Monday, October 17, 2016

Eating BIG in Baja

Eating like a local:
Regional food specialties

-Tacos and Fresh Seafood in the Baja Peninsula

I used my bachelor party as an opportunity to take a trip high on my culinary wish list. Over the last five years I fell in love with the Mexican state of Baja California and dreamed of the day I myself got to explore it. Up until this trip all of my knowledge of the area came from Bill Esparza who runs the blog and is also a writer for LA Magazine amongst others. Through his blog he's long been an advocate for crossing the border from Southern California over and into Tijuana and the rest of the Baja peninsula. Not only is the landscape as scenic as anywhere else in Mexico, the food is just as good as anywhere in Mexico.

Baja California

Melting pot is a pretty generic term these days but it's good way to describe the area. Not only is Baja inhabited by large groups of people from other Mexican states such as Sinaloa and Sonora but there's also a Japanese presence. Just an hour from Tijuana is the town of Mexicali where you'll find the country's largest Chinese population and with it Mexican-Chinese cuisine. Tijuana aka TJ is the hub of Baja. Take everything you ever heard about it out of your brain because these days it's all about the culinary happenings around town. There are no donkey shows but there is a fantastic scene growing in the name of food/beer/art.

Mural in TJ

So I chose Mission Beach (San Diego) as the hub for my celebration. That would be a weekend thing and since I would be spending the week in the area me and a couple other buddies decided to explore Baja leading up to the party. I also made arrangements with the wonderful people at Club Tengo Hambre to take the entire bachelor party on a beer and taco tour of TJ. More on that in a minute. Me and my buddy landed in San Diego around 11am Tuesday and immediately went to the car rental spot at the airport where we got our car and rode out to Mexico.

Note: Many of the rental companies wont let you take cars into Mexico, however Hertz will so we used them. That said it wasn't cheap and I dont think you can really make it cheap as you must buy Mexican Car Insurance which is paid for by the day (around $40/day). It was over $400 for a Tues. afternoon thru Thurs. evening rental. Still I'd pay that again in a minute because this is one of the best dining destinations not just in Mexico but the world. If you like seafood and enjoy Mexican food, you will LOVE Baja.

As we enter...

Neither side (US / Mexico) makes it easy to get into or out of the other. Mexico pops up pretty quickly with the only notice given being a warning sign advising you not to travel to Mexico with medical marijuana. Upon entry we found ourselves asking "are we there yet?" and that's because we didn't do anything except drive on in. No one checked our passports or said a thing to us. Though I saw a few cars get pointed to the inspection line.

As we arrived

Word of mouth was that TJ was a very hard place to drive. I didn't think so on the first day but I also had google maps going and that helps a whole lot. Still though, parking can be a problem, and traffic is an everyday reality there. The first day of driving (we went to five different taco spots I mapped out) was still somewhat stressful as you really have to be a defensive driver and willing to take/make your space. Nonetheless it's worth tackling if you share a love for tacos. Or you can always use Uber. I heard from a San Diego Uber driver that Tijuana has the highest rated Uber drivers in the world. Which leads me to the people and the area and it's general safety. It's no different than Chicago.

Taquero showing off his trompo

Baja has been very quiet on the cartel front over the last five years. But wherever it is you may be in Mexico the violence is no different than that in Chicago and elsewhere in the US. It sticks to each other. Unless you or your family are in the cartel trade you really dont have anything to worry about. Just be smart like always which in turn leads to being safe. Everyone I met was sincerely welcoming and never once did a I feel the slightest bit unsafe.

Up in a neighborhood on the mountains of Tijuana

First stop up was one of TJ's oldest taquerias. 1965 might not seem like that long ago but Tijuana as a whole isn't all that old. The city was an entirely different place when Tacos Don Esteban first opened shop. Basically it was Mexico's Wild West.

Tacos Don Esteban (Tijuana)

The taco spots in TJ/Baja, and really Mexico in general, tend to specialize in things. Here that specialty is the New York Steak taco which is commonly found around TJ. I don't know if Esteban created this distinctly Tijuana taco but the place had to have had an influence on it's popularity. Here they have a unique style. The thin wood grilled steak is placed on a tortilla spread with refried beans and topped with a slice of avocado. Your job is to decorate it with what you want. I read the locals always use mayo so I put some of that on there as well as some spicy salsa etc. What a great way to start our day. Been thinking about this taco since my last bite. No bull, as good as the tacos in America can be, they will never quite be as good as the ones in Mexico.

New York Taco

Onto the next stop which wasn't far at all. This most certainly helped in making the driving on this day pretty much pain free. I mapped out all of the stops I wanted to go to (impossible) and if people want to use it they're free to take a peak. Next stop is a spot specializing in Sonoran seafood dishes. The only downside to these taco tours is you need to pace yourself. I had to basically be restrained here as the menu is deep with multiple visits with multiple people being needed to explore all of it.

