All my trips to Baja revolve around one thing and one thing only. Meals…and the drinks that go with them. Through this simple love affair with food, I’ve managed to discover a flip side of Mexico that might have gone by the wayside. Especially since I carry my camera with me every step of the way. Every road trip down the peninsula, my camera bag is always at the ready, my right foot is always just a twitch away from slamming on the breaks and my belly never seems to get enough of the local cuisine.
Every town, chef and restaurant has a different riff on food though. It’s not just beans, rice and tacos. In fact, it’s almost none of that - it’s way more sleek and cultivated. There’s history and soul and love and compassion in the ingredients that make up the bulk of Baja cuisine. Dishes you salivate over. Remote pit stops you pine for when you’re back stateside. Reasons to take a day trip over the border just to get a fix. Rich food memories that hold you over ‘til next time you can make it down south.
These just-off-the-main-road establishments have perfected what it is they offer up and will make it onto your Best Of Baja list after your first round. Here are four hungry man reasons to get in the car and tear across the border pronto - camera in hand and brake foot at the ready.
La Picazon - Loreto – Fresher Than Fresh Seafood That Deserves Your Attention
When I dream of fresh ocean fare, this is the type of place I conjure up in my mind - a high-class beach shack with chill music, stout margaritas, knowledgeable staff and killer food. The seafood is all local – chocolate clams, dog snapper, tiny scallops and parrot fish are whipped up into the most delicious concoctions by Chef Imelda, who according to her husband and front of the house manager, Alejandro, “just knows good quality.” Smoked marlin makes its way across the Sea of Cortez and onto the plates of intrepid diners willing to navigate six miles down a treacherous dirt road north of Loreto to partake in a literal feeding frenzy (which is what La Picazon means). Pearl white scallops swim in a sea of white wine, fresh thyme, slivers of basil and little bits of oregano; this simple bowl of food is a revelation. According to Alejandro, their dog snapper is so sublime because “this is the fish that eats only delicious things, which makes him taste the best.” There is no other seafood in Baja this fresh and homegrown, which makes sense since the dining room is the first floor of the family home and the ocean is as far as you can throw a shrimp shell. Be prepared for a legendary meal. Contact them at (613)135-2201.
Punta Morro Restaurant, Ensenada – A Chilled Martini James Bond Would Kill For
Perched on a dramatic cliff overlooking the treacherous Pacific, the view from the Punta Morro bar is what movie scenes are made of. The seasonal food is always on point (local clam linguini, smoked trout salad, deep fried rib eye chicharron) but what makes this place so special are the martinis -the frosty cold, perfectly shaken martinis. Ginger, honey pepper, guayaba and strawberry are only some of the lip smacking versions they offer, but if you are in true martini mode, the way to go is traditional - freakishly shaken with a spit of dirtiness to it. You get bonus points if pounding rain is crashing against the floor-to-ceiling windows and it’s whale-watching season. Oh, the joy…what a wonderful way to view mother nature in action - on your plate, in your mouth and with your eyes.
Punta Morro Restaurant
Jesse & Sons – La Bufadora – Old Man & The Sea Style Crabs That Brings Tears to Your Eyes
On the way up the hill to La Bufadora (Baja’s famous blowhole), you could easily fly past a dinky little crab stand on the right hand side of the road. But, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a couple of guys out front stirring a giant cauldron of boiled crab and this means hit the brakes. Time to eat. If you’ve missed the crab boil (time of day does indeed matter), don’t sweat it because laid out on the counter like jewels are the most magnificent looking crabs you’ll ever lay eyes on. You can buy pounds of them to take home and boil up or you can just make like a local fisherman and select a big steamed mess of them, grab a cold beer and partake in what’s surely to be one of the best meals your stomach has ever been privy to. Contact them at (646)154-1377.
Jesse & Sons
Café El Triunfo, El Triunfo – The Espresso You Wish The Whole Peninsula Had Perfected
There’s something about racing across the desolate peninsula from the tropical vibe of the Sea of Cortez to mighty hellacious gray of the Pacific that demands a mega coffee stop along the way. And, there is no better place to do so than the old mining village of El Triunfo. You merely have to weave one street off the main road to locate this adorable Italian style café…and you’re immediately transported to another land, thanks to Marcus Spahr of Café Todos Santos fame (he owned and operated it for 16 years before selling and uprooting further inland). Hand pulled espressos, freshly baked breads, brick oven pizzas, sweet sticky buns and refreshing iced teas make this the one and only spot in lower Baja to get your eye-popping caffeine fix all while wondering what a bit of real estate in an blooming old gold mining town runs for these days.
El Triunfo Cafe