“Free shrimp ceviche tostada if you Like us on Facebook!”
That’s John Renison calling out to kids drifting by this Friday evening, wondering what his black pop-up tent is doing here in a Coronado parking lot with split wine barrels lining a sit-up counter.
“What do I have to do?” asks a girl.
“Just ‘Like’ ‘the Blue Quetzal,’” says Renison. “That’s us.”
What’s interesting is what the Blue Quetzal’s selling; tacos, yes, but not just same-old carne asada tacos like at your nearest Aliberto’s, but with original takes on the street food of all street foods. The “arrachera asada” flank steak taco has meat that’s marinated in orange juice, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce. The shrimp in the ceviche tostada has been butterflied, split and spread out, then doused in aguachile, mainly lemon juice. The citric acids cook the shrimp till it turns white. Beetroot and avocado are involved. They also do shrimp with hibiscus flower, and octopus a la plancha.
So I have to ask: Is this Baja Med?
Because, honestly, I’m confused.
The Baja-Med food revolution is happening. For sure. Hey, if it’s in the New York Times…
“[Chef Javier] Plascencia, who was born and raised in Tijuana but attended high school and culinary school in San Diego, refers to his cooking as Baja Mediterranean: traditional Mexican cuisine combined with ingredients and flavors that flourish in Baja California’s coastal Mediterranean-like climate, including olive oil, abalone and arugula. It’s a style espoused by other Tijuana chefs, like Miguel Angel Guerrero, of La Querencia; Jair Tellez, at Laja; and Martín San Román, of Rincón San Román. But Mr. Plascencia brings a flair for dramatic presentation, an appreciation for Tijuana street food’s deep flavors, and a binational approach to farm-to-table cooking.”
…Or Anthony Bourdain, on his swing through Baja for No Reservations last year. He discovers Baja Med cuisine in the Guadalupe Valley. Even though chef Benito Molina of restaurant Manzanilla doesn’t really go for the name. “It’s more Mexican than Mediterranean,” he says. “It’s Mediterranean ingredients, but done in a Mexican way.”
But what I want to know is, what is it that’s happening? Is it anything more than sophisticated tacos? Street food that was always around, just getting middle-class-ified? Is it an Emperor’s New Clothes situation where you have to go “Wow!” just to show you’re cool with the in crowd?
Or is it real, like with the San Diego beer scene (and now Tijuana, too). Real experimentation, creating an identity out of whole cloth?
This kind of came together the other night when I was standing outside the Blue Quetzal, chewing the fat with Renison.
“I’m from Mexicali,” says Renison. “But I have spent four years in San Diego, and three years in Boston where I met my wife and we had our two children. It was there we saw the need for authentic Mexican gourmet street food. As in tacos. Not taco shops — Rubio’s, La Salsa... But more original, interesting.”
“Besides, I needed a new entrepreneurial adventure. So I came back to San Diego. I looked at my bank account, and I saw that there was a little money left, and I said ‘I’m going to bring Baja-Med to San Diego.’”
Aha. The word.
He soon realized the reality was, Baja Med was already here, in places like Romesco’s in Bonita. “But I said, ‘That’s a place where you have to sit down, and it’s expensive, and it’s far away from the center of San Diego. Basically, Chula Vista’s a Latino population, a Mexican population, close to the border. So I thought I would open in downtown, Coronado, North County, places like that. All of them. I got a pop-up tent, and started at the corner of Tenth and B, at Chaplos restaurant and bar in downtown.
Chef Miguel Milland at El Colegio in Tijuana, sophisticated tacos at Chef Fuillermo Moreno's Kokopelli Food Truck, and Tijuana's only culinary school
“I started with a menu: octopus with tamarind, shrimp with hibiscus, and lemon fish with California-pepper refried beans and lemon zest. Everything on a corn tortilla. We made alfalfa and chia water, and cucumber and chia water as well. It worked really good.”
But is this Baja Med? Actually, what is Baja Med?
