to the skin, making this meaty, salsa verde soaked taco one of my top bites this year.
6. Quesataco of borrego at Bodegas F. Rubio, Valle de Guadalupe
Alex Rubio of Bodegas F. Rubio has been one of my favorite young chefs since he opened the winery's deli two years ago. His quesataco (cheese taco) of grilled lamb combines savory morsels of seasoned and grilled borrego (lamb) with cilantro and red onion, served atop a griddled round of salty farmer's cheese.
7. Aguachile of shrimp and octopus at Alga Bien, Playas de Tijuana
At Navio in Tijuana, chef Julio Rodriguez elevates, fuses, and remixes traditional Sonoran mariscos. At his new restaurant Alga Bien, he offers an untouched for the most part lineup of classic seafood specialties. The serrano chili-based aguachile is a fresh affair of shrimp, octopus, and red onion with avocado and cucumber to temper the heat.
8. Plato de Marcelo at Casa Marcelo, Ensenada
The menu at Ensenada's Casa Marcelo showcases artisanal cheese produced by owner Marcelo Castro at La Cava de Marcelo in nearby Ojos Negros. The filling Plato de Marcelo features eggs your way and a griddled slab of one-year old Ramonetti cheese served atop a generous portion of tender barbacoa, mushrooms, and garden veggies.
9. Oysters Provençale at Andares De La Baja Cocina, Tijuana
Andares De La Baja Cocina by chef Luis Enrique Gil Moreno is a stylish new eatery in the up and coming la Cacho neighborhood. Andares offers indoor and outdoor patio dining and a Baja California cuisine-informed menu. Their oysters Provençale feature gigamotos seasoned in herbs, combined with butter, baked, then grilled for a bit of added smoke.
10. Ravioli of aged cheese in marinara at Tre Galline, Valle de Guadalupe
Chef Angelo Dal Bon's Tre Galline is only open seasonally in the Valle de Guadalupe. Served atop a ladle of tangy marinara, the rich, pungent ravioli of aged cheese which I assumed was Ramonetti stood out on the tasting menu. In actuality, it was a round of queso that chef Angelo had saved from the bin at a local shop, the owner believing that it didn't age well. It did.
11. Curried chicken liver sope at Sanvil, Valle de Guadalupe
Chef Surinder Veer Singh Ortega caused a stir in the local food community in 2016, opening new restaurant Sanvil based on the concept of fusing Indian and Mexican cuisine. At this year's Sabor de Baja, he won third place with a savory example of his new cuisine a chicken liver curry sope with diced potatoes topped with a spicy ripe mango pickle, yogurt, purslane, and a cherry tomato.
12. Campechana taco at Tacos Fitos, Tijuana
Located outside of Mercado Hidalgo, the Tacos Fitos cart focuses on three types of tacos birria de res (seasoned beef stew), tripas (small intestine), and campechana, which combine the two. The taqueros toss the cooked meat into an awaiting corn tortilla, which is then placed on the griddle to fry in beef stock until crisp and served al dorado.
13. Borrego tatemado at La Cocina de Doña Estela, Valle de Guadalupe
Although her machaca (dried beef) won the FoodieHub 2015 Best Breakfast in the World award, it's Doña Estela's borrego tatemado (burned lamb) that first drew crowds to her humble restaurant. Estela's marinated, stewed, and perfectly seasoned lamb is fried and served with a rich consomé, house made corn or flour tortillas, and a fresh local farmer's cheese.
14. Prepared Oysters at Fuego, Valle de Guadalupe
Chef Mario Peralta serves an imaginative menu of Baja California cuisine at restaurant Fuego. His chilled and prepared Kumiai oysters combine the fleshy, mildly briny bivalve with cantaloupe and raspberry. The shellfish are finished with a bit of soy, ponzu, and a habanero jelly in a preparation that mellows and sweetens the typically intense chili.
15. Tacos of "84 Meat" at El Lugar de Nos, Tecate
At her rustic Tecate eatery El Lugar de Nos, chef Mariela Manzano slowly stirs a caldron of "84 meat" an enchanting combination of beef, lamb, and pork that's slow cooked for 84 hours. The result is one of the most tender, flavorful bites to be found anywhere. The taco of 84 meat is served in a corn tortilla then drizzled in its own broth and a splash of balsamic.
16. Grilled quail at Finca Altozano, Valle de Guadalupe
Though he made his fame with modern Mexican fare at Mision 19, chef Javier Plascencia's Valle de Guadalupe restaurant Finca Altozano is known for its preparations of Baja California rural classics. The grilled quail, served seasoned and cooked to meaty perfection, is an example. Served with a side of savory beans on a blue camp plate, the dish wouldn't be out of place at a Baja campestre a century ago.
