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Baja California: a seafood lover's paradise

Baja California: a seafood lover's paradise

by Nud Dudhia, Breddos Tacos 16 May 2019

In the first of a series on the regional food of Mexico, Nud Dudhia sheds light on the seafood-obsessed state of Baja California and recounts his trip to the beautiful port city of Ensenada, along with four simple recipes inspired by the area.

Baja California has become known as an epicurean Mecca in recent years. Visitors return home full of quixotic stories about the fish markets filled with highly prized, delectable treasures from deep in the Sea of Cortez. There are marisqueros (seafood specialists) on every street corner hawking life-changing ceviche, quaint vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe producing Mexico’s best wines and a community of chefs who champion a new style of ‘Baja-Med’ farm-to-table dining. For anyone that’s mildly interested in Mexico, food or wine, Baja seems to have it all.

For someone like me, who worships all three, a pilgrimage was always on the cards. So when my business partner and I found ourselves in Los Angeles a few years ago for Tacolandia, one of America’s largest taco festivals, we had no excuse but to jump in our battered rental car and whizz down the sun-drenched Pacific Coast Highway. We went through San Diego, over the frenzied border in Tijuana and down the astonishingly picturesque coastal road to the Baja Peninsula.

Our destination, Ensenada, is world-famous for its seafood. The bay here has a unique microclimate created by the cold Alaskan currents in the Pacific Ocean, which provides the perfect home to over 5,000 micro-invertebrates and some of the most revered seafood in the world.

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The port city of Ensenada sits at the top of the Baja Peninsula, a few hours south of the US border
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The fish and seafood caught off Baja's coastline are of such high quality that they're exported all over the world – including the gargantuan Pismo clam

A trip to the local fish market (locally known as Mercado Negro) turns me into a kid in a sweetshop. Tanks brimming with abalone, sea urchin, chocolate clams, sea snails and geoduck line the white walls whilst fishermen in shiny PVC aprons stand proudly beside huge ice trays buckling under the weight of lobsters, yellowtail, snapper, octopus and other mysterious creatures of the deep. The produce here is so good that it is exported to the most demanding of markets such as Japan, China, Europe and mainland USA. But of course, not all of it gets exported and what is left behind fuels a thriving local dining scene.

For years I’d read gushing tales from my heroes (Anthony Bourdain, Rick Bayless and Diana Henry) about an old lady called Sabina Bandera who’d been hawking her signature sea urchin and Pismo clam tostadas, seafood cocktails and fish ceviches on the same street corner in Ensenada for forty years. The food was so good that her cart was crowned the best street food stall in the world in 2013; some accolade for a ramshackle seafood stand with no tables or chairs in the middle of nowhere.

Upon ordering one of these tostadas, however, every tribute bestowed upon this humble street shack was justified. Sabina deftly shucked a few colossal Pismo clams and placed them on a crispy tostada that was already sopped with a decadent helping of warm sea urchin purée, the juice of many limes and slivers of buttery green avocado. The seafood smorgasbord was then garnished with one of her legendary salsas, chilitos de mi jardin (‘chillies from my garden’). No bite of this tostada was the same, but the balance of flavour and texture in each mouthful was remarkable – the burnt chilli and woody herb salsa brought smoky, spicy and nutty flavours to the super-sweet clam, whilst the citrus cut through the briny, rockpool flavour of the urchin and the avocado added a fatty richness to the outrageous ensemble. Eating one of these virtuoso tostadas, stood on a dusty pavement in the baking Ensenada heat, as lime, chilli and spicy oil dribble down your chin has to be one of life’s great pleasures and the perfect introduction to Baja cuisine.

After consuming numerous fish tacos, shrimp and octopus aguachiles and notable ceviches all over town, we next set out to find one of Ensenada’s most enigmatic marisqueros. Alan Pasiano is an ex-sea urchin and abalone skin diver who was so accomplished and renowned in his field that he was taken to the largest fish market in the world, Tsukiji in Tokyo, to clean urchin. After losing ten years to drugs, women and urchins in the city he found God and returned home to Ensenada to open his own street food shack, Mariscos El Pizon.

Perched literally on the edge of what looks like a processing plant of some kind, Alan’s ramshackle cart specialises in plates of just-shucked sea urchins, geoduck and abalone. To anyone that knows seafood, the idea of a cart by an industrial estate hawking three of the most distinguished sea creatures known to man would be incomprehensible. But this is Baja, and this is the norm!

Alan’s sea urchin plate really is a thing of gastronomic splendour. The preparation is flawless and the flavour of the urchin is so uncorrupted it teases the taste buds with a velvety, custardy, sweet-salt-savoury flavour that’s a revelation. This plate of food surpasses any other urchin I’ve had anywhere. It’s the true food of the gods, served roadside, on the outskirts of town by a big burly man who’s story is as hard to believe as the impeccable food he’s dishing out on plates covered with plastic bags. This is the Baja vibe, and I'm 100% sold on it.

Back at the harbour at a restaurant called Manzanilla, Benito Molina – one of Mexico’s most famous chefs and local legend – upends any idea of what most people might think is Mexican food. His precise, hyper-local, ingredient-driven restaurant showcases the best of Baja on every plate. Dishes such as yellowtail tiradito with ginger, raspberries and capers or grilled abalone and bluefin tuna have made Manzanilla one of the most celebrated and imitated restaurants in Mexico.

Further inland on the undulating, vine strewn hills of the Valle De Guadelupe, Benito’s comrades Diego Hernandez at Corazon De Tierra, Drew Deckman at El Mogor and Jair Téllez at Laja provide world-class culinary experiences and tasting menus for their guests, using ingredients farmed just outside the restaurant doors along with local game and the best seafood from Ensenada. This new generation of chefs are at the forefront what’s been coined ‘Baja-Med’ due to the combination of Mediterranean ingredients (such as olive oil, capers and almonds) and traditional Mexican cooking techniques. The results are spellbinding and totally unique to this region of Mexico.

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The best food in Baja often comes from small unassuming street food stands such as this
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'Baja-Med' is a local food movement that combines traditional Mexican cooking styles with Mediterranean ingredients

There’s a lot more to Baja than just Ensenada, of course. Towards Baja Sur, the playground of Los Cabos caters to the American spring break crowd and the mega-rich with its ultra-swanky hotels, private runways and expensive restaurants. Then there’s the Pearl of the Pacific Mazatalan, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Espiritu Santo in La Paz and the magico town of Loreto, all boasting washed-out beach town vibes and champion seafood stalls. To the north, Tijuana is dusting off its reputation as an underage drug and booze paradise and fast becoming one of the most interesting places to eat and drink in Mexico, with a thriving craft beer culture and forward-thinking restaurants such as Mision 19 leading the charge.

I could write an essay about the gastronomic excellence of each of the towns above. Instead, I advise anyone who has a mild interest in food, culture and travel to visit Baja themselves and become as captivated as I am by its beauty and splendour. The recipes accompanying this feature are inspired by my adventures in Ensenada, but to recreate what I ate there wouldn’t do the dishes justice. That’s why I’ve used the ingredients at my disposal to reinterpret the flavours I experienced.

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