In 2019, Baja California continued to establish itself as one of the great culinary destinations of Latin America. And every year, A Gringo in Mexico’s Top 10 Baja Bites list gets more and more difficult to curate. Old favorites continue to please and new restaurants surprise with casual and fine dining options.
We also researched dozens of Tijuana street tacos for an amigo’s book, a potential new television show and A Gringo in Mexico’s 2020 Three Amigos Taco Tours. We enjoyed so many tacos, from adobada to suadero, that the category warrants a list of its own. We’ve included two of our favorites here.
With over 50 dishes on our list of candidates this year, we thought it appropriate to recognize some of the outstanding dishes that were in contention but didn’t make the final cut. These Top 10 Baja Bites 2019 Honorable Mentions are worthy of your consideration when dining out in 2020.
From bio-engineered oysters to Baja California’s best pizza, we’re pleased to announce the winners of the Top 10 Baja Bites 2019. Let us know in the comments if we missed your favorites. And what bites we should consider for next year ¡Buen Provécho!.
10. Chef’s Roll at Seki Sushi (Ensenada)
Sushi rolls in Baja California are often drowned in gloppy, cloyingly-sweet sauces — jokingly referred to as “Sinaloa sushi”. The Chef’s Roll at Seki Sushi defies that norm. Chef Oliver Seki constructs the roll with marlin pate, crab salad, avocado and shrimp tempura on the inside, and a piquant, spicy shrimp aguachile morita with roasted pineapple, cucumber and red onion on the outside. It’s a clever Mexican/Japanese fusion with bright, fresh flavors unsullied by glop.
9. (TIE) Grilled Octopus with Black Risotto at Raíces (Rosarito Beach)
Rosarito Beach has been a “culinary desert” for years, notorious for restaurants that appeal to expat and tourist tastes. But several new eateries are challenging that perception. Perhaps the best is Raíces, located near the entrance of Puerto Nuevo. Chef Jésus Soria’s octopus is slow cooked, bathed in parsley sauce, grilled to order and served over a bed of al dente, salty risotto blackened with squid ink. It’s accompanied by snappy, local vegetables.
9. (TIE) Bone Marrow with Grilled Shrimp at Lorenza (Tijuana)
Restaurant Lorenza was inaugurated this year in Tijuana’s tony Plaza Chapultepec. Their Tuétano (bone marrow) Mongol is topped with grilled octopus, radish and dollops of avocado and jocoque — a type of thick, creamy buttermilk with its curdled origins in the cuisines of Sinaloa and Jalisco. Bone marrow has been enjoying its “moment” in Baja California, but Lorenza’s version is absolutely one of the most tempting and satisfying in the region.
8. Soft Shell Crab Taco at Lunario (Valle de Guadalupe)
Chef Sheyla Alvarado of popular campestre kitchen Traslomita introduced Lunario in late 2019 — a fine-dining restaurant nestled within Lomita winery’s vines. Alvarado serves a tasting menu of Mexican dishes with international flair. Exhibit A is her soft-shell crab taco on a red corn and pipian (pumpkin seed) tortilla. Sweet, tempura-battered crab from Veracruz is accompanied by a spicy, piquant habanero and tomatillo salsa for drizzling. This dish put us over the moon!
7. El Romano Panini at Estación Central (Tijuana)
Estación Central – opened on Avenida Revolución this year – harkens to the city’s golden era and offers brunch, dinner and a bar menu. Not to be missed is the El Romano panini of house-made porchetta topped with broccolini and melty mozzarella. The pork is purchased from a local butchery that’s been in business in Tijuana for over 50 years. It’s a hearty, wholly sastisfying affair served with a side of earthy, pickled beetroot and sweetly spicy friggitello peppers.
6. Tacos de Suadero at Tacos El Gallito (Tijuana)
While conducting “research” for our new Three Amigos Taco Tours in 2019, we sampled dozens of tacos from Tijuana’s many taquerias. One of our favorites is the taco de suadero from Tacos El Gallito. Ubiquitous in Mexico City, suadero is a thin cut of beef brisket that’s slowly cooked, finely chopped and renowned for its smooth texture and distinctive flavor. What puts El Gallito’s over the top is their lemony and herbaceous “secret marinade”. ¡Dos con todo por favor!
5. Pai-pai Oysters at Deckman’s en El Mogor (Valle de Guadalupe)
Oysters at chef Drew Deckman’s namesake restaurant and his raw bar Conchas de Piedra – both located in Baja California’s wine country – are beyond comparison. His relationship with Baja Shellfish Farms affords him the pick of several premium bivalves, like the newly farmed pai-pai. It’s bio-engineered with a deep cup containing a velvety, meaty morsel with a mild, satisfying brine redolent of the sea. It’s the most succulent shellfish we slurped this year.
