The Doña Esthela of Tecate

Alicia León offers history of Mexican cuisine at Malinalli

Barbacoa de coñejo, Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico Rabbit barbacoa at Malinalli, Tecate.

TECATE, BAJA CALIFORNIA — One of the reasons tiny Tecate was designated a Pueblo Magicó (Magical Town) by Mexico’s federal tourism department in 2012 was for its rich pre-Hispanic history. The Tipai and Ipai indigenous people are believed to have occupied San Diego and Baja California nearly 12,000 years ago — from Escondido in the north to the Colorado river basin in the south.

The two tribes combined for self preservation after Spanish occupation and American settlement in the late 19th century and severe drought in the mid 20th. They are now known collectively as the Kumeyaay nation (spelled Kumiai in Mexico). Today – of the approximately 1,200 members that live on reservations in the San Diego-Baja California region – only 300 of the local Tecate band remain, according to Norma Meza, tribal leader.

Norma Meza, Kumeyaay Tribe, Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Norma Meza, leader of the Tecate Kumeyaay with guests at Malinalli.

Tecate honors its Kumeyaay and keeps their history alive in several ways. A visit to the unassuming border town’s Museo Communitario (Community Museum) is a great way to learn about the tribe’s cultural history. And a visit to Restaurante Autóctono Malinalli is the best way to experience dishes and beverages prepared with native Kumeyaay methods and ingredients.

Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli.

Alicia León, a traditional cocinera (female cook) and owner of Malinalli (formerly Polokotlán), prepares a daily pre-Hispanic buffet that includes a rich tomato-based stew made with local amaranth seeds as well as a traditional coffee brewed of bitter acorns — the staple of the Kumeyaay diet and basis for many of its recipes.

“We are dedicated to the rescue of our gastronomic and cultural roots and offer an education of our flavorful heritage through a combination of traditional dishes unique to Mexico,” Alicia shared during a recent visit. “Being the first Mexican restaurant of pre-Hispanic origin in Tecate, Malinalli focuses on creating culinary experiences that will satisfy your search for a truly Mexican dish and educate you in the world of ancestral cooking.”

As the now famous Doña Esthela of restaurant La Cocina de Doña Esthela in the Valle de Guadalupe keeps the recipes from her native state of Sinaloa alive, Alicia León – the former president of Tecate CANIRAC – pays homage not only to Kumeyaay tradition, but to other Mexican regions with deep culinary roots.

Her excellent Barbacoa de Coñejo (rabbit barbacoa), a popular dish in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, is an example. Slow cooked and shredded rabbit is combined with a thick, zesty tomato-based broth made with guajillo, pasila and negro chilies. The chilies give the sauce immense depth and add a pleasantly smoky flavor. Per the Sinaloense method, small roasted potatoes and green olives are added. The barbacoa is served in banana leaves with a side of arroz amarillo (yellow rice). It’s one of the best dishes I’ve had in Baja California this year.

Alicia sources both the recipe and ingredients from Mexico’s ancestral culinary regions for many of her menu items. Her Oaxacan tlayuda (a large toasted tortilla covered with lard, beans, cheese and other ingredients) features quesillo (Oaxacan string cheese) and a choice of chorizo (spicy pork sausage), tasajo (cured beef) or cecina (cured pork) all sourced from Oaxaca — considered the country’s gastronomic heart. The result is as authentic as any of the tlayudas I tasted during a 2013 visit to the food stalls in the city’s popular Mercado 11 de Noviembré.

Oaxacan tlayuda, Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Oaxacan tlayuda.

For breakfast food diehards, Malinalli offers a short stack of fluffy, sweet elote (corn) pancakes served with a heavenly syrup of condensed milk and honey. Also on the menu are traditional huevos en hojadas, an egg omelet with spinach baked in a banana leaf that honors the popular preparation from the coastal state of Veracruz. And Alicia’s café de olla (coffee sweetened with piloncillo and cinnamon) was declared by a Mexican friend to be the “…best I’ve had”.

Elote pancakes, Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Elote pancakes.

Huevos en rodajas, Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Huevos en hojadas.

As with a traditional breakfast or comida (midday meal) in any Mexican state, one requires a freshly griddled, steaming basket of corn tortillas for making tacos and mopping up every drop of the delicious sauce from the rabbit barbacoa. Alicia crafts the best corn tortillas I’ve had in Baja California — or anywhere in Mexico. She nixtamalizes – a process where chemical lime is added to corn to transform it to masa – yellow, blue, black and pink corn of heirloom varieties sourced from small farms and producers around the country.

Nixtamalized black corn tortillas, Alicia León, Restaurante Autóctanos Malinalli, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico

Nixtamalized black corn tortillas.

Restaurante Autóctono Malinalli is on my MUST VISIT list of restaurants in our region. Alicia León’s menu of traditional preparations is a starting point for any chef, gourmand or casual foodie who wants to learn more about Mexican cuisine while enjoying some of the very best flavors in Baja California.

Restaurante Autóctono Malinalli is located at Blvd. Benito Juarez 861 at the corner of Prolongación Revolución. Open every day 8AM-4PM. +52 (665) 121-4743. www.facebook.com/malinalli.tecate

Visit Restaurante Autóctono Malinalli and other Tecate-based culinary and cultural destinations as part of A Gringo in Mexico’s new Discover Tecate Tour!

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