“Eight years ago chef Miguel Angel Guerrero from the restaurant La Querencia in Tijuana, and Javier Plascencia from Casa Plascencia, whose family owns Caesar’s, and Finca Altozano in the Guadalupe Valley, they started a new concept, a new trend in Baja California where there was no traditional cuisine. Basically, you can say that Baja California is the only state in Mexico that didn’t have any kind of food that distinguishes it.
“The only food from Baja that’s known in the entire world is the Caesar salad. So, these guys came up with the idea to build some type of fusion of food. Not only tacos. But Mediterranean, and Asian ways of presenting fish.”
He reminds me of how many Asians settled in Baja, many fleeing the anti-Asian laws and the general prejudice that ruled California, back in the bad old days. California’s loss was Baja’s gain. Asian influence in the region’s cooking is subtle but real.
“Sure. Look at my ‘pescado empanizado’ taco,” Renison says. “It’s breaded fish with melted cheese on top. We’re using Japanese tempura methods brought there by Japanese fishermen as they have perfected them in Ensenada.”
He says tomorrow the treatment will be different. “We’ll be at the Mission Brewery in Barrio Logan, and the fish [will be] like fish machaca. It’s kind of shredded fish, could be mahi mahi, could be tilapia. It all depends on the city or the area we are in. And it has a bed of refried black beans, California pepper, and a special signature sauce that I made which is not guacamole, but it’s avocado, jalapeño, cilantro, and tomatillo. So, that’s not Baja Med. I made my own concept. I don’t do Baja Med. I do artisan Baja cuisine.”
So, nailing this isn’t going to be so easy. Guess we’ll have to take a little trip.
Tribute to Cesar
We’re in TJ, above the Rio district, where the mountain with the sign “JESUCRISTO ES EL SEÑOR” carved into it in white looks down at you from a great height. It’s a starkly sunny day, especially in the ultra-modern rust/glass/concrete courtyard and classrooms of the Culinary Art School, maybe this town’s most famous place for wannabe chefs. And for the phenomenon of Baja Med. Its spawning ground, you might say.
Today, the kids are showing off what they’ve learned. Plates are glinting with octopus, seaweed, butterflied shrimp, local mussels, oysters in lemon and pico de gallo, Baja cheeses, aguachile-marinated raw shrimp, goose barnacles. The sea, olive oil, red peppers all play big. Some dishes are lettuce leaves holding, say, oysters on rice. And José Figueroa, one of the student chefs, gives me what may be the clearest definition of what Baja Med’s all about.
“Everything on the menu we picked, plucked, or waded out and caught, today. We got up this morning at four, drove to the mangroves, dove to pluck the mussels, other clams. We picked herbs, vegetables, fruit…then we came back and prepared this lunch. That’s Baja Med.”
So, yes, famous chefs like Javier Plascencia and Miguel Angel Guerrero are leading the Baja Med charge, but the engine of heretical ideas is right here under the mountain with the message.
How seriously is the school being taken? Figueroa is about to take off for the U.K. to join the staff at a famous restaurant, L’Enclume. He follows in the footsteps of school graduate Guillermo “Oso” Campos Moreno, who was hired by a Michelin three-star restaurant in Holland called Oud Sluis.
One dish Figueroa is working on seems more like food design. As food, it looks ridiculously simple. Four lettuce leaves shaped like a propeller, with croutons, cheese, and some creamy-clear liquid in the scoop of the leaves.
“This?” says Figueroa, when he sees me looking. “A Caesar’s salad. Tribute to César Cardini, the Tijuana inventor. My interpretation.”
Crisis leads to freedom
People say that one big reason for the rise and rise of Baja Med is 9/11. The slamming of the border after that, and then the U.S. economy tanking, and drug violence from ’08 onward turned the world’s busiest bordertown into the world’s biggest ghost town. No more tourists, no more market for schlocky trinkets, no more market to sell the unmoving traditional Mexican food that thrived on never changing. The appeal to visitors had always been to “old Mexico,” where things were quaint and predictable. Really, it was a condescending view and the merchants had to play to it. It held back the swelling tide of young entrepreneurs and chefs who kept thinking What about us, our food, our new ideas?