4. Pizza Rossa with Sausage & Mozarella at Bocca Lupo (Ensenada)
Bocca Lupo Pizzeria marks chef Guillermo “Memo” Baretta’s return to Italian cuisine. In his tiny but mighty new pizzeria, sublime Neapolitan pizzas are fired in state-of-the-art gas ovens. Dough sourced from Mexicali is baked until crisp with a perfectly charred and airy crust. Our favorite rosso (tomato sauce) pie is topped with sweet, savory house-made Italian sausage and fresh mozzarella. It’s the best pizza in Baja California, hands down.
3. (TIE) Filet Aguachile at LaX Alximia (Valle de Guadalupe)
Owner Alvaro Alvarez upped the food game at restaurant LaX at winery Alximia in 2019. Their best new dish is the black aguachile filet. Tender beef is flash seared with a crust of salt, pepper and ground coffee and bathed in rich, tangy aguachile of tatemado (charred) habanero, onion, garlic, soy and black miso. Orange and lemon are added to help macerate the meat. Flavors are nicely balanced, and the course is designed to pair with Alximia’s Aqua — equal parts Petit Verdot, Zinfandel and Grenache.
3. (TIE) Mixed Grill Tlayuda at La Central (Valle de Guadalupe)
Chefs Javier Plascencia of Finca Altozano and Alex Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca joined forces this year to offer a taste of Southern Mexico in Baja’s wine country at pop-up La Central. Their tlayuda is folded with asiento, refried beans and quesillo and accompanied by meats imported from Oaxaca. We ordered ours with savory cecina adobada, tasajo, chorizo and grilled tripa. Meats are superbly seasoned and contain a subtle hint of smoke from open wood fire grilling.
2. Puerto Nuevo Tostada at Tatanka Baja Fish & Steakhouse (Ensenada)
Carlos Valdez’s Tatanka Baja Fish & Steakhouse closed in Ensenada this year — just as his famed La Paz eatery expansion was gaining acclaim. No worries, it’s reopening in the Valle de Guadalupe in 2020. His Puerto Nuevo tostada pays homage to Baja California’s timeless dish. A flour tostada is loaded with plump morsels of lobster and sweet crab, comingled with “sides” of rice croquettes, beans, radish, carrots and red cabbage. It’s finished in a delectable drizzle of melted butter.
1. Roasted Snapper with Blue Corn Pulcan at Restaurante Amores (Tecate)
Amores chef Marcelo Hisaki applies French technique to dishes crafted of local ingredients. Our 2019 top bite showcases red snapper roasted with a crust of wild mushrooms and ayocote beans in a seaweed and shellfish emulsion. The succulent pescado is served alongside a dense pulcan — blue corn masa fried with beans and scallions. The dish is sauced with a rich mole of sweet crab and salty dried shrimp, spices and peanuts. It’s a tantalizing combination of flavors and textures.
Disclaimer: Several dishes on this list were complementary. No further compensation was received for placement and our opinions remain unflinchingly our own. We would happily spend our own pesos for any one of these dishes.
A Gringo in Mexico’s Top 10 Baja Bites 2019 Sponsors:
Bodegas Marilena Vinos
Bodegas Marilena is a boutique winery in the Valle de Guadalupe. Specializing in award-winning reds featuring the Bordeaux Region of France’s Petit Verdot. Wines are served in restaurants throughout Baja California, Mainland México and Southern California. Contact them for a private tasting in their cava. www.bodegasmarilena.com
Discover Baja Travel Club
For over two decades, Discover Baja Travel Club has been the ultimate resource for people traveling the Baja California peninsula. They offer the highest-quality Mexican auto insurance at the best prices, and are the only source in the U.S. for pre-paid FMM tourist permits. www.discoverbajatravelclub.com
Maglén Resort features 50 rooms, 3 swimming pools, event grounds, meeting rooms, 2 restaurants, a winery, an artisanal brewery, a cafe and a passion for service that helps us provide our guests with a wonderful stay in the heart of the Valle de Guadalupe. Use code GRINGO to save! www.maglenresort.com
Mezcal Los Javis
Oaxacan family owned & operated artisanal mezcal distilled in the “World Capital of Mezcal”, Santiago Matatlán, Mexico. Products include Joven Espadin, Reposado Espadin, Tobalá, Madrecuixe, Tepeztate, Cerrudo and more. Follow our tradition. www.mezcallosjavis.com
Valle Girl Vino
Sitara’s passion at Valle Girl Vino is creating small batch Mexican wines that express the distinct character of our sunny terrain. Her award-winning whites, rosés and reds are distributed in Mexico and the US. Swing by her rustic tasting bar El Corcho Rosa in the Valle de Guadalupe to experience more. www.vallegirlvino.com