9.07.2011

Baja Humbug! Mexico’s Food and Drink is Rather Merry

Tequila: that’s the drink. If you know nothing about Mexico you know that much. There are many types of tequila used in margaritas and it’s not possible to tell you where the best margaritas can be found as Baja has literally thousands of them. But if you’re drinking one the Cadillac Margarita, made with Cuervo Gold and Grand Marnier; it’s the smoothest version you will find. For a completely different version, La Diferencia, a fantastic restaurant in Tijuana, makes a tamarind margarita, (tamarind is a tree fruit) a muted dusty rose looking thing, beautifully smooth with a rustic, mildly sweet taste. In Ensenada, you have margaritas from what many believe to be the actual birthplace of the drink at the Bar Andaluz.

The interior of Bar Andaluz
To hear their story, accompanied by the tile plaque on the front of the building, the now famous drink was created August 21st, 1948 by bartender David Negrete for a woman named, you guessed it, Margarita. These days the bar, with its beautiful Deco painted back bar, is more a haven for the tourists who want a free simplistic version of this classic drink, and what they serve won’t do justice to the original, but it’s a cool historic stop.

The beautiful Guadalupe Valley

Baja California is also known for their wine. The Guadalupe Valley east of Ensenada is the premier grape growing region with about 60 wineries and makes 90 percent of the wine in all of Mexico. But beyond the offerings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chenin Blanc, Vina La Viceaga makes grappa, a 40% alcohol spirit made from wine grapes. They produce versions from Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Barbera grapes. Grappa is not allowed to be tasted in U.S. tasting rooms (well, not “legally”) but you can here. And of course there is the beer. In Tecate, east of Tijuana, Tecate Brewery makes not only the iconic Tecate beer, but also Dos Equis and Sol. They offer a free hour-long tour of their facility, which is a little industrial with its gleaming stainless steel equipment and rapid-fire un-manned assembly lines, but you’ll get the idea. At full tilt they produce 1,600 cans each minute. 30,000 people a year visit and perhaps ironically, they get many of their hops from Wisconsin. Included is a free beer in their outdoor beer garden.

Brewer Victor Gonzales

In Tijuana, the micro brewery, Tijuana Brewery, is aiming directly at the stronghold of Tecate beer. Head brewer Victor Gonzales brews up batches using hops from the Czech Republic and malts from Canada and is attempting to give more structure to his beers. Their best are the Brava; a drier, hoppier beer, and Bofadora (named for the famous blow hole), a full bodied, smooth brew with a hoppy, bitter finish.
The region also claims to be the birthplace of the Caesar Salad and you can go to Caesar’s Restaurant and have them make it for your table side: a slow, methodical process which adds the ingredients one at a time and ultimately creates, arguably, the best Caesar salad you will probably ever have. And definitely visit La Querencia in Tijuana where Miguel Anjon Guerrello has been at the forefront of Baja-Med cuisine for a decade. Miguel is a true renaissance man, shooting his own game, cutting his own wood to smoke it on, and brewing his own beer. The gallery of animal heads on the wall is like Noah’s Ark, he jokes. “If it fly’s, swims or craws, it’s probably here.” The evening I was at this strip mall location he served up fresh shot quail with a bittersweet chili sauce, and the best venison carpaccio I’ve ever tasted.


Making Caesar salad at Caesar's
If seafood is your preference, Barra Azul in Ensenada does excellent fish, including marlin carpaccio, octopus ceviche, and they have a complete oyster bar. Or for sautéed crickets, a delicacy in Mexico, head back to La Diferencia in Tijuana. While there also try La Coche, or “corn smut,” a fungus that’s allowed to grow on ears of corn. It has more in common with the taste of truffles and is served on homemade tortillas with smoky ranch-style beans. One of my favorite places to stay is the Hotel Coral and Marina in Ensenada. This is the best lodging in order to access the wineries in the Guadalupe Valley, and/or reasonable access to Tecate or Tijuana, and it’s located right on the ocean. Not only are the prices fantastic for the large rooms, but every room faces the ocean from your balcony, with average pricing under $200. The rooms are nicely appointed and you won’t find a better bang for your buck. As if this isn’t enough they have a shuttle which will get you to downtown Ensenada, OR, if you live in Southern California, they have packages where they will pick you up where you live and drive you to the hotel, thereby having little to do with crossing the border. 
The views at Hotel Coral

Baja is a study of contrasts, the birthplace of the margarita and the Caesar salad. But it is also coming into its own with seafood harvested directly off shore, restaurants offering local specialized foods, and a place where you will find original items you won’t see in America.

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