On a recent Saturday afternoon, the line to place an order at TJ Oyster Bar moved as languidly as a stray cloud in the Southern California sky. The menu sprawled across one wall, detailing tacos and tostadas and seafood cocktails, but it still took several minutes for everyone, including me, to narrow down their final decisions once they'd reached the register. The tiny space — wedged into an aging strip mall in Bonita, a town about twelve miles from central San Diego — holds only seventeen seats. My wait paid off with some stunners, including a fried fish taco that admirably avoided any innovations or dubious makeovers. A crescent of battered tilapia came plucked directly from the fryer and onto the tortilla, cooled by cabbage, chopped tomato, and a streak of crema.
If I'd dressed TJ's taco myself I probably would have added half the cabbage — the way I did at Tacos El Fenix, the most famous taco shack in Ensenada, the coastal town in Mexico's Baja California about 85 miles south of San Diego. At El Fenix's curbside stand, the cooks dunk slivers of angelito (angel shark) or cazón (dogfish) in tempura batter and fry them in a circular vat of lard. They hand over the crackly chunks on plain tortillas to the throngs of customers, who then adorn their lunch with vegetables and squeezes of lime, green and red salsas, crema, and tangy, tomato-tinged mayo. The family behind El Fenix is said to have invented the fish taco generations ago; it has certainly mastered the details.
Fish tacos have long been the culinary mascots of San Diego and Baja California. That won't change anytime soon, but restaurant cooking in the region is also undergoing a pride-of-place revolution. Some forward thinkers have labeled their gourmandized approach "Baja Med," but that kind of branding can suggest stuffing tortillas with lamb tagine or falafel. What's happening is more about Mexican and American chefs cultivating a heightened appreciation of the coastline's extraordinary bounty. They're embracing a subtle fusion of influences that emerges from innate cultural shifts and respectful curiosity, not from gimmickry. To taste how chefs on both sides of the fence are finessing local flavors is to eat in stereo, to experience the broader community's fullest depth and context.
And the quality of the street food up and down the coast belies the speed with which it is served; seeking them out yielded some of the most remarkable meals of my trip. Taken as a whole, the Baja scene makes for one of North America's most exhilarating dining destinations.
Taken as a whole, the Baja scene makes for one of North America's most exhilarating dining destinations.
Fine dining in the Baja lexicon has stronger roots south of the border: Benito Molina and Solange Muris opened Manzanilla in Ensenada in 2000, gilding the local catch with flavors of the Mediterranean (the area produces first-rate olive oil) and Asia (Chinese immigrants first began populating Baja California in the 1920s). A year later, Laura Reinert and Jair Tellez founded Laja, known for its poetic multicourse menus and use of local produce (some grown on site), in the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja's wine country. When it comes to modern local flavors, San Diego revels in more laidback milieus where chefs take inspiration from Mexican flavors and spin them with American individuality.
Not every memorable bite of Mexican food I had in San Diego reflected the region specifically. At Cantina Mayahuel in the University Heights area, Tuesdays and Fridays bring two ambrosial specials: Oaxacan mole negro, smoky and layered, and Puebla's famous mole poblano, with a cinnamon whiff that weaves through the chiles and nuts and garlic. The two sauces, draped over a boneless chicken breast, resemble a yin-yang of melted milk and dark chocolates. La Fachada, a venerable taco stand in the historic Barrio Logan, mixes and matches meat preparations beloved throughout Mexico: carnitas, lengua, tripa, or cabeza (head meat) and masa vessels such as lozenge-shaped huaraches, stuffed gorditas (the standout here, along with tacos), and mulitas, which are essentially tortilla sandwiches.
But one can easily find expressions of Baja's seafood bounty in every tier of San Diego restaurants — particularly in form of ceviche tostadas, which trail right behind fish tacos in popularity. Among the global flavors served at buzzy Juniper and Ivy, chef-owner Richard Blais and his crew craft tiny tostadas, a pink and green pastiche of ahi tuna, pickled onion, and micro greens anchored by dabs of limey, creamy "shark sauce." Local chef Chad White bounced over to Tijuana in 2013 to help open a gastropub called La Justina before returning to San Diego last July with his latest, Común Kitchen & Tavern. Tostadas feature heavily on his Baja-inspired menu: Some hew traditional (ceviche with tomato and avocado, mahi mahi with crushed peanut salsa); others traipse into imaginative realms (carnitas with sour orange marmalade, beef heart tartare with egg yolk and dehydrated scallion). I was most taken by White's riff on pork al pastor, crisp rectangles of belly embellished with charred pineapple and garnished with handsomely scorched masa crackers.
The crazy tostada (that's the actual name) heaved out the window of the Mariscos Nine Seas food truck is a kitchen sink hodgepodge: It's amazing the two fried tortillas retain their snap under the deluge of shrimp, chopped octopus, swai (Vietnamese catfish), mussels, and oysters. The tostada drew stares from the group gathered in the empty lot of a closed grocery in the South Park community, where the truck typically moors. The mellow crowd lingered contentedly, leaning on the truck's bumper or squatting on a low wall nearby. Most customers ordered tacos. I tried those as well: one enfolding bits of smoked marlin tangled with vegetables and cheese particularly impressed. As part of the order, the cook handed me a cup of seafood broth, sweetly aromatic and garnished with a small celery stalk.
