ENSENADA, BAJA CALIFORNIA – When El Gringo and family roll into the municipality of Ensenada, we’re usually headed for a weekend, tour or a great day in the Valle de Guadalupe, just northeast of Baja California’s third largest city. It’s been a while since we’ve “done Ensenada”, and we certainly haven’t done the “new” Ensenada that’s risen to culinary fame in the past decade based on it’s street food scene and boasting rights to several of Pellegrino’s Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants.
So when we were invited to enjoy a weekend and tour at the Hotel Coral and Marina, we set our itinerary to new adventure, loaded up the trusty Jeep and proceeded south across the border.
Arriving in style at the Hotel Coral and Marina
Ensenada’s Hotel Coral and Marina is easy to find, right off the main road heading into town. El Gringo has experienced the range of Baja hotels from a cost, comfort and maintenance perspective, and the Hotel Coral and Marina definitely ranks in the top percentile.
The property and grounds are colorful, thoughtfully decorated and well maintained. The staff are friendly and helpful. They’ve recently renovated most of their rooms, and are on track to have them all updated this year. A new full service spa – The C Spa – offers massage and other services and also carries local, artisanal beauty and skin care products. Since we were visiting in the winter, it was too cold to jump into the pool, but it sure looked inviting, nonetheless!
Our suite was modern and tastefully decorated. The beds are extremely cozy and topped with a number of soft, fluffy pillows. The shower head and water pressure are right on – a measurement of comfort I always consider when staying at any hotel. And the view from the ocean-facing rooms is fantastic – overlooking the hotel’s grounds, pool, marina and the vast, blue Pacific.
We enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, Bistro and Cava, where we were treated to several excellent courses paired with Valle de Guadalupe Wines from chef Alejandro Vallejo. A standout was the ceviche of shrimp and pulpo (octopus), which features firm, succulent morsels of seafood fresh from the Pacific just outside the restaurant’s window.
Bistro and Cava also boasts a not-to-be-missed Sunday brunch – where one can enjoy a prepared chocolate clam on the plate right next to a made-to-order omelette. Only in Baja California!
Prices: Rooms start at $113. Location: www.hotelcoral.com
La Cava de Marcelo: Baja California’s only Cheese Cellar
The Hotel Coral and Marina offer tours of regional attractions via their small fleet of new vans and knowledgable, personable drivers. We’d been dying to visit our destination for the day, Ojo Negros – Ensenada’s “other” valley that’s home to Baja California’s only cheese cellar, La Cava de Marcelo. Ojos Negros is about 40 minutes from town on a winding, mountainous road that eventually gives way to a lush, verdant valley dotted with farms, fields and vineyards.
Marcelo Castro’s century-old cheese cave is built beneath a working dairy farm. While we waited for our tour of the property and its operations to begin, we mingled with other guests – many from the cruise ship in Ensenada’s harbor – and enjoyed a bottle of a nice red blend made exclusively for La Cava de Marcelo by nearby winemaking school La Esculita in the Valle de Guadalupe.
After touring the dairy farm, we were led down the steps to the star of the show, Marcelo’s cheese cave. Here, we sampled bites of fresh and aged queso paired with white wine. We were particularly fond of the one-year aged cheese, which has a firm texture, a nice buttery taste and was a bit more appealing to us personally than the two-year aged cheese with its riper notes.
La Cava de Marcelo also boasts a surprisingly fantastic restaurant, with local meats and seafood cooked to order over a rustic outdoor grill. We enjoyed grilled borrego (lamb), grilled oysters, grilled sardines over chipotle ricotta and a quesadilla made from the farm’s queso fresco (fresh cheese).
Everything was perfectly prepared, hearty and delicious and the restaurant’s ambience – it’s located inside of an old farm house – can’t be beat.
Hours: Saturdays and Sundays 1PM – 6PM. Prices: Tour & Tasting: $10. Restaurant Appetizers from 90-140 pesos ($7-$10 US). Entrees from 120-380 pesos ($10-$30 US). Location: Rancho La Campana, 48 km (30 miles) east of Ensenada, off Hwy. 3, follow signs to La Cava de Queso, Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico. +52 (646) 175-7073.
Manzanilla Restaurant: The Top (50) of the Food Chain
We’d had the pleasure of meeting chef Benito Molina at a chef’s dinner the previous month in the Valle de Guadalupe at Deckman’s en El Mogor, so we were excited to dine with him at his acclaimed Ensenada restaurant Manzanilla – one of Pellegrino’s Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2014.
Chef Molina and his wife Solange Muris opened their restaurant in 2000 and moved it to its current location in 2008 – a warehouse by the harbor in a former mechanic’s yard that mainatained Ensenada’s large tuna fleet in the early 20th century. The location is wholly appropriate as one of the chef’s main areas of interest is the use of local, sustainable seafood. “When I was 20 years old, I worked on a tuna boat that went from Ensenada to Guatemala, where I learned a lot about seafood”, chef Molina recalled. “So it’s not a coincidence that I ended up here.”
Chef Molina once worked for Valle de Guadalupe oenology godfather Hugo D’Acosta at Santo Tomas, eventually opening one of the Valle’s first campestre kitchens, Silvestre, well before the current culinary boom. Many of Hugo’s wines – some “experiments”, all outstanding – were paired with our multi-course tasting menu.
About the tasting menu – AMAZING. Chef Molina and Solange serve an array of local seafood, meat and produce prepared with thought, creativity and love for the product and its potential. From oysters both raw and grilled to quail and kimchee plated on a tic-tac-toe motif, everything paired perfectly with the restaurant’s Valle de Guadalupe wine suggestions.
Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 1PM-1AM, Sunday 1PM-6PM. Location: Recinto Portuario, Teniente Azueta #139, Ensenada 22800, Mexico. +52 (646) 175-7073. www.rmanzanilla.com
Ensenada provides many options as a Baja California destination from Southern California. From the depths of Marcelo’s famous cheese cave to the dining rooms of Mexico’s top chefs, there’s so much to explore and experience, it’ll take more than just one road trip!
Your Gringo in Mexico,