It was the financial/tourist crisis that set these guys free, gave them new confidence, set in motion the idea that looking at new ideas and ancient knowledge south of the border was cool and beautifully uncharted territory. Everything from using huitlacoche — black corn mold that the Aztecs used for flavor — to using native succulents like salicornia, also known as sea beans, or beach asparagus, off the beach marshes.
That idea, of using the food that’s growing around the neighborhood — from Cabo to Diego — is the backbone of this movement. And one of the coolest places right now where you see this happening is on a street not far from the post office, near the giant bandera — national flag — at the top of Revolución, where it curves and morphs into Agua Caliente Boulevard.
It’s a hot, windy lunchtime on Calle Melchor Ocampo. The canvas is flapping and flicking and smoke’s pouring out from underneath. People stand huddled in the shade of the palm-frond-covered canopy alongside this pot-holed street.
Even across the road, you can smell the taco meat roasting. Okay, maybe you smell the fire first. It’s mesquite. Has its own smell. Bodes well.
I cross over, join the little throng. “It’s what they call Baja Med,” says this woman, Norma. “Really sophisticated tacos, but cheap. Usually it’s just at upmarket places like La Querencia, Misión 19. Here, 25 pesos.” All the tacos here are between 22 and 35 pesos, say $1.75–$3.
Three guys in black work away behind a wood-burning grill, cooking meats, peppers, huge mushrooms, and corn tortillas.
I ask the cook in the cowboy hat, Orlando, what he recommends. He says I need to have the Kraken. That’s the taco with grilled octopus in a Mexican pesto sauce. Then, he says, I should maybe have the Black Harder, ceviche de lenguado — of sole — with chile calabasa (squash) and a peanut chili, done “in a style unique to Kokopelli.”
The Kraken explodes with taste in your mouth. It lies there open-faced, waiting for you to roll it up, holding a great, long wad of green Anaheim chili that acts like a peppery boat filled with the chopped-up octopus and the pesto on top of the filling. It has poblano chili peppers, cilantro, and other stuff you know they’ll never tell you about. And is that cheese and avo? What it is is a riot of tastes you need to take time to get your buds around.
Then there’s the Black Harder taco (a play on “Negro Durazo,” the local seafood chain in TJ, Chula Vista, and Lemon Grove). Oh, man. The “style unique to Kokopelli” turns out to be ceviche of sole cooked in lime, stained with squid ink, then slapped on a messy red layer of roasted tomato, toasted chilies, peanuts, and someone says (I think), squash and roasted habaneros in olive oil. Whatever it is, they say the sauce is “oriental.” There’s that Asian Baja Med thing again.
Norma and her friends Gaby and Claudia are leaning over chewing their tacos, letting the drips hit the pavement. They’ve got octopus and pesto tacos that have been flambéed. Look delicious.
Oh, it’s the Kraken pulpo, too. “It tastes very different from the usual tacos,” says Norma. “The tortilla flavor is different because it is cooked on mesquite. It blackens the corn.”
Here’s the weird part: Orlando Miguel Delmonte, the guy in the cowboy hat, says that Kokopelli was started by his buddy, chef Guillermo “Oso” Campos…
It takes a moment for the penny to drop. Oh, right! He’s the guy who graduated from the Culinary Art School.
And yet you’ve gotta wonder: how hard is that, to come back from Oud Sluis in Holland, three Michelin stars, and sell tacos from a street stand?
Seems what happened was he returned to TJ to start up his own restaurant in Rosarito. But the partnership didn’t work out. So he started this with his brother Pablo and his good buddy “Cricket” (Orlando).
I’ve been back since. Now they have opened an actual restaurant not far away. But, no, this is the place for me, chowing down, in the wind, mesquite smoke blowing every which way, incredible flavors in your mouth, smiles from others having the same experience.