17. Tostada of shrimp and white clam aguachile at El Paisa, Tijuana
Master coctelero Humberto Buelna serves Sinaloan seafood specialties from his stand near Tijuana's Mercado Hidalgo. In addition to cocktails and prepared clams, Humberto serves tostadas heaped with succulent mariscos. My favorite is the tostada of spicy shrimp and white clam aguachile topped with avocado and an added dash of spicy chiltipin salsa.
18. Grilled bone marrow with octopus at Olivia de Asador, Valle de Guadalupe
I enjoyed this entry at a San Diego charity event where chef Giannina Gavaldon donated her talent, but marrow is also on the menu at her restaurant Olivia de Asador in the Valle de Guadalupe. Split beef bones are grilled until the marrow takes on the perfect amount of smoke, topped with tender grilled octopus, and finished with a dash of coarse sea salt.
19. Taco el perrón at Mariscos el Mazateño, Tijuana
Mariscos el Mazateño is THE spot for the best seafood tacos in Tijuana. Their el perrón taco combines generous amounts of succulent grilled Baja shrimp and crunchy fried pargo (a type of snapper) served in two warm, just-made flour tortillas. Melted Oaxacan cheese finishes the taco. I could and have eaten the perfectly seasoned, battered, and fried pargo all by itself.
20. Tostada of Baja hiramasa at La Querencia, Tijuana
It was worth talking my way into the VIP tent during San Diego's Latino Film Festival just to try this dish. Visiting chef Miguel Angel Guerrero served a very generous raw cut of toothsome Baja hiramasa (yellowtail) atop a tostada with ponzu, micro greens, dollops of avocado, and finely shredded machaca (dried beef).
21. Beetroot ravioli at Alma Verde, Tijuana
The only vegan dish to make my list this year is the beetroot ravioli at Tijuana's hottest place to "do brunch", Alma Verde in the happening la Cacho neighborhood. Red beetroot is stuffed with a rich, creamy filling of cashew butter substituted for the usual and definitely not vegan goat cheese then topped with tangerine, garden greens, and chopped cashews.
22. Chicharrón in salsa verde at The Rib Shop, Tijuana
Chef Fernando Acosta is devoted to serving pork "snout-to-tail" at his casual eatery The Rib Shop in Tijuana. The restaurant's perfectly cooked and meaty chicharrón (fried pork skin) is presented atop a layer of creamy, piquant salsa verde, topped with pickled red onion, and served with corn tortilla chips. In 2016, he opened a second location at Border Psycho Brewery in Plaza Fiesta.
23. Seafood cocktail at Sabina's Restaurant, Ensenada
Anthony Bourdain's "favorite street cart on the planet", Ensenada's La Guerrerense, opened an indoor location in 2016. Owner Sabina Bandera's seafood cocktail features morsels of chocolate clam, octopus, shrimp, and sea snail served in a light cocktail sauce. Only slightly sweet as well as spicy, the delicate sauce allows the flavors and textures of the seafood to take center stage.
24. Machaca burrito at Bol Corona, Tijuana
The historic Bol Corona serves a variety of burritos, enchiladas, and other Mexican classics at six locations around the city. Their excellent machaca (dried and shredded beef) burrito combines the dried and reconstituted meat with green peppers, onions, garlic and spices, and is served in a large, soft flour tortilla. Best eaten with liberal amounts of their salsa roja.
25. Grilled jurel at Deckman's en El Mogor, Valle de Guadalupe
This year at his outdoor restaurant Deckman's en El Mogor, chef Drew Deckman collaborated with Paul Bentley of Magno Brasserie in Guadalajara to create one of my top bites this year. Their grilled jurel (yellowtail) with perfectly crunchy skin was served on a puree of potatoes, blood sausage, and the fish's liver, and then topped with fennel and squash blossom.
Am I missing out on anything? Feel free to leave us a below with the details and your opinion so we can try it out for next year's list! Your Gringo in Mexico, Scott.
San Diego-based culture, food and travel journalist W. Scott Koenig has explored Mexico and Baja California for over two decades. He founded AGringoInMexico.com in 2012 to report on south of the border destinations, food, culture and adventure. The website has since become an invaluable source of information on the burgeoning food and culture scene in Baja California, as well as the wider scene throughout Mexico. Visit Scott's websites and social media via the links, below.