ENSENADA AND TIJUANA
The tostadas at La Guerrerense, a street cart in Ensenada, are something else altogether. When three of us walked up to the stand, we asked proprietress Sabina Bandera what we should order, and she composed one of her signatures: a fine mince of clams and sea urchin spread over a fried tortilla, topped with octopus and avocado slices and then finished with a condiment she calls chilitos de mi jardín, a peanut and chile oil salsa. Imagine the best sushi meal you've ever had, but with the impeccable seafood buoyed by warm Mexican flavors. That was the brilliance of this $8 tostada.
La Guerrerense is no uncharted discovery. The big boys of food television — Bourdain, Zimmern, Bayless — have all paid their respects on camera. Bandera looked up and flashed an effortless smile when I readied to take a photograph. She's accustomed to attention; she deserves it. Once I'd finished half slurping-half scarfing my tostada, I ate magnificent raw clams and scallops on the half shell, dabbed with other salsas made from mango and tamarind and a spicy, wet avocado mash dubbed "guacachile."
It was an inimitable introduction to the food of Baja California. But then, I had excellent guides to show me the way. I was with Eater's San Diego editor, Candice Woo, and her friend Angel Miron, who owns a culinary tour company called Let's Go Clandestino. He'd volunteered to accompany us for the day. As a first timer in the area, several friends in San Diego had suggested I visit Baja with some knowledgeable company. I'm glad I did, though I would also return solo now without a second thought.
The current state of Tijuana: "It may not be pretty, but it isn't scary."
After La Guerrerense, the three of us swung by El Fenix for the iconic fish tacos. For dinner, we headed to Tijuana. Brooding warehouses and forlorn industrial parks on the outskirts gave way to the bustling city center and tree-lined streets. The city has recovered since the height of the drug-related violence (between 2006 and 2010) that destroyed tourism. The leisure industry has been on the upturn again for the last few years. Angel, who grew up on both sides of the border, summed up the current state of Tijuana: "It may not be pretty, but it isn't scary."
And the evening's haven was actually quite dapper — a room lined with recycled woods, concrete, and corrugated tin, the kind of aesthetic that would blend right into urban America. Laja chef-owner Jair Tellez launched Verde Y Crema, Tijuana's current hot spot, in the spring of 2014; his onsite chef is 26-year-old Martin Vargas, who cooks most of the food over olive wood hauled from Guadalupe Valley. The menu reflects Baja's abundance but adopts the gastropub vernacular: squiggly pig-ear chicharrones, blue corn gorditas stuffed with octopus, roasted beet tacos, and, yes, Korean tacos. A grilled cheese bulked up with lamb birria went just over the line with salt but still satisfied alongside shots of not-too-smoky mezcal that the restaurant bottles itself. The two-dozen brews on tap reflected Baja's new craft beer boom, a mirror reflection of San Diego's frothy scene.
We spilled into the night for our final stops at two taquerias specializing in adobada, sliced pork marinated in chiles and spices and cooked, similar to gyro meat, on a revolving spit. Tacos El Franc is one of the city's late night classics, and the people watching — all classes, all ages, locals and visitors — pulled focus from the food. Among other tacos covered in soupy stewed offal, the punchy adobada lived up to its billing. At Taconazo just down the block, the pork was even more aggressively seasoned, but not unpleasantly so. And the star attraction came with a twist. To include with each adobada taco, the cook nicked off a sliver from a whole pineapple impaled on top of the spit. I bit into the taco and thought of Chad White's pork belly with charred pineapple at Común. For a region so defined by boundaries, the crisscrossing inspirations seem borderless.
TJ Oyster Bar: 4246 Bonita Road, Bonita, California; (619) 267-4577; tjoysterbar.com
Mariscos Nine Seas: 3030 Grape Street, San Diego; (619) 279-0010
Común Kitchen & Tavern: 935 J Street, San Diego; (619) 358-9707; comunsd.com
Juniper & Ivy: 2228 Kettner Boulevard, San Diego; (619) 269-9036; juniperandivy.com
La Fachada: 20 25th Street, San Diego; (619) 236-8566
Cantina Mayahuel: 2934 Adams Avenue, San Diego; (619) 283-6292
ENSENADA AND TIJUANA
La Guerrerense: 1st Street and Alvarado, Ensenada; +52 (646)-119-4530; laguerrerense.com
Tacos El Fenix: Calles Espinoza and Juarez (Calle 5), Ensenada, Baja California
Birrieria Soto: Calles Espinoza and Juarez (Calle 5), Ensenada, Baja California
Verde Y Crema: Orizaba 3034 Col Neidhart, Tijuana; +52 (664) 681-2366; verdeycrema.com
Tacos El Franc: Calle 8 and Boulevard Sánchez Taboada, Tijuana, Baja California
El Taconazo: Calle Galleana and Boulevard Sánchez Taboada, Tijuana, Baja California