At the last moment, Chef Oso comes up. He’s wiry, with kind of dreads, a black chef’s tunic, and a merry eye. Actually, he looks like the image of Kokopelli, the trickster flute-playing deity of the Southwest.
Doesn’t he miss the lux life and cooking of Oud Sluis?
“In some ways,” he says. “But with the high-end restaurant, you work 17 hours a day, and with the food you create, you just plate it and ring a bell, and somebody else comes and takes it. Here on the street you get to see the customer and talk about it. And you can try your own new ideas without asking somebody. This is more fun.”
To create a Baja identity
I luck out big time the night I wander up Revolución and into El Colegio, the Baja Med eatery started by the guy who invented the term “Baja Med,” Miguel Angel Guerrero Yagües — and the guy’s actually there. Irony: it’s kitty-corner across Fifth Street from the muy tradicional Caesar’s Restaurant, which has been serving pretty-much the same sort of food — for sure that salad — for 90 years.
Here at El Colegio you walk in, sit up to the little corrugated iron bar, order a drink that the server gal Erika recommends. “He is an outdoorsman,” she says, meaning Guerrero. “He collects things, tries them together. This is one of his best.”
It’s a Shot Cabo: cocktail with shrimp, octopus, vodka, salsa, some sashimi, blond beer, cucumber, and avocado. All in a whiskey glass. With some fish eggs — caviar? — like tiny black grapes on top. Comes with baked bread slices. Costs around $4.50. I also get a Negra Modelo beer ($3.50) just to touch base with reality while I decide what else to have.
I check out the decor. Recycled everything, but hip. “Tierra de Migrantes, Tierra de Oportunidad,” reads big lettering above wall shelves holding ’50s standard items such as old electric mixers, pans, pitchers, scales. The tables are covered with messages, too, and have little gardens for succulents running up their middle. All in tune with the unpretentious live-let-live, eco-friendly, live-with-what-you’ve-got vibe that you feel is at the heart of the Baja Med movement, that semi-industrial recycled feel of places in San Diego like Blind Lady or Queenstown. But with traditional things, too. Like a coat of arms and even that title, “El Colegio.” College? College of what?
“College of learning about Baja-Med cuisine,” says Miguel-Angel Guerrero, the man himself. He and his wife Judith have just come out from the big kitchen behind. He’s dressed in a military-looking olive-drab chef’s jacket with mandarin collar and a Mexican flag sewn into it. Plus his name on one side and “La Querencia” sewn in orange on the other. You can see from his complexion the guy’s outdoors a lot.
He sees me looking. “La Querencia? My first restaurant,” he says. “It is me. There, I just cook what I want. Here, it’s to educate people about Baja Med. The whole locavore idea. Mexicans as well as tourists. That’s why I do dishes here that lead you gently in.”
Uh, not necessarily gentle. One of the thrills of this Shot Cabo “cocktail” is the three sauces that come with it: left one’s hot as Hades; middle one’s red, uncooked mole — “Pure chili,” he says; and the third is a kind of spice-alubias bean mix. Totally delish.
The Guerreros head off to a long table at the front where a group’s waiting for them. Meanwhile, three cooks are waiting behind in the kitchen. Miguel, Christina, Roberto. Culinary Art School alums. Looks like they’ve fed everybody else here. Want to know what I want.
“Just small plates,” I say. “But Baja Med. Trying to get a handle on the idea.”
“No problem,” says Erika, and five minutes later she arrives with a plate of tuna. Three slices, grilled (seared, really) with slices of avocado between them and red onion and green cilantro as a kind of headdress, all on a square-cut palm leaf. I don’t want to break it up. “Atun El Colegio,” it’s called. Erika says the tuna has been marinated in achiote, the kind of bitter Yucatán-type seed that’s a Mexican chef’s mainstay.
But it’s a light touch, refreshing to eat, and deceptively filling. Reminds you of sushi in its almost raw state, so the Asian esthetic’s at play here.
