4 Mouthwatering Reasons to head South of the Border Right Now
By Misty Tosh
Most confuse Baja with renegades, fish tacos and dirt roads. Sure, these do exist south of the border, but these days the descriptions of what's happening in Baja are a bit more refined - think basement tequila crafters, renaissance vintners and dusty back roads leading to culinary genius.
Baja has become a darling for food lovers but where to begin if you are new to the food scene? Those ready to test their capacity for exploration simply follow the surfers, the chefs, and good old Mother Nature. These excursions are a bit remote, but all the better; it keeps the masses away. And, there's a reason all four joints are flanked by terra firma. You gotta work to find them. But, once you are in on the unknown foodie haunts of Baja, watch out...your tastebuds will never be the same.
Two of the most monumental eating experiences Northern Baja has hidden in its belly are deep in hills of wine country. Valle de Guadalupe is a mere 3.5 hours from LA, but the food being produced here is a million miles away from typical Mexican cuisine. The local chefs are expertly incorporating farm to table techniques that their US counterparts are desperately trying to re-create; but who has a real kitchen garden? A farmers market isn't the same as plucking a perky pea tendril or handful of earthy beet greens from soil that's three steps out the back door.
Corazón de Tierra (3 miles down a dirt road off Highway 3) is a you-get-no-menu-and-don't-want-one kind of dining extravaganza. Whatever was just sourced from the sea and garden is what's being whipped up in the open kitchen. You simply walk in, order a bottle of organic wine that's made onsite in the gorgeous vineyard, and wait for the show to begin. If you're lucky, you score a seat at the kitchen bar. This is where the magic shakes down. No less than a dozen staff maneuver the happenings between various fires, ingredient rich prep stations, and bubbling over stoves. It's surreal to lay eyes on the dance going on between Chef Diego Hernandez and his team of highly skilled pros as they microscopically dress plates of sea urchin caviar tostadas and seared ahi with tender micro greens. After your meal, lift decorating ideas from the minimalist dining room, take a torch-lit stroll through the fragrant garden
and finish off the final glass of Big Blend before calling it a night at the blissful Tuscan-style attached B & B, La Villa del Valle.
Just down the way is the seasonal Finca Altozano (1/2 mile down a dirt road off Highway 3). Imagine a reclaimed al fresco style dining room smack dab in the middle of an endless vineyard. Like a big glamorous picnic with birds flitting about, lightly chilled wine being poured, and flames dancing off the mesquite grill. Waiters careen around the tiny dining area dumping off sauces and plates of charred meat, making everyone laugh as they pass by. It's like friggin' Cheers in Baja wine country, but the food is far superior to pub fare. Poached pulpo and pickled onion tostadas, chunks of valley cheese on slabs of wood, enormous hunks of juicy steak fire-cooked just a few paces away - these are the kinds of meals that can haunt you forever. You might get lost on the way in, but just look for the wild stallions that pepper the dirt road bleeding off the highway.
Way down south in the dusty town of Pescadero is Baja's #1 holy moly secret meal. Carlito's Place (across from Pescadero's only Pemex station follow the dirt road) is a fish shack. Like a shack you want to live in - which Chef Carlos and his pretty girlfriend, Brianda, basically do - in a cozy RV onsite. The cash only restaurant is surrounded by sandy patches of palms and has the requisite palapa roof. Seems this rustic set up is all that's needed for his basic kitchen to dish up Baja's best seafood. Sashimi so clean, you probably passed the fisherman who caught it hauling out his big cooler, frosty beer in hand. Mango daiquiris so just-off-the-tree fresh, you'd think the mangos were just picked. Oh, turns out, they were. Fish so tempura buttery crisp, it's amazing it held up so firm in the heat of the desert day. With the burnt orange sun setting in the background and chill tunes on rotation, it's real easy to camp a spell, daydream about moving to Mexico and watch the hours pass on by. It's those dang daiquiris; they'll slay you every time.
Just when you thought things couldn't get any tastier, head into Todos Santos to another perfect desert fish joint, Mariscos el Compa Chava (Located just before you enter Todos Santos from the south on Colegio Militar - surrounded by dirt, of course). Local Cerritos surfers and in-the-know expats rave about this off-grid spot - and it's more along the lines of what Baja should be famous for. Fresh seafood. Period. Buckets of chocolate clams just dropped from Ensenada, just made ceviche by the boatload (try the shredded crab, doused with chunky pico, hefty squirts of lime and thick dollops of mayo) and cold drinks pepper each worn plastic table. Don't be surprised as used-to-be-strangers offer up bites of their own personal ceviche creations and clamshell delicacies. Sharing is fun in Baja - especially when the price is so low. Plan on spending chump change for pure indulgence - meaning, order everything on the menu.