Restaurant Salvaje is a welcome addition to the Valle de Guadalupe dining scene and far exceeded our expectations.
During a 2017 interview, chef Javier Plascencia of popular Valle de Guadalupe restaurant Finca Altozano shared, “It’s rare to have a bad meal in the Valle”. It was a safe assumption at the time. Then, visitors still came to enjoy a farm-to-table dining experience. And chefs remained focused on the use of high quality, local ingredients in the creation of rustic Baja California wine country dishes.
Since, a deluge of new restaurants have appeared seemingly overnight, riding the wave of the Valle’s tourism boom. Some cater less to discerning diners and largely to the younger, “look at me” crowd, who are more interested in capturing “Instagrammable” moments with their phones than knowing the origin and cooking technique of the food on their plates.
We’ve visited several new spots in the Valle after returning to Baja, “post COVID”. Our experience at Primitivo was wholly satisfying. Their open fire cooking and rustic aesthetic remains true to the Valle’s spirit. However, a meal at a buzzy new spot, which shall go unnamed, disappointed. The place itself was beautiful, but the food was uninspired and the service nearly non-existent.
So, when we were invited to the new Salvaje at Xolo Winery–not yet a month old at the time of this review–our expectations were set accordingly. When we arrived on a hot Friday afternoon for lunch, a ‘grammable niche near the entrance with neon reading “Yo Salvaje” (I’m Wild) did not assuage my skepticism. But by the time we left, I placed the restaurant, its menu, atmosphere, and attentive service near the top of my Valle “must try” list.
Fine dining with a view
Salvaje’s patio is located at the rear of Xolo’s modern winemaking facility and tasting room. It overlooks a small reservoir maintained for the irrigation of their well-manicured vines in the near distance. A dramatic, sunken walkway leading to a circular fire pit juts from the reservoir’s edge and into the water. Flanked by the eastern range, Salvaje’s outdoor dining space is one of the most pastoral settings in the Valle.
Desert palms surrounding the reservoir give the impression of an oasis. There are three additional dining and wine tasting areas on the restaurant’s lower terraces—two shaded by a nest of interwoven vine branches. This is an homage to the local Kumiai who used these methods and materials for their dwellings. All the natural resources used for construction were found on the property.
An outdoor bar offers signature cocktails. We enjoyed the “Aroma”, a whiskey soda with cider and Nixta elote (corn) liqueur served with a stick of smoking cinnamon—which provides the aroma. Salvaje boasts an impressive array of libations, including several hard-to-source artisanal and ancestral mezcals.
Those mezcals are a perfect digestivo to Salvaje’s menu, which focuses on the cuisine of Mexico’s culinary regions, particularly Oaxaca. The menu features a la carte and tasting menus–family style or individual–as well as options for vegans and vegetarians. Tastings may be paired with Xolo’s exceptional wines—more refined, drier, and less fruit-forward than vintages typical of the region.
Two venerated chefs lead Salvaje’s kitchen; Armando Vázquez, who worked for three years under chef Enrique Olvera at Mexico City’s acclaimed Pujol; and Juan Arroyo, who helped create the popular television show, Master Chef Latino.
Creative dishes based on Mexican classics
We shared the individual tasting menu with wine pairings. The meal began with a half dozen, locally sourced hurache oysters. The large, meaty bivalves are topped with a mild mignonette and served with salpicornia for a crunchy counterpoint. I expect big oysters to have a strong flavor, but these delighted with a perfect balance of brine.
Next was a prepared chocolate clam, a staple of Baja California Sur. Though I prefer my chocolatas sans accoutrements, the clam with sweet, slightly smoky pineapple tatemada and savory strands of machaca (dried beef) was snappy and bright. It paired perfectly with Xolo’s sauvignon blanc.
One of my favorite dishes was the salad of jicama and red quinoa. Finely chopped jicama, a crisp, Central American tuber, comingles with grains of red quinoa in a piquant vinaigrette, topped with sliced serrano and fennel. The entire affair is served in a hollowed-out jicama “bowl” which keeps the salad cool and refreshing.
Salvaje’s tlacoyo (elongated fried masa) is heaped with savory, slow-braised short rib atop a bed of melted requesón (cheese curds). It’s finished with pickled onions and cilantro and accompanied by a rich, smoky salsa tatemada.
As we enjoyed our meat course, I noticed the server at an adjacent table unwrapping a roasted barbacoa of picaña (beef top rump sirloin) from the banana leaf encasement in which its roasted. The large cut is carved tableside and feeds four people.
A satisfyingly sweet ending
The final course was a velvety, luscious pool of mole negro surrounded by mashed plantain. The mole is redolent of chocolate, chiles, and nuts and served with a dense, moist, and delicious pan de elote (Mexican corn bread). The dish is paired with Xolo’s equally decadent Nebbiolo.
We were served a dessert of bueñelos (fried tortillas sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon) layered with requesón and topped with a scoop of lemon sorbet, but the mole course in all its sweet glory would have provided an already satisfying ending to an exceptional meal.
Salvaje is located at Xolo winery at Blvd. Emiliano Zapata 703, Francisco Zarco, Ensenada, Baja California. For reservations, visit Salvaje’s website at www.restaurantesalvaje.com.
Price: $$-$$$. Appetizers range from $12/US for baby corn in pickled chili mayo to $20/US for six prepared chocolate clams. Entrees range from $12.50/US for the short rib tlacoyo to $90 for seafood paella for six. Tastings range from $38/US for the vegan menu to $68/US for the individual tasting. Wine pairings are additional.
Disclaimer: We were invited by Salvaje’s PR and our food and wine were complements of the house. No additional compensation was received for this review. We continue to cover only those experiences we consider to be outstanding.