There are restaurants and chefs in Baja that are good, really good. They are there to feed us, keep us happy and really, to simply sustain us to the next meal. But, then there are those chefs and meals that are quiet revelations. One usually hears about these next level food masters and their operations by word of mouth, not an online “good food” search or a random drive by. You have to pick up their scent via those that have been there, those that have feasted, those that believe. This is exactly how I first got exposed to bar none, the best food in Todos Santos. For this discovery, a total stranger turned me on to this restaurant and I was forever a changed woman. This month, we head to Todos Santos to go back in time with a couple bending the taste buds of unsuspecting visitors into a whole new shape.
Mezcal has never been my thing. I could never imbibe this smoky libation because it just makes me tear up. That is until I partook in the glorious tasting flight at Todos Santos newcomer, El Refugio Mezcalería. This tiny homegrown restaurant and small batch mezcal bar took my breath away with its perfect simplicity when my boyfriend and I wandered onto the outdoor patio early one evening with our doggies.
We tucked ourselves into a deep corner so we could rubberneck the food and drinks coming out of the kitchen. And, then, whoosh, out of nowhere, here comes a super knowledgeable waiter flipping down a mezcal tasting menu and a gratis starter dish of flash fried chips and charred homemade salsa. A whole range of mezcal sippers was ordered - especially after reading all the vibrant descriptions.
Moments later, a range of the best tasting mezcals I’ve ever danced with popped out to our table along with what I can only describe as primitive Mexican food like no other I’ve tasted in all my Baja travels. The super easy-going owners, Noel and Rachel, call their creations pre-Hispanic cuisine and if this is how the early folks ate, well, we’ve strayed a long way from this deliciousness in what we think of as Mexican food. Chef Noel dropped by our table to give us some education on all of the food and mezcals as we sampled our way through the whole menu. And, just like that, I had joined the mezcal lovers’ tribe.
Sourcing ideas and inspiration mainly from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Puebla (widely known as having the best food styles in all of Mexico), what the chef and his wife dole out is not your typical beans and rice with a side taco Mexican meal. It’s an absolute rare ingredient-driven taste sensation. Each night, they only craft a few items for the menu, with a heavy focus on vegetarian fare done correctly and when they run out, oh well…that dish is done for the evening. Smart play, because what ends up happening across town is you’re just innocently going about your day and then you remember that today is Chiles en Nogada night at El Refugio and you panic to get there to claim your plate of deliciousness. All else flies out the window because you know that this wonderful dish of stuffed peppers smothered in a creamy walnut sauce and studded with pomegranate seeds will be gone in a flash if you are not there by a certain hour. Just a warning, this happens on the nightly with specials.
But, everything they whip up in the kitchen is phenomenal. Pozole? Best in town. Tamales? Like none you’ve ever tasted. Mixiotes in a banana leaf? Puts all other BBQ’ed meat to shame. It’s funny, when you serve food and drink this well curated, of course you have to expand almost immediately. They have been open less than one year and are already moving locations, expanding the menu, starting their own mezcal brand and creating a robust community cultural hub that’s bound to be a massive success.
Their new spot in the Adventure 19 space (the old La Casita across from the park) will be hosting even more events and traditional ceremonies over the coming season and activities will shine light on Chef Noel’s expertise as a native Mexican cosmologist and Aztec dance leader. To witness moments in time like this, a gorgeous couple coming into their own through their own passions for food, history, tradition, and real artisanal craftsmanship is a sight to behold and a joy to be a part of, especially in a tiny pueblo like Todos Santos.
This cash only operation re-opens in November in their new location. I cannot wait to make them my first pit stop on this seasons’ runs down the Baja, knowing that the only time I will ever drink mezcal is when they are the ones bringing it to my lips.
In the meantime, to get some Primo Mezcal to take home with you, head to Mexico Gourmet, a tiny boutique shop in downtown Todos Santos that has a whole wall full of beautifully packaged mezcals straight off of a Pinterest page. It seems mezcal is undergoing a revolution right now and turning up in the most random of places, including wee gift shops that specialize in them. This little treasure house has shelves stocked with different varieties as well as a plethora of spices, beautiful gifts and offers up a delightful mezcal tasting for just $150 pesos. A bottle of their finest and a raging red sunset on the beach is something not to be missed. See you there!