About an hour south of San Diego traveling by toll road lies Ensenada, the Cinderella of the Pacific. What was once a fledgling settlement for Jesuits seeking to indoctrinate the semi nomadic Yumi people has become a cosmopolitan city of a half million thriving on a mix of military spending, shipping, and tourism.
Likely because of a resurgent dollar instead of actual facts, Mexico is once again considered safe for people without a brown complexion. Ensenada only registered around 50 murders for 2015 whereas Tijuana to the north is comfortably in the 500 range (about the same as Chicago), well below the 8-900s of a few years ago. This however, does not take into account all of the bodies dumped into shallow graves from the Sea of Cortez, to the vast inland deserts.
Seafood is the currency here, said to be the birthplace of the fish taco and home to one of the most active populations of great white sharks, just off the only deep water harbor in Baja California. More than 90 species of fish are harvested in the waters off Ensenada, eager to be eaten by bleach white Canadian tourists and SoCal retirees, offloading from cruise ships by the hundreds daily.
I am always extremely wary about seafood not stored in the proper conditions. Lovely things like Vibrio vulnificus and listeria thrive in temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit – seafood stored in the open without refrigeration is an excellent pathogenic culture, and a recipe for a long warm night on the toilet. Nonetheless, we decided to try the place that everyone talks about, La Guerrerense.
I would think, if you’ve had a successful food cart for 40 years, you might get the opportunity to move to a brick and mortar restaurant, but La Guerrerense the ceviche specialist had a line forming almost immediately when we arrived shortly before noon.
The operation here was troubling to say the least. Order from one guy, another guy chopping with no gloves or apron, everything exposed in the cramped space, and not much reason to the condiments out front.
The person chopping the low grade tuna with a dull oyster knife in particular was cause for concern – still the food was compelling. The service here is extremely fast; we didn’t wait for more than a moment before large dice sea urchin topped with avocado on a tostada was thrust into eager hands.
I believe we tried six or seven items when we were all said and done, one with sea snail, octopus, and fish pâté was particularly interesting but a bit too chewy to love. After spending some time in Japan, looking at the frayed tuna on slightly stale tostada was difficult, but we indulged.
Washing everything down with a small cup of horchata was essential. True and authentic horchata is painfully sweet and laden with cinnamon to combat the ubiquitous chile. I saw several people order Campechana, one of my favorite things to order in Rosarito (read about my quest for the lost city of camelo gigante, the Mexican Camelot).
When we went to pay we were asked to recall everything we had, which amounted to less than 20 dollars. American Dollars can be used nearly everywhere in Baja. I rested my hand on a giant clam sitting in an open crate and warm to the touch. I can’t say I’m eager to return.
One truly American thing I like to do I must confess, is visit Starbucks in other countries for the frappuccino choices. Mexico does not disappoint with a Horchata flavor which absolutely belongs in Los Angeles. There’s one right on the main strip, just follow the loud talking gringos with visible guts, riding ATVs through the streets like they are in the jungle.
Our last destination was Mulle 3, which will be my first destination when I return, and the place I recommend. The all day indoor / outdoor dining room was refreshingly empty of touristas when we arrived.
You’ll need to cross a phalanx of vendors trying to sell cheap mariscos or fish tacos to get there, but once you do you’ll find delicious takes on classics, including a fantastic Michelada with Clamato.
A complimentary starter takes you to Spain with a potato and egg torta on tasteful plateware. We were given excellent recommendations from a server well versed and enthusiastic about the menu from which we promptly ordered.
A creative plate of limes and salt also arrives. Several of the best restaurants in Baja take many of their cues from San Diego, as we are only 90km south many of the more well to do citizens spend much of their time going back and forth. An extensive list of local and craft beers was also on display.
We really appreciated the use of an auxiliary dining cart for hot sauces. In Los Angeles, Tapatío of Vernon, CA formerly of DTLA reigns supreme. Tapatío is named after the people of Guadalajara in Jalisco. I’ve always been a Cholula man; hailing from the oldest city in Central America (2500 years) I appreciate it’s milder heat but longer finish. I believe it’s all natural as well, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were false.
The food here was excellent, crunchy tostadas alongside a ceviche we tried which fit well inside the fusion category. We noticed a pronounced ginger element and our server confirmed its presence. The shrimp in particular had a nice sweetness.
This was in danger of becoming a KevinEats experience, so we ordered two more dishes and decided to call it a day. My favorite dish of the meal was certainly the corn smut tacos. Huitlacoche (translation: Raven shit) is a pathogenic fungus that grows on the ears of corn and has been consumed in Mexico since the Aztecs. I love it’s smoky and meaty flavor, some call it the Mexican truffle. The small tortillas here were warm and delicious as well.
Once can certainly see why so many flock to Ensenada. The food is extremely cheap, and there is a dry warmth accompanied by an ever present mistral breeze. People pester you non stop to buy things, but it’s mostly safe and harmless. From your doorstep in LA, you can be here in less than 4 hours. Go now.