Editor’s Note: W. Scott Koenig, San Diego Red Columnist, founded the blog AGringoInMexico.com in 2012 to report on food and culture in Mexico, with a focus on Baja California. He is now considered a major influencer on the region’s culinary scene. As part of our Best of Baja 2017 awards, we asked Scott to choose and rank the top 10 Baja California dishes sampled this year. Here are his “Gringo’s Choice Award” winners of 2017.
2017 was another delicious year on the Baja California culinary scene. The region’s stalwart chefs – think Sabina Bandera and Drew Deckman – continued to create amazing dishes, while a younger generation of cooks pushed the envelope, redefining classics and evolving the oft-staid concept of Baja Mediterranean cuisine. One young chef is even utilizing recipes and ingredients from indigenous Kumeyaay tribes for his menu, taking a step back in regional history to create what may just be the next big thing in the Valle de Guadalupe.
The Gringo’s Choice Award represents the 10 dishes I enjoyed most during my frequent trips to Baja California this year. This is not meant to be a definitive list by any means — you can vote for your favorite restaurant and more in the Best of Baja categories throughout this month. This list was narrowed down from about 30 dishes I would consider very good to excellent. It was no easy task to leave the other 18 off. If I ate at your restaurant in 2017 and told you I loved your food, I wasn’t kidding. Next year!
Feel free to leave me a if your favorite dish isn’t on this list so we can try it out for 2018’s Gringo’s Choice Awards. Provecho!
10. Pressed Rabbit in Millet and Risotto
Malva, Valle de Guadalupe
Chef Roberto Alcocer of Malva in the Valle de Guadalupe creates modern Mexican cuisine in his rustic kitchen — often with a clever turn. “My pressed rabbit is served on a bed of millet and risotto, with carrots and garden greens. So, we are serving the rabbit in the middle of his own diet.” The locally-caught rabbit is cooked, shredded, pressed, and grilled along with the vegetables, which give the dish a nice snap. The creamy risotto and millet add a buttery texture to the entire affair.
9. Seafood Pozole
Restaurante Sabina by La Guerrerense, Ensenada
Sabina Bandera of Ensenada street cart La Guerrerense may have risen to fame with her seafood tostadas, but when she opened indoor eatery Restaurante Sabina in 2016, her skill in a working kitchen became evident. Sabina’s Guerrero style seafood pozole is one of the best things on the menu. Loaded with clams, mussels, shrimp, octopus, and fish, her version of this central Mexican classic – made red by the addition of ancho and guajillo chilies – also includes the requisite hominy and chopped onion.
8. Seared Ahi Tuna
Cantera at Maglen Resort, Valle de Guadalupe
I usually prefer my ahi tuna raw in Baja California. Bluefin is caught just offshore of Ensenada and dozens of restaurants turn it into everything from tiraditos to ceviches. And if over-seared, one ends up with a chewy piece of flavorless fish. But chef Joel Quintana at new restaurant Cantera at Maglen Resorts in the Valle de Guadalupe grills his ahi just right. Smoky and succulent on the outside and ruby red and moist on the inside, Quintana adds just the right amount of seasoning to bring out the seafood’s full flavor.
7. Grilled Duck in Mole Yumano
Restaurante Nómada, Valle de Guadalupe
Seasonal restaurant Nómada opens at a different location in the Valle de Guadalupe every Spring. This year, their host winery was Cava Maciel, a fortunate pairing as the winery’s deep reds play very well with chef Gilberto Morales’ hearty, indigenous Kumeyaay-inspired cuisine. Morales’ duck in mole Yumano – a nod to the native people’s language – features a grilled breast swimming in a pond of sauce made from various endemic chilies and a bitter acorn —a staple of the tribe’s diet.
6. Steamed Abalone in Lobster Sauce
Restaurante Elementos, Tijuana
Restaurante Elementos in Tijuana’s La Cacho neighborhood took me by surprise in 2017. Here, chef Antonio Santoyo Garcia creates bold yet elegant plates of Baja California cuisine that would give its better-known acolytes a run for their peso. His steamed abalone in lobster sauce is an exercise in decadence. The perfectly-steamed and tender abalone is topped with sautéed mushrooms, radish, greens, and crisped potatoes, and best tasted once dredged through a luxurious sea of succulent lobster sauce
5. Chicharrón in Salsa Verde
La Cocina de Doña Esthela, Valle de Guadalupe
Doña Esthela, the humble cocinera behind La Cocina de Doña Esthela in the Valle de Guadalupe, is known for her borrego tatemado and award-winning machaca con huevos. When a friend this year asked if she could make chicharrón en salsa verde, fried pig skin in a piquant tomatillo and serrano chili-based sauce, she disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a plate of the Mexican classic that was the best I’ve had. The chicharrón takes on a nice balance of soft and crispy textures in the thick salsa.
4. Rabbit Machaca Taco
Satabu Food Truck, Telefonica Gastro Park, Tijuana
Rabbit in Baja California may be the region’s next pork belly. I had no less than 6 hare-based dishes this year, and Satabu food truck chef Jose Alberto Hernandez Garcia’s taco of rabbit machaca was one of the best. An early collaborator on the Baja Med culinary movement with chef Miguel Angel Guerrero, Hernandez spices, dries, shreds, and prepares his rabbit vis-à-vis a time-consuming process and serves it in a crunchy shell with avocado, pickled red onion, cilantro, butter lettuce, radishes, and dollops of two sauces.
3. Grilled Octopus
Chef Miguel Bahena is a young Baja California chef to watch. After working for five years with top BC chefs Benito Molina and Drew Deckman, Bahena and his wife opened Pacifico in downtown Ensenada, where they focus largely on seafood. My favorite dish is the pulpo frito (fried octopus). The octopus is marinated in an adobo of guajillo chili, grilled, lightly dredged in flour, then fried in a cast iron skillet until the tentacles are slightly crispy on the outside, and perfectly tender on the inside.
2. Aguachile Torta
Taqueria Criollo, Ensenada
When chef Guillermo “Memo” Barreto of Ensenada’s Taqueria Criollo first told me about their “Torta Beach” – a shrimp aguachile served in a bolillo (Mexican roll) – it seemed like a concept that shouldn’t work. But it does. Barreto scoops a generous portion of shrimp marinated in lime and serrano chilies into a crusty bolillo and adds cilantro, cucumber, and avocado dollops. The bread sops up and retains the citrusy, spicy goodness, while the crusty exterior keeps the sandwich intact.
1. Grilled Ribeye Steak
Deckman’s en El Mogor, Valle de Guadalupe
The 900-gram grilled ribeye at chef Drew Deckman’s rustic Deckman’s en El Mogor . Noticing my sideways, lustful glances at the cuts searing on his outdoor grill, chef Deckman recommended I try one. It was the best decision I’ve ever had made for me. Per his hyper-local philosophy, the tender grain-fed beef is sourced from a small farm in Mexicali. Deckman grills it to a perfect rare-medium rare with a lightly crisped, well-seasoned bark and serves the cut with grilled garden vegetables.
Vote for the Best of Baja 2017 nominees here!