INVARIABLY WHEN THE San Diego foodie crowd I belong to begins to talk culinary adventure, discussions lead to the border and points south. While San Diego has its share of interesting chefs and cutting-edge restaurants, the cross-cultural exchange between local chefs and their Baja amigos, along with the exciting epicurean scene in Tijuana, Ensenada and Guadalupe Valley, is what sparks passionate discourse. I am one such food lover, always on the hunt for the secret garden, the perfect meal and the next great culinary character. So I am adamant when I say there’s something utterly amazing brewing in Baja California these days, a culinary revolution of sorts. Did you know there’s a wine country 15 minutes inland from Ensenada that evokes Napa circa 1960, with more than 75 vineyards and a slew of farm-to-table progressive eateries dotted along the dusty countryside lanes? That Ensenada is home to world-renowned seafood carts, timeless Parisian pastries and captivating craft beers? And thankfully, now that the ominous cloud of the cartel wars has lifted, Tijuana is emerging as a creative culinary and artistic hub. A whole new world awaits beyond the surf’s-up-fish-tacos-cervezas-tequila-shots-till-you-drop road trips of days past. So disregard all those negative things you’ve been hearing about Mexico and head south of the border with your appetite. It’s safe and the food scene will blow your mind.
Sure, Tijuana’s had a bad rap for a while now, and rightly so, deterring most of us from braving its cluttered streets, but for seasoned travelers and the intrepid, a stop here offers an edgy adventure with great eats. After breezing through the San Ysidro border, head into the center of town, aka Zona Centro, where you’ll find sublime duck tacos at chef Miguel Angel Guerro’s sophisticated La Querencia (Av. Escuadrón 201, #3310) or Baja comfort-style fare and craft beers at the funky La Justina Gastrobar (Ave. Revolucion 3ra & 4ta), the latest culinary home of San Diego chef Chad White. And no trip to the bustling border city is complete without sampling the epicurean offerings of Javier Plascencia: The respected chef with movie-star good looks grew up spending time in his father’s restaurants, which include pizzerias and the revamped Hotel Caesar’s, purported birthplace of the famed salad. Today the forward thinking prodigy is leading the charge to revitalize Tijuana as a culinary destination. Hands down, he’s succeeded with Misión 19, a modern gem in TJ’s only LEED-certified building, where his composed plates present locally raised or caught ingredients in playful combinations. His scallop “parfait” is a sundae-style seafood stack with avocado meringue, Meyer lemon caramel, Persian cucumbers, chiles and pork crackling for a crunchy finish on top.
Tijuana-Ensenada Toll Road
Those who find Tijuana too daunting can simply cross the border and follow the signs to Playas de Tijuana Ensenada (Highway 1), circumnavigating the city altogether. After you pass the urban sprawl and graffitied decay, the coastal road unfolds and hugs the shore. You’ll pass Fox Studios, home to the Master and Commander ship, half-built towering beachfront condos and cerveza shacks. About 37 miles south of the border (Km 59) I like to take a little liquid break at La Fonda, the somewhat dilapidated surfer-friendly hotel on the cliff, famous for margaritas and movie-star hideaway status in the day. After imbibing a little of Mexico’s fiery spirit in a giant birdbath vessel, carry on to Ensenada, Baja’s oldest city.
As you crest Highway 1, the port city appears with its glistening boat-dotted bay. A good way to take in the soul of Ensenada is to stroll the harbor-side promenade and Mercado Negro Fish Market (Blvd. Lázaro Cárdenas), where a bounty of so-fresh-it’s-still-moving daily catch is displayed on endless beds of ice. No-frills taco stands line the nearby streets, the aromas of grilled meats, chiles and salty brine sailing through the air. Seafood carts and street food are all the rage, and locals line up early at the famed La Guerrerense cart (Alvarado and López Mateos) for ceviche tostados with piquant house-made salsa. Uni fans should try owner Sabina Bandera’s take on sea urchin, jazzed up with peanut-chile salsa. With Ensenada being the epicenter and inventor of fish tacos, a quick jaunt to Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix (Ave. Espinoza and Calle Sexta) is required for batter-dipped fried fillets of shark with salsa fresca, cream sauce and cabbage. Personally, as a carnivorous carne asada connoisseur, I also gravitate to Mk Tacos (Blvd. Costero 1564), known for its colorful setting and delish grilled meats.
While a debate exists as to the exact birthplace of the margarita (another Ensenada claim), I think it’s only fair to frequent both spots boasting the bragging rights. While the 1930s icon Riviera de Ensenada (Blvd. Lázaro Cárdenas, #1421) is now a cultural center rather than a glam hotel and casino, its famed Andalusian Bar remains, beckoning visitors for a frothy marg on its bougainvillea patio. A few blocks away, raucous Hussong’s Cantina (Ave. Ruiz 113), circa 1892, also claims to have first concocted the tequila drink. Regardless of who’s right, belly up to the bar (preferably not when the cruise ship is in town) so you can raise a glass with the locals and jig a little to live norteño, toe-tapping Mexican folk music that makes you appreciate the accordion. Truly. For sweet cravings, El Rey Sol’s sidewalk cafe serves divine melt-in-your-mouth pastries as authentic as those in Paris; the original owner attended Le Cordon Bleu in the 1940s and her expertise lives on.
Venture into craft beer culture at Cerveceria Wendlandt (El Sauzal), at either the new seaside brewery offering tours and excellent hops-forward samples or the eponymous brewpub (Blvd. Costero #248) with such gastropub fare as pork-belly sliders and gourmet flatbreads. And finally (admittedly my favorite) there’s Manzanilla (Teniente Azueta 139), where handlebar-mustached chef Bonito Molina, godfather of modern Baja cuisine, makes hook-to-fork magic with the briny wonders of abalone, bluefin tuna and house-smoked oysters with tarragon butter and chiles, all in an eye-popping setting — a converted boat warehouse with a massive wooden bar, neon pink chandeliers and splashes of modern art.