La Cahua Del Yeyo (Tijuana)

The turtle mascot is an ode to the old days when Sonorans used to use turtle in a popular soup. When turtle went on the endangered species list they found manta ray to be a suitable replacement. Despite lots of their seafood stews being popular I had to do the exotic seafood tacos my first trip in. I suffered a bit of a letdown when the nice lady apologized multiple times for being out of Pulpo y Olivo (octopus and olive). Olives are harvested all over Baja so you'll find them in lots of recipes. One Tuna Fin taco, One Manta Ray, One Specialty of the House aka the Tres Animales. The last of which is tuna fin, stewed manta ray, and blood sausage. If you like your food buttery and gelatinous you'll love these tacos. A must stop on my next visit to town. Lots to try.

Tuna Fin Taco

Continuing on the next stop is a place most people who cross the border on foot dont make it to. It's a little bit (10-15 minutes) of a ride from the Zona Centro area most visitors stay around. But it's worth that ride.

Mariscos Mazateno (Tijuana)

Upon arriving this place was packed. Though it's really large so there's tons of places to sit. But I was really liking the fact it was flooded with locals. Most of them coming for the shops most popular taco the Camaron Enchilado. This is a Sinaloan style taqueria where seafood tacos are the focus. Though there's plenty of other things on offer and everyone gets a cup of Consomme de Camaron to start. Upon first sip I knew I was right where I wanted to be.

Shrimp Consomme

As mentioned the Mazatenos are what this place is famous for so you know that's what I was here for. They take a bunch of fresh shrimps that are spiced with secret spices including chile de arbol and load them with melted cheese in between a crisped tortilla. Each individual taco is easily the size of two from elsewhere. I was giddy after eating these taco. If you can manage to eat two, I just had to, try the Perron taco which is the Camaron Enchilado paired with Sea Bream fish fried to the consistency of chicharones. So. Damn. Delicious.

Shrimp Enchilado and Perron Tacos

To give you an idea of how hip it is in Tijuana these days they now have a few food halls of their own. Here they call them Foodgarden's which is the name of the original that paved the way.

Foodgarden Sánchez Taboada (Tijuana)

Cool spot with a handful of stalls most of them specializing in something. They had burgers, chilaquiles, vegan etc. Actually aside from taco shops the thing you'll keep seeing throughout Baja are sushi spots so of course they had one of them. The city took some of the best street vendors and offered them up the chance to open a stall here. I came for a taco shop run by a taquero who's cooked at quite a few places in TJ but now has his own spot.

La Taqueseria (Tijuana)

As I learned through Bill Esparza, the man who owns this spot is the man behind the Quesotaco, which is a popular TJ eat. Cheese is melted into a crispy consistency and then wrapped around your choice of meat. I got shrimp and this was an absolute delight in both texture and flavor. Don't let anyone tell you Mexicans don't put cheese on their tacos.

Quesotaco with Shrimp

Next stop up. Here we have a streetside stand specializing in Norteno style Carne Asada by way of Mexicali. They actually have two carts in TJ as well as the original location in Mexicali. You wont find many gas grills in Mexico. Grilling is done the old fashioned way over live fire.

El Nuevo Tecolote (Tijuana)

You'll know you're near here when you smell the smoke. Now never have I  gone somewhere for a chicken taco but that was one of the things I was here for. Through another extremely informative Cali Writer (Gustavo Arellano) I learned that the chicken taco here was fantastic. As of course was the steak. Though the chicken ended up stealing the show. It was as good as advertised with the perfect amount of smokey mesquite needed to turn breast meat into something exciting. I had a bit of a brainfreeze and got these on corn when flour is preferred by regulars at the Mexicali location.

Chicken and Steak Tacos

At this point it was about 5p and time to head to Rosarito where we were staying for the night. More on that in a minute as I'm putting all the Tijuana stops from the first two days together and we had to go back to TJ to pick up my other friend the next day. While waiting for him to cross the border we decided to visit another one of TJ's longtime legends as far as taco stands go.

Tacos Fitos (Tijuana)

"Tacos de birria with family and friends is a Sunday event in Tijuana, and the choice of protein is beef. Fito's is known for its lightning quick "taqueros", perhaps the fastest in all of Mexico." - Bill Esparza.

Love that song....

I'm guessing since they weren't busy on our visit they weren't in full go mode. While still fast they weren't putting on a show like that in the video. No need to though because when the tacos are this good they can speak for themselves. Big hunks of cumin laced beef are cooked in pots overnight until tender. The potent beef gets stuffed into tortillas dipped in the beef juice before being warmed up on a griddle. The end product is so money you wont be able to eat just one or even two. You'll need at least three before leaving. Wow.

Tacos de Birria de Res

Upon walking back to the car I noticed a Tacos Gordo was at the end of the block so I ran over to try one of TJ's most popular exports. Tacos Gordos got it's start here where they have a few locations. Eventually they expanded across the border and they now have outlets across the San Diego area as well one in Las Vegas.

