Restaurante Amores appeared on my radar when “in the know” friends praised the Tecate eatery as one of their favorites in Baja California. This group are notorious Mexophiles. They’ve traveled all over the country sampling tasting menus from top kitchens. They aren’t afraid to criticize the occasional off-course from Enrique Olvera or the shortcomings of the new seasonal menu at Monterrey’s Pangea.
Their praise is well-earned. Marcelo Hisaki and Reyna Venegas – Amores’ husband and wife team – are two of the most pedigreed chefs working in our region today. In 2017, Hisaki represented Baja California at the esteemed El Bocuse d’Or cooking competition in Mexico City. Venegas is now executive chef at Tecate’s famed Rancho La Puerta.
Train Globally. Cook Locally.
The couple met and trained in Europe under French masters Phillipe Gauvreau, Alain Ducasse and Michelin-starred Joel Robuchon. Returning from the continent, they settled down in Tecate, Venegas’ hometown, and opened Restaurante Amores in 2013. “We wanted to share a different kind of dining experience with our friends and family here,” according to Hisaki.
I met Hisaki and Venegas earlier this year during Tecate’s Festival del Tamal, where I was a participating judge. They invited us to the restaurant that night to try their new seasonal five course tasting menu. It was one of the best meals I’ve had this year.
I’ve happily returned to dine several times and have led recent Discover Tecate culinary tours that culminate at Amores. My groups were impressed with the high level of cuisine available in the rural town and captivated by Amores’ charm. One guest, a visiting chef from London, suggested that two of the courses we sampled were “Michelin worthy”.
Restaurante Amores is, in a word, exceptional.
The restaurant’s entrance is easy to miss – there’s no sign on this small-town Mexican side street that you’ve arrived at a restaurant bursting with Michelin-sized potential. Once inside, you’re escorted down a narrow hall – split between walkway and exhibition kitchen – and into Amore’s modest dining area, a room built primarily of whitewashed cinder blocks.
But don’t let the modest trappings fool you. Hisaki’s elegantly plated international cuisine, the staff’s high levels of personal service and the careful presentation of courses and pairings wouldn’t be out of place in Europe’s finest dining establishments.
“Some day, I hope to cook as well as the chefs in the Valle de Guadalupe,” Hisaki retiringly shared during a recent chat. As a writer whose covered food in Baja California’s wine country since 2012, I had to stifle a laugh and assured the chef that he already was and that the comparison was unfair.
While Amores does share the practice of using the freshest, most local ingredients with oft-lauded restaurants just an hour south, Hisaki offers an entirely new fine dining proposition to the region. Those same ingredients prepared in a fusion of French, Mexican, Nikkei (Japanese Peruvian) and other international styles.
Around the World on a Plate.
An example of Hisaki’s International fusion is his dense yet tender beef heart anticucho (Peruvian skewer) prepared in a deeply smoky adobada and served with a slice of grilled pineapple which adds a sweet, acidic tang to the whole affair. The dish pays homage to the tacos al pastor from his home town of Mexico City and is best enjoyed with Amores’ pisco sour, another Peruvian reference.
Hisaki’s French training and Mexican heritage are evident in his rich tatemado bisque of local octopus with watermelon radish, greens and edible flowers sourced from Rancho La Puerta and dollops of crema and thin crisps of beetroot all arranged precisely atop a ring of corn tostada. The thick tomato-based sauce is poured over the deconstructed ingredients tableside, referencing sopa de tortilla Mexicana as it might be served in Provence.
Protein courses are never a simple “meat and veg affair” at Amores. A perfectly-roasted chicken breast is served with a ratatouille-stuffed tomato and a chili relleno of shredded duck. The tomato is nixtimalized, a process which naturally separates the skin from the fruit. This preserves the tomato’s firm texture so it can envelope the ratatouille of minced vegetables, garlic and olive oil. The sweet roasted chili works with the duck and both sides provide an intriguing complexity to the main ingredient.
Another standout main is pork tenderloin cooked in a demi-glace of its own jus and Espagnole. The dish is finished with a combination of light caramel and local Tecate beer poured over thick slices of succulent white meat. The sauce adds sweetness to the pork and a mildly pleasant sour taste of the city’s namesake German-style lager. It’s served with au gratin potatoes, apple compote and a pear tart.
Deserts at Restaurante Amores are as creative as one would expect after the varied main courses. House-made petit fours are served at the end of every meal. A macaron filled with a cream of foie gras was the pièce de résistance at the fifth anniversary dinner. Another post-dinner treat is a disc of peanut marzipan, made by Amore’s Maître D’and sommelier Joshua Alvarado who works from a recipe recalling the Mexican De La Rosa candies of his childhood.
If the reserved Hisaki is the heart of Amores, Alvarado is its spokesperson. In the style of a fine Parisian bistro, he presents each course or bottle of local wine or craft beer in a cultured manner that’s not the least bit condescending. He may suggest pairings by asking “Are you more of a beach or movie theater person?” to determine if you’d prefer lighter or more robust varietals with your meal. Alvarado’s presentation and table-side manner are a highlight of any dinner.
One of Mexico’s Best Restaurants?
Amores offers a tasting menu of three, five or eight courses that change with the season. Hisaki has plans to move to a larger space in Tecate later this year and also open a location in Rosarito Beach, an area in need of more fine dining options, in this writer’s opinion.
Restaurante Amores should be at the very top of every regional foodie and gourmand’s list — and is worthy of inclusion on the lists of Latin America’s 50 Best, 120 Best Restaurants in Mexico and the Mexico Gourmet Awards. Tiny Tecate is home to a huge culinary talent that has yet, but needs to be, discovered.
Restaurante Amores is located at Presidente Adolfo de la Huerta #42, Zona Centro, Tecate, Baja California, Mexico. Open Tue-Thu 1-9PM, Fri & Sat 1-10PM, Sun 1-7PM. Closed Mon. +52 (665) 122-1323, www.facebook.com/restauranteamores.
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