By Erin Dunigan
Forget fancy resorts and tourist traps. If you are looking for the soul of Baja California, the real taste of Mexico, you need to venture off the beaten path. And what better place to start than a tiny hole in the wall lonchería called Viva México, nestled in the heart of La Mision?
Don’t let its hiddenness fool you - this little gem, run by the warm and welcoming husband and wife duo Gabino and Maricela, delivers a flavor that will make it become a regular stop on your visits to Baja. Their story is one of resilience, family, and a passion for cooking that shines through in every dish. And like any hidden gem worth its salt, finding it feels like unearthing a secret only locals know.
Both Gabino and Maricela are transplants to Baja - Gabino is originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán and Maricela from the state of Colima. Both of their families moved to Tijuana when the two were young. From Tijuana, Gabino and Maricela moved to the United States to Idaho where they ran a popular small Mexican restaurant. One day while working at their restaurant in Idaho, Gabino said to Maricela, “Let’s go back to our own tierra and start something there.”
So, five years ago they returned and started with a simple dream - to sell tacos. “We say that we started out with a half kilo of carne asada and a kilo of tortillas,” laughs Gabino, telling the story of how they got started. But as fate would have it, his soon to be customers had other plans.
Now, you might be thinking, “Another taco joint? Been there, done that.” But hold on to your sombreros amigos because Viva México is anything but ordinary.
“One day we had someone stop and ask if we had chilaquiles,” he shared. “I said sure!” He told Maricela the plan and then rushed over to the store to get more tortillas. Not long after someone stopped by for lunch on their way to the Valle de Guadalupe. “Do you have chile rellenos?” he asked. “Sure, we can make them!” said Gabino, again telling Maricela as he again went to the local fruiteria to buy the ingredients. With each customer’s request the menu expanded. Soon the word got out and Viva México became a haven for authentic Mexican comfort food.
“When people began to ask for different things,” Gabino explains with a smile, “we just said, ‘Sure let’s try it!” This open-mindedness and willingness to adapt is part of what makes Viva México special. It’s not just a restaurant; it’s a conversation, a shared experience between Gabino and Maricela and their ever growing family of customers.
Viva México isn’t about fancy - it is about the kind of food that makes you pat your belly in gratitude. Their chile rellenos are bursting with melty cheese and swimming in a fragrant tomato sauce. The chilaquiles are a treat with crispy tortillas, tangy salsa verde (or roja) and topped with a perfectly fried egg. Their birria is second to none and their sopes are a local favorite.
But Viva México is more than just food. It’s a hidden haven, tucked away from the hustle and bustle. From the intimate patio you’ll witness the valley of La Mision unfold as you walk through the doors of Viva México. The atmosphere is cozy and perfect for soaking in the laid back ambiance of this pueblo where horses are still used as a form of transportation, as well as recreation.
“You know, often we think that to find gold we have to go somewhere far away,” reflected Gabino. “And then you discover that the gold was waiting for you right here in your own land.”
Viva México is a labor of love, where every dish is cooked with fresh ingredients and a whole lot of heart. From the first bite of a juicy carne asada taco to the last bit of the warm frijoles dip that is served along with fresh crispy chips, you’ll taste the passion that Gabino and Maricela pour into their food.
So next time you find yourself in Baja, skip the tourist traps and head to La Mision. Seek out the unassuming Loncheria tucked away in a corner, with a view that stretches across the valley and a warmth that will envelope you. And tell Gabino and Maricela that I sent you - they’d love to add you to their growing family, one delicious dish at a time. Come for the food, stay for the view, and leave with a heart full of warmth and a stomach full of the most authentic Mexican flavors you’ve ever tasted.
“We invite you to come, we welcome you to come,” says Gabino. Whether you are on your way to the Valle de Guadalupe or Ensenada, or staying at Las Gaviotas or Puerto Nuevo, Viva México is a destination worthy of a stop. “Who knows,” grins Gabino, “maybe you will even find our breakfast as good as the legendary Dona Estela!”
Viva México is more than just a restaurant - it’s an invitation to step outside of your normal day to day and enter in to a different pace of life. It is a taste of Baja California’s soul, a testament to family, resourcefulness and resilience, and a reminder that sometimes the best things in life are hidden in plain sight. So, what are you waiting for? Go find your own little gold mine in La Mision! Come hungry, come curious, and come ready to discover Viva México. Your taste buds (and your soul) will thank you!
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