Tacos El Gordo (Tijuana)

These guys became popular for their tacos adobada which is pretty much al pastor except no pineapple, onion. Adobada can found across Baja and all over TJ. I was a bit letdown to see the taquero cooking raw slices on the flattop but I was also there early. Apparently not too long after the spit was started. With myself and others ordering adobada they had no choice but to cook some thru. What these lacked in texture they made up for in flavor. I think it was the signature salsa that did it. In the end it was probably being in Mexico that did it. Seems hard to find a bad taco in these parts.

Taco Adobada

At this point I got the call that the third member of our party had crossed the border and was headed to our place of meeting so we had to go him. After that it was time to head down to Ensenada but first I wanted to get the TJ stops out of the way. On the way to the highway I had a place high on my list and after a few mishaps in finding it we arrived just in time for lunch.

Tacos Aaron (Tijuana)

Tacos Aaron is one of TJ's oldest Tacos Varios vendors. Tacos Varios are what they call Guisado tacos in these parts. Guisado tacos being stewed meats that sit in warmers ready to be eaten. Many of these spots were overwhelming as far as picking which tacos to try so in many cases I just resorted to saying "Especialidad de la Casa Por Favor."

Chicharrones con Salsa Verde / Chicken Mole Dorado

Here the specialty of the house is the chicharrones (pork skin) in salsa verde according to my order taker. Though everything is special as it's all homemade. I added on a pollo con mole dorado style which signifies hard shell. Don't let anyone tell you they only eat hard shell tacos in America.

Up Close Pollo y Mole

So much goodness. I was beginning to think I never wanted to leave. That 'The Tijuana Taco Tour' needed to be started. In this area alone there were probably 20+ taco carts. I said f-ck it and decided to gauge if they were all good. This spot about 40 feet down had a nice cloud of smoke hanging above it and the guy running the show had a huge smile so we stopped and got a taco.

El Miguelon (Tijuana)

Steak was the reason the air around his tent was smokey so that seemed like a logical choice. Of course it was good. Though I will say that the quality of the steak itself in Mexico, on this trip anyway, can't match that which we eat here in the States. Well the good spots in the States anyways. The reason steak tacos are worth eating in Mexico is due to the fact almost all places grill over wood. This one had tons of smokey flavor and gave further credence to the notion there's not really a bad taco in these parts.

Steak Taco

On the first day in Baja me and my buddy stayed in the seaside town of Rosarito. It's about a 20 minute drive from Tijuana. This is a popular area for a weekend getaway though since we were there on a Tuesday it was a bit sedated. Las Rocas is a popular stop right on the water and it reminded me of an old school resort in Jamaica. This is an area on the cliffs so that paired with the fact the property was similar to so many in the Caribbean were probably the reasons why. The view in the pic below is from our room at at the hotel. Not bad. I love hearing the ocean from my room.

 Rosarito, BC

We drank at the bar and watched the sunset before heading into town, which was pretty dead but you can always kick it with some locals. Below was one of the few spots in town that had any type of vibe so we had some beers and ordered some food.

Acua (Rosarito)

The menu was pretty typical but everything was cooked to order in an open air kitchen and the food was surprisingly good. I didn't eat one bad thing on this trip and I dont think that was just by chance. An order of shrimp tacos would be on most best of (Insert US city) lists but in these parts they were just good. The charcoal grilled octopus bites were perfect as the combo of kraken and char is always fantastic.

Shrimp Tacos / Octopus

Like I said the town was pretty dead and after a few rounds we were ready to head back but not before hitting up a late-nite taco favorite. One of the bartenders offered to take us over to Tacos Manuel which was his favorite place for tacos in town. His boss didn't have a problem with that. Let me just reiterate how nice the people down here are.

Tacos Manuel (Rosarito)

The Baja diet includes lots of fish tacos and tostadas etc during the daytime. But come 4/5p that switches over to the meat filled tacos and in the case of many spots they'll be serving them until 4/5 in the morning. Tacos Manuel is open until the wee hours and has some great tacos adobada as well as suadero which is the cut between a cows leg and it's stomach. Basically brisket with the consistency of carnitas. Suadero is one of the two styles of tacos that DF can call it's own (Tacos al Pastor being the other). For those wondering at this point, yeah, I really could eat tacos every day and be just fine. Lots of variety when it comes to what can go inside a tortilla. Especially in these parts.

Charola and Trompo

There is one daytime place that's very popular for their steak tacos and it's a must stop for any first time visitor to Rosarito. Looking up the food options in the area will no doubt lead you to the towns most popular taco stop. Tacos El Yaqui has been here since 1984. They've lived off of pretty much one thing and one thing only.

Tacos El Yaqui (Rosarito)

The Perrone taco is loved by both locals and tourists and expats alike. It's often said to be not just the best steak taco in Baja but one of the best in Mexico. Because of it's popularity there will almost always be a line. It consists of a few handfuls worth of fresh chopped mesquite grilled flank steak which is constantly being cooked to your right as you wait in line. It goes inside a larger than the norm handmade flour tortilla. Joining the steak is melted cheese, salsa, pinto beans, and guacamole. A monster of a taco in both size and taste. It's popularity has spawned imitators around town but the original remains most popular. No doubt this place is also a must for most return visitors.

