BAJA CALIFORNIA – 2015 was a good year in the advancement of Baja California as a contender for one of Mexico’s top culinary regions. So good that Travel + Leisure magazine hosted the 2015 Mexican Gourmet Awards in Ensenada, Valle de Guadalupe restaurant La Cocina de Doña Esthela was awarded the FoodieHub 2015 Best Breakfast in the World and Rick Bayless – one of Mexican cuisine’s biggest north of the border promoters – spent several days in the region absorbing the food and culture for a new Baja themed eatery.
As a San Diego-based Mexican food and culture writer focused primarily on Baja California, I probably ate – and drank – more than your average gringo south of the border this year. 10 Baja Culinary Favorites for 2015 is by no means a definitive list. It’s based solely on the spots I visited in 2015 with colleagues, clients, friends and family.
Provecho— and let us know what we should add to our list in 2016!
Favorite Meal (Fine Dining):
Malva Cocina de Baja California (Valle de Guadalupe)
Malva Cocina de Baja California is proof to my adage that everything tastes better under a palapa. A friend and I enjoyed a late lunch at Malva this summer when chef Roberto Alcocer was out of town. The fact that this was one of my favorite meals in 2015 is testament to his able staff. Dishes included octopus rubbed with chile de arbol atop a cremaof buttered popcorn, and an artistically plated salad of roasted, pickled and pureed carrots.
Malva is located on the the Mina Penélope vineyard at Carretera Ensenada-Tecate, kilometer 96, 22755 San Antonio De Las Minas, Baja California. +52 (646) 190-7278.
Favorite Meal (Casual Dining):
La Cocina de Doña Esthela (Valle de Guadalupe)
One of the great things about food in Baja California is its growing number of casual dining options. Our favorite this year was breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela in the Valle de Guadalupe. Esthela’s machaca with eggs are so epic, the dish was awarded FoodieHub 2015 Best Breakfast in the World. And every breakfast is served with a wheel of fresh farmer’s cheese and a stack of warm, just-made flour tortillas.
La Cocina de Doña Esthela is located at Rancho San Marcos, El Porvenir, Domicilio Conocido S/N, Ejido El Porvenir, Baja California. +52 (646) 156-8453.
Favorite Meal (Food Trucks & Carts):
La Guerrerense (Ensenada)
Sure, it’s the tasty seafood tostadas that make street cart La Guerrerense my 2015 favorite. But it’s also the ritual surrounding this Ensenada legend. At its heart is the clam chopping, always-smiling Sabina Bandera, the Mona Lisa of mariscos. Crowds of hungry fans gather around to pay homage and satisfy their urge for urchin and other aquatic delicacies at what Anthony Bourdain calls “…the best street food on the planet.”
Honorable Mentions: Almejas Fidel – Ensenada: Tortas Washmobile, La Carmelita – Tijuana: Le Petit Pinche Francés – Valle de Guadalupe.
La Guerrerense is located at the corner of Alvarado and First Street, just three blocks off the malecon, Ensenada, Baja California. +52 (646) 174-2114.
Favorite Street Tacos:
After collecting me from the Tijuana airport, an amiga insisted we stop at the Taco-N-Todo Sonora street cart in Otay Mesa. They only serve tacos de carne asada and their piéce de résistance, the taco de costilla de res (beef rib). The taco is served with the bone on the side from which you can gnaw every last morsel of the savory, perfectly seasoned rib meat. Served on a warm flour tortilla and best topped with red onions and salsa rojo.
Honorable Mentions: Tres Salsas, Tacos el Taconazo, Tio Pepe’s– Tijuana: Tacos Cesarin– Mexicali.
Taco-N-Todo has several locations in Tijuana. The original is located in Otay Mesa at Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas Norte 2652, Maestros Universitarios, Tijuana, Baja California. + 52 (664) 267-9392.
Most Unique Dining Experience:
TIE: Cien Añosand EL PUNTO (Tijuana)
No tacos or “Baja Med” were involved in these unique meals. At Tijuana’s Cien Años, owners Jose Sparza and Juan Carlos Rodriguez prepared a feast of seasonal insects that included chapulines (grasshoppers) and chinicuiles (maguey worms). For those lucky enough to get a reservation, Ricardo Buenrostro’s EL PUNTO popup dinners in Tijuana held many surprises and demonstrated the young chef’s flair for molecular gastronomy.
Cien Años is located at Jose Maria Velazco 2331, Zona Rio, 22400 Tijuana, Baja California. +52 (664) 634-7262. They also serve “non-buggy” traditional Mexican cuisine. At press time, it’s uncertain whether El Punto will hold dinners again in 2016.
Favorite Baja Classic:
Spider Crab @ La Estrella (Popotla)
Though a classic, most of the famous Puerto Nuevo style lobster is now imported frozen from the Caribbean and Guerrero Negro south of Ensenada. But Baja California crustacean aficionados need not despair. La Estrella in Popotla fries giant, just-pulled-from-the-sea spider crabs in oil with butter and garlic, similar to the once famous lobster preparation. Served with tortillas and sides on a board with a rock so you can crack the tough shell to get at the soft, sweet meat inside.
Favorite Restaurant Experience:
Deckman’s en El Mogor (Valle de Guadalupe)
Deckman’s en El Mogor, located at the Mogor Badan vineyard, sits amid gently rolling hills and ranch houses, promising an afternoon of wine-tinted, sun-dappled respite. Chef Drew Deckman and his team prepare grilled meat, poultry, seafood and vegetables over a stone hearth for diners who enjoy their meals in a comfortable outdoor hay bale dining structure. Get here in time for sunset. The view is fantastic.
Deckman’s en el Mogor is located at Km 85.5 Highway 3, Tecate-Ensenada, San Antonio De Las Minas, Baja, California. +52 (646)188-3960.
Favorite Winery Experience:
Decantos Vinícola (Valle de Guadalupe)
There are around 80 wineries now operating in the Valle de Guadalupe – from small artisanal producers to Latin American behemoth L.A. Cetto. Our favorite tasting and tour in 2015 was at the new Decantos Vinícola, a beautiful facility located in the Valle foothills, designed in the round to take advantage of vineyard views. Gravity is king in the production here, and young winemaker Alonso Granado is churning out some delicious, bold reds.
Decantos Vinícola is located at Rancho San Miguel Fraccion, Ejido El Porvenir, Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. +52 (646) 688-1019.
Favorite Culinary Daytrip:
With Baja California so close to San Diego, daytrips are not only do-able, but are becoming increasingly popular as tourism in the region grows. I visited Popotla with family, friends and clients on several occasions this year. Fishermen bring in the day’s catch and a number of beach tents and restaurants are ready to cook it for you, to-order. Clams, oysters, conch and sea urchin are prepared and offered raw at the village’s numerous beach stands.
Honorable Mentions: Ensenada, Ojos Negros, Tijuana, Rosarito Beach
Favorite Culinary Event:
Sabor de Baja (Rosarito Beach)
Did you know that there are more cultural events in Baja California than there are days of the year? The staggering number of culinary events alone makes it tough to choose a favorite. But having forced myself to do so, this year the 3rdannual Sabor de Baja takes the prize. The white-attired lawn party at the Rosarito Beach Hotel pitted twenty of Baja California’s best chefs and wineries against each other in a friendly competition.
This article was originally published at SanDiegoRed.com.