KM-33, Baja: Oh, yes. They still have no power. Great. They still have just a dirt road. Excellent. And their pangas are hauled up on the beach already, back from the night’s fishing.
That means fish, fresh as it gets, I’d say.
I’m hiking down the track that always sets cars rocking and rolling at walking pace as they head for the cluster of rocks and houses they call Popotla.
This fishing village sits on a promontory a few miles south of Rosarito. And, yes, it’s still kind of primitive, but that’s what’s so great. The rocky headland protects a cove where all the pangas sit in the sand. Just up a steep slope, the dirt road heads for the point past the couple dozen houses, with maybe half of them jutting out over the sea on stilts.
So, now I’m looking at one of a bunch of marisco eateries. Problem is, it has two names. On the side, it says, “Mariscos Nayarit”; on the front, it reads, “Mariscos Costa Popotla.”
“Please, come in,” says this gal, Saritha. She’s spirited, middle-aged, with golden weathered skin and bright green eyes. “My boss has been running this place for 30 years,” she says. “Jorge Ruiz. He knows how to cook good fish. Now his son and grandson help, too.”
“Yes, yes, welcome,” says a fortyish gent. Turns out to be Jorge’s son, Paul. He leads me into a low-ceilinged room with a cooking area to the right and then this walkthrough out to a boarded, sloping deck area. Waves dash in right below a wind-battered fence. Jury-rigged canvas canopies and umbrellas strain in the breeze. A stony coastline leads north to a lighthouse.
It’s a cloudy, cool day, so not too many people here. Two couples — guys and their novias, from the cozy way they’re sitting — huddle inside. I take a table in there, too.
“What we have best today,” says Jorge, “is the juachinango, red snapper, with rice, beans, salad, chips, and salsa, for $10.”
“Or we have fish tacos. Tacos de pescado,” says Saritha. “Corbina.”
Hmm... Not looking for a feast today. “How about a couple of fish tacos?” I ask.
“And to drink? A Corona?”
A beer sounds like a good idea. Bottled, of course. Should go well with the fish.
Saritha heads over to the kitchen. There, a woman with red lipstick on stirs the boiling brown oil in a blackened pot with flames licking over its rim. Name’s Sara Garcia. Looks like a tall Nancy Reagan.
She slips a couple of fish fillets into the oil.
She nods. She starts chopping up a tomato and some lettuce on a huge tree-trunk chopping board.
“For your taco,” she says. She’s dressed with a couple of layers because the breeze coming through from the ocean is chilly, making it pretty fresh in here.
Two minutes later, Saritha brings over my Corona and two tacos on a bright blue plate with a map of both Californias. Big slab of dark-battered fish, salad, red onion, and a pink dressing on top.
Oh, my. Maybe it’s the bracing sea breeze...or maybe it was the long taxi de ruta ride down from TJ, then another from Rosarito, but my taste buds are hopping. I lunge into the corbina tacos. Man. The fresh fish flesh is so danged sweet and tasty. And I’m also getting spices and garlic coming through in the batter. Flesh is fall-off tender. I add a little hot sauce from the bowl Saritha brought. Now I definitely need the cerveza.
“Did you drive down?” says Saritha.
“No way,” I say. “Don’t have no car. Saving the planet. And besides, you miss all the fun that way.”
“Because this is one of the few places in Popotla that has parking,” she says. She points to a sloping piece of land behind the kitchen. “Sometimes people come, eat, then sleep the night in the car right here. That way they don’t have to worry about drinking.”
What I can’t understand is how come Popotla (which Saritha says means “Place of canes,” in Kumeyaay) hasn’t been snapped up by some developer. Or even the Baja tourism authority. Heck, it’s way closer to Rosarito than Puerto Nuevo.
“They have tried,” says Jorge. “But we are very strong, the people of Popotla. We like it as it is. It’s cheap enough for us to live and for restaurants like this to keep their prices down, because the rents aren’t so high. That’s why I have been able to keep our place open for 30 years.”
“We have no federal protection,” says Saritha, “no lighting without generators. We have to bring in our own water. The sewage is a big hole, a cistern, but this is how we like it. Some Russian financiers came through the other day. They wanted to turn us into a luxury fishing village, a retreat for businessmen. They offered money. They don’t understand.”
Oh, man. Talk about Old Mehico: I pay all of $2 for the tacos, $2.50 for the beer. I look up and down the dirt street. El Delfin (“The Dolphin”) across the road looks open but empty. Saritha says España, the oldest place here, is further up, toward the lighthouse. Ooh. Now I remember hearing about their crabs and clams and shrimp quesadillas. Definitely coming back for that.
Meantime, three generations of the Ruiz family — Jorge, Paul, and the grandkid, Gerardo — wave goodbye from the doorway. I’ll be back here, too, for their red snapper.
- The Place: Mariscos Costa Popotla (aka on the side: Mariscos Nayarit) first eatery on the right on the main (and only) “street” in Popotla, KM-33, Ensenada free road, five miles south of Rosarito, Baja California
- Prices: Fish tacos $1, red snapper meal, with rice, beans, salad, chips and salsa, $10
- Hours: 8:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. 7 days
- Buses: Taxis de ruta, Boulevard Benito Juárez, Rosarito Beach
- Nearest taxi stop: Pick up near Rosarito Beach Hotel entrance