Fall food escapes are the best and there is no better place to disappear than Valle de Guadalupe – a Napa-like wine valley a mere 3.5 hours drive time from my front door in Marina del Rey, CA. Crackling fires with cozy blankets, copious amounts of lush local wine, tingly dips in the still warm Pacific, and a whole new crop of fresh vegetables spurs the start of a fresh season down in Baja and it can all be done in a weekend.
From sparkling sea to vibrant valley, here’s a quick guide to having a rippin’ good time without breaking the bank and definitely without a soul knowing you even left the home front. There and back in a mere 48.
The place to aim for the minute you cross the border is the La Villa del Valle. Not only is this Tuscan-style retreat a throwback to an undiscovered country inn you’d find deep in the Italian hills, they’ve got the wine valley’s first food truck. Troika, which is Russian for “a set of three,” rivals LA’s tony foodie truck scene to the T, except this chocolate brown beast is planted smack dab in the middle of a vineyard. And is surrounded by reclaimed furniture, water hose shade structures and views as far as they eye stretches. The chef is pumping out simple gastro-truck grub featuring the valleys best cuts of meat tricked out to become gourmet sliders (with a side of hand cut fries, of course), while the pretty bartender keeps the taste buds forever happy with barrels of the rich house wine and ice cold Wendlandt Pale Ale. Yep – they’ve tapped into Baja’s craft beer scene hardcore (this "set of three" is for: Corazón de Tierra, Vena Cava winery, and Cerveceria Wendlandt). The plan is to keep the truck open as long as the weather allows…and if you’re like me, you hit it up before a dinner reservation at the still phenomenal Corazón de Tierra. If you’re gonna do it, gorge it.
The tasting menu at the sun dappled Corazón is still freakishly local and rave worthy all the way around. They have a new manager, fresh from Mexico City, and boy does this kid have the goods. He managed to explain not only about a dozen wines and beers with each tasting dish, he repeated in ferocious detail every single ingredient in the army of dishes that pumped out of the kitchen. Perhaps because we drank and ate at Troika first were we having trouble keeping up, but one cannot mistake – there were definitely oysters with smoked bacon on the menu, along with every lettuce known to man (fresh from the garden just outside the restaurant). They came parading out in multiple salads – garnished with gorgeous watermelon radishes, chunks of beef tongue, miniscule edible flowers, and slivered baby carrots. All this roughage was shortly trumped by a/more local wine and b/smoked sea bass with seaweed dust and pilsner. The crispy duck with shishito peppers was a revelation. A meal like this will never last less than 3 hours - it’s how we should all eat, every meal, every day.
After a heroic shove down like this, the only real thing that can happen is beddy-bye. And if you’re not staying onsite at the inn, the best bet is Cuatro Cuatros, a new luxe tent setup just down the road…again set amidst a vineyard, with a bonus olive grove. This off-grid establishment gave me one of the best nights of sleep I’ve ever had in the Baja – praise the folks who understand the importance of high thread counts, perfectly placed bedside lamps, and down pillows. They also get the fact that even though you might want to crank the AC during the day, come nightfall – a wood-burning fireplace en suite is essential. As is an expanse deck with solar lights, wee candles and comfy loungers. Toss in a few warm blankets, some of their belly warming wine, and a sky full of bright stars and it’s bound to be the best $150 you’ve ever spent.
That’s just day 1. After sleeping in, it’s time to track down some fish tacos and there is no better place to plop down a few pesos for a pile of fish than the road to La Bufadora. It’s 100% under improvement construction but no worries, after a mere 10 minutes of bumpy driving off Highway 1, you’re going to see a place called Tacos de Pescado el Nemo. This place will make you weep.
However, next door is a tamale joint. Order one up - they deliver to your table at the taco spot and you can chow on them while you wait on an insanely fresh fish taco to be set forth upon you. I happened to witness the batter making process and I swear she put yellow mustard in the bowl. Oh my, is that the long held secret of Baja fish tacos? All the must have accouterment’s are lined up for you to pile on (fresh limes, cold crema, various salsas, crisp cabbage, pickled onions) and once again, the view matches the food. Long gazes over the bay while scarfing a cool half dozen tacos make for a much better fish experience than the dusty streets of Ensenada.
A doozie of a pick me up is absolutely necessary after that fry fest and the uber charming bakery Hogaza Hogaza on the main drag in Ensenada is just the place to go. This newly opened branch of HH is already a hotspot for peeps on the make for all things local - perfectly baked bread, jars of chunky tuna and geoduck from San Quintin, fruity marmalades, perky bags of cowboy coffee - it’s a stone cold locavores dream shop. The carbs are to die for – thick chocolate croissants, wildly chewy focaccia-style pizza, cookies and macaroons galore...so, order away and just stay tuned up with a cup of stout coffee. But no matter what, make sure you hit up the corner wine shop a half block down. Loaded with every local wine the valley has to offer, this tiny spot just simply makes me happy. Pick up a few bottles (you will be mega prepped on what to choose from your tasting flights at Corazón) and then, head back toward La Villa del Valle for your final night in the valley. A game of "friendly" scrabble while the nightly botana is served (a light snack with a glass of the house wine) is all that’s needed before you hit the hay, because La Villa’s included breakfast, held in Corazón’s dining room, is to die for.
Sunday morning – early. This will find you wandering the lovely grounds, fresh brewed coffee in hand, with the house pack of friendly dogs close behind and spying on the curly headed gardener as she coddles chickens and tears up veggies for the nightly menu. 9 am = lots more bracing coffee, toasted baguette with fresh jam, refreshing cantaloupe juice, and a pile of huevos and tortillas done up right. Finish with a dip in the pool and a browse through the library and you can make your way toward the Tecate border, where I kid you not, I always wait less than 10 minutes to cross. You’ll be back home way before dinner, wishing you’d just called in sick on Monday and make it a 3 dayer!