Taco Perrone

Despite having a few other spots I really wanted to check out one was closed and the rest weren't going to happen due to the fact we were only in Rosarito for less than 24 hours. Nonetheless I'll be back and as mentioned I saved all my spots I wanted to check out on google maps which people are free to look at. Just south of Rosarito is the tiny fishing village of Popotla.

Popotla, BC

This is a popular area for tourists these days as basically it's entire economy is fishing along with restaurants where much of the fresh caught fish is cooked. Visiting the area almost feels like you're visiting a gated community as you'll drive down a dirt road past a bunch of people telling you to park. Though there's no problem with parking in one of the spots they direct you too they will want a bit of a tip. Give them a dollar or two upon parking and tell them to watch the car and you'll get them again on the rebound. You can also just pull right onto the beach and park. The guy letting people in and out past the barricade isn't doing so under instruction but rather just to be nice, and of course he too would like a tip.

The Local Shark Store

This town is small and while pretty it's got the feel of a place in Mexico that many tourists dont make it to. But that's because they dont care about food like we do. This is one of the great places to eat in Baja. Go to the beach and walk around from vendor to vendor and see what's for sale that day. Negotiate or just pay the ridiculously cheap asking price and then take your bounty to one of the many restaurants in town that will cook it for you. Usually the fisherman will have a rec as far as where to go.

Bivalves for sale on the beach

We started our lunch in Popotla with some fresh shucked oysters as well as pismo clams. The oysters being warm water, and warmer water than most, didn't do it for me. I like mine cold. But the pismo clams that were chopped up and served mixed with a pico de gallo like condiment and served on the half shell were the perfect beach bite for Baja. These were all shucked fresh and made right in front of us from the little stand pic'd above.

Fresh Shucked Oysters on the beach

After that quick snack we wandered over to a couple vendors. I wanted to give at least two of them some business so we bought some locally caught spider crab from one vendor. These are a specialty of the area and not easily caught. You need to dive down and find them hanging out around the rocks and snatch one up when doing so.

Local Spider Crab

Upon seeing a boat return from the water with a nice days worth of fish we followed him to his table and bought a medium sized red snapper. I should point out that meals in Popotla are a lunchtime thing. The fisherman leave in the early evening and the area on the water is said to host a different type of industry once the sun goes down. One that's probably a witness free zone.

The days fresh catch

I asked the guy where we could get this cooked and he directed us to a spot right on the water. Upon entry I was happy to see a 'Club Tengo Hambre' banner which is the company we'd be using for a beer/taco tour of Tijuana later that week. It's a company partly owned by the aforementioned Bill Esparza and they do food related daytrips in various spots around Baja. As I said they know their stuff so I was confident in what was coming from here.

Mariscos La Estrella (Popotla)

We walked up the stairs and gave the guy our goods. He showed us the restaurants fresh supply in a cooler and said something in Spanish that I didn't understand. Reason I mention this is because you dont have to go to the beach and buy the fish if you don't want to. But that would defeat the purpose of visiting. First order up was the spider crab which locals call Marciano (Martian). They cook it the same way all over town. Legs cut off (Mexicans dont eat the body) and deep fried before being tossed in garlic, butter, and red chile sauce. You owe it to yourself to come here and eat this if ever in Baja.

Spider Crab

Pursuing full belly mode our snapper arrived shortly thereafter. Most of these restaurants around here have very similar menus but the recipes can vary. The popular way to get your fish is to order it 'Zarandeado' style which is a Sinaloan specialty. The fish is split and rubbed with a red chile rub. Here they didn't do that much to it but what they did do was perfect. Not pic'd are some wonderful handmade tortillas and a couple very spicy salsa options. We all agreed it was one of the best things we ate this trip. When finished the other two said they were done for the day. Ha. I told them to rest up on the way to Ensenada. Because once we got there, we had spots to check out.

Snapper Zarandeado

Before I get to the Ensenada stops there's another little village just South of Rosarito. Puerto Nuevo is famous for it's lobster. We stopped here on the way back to the States as we wanted to check out. But truth be told it just doesn't compare to Popotla. It's very touristy but nonetheless it's lobster so it's still better than what most people are eating. As soon as you enter town you will be hounded by guys working for restaurants and their job is to get you in.

Puerto Nuevo, BC

The peddlers will offer everything from cheap lobster meals to "free" shots of homemade almond tequila at their little shop they double hustle at. None of the spots could show us live lobster and after walking around town the peddlers became annoying so we ended up going to the spot pushed by the most consistent of them. Not only was he persistent but the spot he was pushing had outdoor seating on the water and the deal of four lobsters, rice, beans, handmade flour tortillas, and two margaritas for $16.95 was nothing.

La Casa Del Pescador (Puerto Nuevo)

Also helpful in making our decision on which lobster shack to dine at was the fact this spot had an outdoor dining area on the water. It was definitely the best view of any restaurant on this trip.

