BUT, there’s one dining experience I had last year in Popotla, just outside of Rosarito Beach in Northern Baja that seems to have become the standard that I can’t stop thinking about when enjoying and then contemplating more recent seafood feasts.
Popotla is tiny. It’s nearly off the map. I think the only reason it IS on the map is due to it’s proximity to Fox Studios Baja (built to film the extensive in-water scenes for The Titanic back in the 90’s, used for many films since). To get to Popotla, you drive just south of the Rosarito Beach Municipality. Directly to the left of the walled-in Fox complex is a dirt road that leads straight down to the shore, fishing village and ramshackle collection of restaurants that is Popotla. On a Sunday, this road backs up and becomes a parking lot as many Mexican families head down to the village for lunch. The draw? Popotla’s panga fishermen bring their catch right up to the shore, where you can buy direct from them or enjoy their fresh catch at any one of the half dozen or so restaurants in Popotla’s compressed cluster of structures.
Back to my seafood revelation. Ursula and I rolled down the dirt road toward Popotla on a Sunday afternoon after a weekend at the Las Rocas resort enjoying the wine country of Valle de Guadalupe. I’d been to Popotla only once eight years prior to buy fresh camarones gigante (jumbo shrimp) with Mom to grill out in the ocean view condo we’d rented with the family for the weekend (those shrimps were goooood, BTW). This time, we wanted to sit down and enjoy a meal in the village.
Driving past the parked cars along the road, Ursula questioned our chances of getting a parking spot any closer. “Don’t worry”, I assured her. And in no time, we were whistled at to pull into a spot at Juquila Mariscos…as good a restaurant in Popotla as any considering that they are all preparing food from the same source. We had a limited amount of pesos left from the weekend and I asked the waitress to hook us up with whatever fresh fish we could afford (plus cervezas, appetizer and tip). She conferred with the friendly owner and chef (Samuel) who smiled and assured us it was possible, adding “This is your home!”. Ordering giant shrimp cocktails to start, we broke open a bottle of recently-purchased Guadalupe Valley sparkling wine and a box of OJ to make mimosas. Asking the waitress if she’d like one as well, she conferred again with Samuel and smiled in the positive. Ultimately, we had three waitresses enjoying mimosas with us.
This is where I had my epiphany. A Mexican couple was enjoying what looked like a delicious fish meal next to us…some sort of butterflied preparation that I’d never seen before. I asked our waitress what it was and she simply smiled knowingly and said, “Ah, Huachinango Zerandeado”. Huachinango, I know, is red snapper. Zerandeado, I correctly assumed, was the preparation. After conferring with Samuel, we didn’t have enough pesos for the Huachinango, but they could prepare a Rock Cod in the Zerandeado style for us.
For Zerandeado, the fish is indeed butterflied, then rubbed with a sauce that’s made of citrus, chiles and other spices, giving the finished fish a nice red color. The prepared fish is cooked over a mesquite grill just outside of the restaurant until it is perfectly tender and flaky (with just enough burn/crust on it to give it a slight crunch around the edges), then delivered to the restaurant and straight to our table. From the first bite to the last (and Ursula and I devoured it), this was the BEST fish I’d ever had. Succulent and moist, the rock cod had amazing flavor and the spice rub/sauce was the perfect complement. A few meals have come close (specifically a grilled Corvina in La Paz and a Huachinango Zarendeado in San Jose del Cabo), but nothing has topped the fresh and delicious rock cod Zerandeado we had that day.
We hope to get back to Popotla soon to try even more of a selection of their seafood (as well as another pescado Zerandeado!). Down a dirt road and off the beaten path, Popotla is yet another hidden gem of Baja California.
Your Gringo in Mexico,