For the group of food writers, bloggers, chefs and restaurateurs that spent this past weekend traveling through Mexico, Saturday morning began at the weekend-only spot, Barbacoa "Ermita". Slurping lamb consommé so thick and soothing that it should replace chicken soup in elementary school thermoses, chomping pansita (Mexican haggis), drinking brightly colored jamaica (hibiscus) and sucking down mutton cooked overnight until it evolved into barbacoa.
On the final leg in the journey, we made our way to the coastal town of Ensenada. At La Guerrerense, the 33 year-old seafood cart: tostadas of sea cucumber, warm sea urchin, bacalao (salt cod) and sea snail, topped with various homemade salsas, including one packed with spicy peanuts, were yet further proof of the massive difference between California Mexican and the real thing.
The double-deep fried cazón (small shark) tacos (with special thanks to the Japanese for introducing tempura to Mexico) at Tacos El Felix were a perfect blend of moisture and crispiness. Smoked tuna croquettes at Muelle Tres, the small, dock-side food purveyor, had a pulled-pork consistency inside the fried crust, and the sardines at Restaurant La Manzanilla, laid with a creamy spread atop thin crostini, were crispy, briny perfection.
Mexico has a wine country? It does, and quite a pretty one at that. The Valle de Guadalupe is the number one wine region in Mexico, thanks, they say, to its close proximity to the sea. One such winery, Viña de Liceaga, impressed with fruity and very drinkable wines, paired at first with real de castillo, a salty, semi-soft product that tastes like what cottage cheese ought to. Afterward, we were treated to conchinita con pibil, beef cheek tacos and swordfish tacos sprinkled generously with chopped pineapple.
Next up: Villa de Valle boutique hotel and winery. Yes, the ostrich wrapped in kale and topped with caramelized onions was delicious, but nothing can top sitting on the back patio and sipping winemaker Philip Gregory's unfiltered sauvignon blanc as dogs roll playfully in the grass under the breeze.
Yet just as you think you've seen the best that Mexican wine country has to offer, you discover Silvestre, the brainchild of master chef Benito Molina. You will sit outside (for there is nowhere else to sit), you will be stunned by the view, and you will eat beautiful creations such as an unpretentious bluefin tuna "ceviche" (farmed off the coast), with chopped ginger, serrano chilies, soy, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. You will be amazed by sliced abalone, served in its shell with tomatoes, cream and white wine, or crisp-skinned ocean perch on a bed of cactus salad with cotija cheese.
But you can't go back to Los Angeles without passing back through Tijuana--and to do that without stopping to eat what some call The Best Tacos In Mexico, at Tacos Salceados, you would be making a huge mistake. An inventive, modern taqueria, Tacos La Ermita is the project of Javier Campos Guttierez, a former sous chef who decided to bring a modern restaurant kitchen mentality to Mexican street food. His most famous concoctions, perhaps, are his quesa tacos, where the tortilla has been replaced by a thin crispy layer of Monterrey jack cheese. You can have it filled with steak or shrimp, or the more inventive dessert version: filled with beef, onions and mango, then topped with a puréed berry sauce and finely-chopped pecans.
If none of this has convinced you that Mexico is not just a wonderful source for tremendous food but also a truly great place to visit, then perhaps I can direct you to the nearest TGI Fridays. For the record, they have one of those in Tijuana, too.
La Guerrerense corner of Costero & Riveroll, Ensenada., Tacos El Felix corner of Espinosa and Juarez, Ensenada., Muelle Tres Noth side of the Ensenada boardwalk., Restaurant La Manzanilla, Teniete Azueta 139, Ensenada, Baja California.,Tel: 011 52 646 175 70 73., Viña de Liceaga Km.93 carretera Tecate-Ensenada, San Antonio de las Minas Tel: 011 52 646 155 30 91., Villa de Valle Valle de Guadalupe., Silvestre Valle de Guadalupe, closed during winter., Tacos Salceados Avenida Ermita Norte 30-A, Fraccionamiento Santa Cruz, La Mesa., Barbacoa "Ermita" Avenida Ermita Norte, across the street from Tacos Salceados.