View from the outdoor dining deck

As far as the food goes like I said it's still lobster. And lobster will always be good especially when you stuff it's meat dripping with butter into a warm flour tortilla spread with super creamy refried beans and perfectly cooked Spanish rice. Maybe not to the level of Popotla but still a damn fine snack.

 Puerto Nuevo Lobster Dinner

Time to head down to the beautiful cruise town of Ensenada. On the way there from TJ we rode on the highway right on the water most of the way. At some point that brought us up into the mountains and added on another 20 minutes to our drive but that was okay as we got to see a spot we never would've seen otherwise. It's a different type of pretty up in the mountains and along the road there were different food vendors here and there. Usually selling fruit and or candies. We stopped at the one below to get some coconut.

Somewhere in the Baja Mountains

The family running the show here was so happy to have us. Particularly the young ones who were filled with joy and very eager to say hello. We got a coconut which came with two bags of coconut juice which was perfect after all the food we had ate. It also came with some chopped pieces of coconut meat seasoned with Tajin. The tender pieces were good but some pieces were too hard to eat. We said our goodbyes and on we rode.

Coconut Meat in it's shell

Next batch of spots all come from Ensenada. Let me just say this is a place I have no doubt I make it back to. Unfortunately there is no airport but the easy access from San Diego makes this place a must return in my book. Perfect for a getaway with your SO or the entire family. This is a cruise town and they dont f-ck around when it comes to the dollars the industry brings. It's very clean, the people are extra friendly, and the food is just fantastic. Safety wise I'm not sure I ever felt safer, anywhere. The cops patted people down at every bar in town upon entry.

Ensenada, BC

As many may know Ensenada is synonymous with the Baja Fish Taco. It's here where they were said to be born. The favorite snack of surfers and locals alike is found all over town but some places do them better than others. Of course our first stop had to be for one and of course that first stop had to be an OG.

Tacos Fenix (Ensenada)

While these ladies don't take credit for creating the fish taco they are one of the city's oldest stands serving them. They go all the way back to 1970 and they haven't changed a thing as far as the preparation of them. This is strictly a cart and you'll have to stand if you want to eat here but that's a small price to pay for one of the worlds great snacks. Note: They have another outlet down the street with seats but this one is said to be better.

The making of Ensenada style fish tacos

Tacos Fenix uses fresh cazon and fries the filets in an oil mixed with pork fat. Ensenada style fish tacos are fried to the consistency of tempura which is said to be something the Japanese people that moved here passed on to the locals. For the most part all of the Ensenada fish taco stands serve you your taco bare with nothing but fried fish filets on top of a tortilla. Each stand has a mini salsa bar where you're free to dress the taco up to your liking. I'd been waiting a long time to try a Baja fish taco in it's birthplace and it was magic upon first bite. No doubt the best fish taco I'd ever had. Perfect in every way.

Fully Dressed Fish Taco

The other spot that most every first time visitor makes it to is Mariscos La Guerrerense. The world famous seafood cart sitting on a corner in the middle of town. It's a short ride (or walk) from Tacos Fenix so we wanted to stop there since they were still open upon our arrival.

La Guerrerense (Ensenada)

La Guerrerense is famous for their out of this world seafood tostadas and the salsa bar that comes with them. There's a pillar on the corner with a who's who of famous people that have stopped by to try their product. They've won street food competitions in Hong Kong. The team here is led by the family matriarch Mrs. Sabina Bandera. She was in the back talking upon our arrival but the son struck up a conversation with us and he was just the nicest guy you could talk to. When we told him we're from Chicago he said something along the lines of "Oh yes, our good friend lives in Chicago and always loves to come to see us, his name is Rick Bayless. Do you know him?" We got a laugh out of that.

Making of the tostadas

By the time we arrived they were down to their last item. Sea Snail was all they had left. Not even sure what sea snail is I didn't care as I knew the hype was real just by the fact they were sold out of everything else until tomorrow. Turns out sea snail is similar in texture to octopus but a bit meatier in taste.

Sea Snail Tostada

Not only was the tostada we got to try wonderful but the owners son was so damn nice we knew we'd be back in the morning. When I inquired about the salsas which they sell bottled he told me not to buy any right then and there as I didn't get to try them all. Tomorrow he insisted. Well tomorrow came and we were back there bright and early. This time we had the choice of whatever we wanted and I got both a Campechano and also the Rick Bayless / Anthony Bourdain / Andrew Zimmern etc. approved Uni tostada.

Mixed Seafood (Campechano) Tostada

LORDY. This is the type of food that will make an atheist start believing in God. What more can I say than what everyone else has already said? This is one the great street food stops in all of the world. No doubt about it. The food is one big umami bomb and the family behind it is as hospitable as any. One of the absolute must stops in one of the great seafood eating areas of the world. The peanuts you see on the tostada below come from their housemade 'Chilitos de mi Jardin' salsa and it's so damn delicious. I bought a few bottles to take home and have used it in both Mexican and Thai foods.