El Cubano, the cocktail guy, slides me the surplus from another Baja Med cocktail he’s just made another customer. A real doozie, this one. Tastes like grass. “Rasparito,” he says. “Mezcal, tequila, vodka, lime syrup, and yerba buena (mint), from Mr. Guerrero’s garden in Rosarito. We get a lot from his garden.”
Now Erika brings me a long white plate with two crispy-shell tacos aboard. One’s loaded with baby goat meat (“cabrito primal”), avocado, and five different red chilies, Erika says. The other’s octopus with pilaf rice and squid ink. The first impression comes from the crisp tortilla shells. They’re corn, and they’ve been cooked over mesquite and your nose picks it up straight off. The pulpo’s got heat, but the cabrito’s got the tang of goat but not the woolliness you sometimes have with full-grown goat. It’s like the difference between lamb and mutton.
But the icing on the cake has to be plate of five clams with slices of chorizo, butter, a bright red “wonder” chili I don’t even dare try, and “frituras de cabrito,” shreds of that baby goat meat scattered inside the shells, with cilantro leaves providing the greenery and fresh taste, all swimming in a reduction of white-wine sauce that is to die for. Luckily, they supply baguette slices lightly toasted so they’ll be crisp but still soak up that sauce. And the chorizo makes a man of the clams, gives them some bite.
It’s a meal to remember, but I don’t feel weighed down, and I’m only out $30. Of course, I didn’t go for any of the big dishes, which can get up to $30 for one. (But if you’re broke, Guerrero says they do have items like rice and risotto with refried calamari for 60 pesos, say $4.50.)
So, still don’t have the Baja Med totally nailed down, but I am getting the general drift: in a world of predictable Mexican fare, these guys are going local, farm, and sea to table, and coming up with unpredictable dishes they might not even fully understand.
Guerrero and his wife come back to the bar. I have to ask how he got onto this Baja Med kick.
“I’ve always been into hunting, fishing and diving, bringing ’em back alive,” he says. “And I just had this idea about how we need to take an interest in our region. I’m a hunting type of guy, so my cooking is a hunting type of cooking. This summer I went on an expedition all through Baja, 22 days. Hunting our food, catching our food, picking it. You cook what you catch. The sustainable kitchen. Chad White, your San Diego chef, came with us.”
“Actually we’re both lawyers,” says Judith. “We met in law school. But Miguel was always cooking for me. So one day I just said, ‘You’re a chef. That is where your heart is. Go and get some training.’”
He did, in Mexico City.
“Gradually, I got this idea,” he says, “to make Baja a culinary destination, to use Mediterranean principles but use what Baja California provided. Those were bad days for Baja. We had nowhere to go but up. Our idea, me and others, was about having fresh, local products that you catch, but you care about, that you have an interest in keeping sustainable. And to use wild things — and one day I was thinking about applying Mediterranean principles to our Baja food, and how we needed to create a Baja identity to everything we were trying, and I put a name to it: ‘Baja Med.’ In the beginning it was hard, convincing people, but gradually the idea has taken hold, and now it’s wild. I don’t know where it will go, and that’s great. It’s not every day you can create a cuisine.”
And what’s so great is that this new cooking galaxy is still in a state of ferment. Where California cuisine north of the border is definitely pushing for locavore, farm-to-table, and organic, I get the impression they’re just using better raw materials to create the same basic stuff. You don’t feel that brilliant crazy foods drawn from nature itself, as well as the people who first tamed the corn and tamed the plants themselves — think tomatoes, think corn — are bursting out here as it is down there.
Okay, yes, there is Chad White. This energetic chef has been doing “Plancha Baja Med” pop-ups that have got the Baja gurus taking notice. And now he has taken his game into the belly of the beast: He and partner Jaime Brambila are opening the new “gastro bar” La Justina in pasaje space that the much-loved La Especial occupied for half a century underneath the Brambila family’s Lafayette Hotel on Revolución. White and fellow chef Iker Castillo are in charge.