On No Reservations, when Anthony Bourdain explored the wine country here inland from Ensenada, he likened it to Tuscany: “It’s the great undiscovered wonderland. Rolling hills, grape arbors and great chefs,” he said, “cooking very forward, very subtle, very local, very good food.” La Ruta del Vino (Highway 3) meanders through Guadalupe Valley, a 14-mile pastoral patchwork of vineyards and farmland, dotted with boulders and cradled by beautiful mountains. Dusty dirt roads lead to the unexpected — hidden haciendas, bougainvillea-draped hillsides, architecturally striking wineries, lavender fields and alfresco eateries with soul-stirring views. The Mediterranean climate and fertile soil are conducive to varietals like cabernet, merlot, tempranillo, nebbilo, malbec, cab franc, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc. The area’s oldest vineyard, Santo Tomás, was established south of Ensenada in 1888, but only recently has the valley made its mark as a destination for American oenophiles. Thirty-five-year veteran vintner Hugo D’Acosta, who worked in Napa, Italy and France, is a leading force here today; besides establishing his own thriving vineyards (Casa di Piedra and Parallelo), in 1988 he opened La Escuelita (the Little School), an educational center and crush facility for anyone interested in viticulture and oenology. His influence has permeated the valley, now home to more than 75 vineyards, each with its own distinct personality.
Enjoy fine reds and an artistic little Eden at Sol y Barro; a leisurely lakeside picnic and tastings at Monte Xanic; floral whites and epic views at eco-friendly Las Nubes; horseback riding through the vineyards of Adobe Guadalupe; and scintillating chards and flirty red blends at El Cielo. Other notable stops include Hacienda La Lomita, Chateâu Camou, Baron Balché, Vinas de Garza and Bibayoff, to name but a few.
What’s impressing palates even more these days is the progressiveness and creativity of the local cuisine. If you bypassed Tijuana, thankfully another chance to savor chef Javier Plascencia’s farm-fresh fare awaits at Finca Altozano (Highway 3, Km 83). This rustic outdoor eatery, with decks and overhangs made from reclaimed wood, overlooks his family’s vineyards and calls for a leisurely wine-infused lunch of mesquite-grilled fare like beef cheek tacos or roasted suckling pig with heirloom tomato salad, or lighter ahi tostadas and tuna ceviche. In your post-Plascencia euphoria, wander over to the giant wooden barrels and climb to the pillowed banquettes on top, a lovely perch for sipping the family wines and drinking in the vineyard and valley views. fincaltozano.com
Lovely Laja (Highway 3, Km 83) sits just down the lane — a rustic stone cottage surrounded by gardens bulging with produce that lands on the plate. Here a slow-paced meal involves freshly baked breads, garden salads and dishes like seared yellowtail with polenta or oven-roasted local rabbit with vegetable risotto. The prix fixe multicourse menus with thoughtful wine pairings are curated by former Four Seasons chef Jair Téllez and respected enologist Andrés Blanco, early ambassadors for the Guadalupe Valley terroir and flavors. lajamexico.com
On the eastern side of the valley, groovy eco-pod hillside hotel Encuentro now features respected chef Flor Franco and Convivia Cantina. Small plates feature Latin-Japanese fusion, organic produce, seafood, custom house wine by maestro Hugo D’Acosta and craft libations by San Diego mixology experts Snake Oil Cocktail Company. Kick back on the patio for the afternoon with a Love on the Rocks (mescal with cedar infusion, plum, orange, agave nectar and shaved bitter chocolate) and mingle with the locals who gather to share ideas and good food and drink. The Snake Oil gents have also dreamed up “anti-raspados,” potent Mexican shave-ice libations that make great antidotes to hot valley days, available in whimsically flavored versions like bubble gum with lavender, mint and white rum. encuentroguadalupe.com
Travel the long and winding road to La Villa de Valle, a Tuscan villa–style estate owned by former rock ’n’ roll producers Phil and Eileen Gregory. At their imaginative winery Vena Cava, giant upside-down recycled fishing boats jut from the hillside, serving as roofs for the wine cellar and tasting room; the award-winning reds are some of the best in the valley. Wander past the lake through the lavender fields and over to the restaurant Corazón de Tierra, housed in a glass-box terrarium made from a recycled container that cantilevers over the organic garden. Affable chef Diego Hernandez, whose mismatched eyes of green and brown appropriately seem to represent land and sea, creates nightly four-course meals (think scallop sashimi with arugula or pan-roasted duck over white bean puree) expertly paired with Vena Cava wines. Just another feast for the senses in this mesmerizing, continuously evolving place called Guadalupe Valley. lavilladelvalle.com
TIP When traveling through Baja, inconspicuous is the way to go, so leave the Range Rover or Beamer at home. Ask your hotel for a Fast Pass or stay on Highway 3 and cross the border in Tecate for a greatly reduced wait time when entering the United States.
WHERE TO STAY
LA VILLA DEL VALLE This stunning six-bedroom Tuscan-style villa has a yoga studio, stylish pool, lavender fields, lake and excellent winery. lavilladelvalle.com
HACIENDA GUADALUPE Colonial-style 12-room hotel boasts a waterfall pool, hot tub, on-site vineyards and sweeping vineyard and mountain views. haciendaguadalupehotel.com
CUATRO CUATROS Luxury platform tents reminiscent of an African safari, set in a cropcircle- style vineyard and oak tree grove. cuatrocuatros.mx/en