Uni Tostada

Man it sucks having to pace ones self but I had to in that there was more than one spot I was excited to try. If you share a love for tacos and dont own Tacopedia than you actually dont share the same love for tacos. The essential reading guide to tacos in Mexico. Tacos Marco Antonio gets a shout-out in the seafood section. It's been on my list since first reading it.

Tacos Marco Antonio (Ensenada)

This is another spot that Bill has written about and yet another spot that you need to visit more than once. The taco options seem endless. Those options are seafood guisado style tacos which introduce you to fillings you never knew existed. I should've been better prepared but I wasn't and ended up with two great tacos that had me wondering why I didn't order more before leaving. The specialty of the house is a fried filet covered in shrimp swimming in a creamy sauce alongside potent onions. The smell of smoked marlin gobernador style tacos was too much to pass up. So good.

Seafood Guisado Tacos

We left full but not full enough to quit. The town of Ensenada is fairly small and most of these spots weren't but 5 minutes at most from each other. So we had a heck of a stretch the morning we were up early to eat. Next spot was one of our favorites of the trip. Not just for the food but also the friendliness of the owner and also his daughter.

Trophy Taco (Ensenada)

Every single one of the menu options from here was worth ordering but again we had to pace ourselves. Thus all I could do was a couple. One of them being the namesake taco which is pulpo, camaron y almeja banado en salsa alfreda. Translation being octopus, shrimp, and clam sauce bathed in Alfredo sauce. Yeah I wondered about it too but never doubted how good it would be. I just didn't think it would be one of the top three tacos I ate this trip. I should've known it would get a medal based on the name of the taco alone.

The Trophy Taco

As we chatted up with the owner we learned his story and basically became friends. He really wanted us to try his Hawaiian style taco so we did. Fresh shrimp wrapped in bacon that's cooked through and topped with a pineapple salsa. As you can see rice is used in these to keep the stews on the tortilla. The seafood guisado tacos down here are an absolute must for anyone visiting be it by car or cruise. I highly rec this spot.

Taco Hawaiiano

Moving onto the next seafood guisado spot we make our way to another place that caught my eye. For a town of just over 500,000 the food scene here is just ridiculous. We didn't even get a chance to tap into any of the chef driven hip and happening spots nor did we get to any of the Japanese spots on my radar.

La Avioneta (Ensenada)

The cart pic'd up above is where you place your order. Since this spot was kind of a freestyle stop we weren't sure what to get. The guy tending to the stews showed us all of the days selection and I ended up settling on a pulpo en red chile taco as well as a shrimp gobernador. I asked for one other item that I thought was a taco but ended up being a soup and it was the best mistake I'd make this trip.

Fish Soup

The soup had huge hunks of tender fish mixed with all sorts of vegetables as well as sliced green olives. All of that swimming in a spicy tomato broth with tons of seafood flavor made this one of the top eats of the week. I'll be thinking about it through the winter. The pulpo was well spiced but I'll always prefer it when grilled so that there's some char flavor. The Gobernador taco is a Sinaloan specialty that was requested for dinner by the then Governor of the states wife one night. She asked for shrimp tacos with cheese mixed with tomatoes, peppers, and onion. The rest is history as it's become one of the regions most popular tacos.

 Pulpo in Red Chile and Shrimp Gobernador Tacos

On our way out of town back to San Diego I wanted to get one more Baja fish taco just to see how it compared to the spot we tried upon arrival. The place I wanted to try wasn't where it was supposed to be but in finding out we passed another spot that I had read good things about. You're never far from a good taco in in these parts.

Tacos Floresta (Ensenada)

Nice crowd of locals hovered around the stand. I was stuffed but I still had room for one. No regrets on this. The fish might've been even crunchier than the first stop. I ended up having no idea which one was better but I did learn that the legend of the Ensenada fish taco is definitely not a fable.

Baja Fish Taco

Well that's it for the seafood eats in Ensenada, but not the meat! As mentioned above once the sun goes down it's all about the four legged animals. We made sure we got full use of our only night in town and we were able to eat some good food and visit some fun watering holes. Before going to some bars we hit up a pair of dueling taco stands located down the road from our hotel. Note: I rec staying at Hotel Coral and Marina to get the best of everything.

Taqueria El Flamazo (Ensenada)

I knew we needed to try this place based on their sign and name alone. Upon walking up we were greeted by a beautifully maintained trompo. Everything about it was perfect. You could tell this was the real deal just by looking.

Trompo in Motion

The friendly taquero carved us off enough for six tacos and we took them over to the seating area. These I believe were al pastor as there was a pineapple over the meat. Either way they were some of the best spit roasted meat tacos I've ever had. Probably the second best tacos of the trip.

Taco al Pastor

I noticed we hadn't had a Volcan taco up until this point so I put an order in for a couple of those. I wasn't sure what to expect as far as this spots making of one but they knocked it out of the park. Yet another Sinaloa specialty where they fry a tortilla 'til crisp and pile it high with meat, melted cheese, and a barrage of condiments like guacamole, salsa, and pinto beans. Also called Vampiros these are basically tostadas on steroids.

