Sometimes a meal is so sublime, so surprising and so damn good that I can’t wait to write about it and let the world – or at least all my friends and followers – know. On these rare occasions, I’m compelled to get it all out while the experience is still fresh in my mind and then endlessly evangelize the eatery with the fervor of someone who’s been wandering a culinary wilderness and found God. Our meal this weekend at Tatanka Baja Fish & Steakhouse with chef Carlos David Valdez was one of those occasions.
I first met Carlos in La Paz in 2016 when he’d temporarily moved his first location of Tatanka Baja Fish & Steakhouse – made famous by the likes of Andrew Zimmern and Bill Esparza – to his brother’s restaurant patio. Carlos astounded us with course after course of imaginative and delicious dishes. Our dinner ended with a pièce de résistance of sole, grilled whole and bathed in a creamy, luxuriant salsa of tomatillo, purslane and epazote. Valdez elevated the local mariscos culture in this seaside enclave to new levels and also served some of the best steaks of Sonoran beef in town.
Valdez relocated from Sonora to La Paz in Baja California Sur over 30 years ago. Though his degree was in civil engineering, he had aspirations as a chef and was enamored with the availability of fresh seafood there. It’s that same availability of top-quality local product that premeditated his return to Ensenada (he briefly operated a branch of Buffalo Grill here). Valdez opened Tatanka Baja Fish & Steakhouse Ensenada in late January in a space on Avenida Adolfo López Mateos formerly occupied by the exquisite Mantou Gastropub.
Valdez never received any formal culinary training. Instead, he’s relied on his acute natural instinct to find his way around the kitchen and create dishes that showcase coastal Mexican and Asian influences. Indeed, he refers to several of the dishes on his new menu as “Bajapon”, a fusion of Baja and Japan (Japón in Español). Carlos is nothing short of a flavor savant, layering ingredients in heretofore unimagined ways to create seafood offerings that are unique, delectable and most importantly, memorable.
We were seated in Tatanka’s spacious and relaxing patio and greeted by the affable chef with abrazos, a cold glass of Mexican pale ale from Ensenada’s Cervecería Transpeninsular for me and a glass of Henri Lurton Chenin Blanc for Ursula. The restaurant carries a number of Baja California wines, including a superlative 2011 Cerralvo from MD Vinos — a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo from grapes grown at their vineyard in the Valle de la Grulla as well as fruit from the Valle San Juán de los Planes just outside of La Paz.
Our first course was sashimi Bajapon, an aguachile of shrimp and ruby-red bluefin tuna complemented with a light zest of ginger. A generous portion of local, line-caught toro is layered atop a stack of citrus-marinated shrimp sourced from Mazatlán, topped with avocado, aioli dollops and serrano chilies and served in a pool of a mild habanero salsa. Sinaloa is a big influence on Valdez’s sensibilities and this variation on a classic aguachile is both sumptuous and satisfying.
Up next were six farmed San Quintin oysters on the half shell, served embarzados or “pregnant” with cubed bluefin and roe and complemented by a surprising combination of ponzu, miso and the bivalve’s natural liquor. This entrada was a revelation of taste combinations and we happily slurped from the shells between sips of the Lurton Chenin Blanc. It’s one of the best prepared oyster dishes I’ve had.
The next plate was one of my favorites. Manitas de jaiba (crab claws) imported from Sinaloa are steamed then lightly fried, accompanied by cucumber and Serrano chilies and served in a tangy bath of slightly peppery cocktail sauce and a profusely deep and sweet salsa of cebolla tatemado (burnt onion) in olive oil. It’s a decadent combination of rich flavors and we dredged nearly every drop of the sauces with the meaty claws.
Carlos caught us off-guard when he came out of the kitchen to show off a smoked bluefin collar as long as my bent arm and twice as thick, extracted from a nearly 400-pound line-caught specimen that had been the source of much of our dinner up to that point. With the kama came a plate of plump gyoza stuffed with meaty chunks of the fish’s other collar, also smoked. The gyoza are filled, steamed then fried and served sprinkled with sesame seeds, scallions and thinly-sliced Serrano chilies and drizzled in soy sauce.
Frequent visitors to Baja California have no doubt been to Puerto Nuevo for their famous style of lobster, halved, fried and served with sides and plenty of melted butter. Valdez’s Puerto Nuevo tostada presents this classic Baja California dish atop a toasted flour tortilla. The tostada is loaded with plump morsels of lobster from La Paz and sweet shredded crab from Sinaloa, paired with the sides – rice croquettes and beans as well as radish, carrots and red cabbage – and drizzled in an unexpected, salty umami of melted butter. Butter isn’t a taste one usually associates with seafood tostadas, but it works very well here.
The Taco Paceño is Valdez’s nod to his adopted hometown — those who live in La Paz are called Paceños. A flour tortilla is layered with a round of griddled cheese crust, smoky house-made chorizo of callo de hacho (giant scallop) abductor muscle and grilled octopus. The taco is topped with cilantro, dollops of avocado and watermelon radish. It’s an homage that does Baja California Sur’s largest city immense justice.
For the final course, Valdez presented a short rib of Sonoran beef — brazed for 16 hours and finished with pearls of salt sourced from Guerrero Negro. Extracted from the Pacific Ocean, the salt is gathered from the tip of breaking whitecaps where its rounded by the wave’s motion. The shortrib is succulent and falls from the bone. It’s accompanied by a plate of grilled vegetables and cauliflower purée and warm, house-made corn tortillas.
Dessert was a sweet, pleasurable affair of traditional corn cookies from Chiapas topped with quince and served with bleu cheese, raw honeycomb and edible flowers. Valdez served it with a shot of mezcal from Puebla, distilled with bananas — making it a great paring with just about any postre. Both provided a palatable end to an intriguing, complex and all-around sensational meal.
When we left, “Best New Restaurant in Ensenada” was on the tip of my tongue and several of the dishes will surely be contenders for my year-end list of Top 10 Baja Bites. You’ve had mariscos in Ensenada, but you’ve never had seafood elevated to the level chef Carlos David Valdez has achieved after years spent in Mexican coastal kitchens. Tatanka Baja Seafood & Steakhouse should be at the top of every seafood and steak lover’s list of new restaurants to try in Ensenada.
Tatanka Baja Fish and Steakhouse is open daily (closed Tuesdays) for lunch and dinner and is located at Avenida Adolfo López Mateos 2030, Ensenada, Baja California. Reservations not necessary but suggested on weekends. Phone: +52 (646) 978-2022. Facebook: www.facebook.com/pg/tatankaensenada.
Disclaimer: A Gringo in Mexico was generously hosted by Chef Carlos David Valdez and our food and drinks were complements of the house. No other compensation was received for this review and we would happily, hungrily return to the moderately-priced Tatanka Baja Fish & Steakhouse to dine on our own peso.