Drifting into Loreto these days is a study in current day commerce. The streets are being judiciously swept the moment the sun rises. The merchant smiles are welcoming and sudden – they are flashed like a gold coin once you make eye contact. And, around the traditional town square, the suddenly packed restaurants abound with blooming flowers, a twinkle of candlelight, and the laughter of sun-kissed folks. Thanks to an influx of cruise ships, perfect wintertime weather and a plethora of never ending water based activities, Loreto is once again a destination spot for those in the know. Baja’s oldest town is all shiny and new again and her latest offering on the restaurant front has me beyond excited to break bread there once again.
To be fair, Gastroteca Azul isn’t in Loreto proper. It’s actually a few minutes south of town in the region of Nopolo, which houses the alluring seaside community of Loreto Bay. Even in its not quite finished state, this perfectly manicured hamlet has long drawn Canadians and Americans looking to escape the harsh weather up north every year. They come for the proximity to the sea, the prime-time golf and the simple life where the peso's trading like hot cakes. And, with the addition of this gorgeous dinnertime spot, they now have a reason to boast even further. Azul is quite literally the most perfect restaurant to hit Baja in eons…and everyone is welcome through the heavy front doors, not just Loreto Bay denizens.
The duo behind this wonderland (and truly, it is a wonderland of flavors and details) is the adorable husband wife team of Juliann and Mario Lopez. She’s the manager/hostess/designer and he’s the highly-decorated chef behind this outfit. Now, opening a new enterprise such as this is no easy feat. The politics, the neighborhood rules and regulations, the ability to source food from the local environment…all of these come with a fresh batch of nightmares for spirited entrepreneurs. But, if you can pull it off and learn to work with what you can get your hands on, while not sacrificing your integrity (or that of your food), then you will have something extraordinary on your hands. And, the Lopez team has indeed pulled it off.
It all starts with the look of the place. Fashioned after an old Mexican church, the exterior is brand new but already having the patina of a timeless cantina in Spain. It fits right into the neighborhood. A glance around the al fresco patio turns up the finer points of partners on a mission. The tiny outside bar is loaded with delicious Baja wines directly from Valle de Guadalupe (and the staff is ready to let you sample any variety before choosing), the music is straight up on point and not too roaring, and the furniture is all handmade locally (except the chairs) and staged just so. It’s a joint you want to hit three times a week, easy.
Wandering inside, the first thing that catches your eye is the brand-new kitchen – all wide open and on display. Seeing someone cook in Mexico isn’t really that rare, but usually it’s at a taco stand or a chicken hut on the side of the road. This is not that. No, this is a real deal Le Cordon Bleu chef breaking down a massive rib eye right before your eyes before slinging your cut on the grill. This is witnessing the delicate balance that goes into crafting a seasonal menu peppered with ingredients like Swiss chard, squash puree, harissa spice and fennel seed. Might not seem like a big deal to you, but if you know cuisine in Loreto, a mostly arid region with very little access to farmers and produce, then you know this is like the holy grail come alive in a small Mexican village. The Azul experience is also sharing wine with strangers at the chef’s bar, trading secrets with locals about the best places to get a massage, and for me personally, being a constant spectator in the lost art of how to run a restaurant.
The dance that is done between the font of the house staff and the back of the house worker bees is a magical thing…if done right. It’s about communication. It’s about access. And mostly, because we are in Mexico, it’s about eye signals, low whistles, quick nods and approving winks. A constant training session is happening (where do things go in the fridge, what table needs the wine they hauled in uncorked, which party needs a baby seat set up at their table). It’s all on show when you are perched at the bar like I love to be. Front and center, missing none of the cooking or distribution action.
The food being prepared is a revelation. Chef Mario was born in Mexico City and there might be a tinge of influence from that area, but really, his plates lean more Spanish Med than anything; again, another feat in the land of tortillas, avocados and carne asadas. Golf ball sized chicken meatballs bathed in a rich red wine sauce and braised pork belly made my eyes pop out of my head when I saw them ready to be delivered, but I had already ordered the charred steak with pristine hand cut potatoes and mess of greens salad. Never have I seen arugula leaves like this in Loreto and trust me, this was not the reward from a Costco mega run. There were real Mexican farmers involved in plating this meal, probably located somewhere up in the mystical mountains behind Loreto.
Another night, I inhaled the fresh pan-seared fish (fresh off the boat that morning) atop a mound of the most elegant pile of house made spinach linguini. I somehow ended up at a table with a rambunctious couple I’d just met and we all three scooped up the subtle flavors of just picked vegetables with twirls of pasta while praising the glory of the two intrepid souls who made it possible. It’s the exact spot I always wanted to open in Loreto Bay but they beat me to it! Now I can just garner the rewards with a chilled glass of rose in my hand and not a worry in the world.