Volcan Taco with Carne Asada

Right next door there was another taco spot. Though what we just had would be hard to top we decided we had to see what they were doing. Not the same thing as is often the case. Here they seemed to be popular for their carne asada.

Taqueria El Trailero (Ensenada)

We got one each and as always ordered them "con todo" which means with everything. The wood grilled steak was being chopped to order and while good it was the tortillas that actually stood out here. Some of the better ones we had on this trip. Believe it or not handmade tortillas aren't common practice in Mexico. These tortillas being made by a lady on site were thicker than most and left a nice corn smell on ones fingers. A good thing in my book.

Carne Asada Tacos

Since it was a weeknight and there didn't appear to be any cruise ships docked the town was pretty tame. There were a good amount of people that were out but most of them were locals. There's a popular set of restaurants in Baja called Papas Y Cerveza and I guess they could best be described as a Senor Frog's type place. Though it's still frequented by locals as there was a nice crowd on our visit. We enjoyed some tequila, cerveza, and Cubanos on the patio listening to some music before walking around town. Right down the block was this place making lots of noise.

Las Micheladas (Ensenada)

It too may or not be a chain. We were drawn in by the police of all people. Before this I had never so much as seen a police officer in Mexico smile. Rarely do they even acknowledge you. But the ones working the door here were as friendly as any cops I've ever come across. They insisted we come in so we did. Upon entry it was obvious we were the only gringos in there. The place was packed with locals there to see a band that was about 16 deep on stage. The place was rocking. I didn't know this was a thing but most every table of guys had a bottle of Johnnie Walker and buckets of Monster Energy drink. GROSS. But what a fun night it was. We never would've gone in if not for the friendliness of the Policia.

a peek inside

Right outside the club was a lady slinging Danger Dogs. My buddy who owns a hot dog stand here in Chicago had never had one so I had to introduce him.

Hot Dog Cart (Ensenada)

Mexican Hot Dogs go by many different names but they're just called hot dogs there. I'm sure there's slight variations to Sonoran Dogs, Border Dogs, Danger Dogs etc but the basis of them all is a cheap wiener wrapped in bacon.

The Setup

Sometimes they're deep fried, other times they're cooked in fat on a flattop, and most all of the time they're covered in an onslaught of toppings. These had ketchup, mayo, tomatoes, grilled onions, jalapenos, and more. The smell alone was worth the price of one hot dog. I love these things. They make for the best use of a cheap wiener and you need to use them when making one. I've tried one with the likes of a Vienna Beef and they're nowhere near as good.

Mexican Danger Dog

Last stop of the night before heading back to the hotel. What a good life to always be within close reach of some fantastic tacos. I may have to grow old somewhere in Mexico and Ensenada might be the front-runner.

Tacos El Paisa (Ensenada)

This spot was a classic Baja style late night taqueria. They had a spit of adobada up and running and a grill full of carne asada alongside some cebollitas was calling our name.

Taquero at Work

We each got both a carne asada as well as an adobada taco and also a couple of Mulitas to share. What's that you ask? An open face flour tortilla spread with a variety of toppings and your choice of meat topped by another tortilla and then cut in half. Basically a taco sandwich. Or what we in the States call a quesadilla. This was the perfect post-booze food.


Carne Asada Taco

Taco Adobada

Well that's it for this part of the trip but it's not the ending. While heading back to San Diego on Thursday we finally found out what people mean when they say Tijuana is a tough place to drive. The city was getting ready for the weekends Independence Day festival and some roads were closed. We spent over an hour trying to get to the border. It was hell. Eventually coming to our sense we paid a taxi driver to lead us there and he did so no problem. Haha. Then and there I was happy to be gone but soon after I was ready to go back.

Crossing by foot

Saturday would be the day most everyone in the group crossed back over the border to do a guided beer/taco tour of Tijuana. As mentioned we used Club Tengo Hambre which does guided tours of not just Tijuana but pretty much all across Baja as well as Mexico City and Los Angeles. Though they have set tours with places they go to I wanted to make sure we got to do a few spots on my list so I created my own itinerary as far as the taco stops and they made it all happen while mixing in some breweries. For $105/head we were chauffeured around town and got tacos and beer at the spots on our list. Mezcal was provided on the bus.

Erizo (Tijuana)

This popular sitdown spot was the perfect place to start our tour. The seating allowed us to relax and have a few drinks as well as whatever else we wanted to eat on top of the food that came incl. with the tour. Javier Plascencia is one of TJ's most decorated chefs for his dedication to innovative food and also sustainability. He grew up working in the culinary business at his family's restaurant Caeser's which is the birthplace of the Caesar Salad. These days he has a few of his own restaurants around town including Erizo - Cocina de Mariscos Estilo Tijuana.

Shrimp and Tuna Tostadas

To start we had what the CTH people ordered for us. Two of the best ceviches I've ever had. The one on the left is the Verde de Camaron and it mixes fresh local shrimp with diced seranos, jalapenos, tomatillo and more. It wasn't all that spicy but did have the perfect amount of kick. The tuna with sesame seeds was something I could eat every damn day. Erizo is also known for their Tacos Tijuanero which mix pulpo, cecina de res y camarón enchilado inside a crispy tortilla made so from time on the grill. It was at this point those that were visiting for the first time understood how good the food in Baja is.