La Justina’s opposite Caesar’s and just down from El Colegio — a Baja Med cluster.
They’re showing the right spirit: succulents grow up one wall and peppers and herbs the other; a greenhouse is planned for the hotel roof. I haven’t been, but we’re talking lots of tapas, such as octopus tostada, chicken hearts in mole, and entrées like lamb and suckling pig cooked in a wood-fired oven.
Sounds almost as exciting as the snail pizza I had at El Taller. Pizza is its thing. It’s another Guerrero place, which I had no idea about the night I wandered in off Río Yaqui, just because it looked like a nice old scrubby former warehouse. You get inside and there’s every cool cat from both sides of la linea ripping away at pizzas and guzzling away at Baja vino.
But then, on limited budget. Might just make it with a small pizza (they range from $6–$12).
Interesting flavors. Under “Pizza Baja-Med,” there are things like abalone chorizo, roasted pig, chicken with mole, and “Escargots,” $12 for the chico.
What follows is one of the great pizza experiences of my sorry flatbread life. I’ve been disappointed so often before with pizzas. But this snail pizza turns up, steaming, packed with green arugula and red peppers, sautéed onions, mozzarella cheese, and a bunch of dark curled snails, looking like ’shrooms, all on a thin crust.
Victor the waiter arrives with some small white pots: wedges of lime, a creamy pot of habanero, garbanzos, and garlic; chile de arbol with tomato; and the almost black arbol with toasted peanuts and olive oil.
The last one plus the limes create perfection. I’m kinda giddy about how good it tastes. Savory, garlicky, crispy...maybe baking it in the olive-wood fire gives it the final push.
People come down from L.A. for this
Had this revolution already happened but we never noticed? Mostly, this new cuisine seems to pull its ideas from the street and village life, and yet it’s mainly offered to the rich. Maybe this is just a middle-class con, repackaging ideas and traditions that have been hidden in plain view all this time.
I mean, you go to Mercado Hidalgo, the beautiful place in downtown TJ where all the produce comes up from down south. I’ve had grilled chapulinas — grasshoppers — to die for, goat that made your hair curl, roots and veggies and birds you’ve never heard of with strange and wonderful tastes. It’s where I first discovered huitlacoche, that black mold that grows on the stalks of corn plants. Both the corn and the mold courtesy of the Aztecs and Mayans. Beautiful with cream in crêpes. Couple of bucks.
Or in the fishing village of Popotla (like, the un–Puerto Nuevo), where a beautiful old guy nicknamed El Locochon would pick out a live fish from the latest boat coming into the beach, knock it on the head, and toss it into an upturned truck hubcap filled with boiling oil and for a few bucks deliver for you the freshest, garlicky-tastiest pescado you ever did eat.
Or La Faraona, on Puente Mexico, aka First Street in TJ, near the wax museum. Brand new, but no Baja Med trumpetings going on. Even though it’s got the cutest, artsiest wine bar, micro beer bar, and wines, cheeses, breads, and chorizos from the owners’ auntie Lupita in Guadalupe Valley. Lupita milks the goats, covers her cheeses in the ash of olive wood, bottles the wines, and sells them up here for $3, $5 — what ordinary people can afford.
Or La Ermita, little taco place off Agua Caliente Boulevard: created the quesotaco (shrimp, avocado, corn tortilla, cheese on the outside), or shrimp-and-salmon, shrimp-and-trout, and shrimp-and-scallop tacos. And the taco dulce, shrimp and pineapple with raspberry sauce oozing all over the top, plus garnishes of mint, sliced orange, and chopped walnuts. It goes for about $3.00.
Let the rich eat cake! I’ll settle for a taco dulce.
But, got to admit: the greatest gift Baja Med has given has been the energy, the adventure, and the unpredictability of a new cuisine. Even the Grand Old Lady of Revolución herself, Caesar’s, saved from decline by Javier Plascencia’s family, is back in form and delivering in high style what you might call the first Baja Med dish, the immortal Caesar salad.