Baja on the Cheap - A 36 Hour Getaway
By Misty Tosh
Per usual, my adventure in Baja began and ended with food. 36 hours before, I’d crossed the border – with no real destination in mind, not much coin in my pocket, and just a short bit of time to explore new spots. It was just an internal craving I was trying to fill...because let’s face it - a day and a half isn’t much time when there’s so much to see. There's always another dirt road to tear down and one more snack to chomp on.
Hours 1 - 3
Make way across Tecate border and revel in how lush the wine valley is looking. Start moseying south. Contemplate stopping for some wine tastings, but knowing that we’re gonna want to get south of Ensenada, forgo all and make haste for the sea.
Hour 3 – Restaurant Atotonilco and La Costa, Popotla
Rustic side roads are always full of surprises and the bumpy ride into the magical fishing village of Popotla is no exception. From the freeway, you’d never expect that just over the hill, a mere click south of Baja Studios, is a miniscule fishing community that rivals anything you’d find in the Med. There is so much fresh seafood being slung around that it would take days to really sample it all, so it’s nice to start with a bit of vibrant clam ceviche. Clams the size of your hand that is, hand carved, sauced and limed to order. For next to nothing ($2). Even better is a restaurant that serves tiny crab legs as a free appetizer complete with a smooth stone and wooden board for crushing. The lobster is grilled and drenched in butter and one order is enough to fill two people, especially when a frosty cold michelada is involved. The whole area can be overwhelming, because the items floating around from stall to stall in the market are simply mind-altering in their enormity. From glistening fish to spider crab the size of a small dog to shark fin to rows of exotic looking clams, this stop is a genuine must happen on all future visits to Baja. I am stunned it took me 15 years to finally make that right turn off Highway 1.
Total spent - $20
Hour 7 – Jing Cheng Restaurant, South Ensenada
Before we left LA, we’d been on an Asian kick and I’d become obsessed with rice paper fried spring rolls. Why not try them for a light snack in Baja? It was just a baby pit stop to satiate the mind. How good are the rolls? Turns out, mighty fine. Wonderfully light, they were doled out in a paper bag that had circles of grease spread here and there just so...and though there was no fish sauce to dip them in, you just didn’t need it. Those treats were inhaled in less than 30 seconds.
Total spent - $1
Hour 10 – El Molino Viejo (The Old Mill), San Quintín
It’s unreal that I’ve never eaten at this old-school waterfront restaurant in San Quintín bay. We’d ended up at the Old Mill Hotel on the make for a cheap room ($37 cash) and rounded the corner from the simple hotel to find a throbbing bar and restaurant on the bay front. How in the heck do all these people find these hidden gems? It’s not like there’s a paved path to the front door. Nope, that would be a 3-mile dirt road, full of skull jarring potholes. After we checked in, secured extra blankets (no heat in these rooms) and played with the beautiful house doggie, we were simply on the lookout for a good glass of vino. Never did we expect to find it (and it was the delicious house wine, no less – Piccolo Roganto). We also found a refreshing Caesar salad, a giant pile of seafood pasta and a killer queso dip to go with this said wine. The edge of the road burned off with the first sip of red wine and the mariachi singer revved up to take that edge off a little bit more. It wasn’t until we’d stuffed our faces that we realized they crafted up homemade bread – you just have to ask for it. Don’t you know we secured a loaf and polished if off for dessert! Gluttony at it’s finest.
Total spent – $42
Hour 25 – Loncheria Elena, just North of San Quintin
A big breakfast was on…and this time not just a frosty Red Bull and chile tamale. This roadside loncheria was packed with in-the-know truckers, political associates, and local families when we strolled in and grabbed a primo spot. Oh, how quickly steaming coffee made it’s way to our table and just as quick rolled out probably the best breakfast I’ve experienced in all of Baja. Perfect chiliquiles, just made hand-slapped tortillas, piles of tiny limes, cooked down pinto beans and slippery divorced eggs with hand cut fries. Every bite elicited a moan, every stranger tossed a smile our way, and our coffee cup never stopped filling up. Plus, they have free fast wifi. This pint size spot does some dang good business.
Total spent - $8
Never would I have wandered by this tiny sushi restaurant much less stopped in, but fate slipped up under me. Literally. We were Tecate border bound and just weaving through the hectic traffic of Ensenada when a food delivery driver on a motorcycle pounded up under the back of my truck. He wasn’t paying attention – racing about on his way back from a delivery – and just rammed my bumper. I was delighted to see he worked for a sushi restaurant because I’d been aching to try some fried rice in Mexico! Once we followed him back to his homebase, we stood by for the insurance folks to pop over...and of course we were starving so we ate. Perfect pork gyoza, flavorful veggie fried rice and juicy limes with salt were on tap for lunch when the insurance representatives arrived. We chopsticked up gyoza after gyoza. The food was just so unexpectedly delicious we ordered another full round. And, with our insurance paperwork in order and satisfied bellies, we crossed the border just before hour 36 hit.
Total spent - $18