Taco Tijuanero

While at Erizo I realized that next time I come back I was going to have to further explore some of the nicer more modern spots like it. I had them on my radar but time restraints made most of them out of reach. Next stop up on our craft beer and taco tour was a place who's name might ring a bell to fellow Chicagoans.

Tacos Kokopelli (Tijuana)

These guys have a culinary background and use it to make the most of tacos. They started off as a food truck and became one of TJ's most popular taco stops allowing them to switch over to brick and mortar. They do seafood tacos and they grill most everything on their wood fired grill. Though for our first bite they made an off menu item for us.

Taco Dorado y Panza Ahogada

Not sure if this was a test run for a future menu item or just something they like to make up from time to time but it was wonderful. Tacos Ahogada are commonly found at places specializing in tortas ahogada but I've never had any like these! It was crispy, it was porky, it was spicy, and it was a delight.

Kraken Tacos for the table

The taco that put these guys on the map is the Kraken. Grilled octopus marinated in a pesto and mixed with lots of cheese. Damn good but I liked the shrimp and poblano offering a bit more. If the menu translated from here to the now defunct Chicago location it would probably still be going strong.

Shrimp and Poblano Tacos

As Tijuana's food scene grows fast the same can be said for the beer. Seeing as how San Diego is one the biggest beer cities in the States this makes sense considering TJ's proximity to San Diego. We got to stop at three different craft breweries popular for their beers. For whatever reason Tijuana doesn't seem to be a big day drinking city so it was mostly our group and a few others here and there at the bars. I dont remember the beers I tried but all of it was good.

Border Psycho Brewery (Tijuana)

Next stop would've been the first place I went to upon my arrival that Tuesday but I wanted everyone to get a chance to come here so I saved it for the tour. No talk of tacos in Tijuana is complete without a mention of the city's seafood queen.

Mariscos Ruben (Tijuana)

Señora Mirta, along with her husband Rubén, have operated this local institution for a quarter of a century. It's the type of spot that inspired Chef Plascencia to open up Erizo. Though it's a truck they set up on the same corner everyday and people from all walks of life flock to that corner.

Legendary Salsa Bar

Even though Sonora is known for it's steak part of it's land lies on the Sea of Cortez so you better believe locals there know how to do up a surf and turf. Though here at Mariscos Ruben they stick strictly to seafood. Known for their famous grilled tacos as well as wonderful tostadas, big bowls of chile water (aguchile), and a top shelf salsa bar. This place is a legend in these parts.

Seafood Aguachile

Aside from what we were there for I wanted to try one of their fabulous bowls of aguachile. We opted for the campechano (mixed) version and got a big bowl of locally caught seafood. This style of ceviche comes with lots of sliced seafood swimming in a bath of cucumber, red onion, lime juice, and chilies that have been pulverized with some water hence the name. Excellent.

Grilling the Smoked Marlin Tacos

All of the cooking here is done on the corner on top of a small little grill that would be nice for a single guy with a deck at his apartment to have. They're able to speed up the process by having the tacos pre-rolled and ready to grill. While they offer a handful of options none come with as much praise as the smoked marlin tacos. Smoked marlin meat done so by sitting on coals is mixed with cheese that melts when the tortilla is grilled. Just absolutely wonderful. I've been to taco heaven and it's on a corner in Tijuana. Best tacos of the trip.

Smoked Marlin Tacos

Mariscos Ruben was a crowd favorite. My buddy who lives in San Diego went back the next weekend with his girlfriend. If you only have one place to stop in Tijuana it would be a very good choice. You can make a nice 1-2 punch of it with one of TJ's most popular taco adobada stops.

Tacos El Franc (Tijuana)

Since the legend that is Tacos Franc was right around the corner we wandered over before boarding the bus to Hong Kong. Franc is so popular that its spawned some other spots with Frank and or Franc in the name. Locals love their take on tacos adobada and once you try one for yourself you'll understand why locals will put their favorite taco spots in TJ up against anywhere in Mexico. You'd do the same if you came from this rich taco city. What a tour put on by the wonderful folks at CTH.

Taco Adobada

Well this is where the camera goes away and the story ends my friends. We had our busdriver drop us off at one of TJ's most infamous clubs and that was that. No I didn't eat any Chinese food in case you were wondering. What a week. Hard to believe just a few of the days were spent in Mexico. Already plotting my return to Baja California. Go BIG or go elsewhere.

See ya next time...

Note: As linked to before I mapped out all of these stops as well as others on Google Maps. You can check all the addresses by clicking legend in the upper left corner. Click HERE for the map. Thanks for reading.


Ed Bass said...

Wow, that is an EPIC post. I really had no desire to visit Mexico, but you might have changed my mind.

ML said...

Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Thanks! My shirt is covered in drool now.

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