The weather in Ensenada's Valle de Guadalupe is so placid that Finca Altozano, one of the area's star restaurants, never bothered to enclose its dining room. Servers race between the covered patio's knobby wooden tables and the kitchen framed by sheets of corrugated aluminum siding. Meats sizzle on the asador, spitting back at the lunging flames. Down a nearby slope, an abundant garden spreads out next to a pen of goats whose bleats sound like old men bellyaching to one another. A fermentation tank, encircled with planks and bound by iron belts, flanks the restaurant. This is wine country, as the view makes plain: Rows and rows of vineyards extend into the distance, clear out to the jagged mountains carving through the horizon.
Just over a 90-minute drive south from San Diego, the Valle and its stark, fertile beauty have become beacons for culinary pioneers designing their own culture around the terruño (roughly the Spanish language equivalent of terroir). Nearly 100 wine producers now operate in the area, and a cottage industry of boutique hotels and some exceptional restaurants flourishes around them. This is an optimal time to visit. Creature comforts can be found, but the place doesn't yet feel commercialized or completely tamed. Beyond the main routes, many of the roads are dirt. The locals like them that way.
Creature comforts can be found, but the place doesn't yet feel commercialized or completely tamed.
Wave away the billows of dust and prepare for some sophisticated indulging. Among the many dining options, friends from the area suggested rustic Finca and the much tonier Corazón de Tierra (the two sit about seven miles apart) for examples of two gifted but very different chefs reveling in the region's abundance. Finca is the Valle outpost from Javier Plascencia, Baja California's cross-cultural ambassador. A native of Tijuana born into a family of restaurateurs, Plascencia runs Mision 19, opened in 2011 and heralded as the upscale trailblazer that catalyzed the city's current dining renaissance. During Tijuana's troubled times last decade, he ventured north with Romesco, a small plates "Mex Med" restaurant in Bonita, near San Diego, that's still thriving. This year he's launching Bracero Cocina de Raiz in San Diego's Little Italy neighborhood.
Finca is to Plascencia what Husk is to Sean Brock: his place of truest expression, both personally and geographically. Most of restaurant's vegetables come from out back; meats and seafood arrive daily from local farmers and purveyors. The food matches the surroundings in its blatant, wonderful earthiness. The flavors are recognizably Mexican but stripped down. Plascencia favors cooking lamb and suckling pig slowly in a caja china, or roasting box. Each arrived as a mix of roughly chopped meat with bones for gnawing, strewn with a few strands of pickled onions and a roasted scallion. Glassy fragments of pig skin crackled against the teeth like porcine rock candy.
Smoky dishes also seemed right with the scenery. Campfire-scented quail arrived on a platter with mushrooms and pancetta; the birds were plump and bronzed and we ate them by hand. A sea-blue pan held a shell filled with Pismo clam that had been smoked in an oak barrel and accented with fennel, Serrano chile, herb butter, and a sprinkling of queso fresco. Alongside we ordered tacos made from hot, freckled whole-wheat tortillas that we stuffed with rendered nuggets of beef cheek and dressed with chunky salsas.
A few menu items weaved in global flavors. Grilled octopus came doused in a marinade of soy sauce, citrus, ginger, and peanuts, a nod to the influences of the Chinese and Japanese immigrants that arrived in the area nearly a century ago. Plascencia like to evoke Baja's topographical similarities to the Mediterranean with starters like beef tongue tonnato, served with the creamy tuna sauce that's a classic in Italy atop shaved veal. And note the Caesar salad among the appetizers: A few years ago Plascencia's family took ownership of the Tijuana restaurant where the leafy ubiquity purportedly originated.
If Plascencia is the face of emergent Valle cooking, then Diego Hernández-Baquedano, a native of Ensenada, could be considered the hands. Certainly, no Sysco truck is delivering supplies to the back door of his Corazón de Tierra. The restaurant is part of La Villa del Valle, a 70-acre property with six guest rooms and a winery. Owners Eileen and Phil Gregory, Hernández-Baquedano, and their employees maintain vegetable patches, tend beehives for honey, press oil from onsite olive trees, raise chickens for eggs (among other animals), and gather fruits from their citrus orchard. Hernández-Baquedano isn't overly dogmatic in his approach, though: He'll ship in the occasional truffles and foie gras, and he exchanges ingredients, like uncommon strains of beans and corn, with chefs in other regions of Mexico.
Corazón's dining room feels casual — mixed woods, comfortable chairs covered in bright prints woven by the region's indigenous communities — but the kitchen's steel gleam and cooks' intent demeanors relay Hernández-Baquedano's lofty ambitions. (His mentors include Enrique Olvera of Pujol in Mexico City and showstopper Cosme in New York.) There isn't a menu, only a seven-course progression that changes daily and costs $68 at both lunch and dinner, with wine pairings for either $30 or $45. For the quality of the food, the skill of the preparation, and the artistry of the plating, most restaurants in America would be charging at least double that.
Most restaurants in America would be charging double for the skill of preparation and artistry of plating.
The meal eventually pulled in influences from a couple of other Mexico states, but it began squarely in Baja with two seafood bites: smoked yellowtail mussed to a frizzled texture and adhered to a masa and flour tortilla cracker with avocado puree, and a south-of-the-border oysters Rockefeller of sorts tangled with chard, pork belly, and a melty mild cheese made by a nearby farmer. After a gentle salad of impeccable lettuce leaves came a gorgeous study of fennel: the bulb cooked to silk, the root roasted to creamy crunchiness, and the fronds tickling the other elements, with a potato puree dotted with charcoal oil for a hint of smoky depth.
Next, land and sea: a pristine octopus tendril, boiled and seared and surrounded by paisleys of salsa verde cruda, Hernández-Baquedano's homage to the green sauce served in taquerias all over Mexico. Crumbly bits of dehydrated masa enriched with pork fat washed the dish ashore. Corazón, too, served sublime lechón (suckling pig), this one prettily strewn with young root vegetables, and the veneer of crackling skin sculpted into a precise rectangle.
Then, my favorite dish: a variation on tamal colado, a specialty of the Yucatan in which the masa is strained, spread over a banana leaf, and steamed until the texture resembles pudding. Yellow and red Oaxacan moles pooled around the tamale in a multihued pottery bowl; crema and black speckles of vegetable ash crowned it. The swirl of flavors and textures and colors and histories in every spoonful made the U.S. border feel very far away.
Dessert nearly dislodged my reverie. A server delivered a pure white bowl mounded with an equally colorless foam. I leaned down and sniffed: truffle oil mousse. I loathe few things more than truffle oil. Happily, there was so much going on underneath — caramel panna cotta, a "chlorophyll sauce" made from spinach and mint, the crunch of pistachios (plucked from the trees of Russian farmers across the way) — that the stinky whiff faded to a pheromone. Hernández-Baquedano told me later the creation was a finale he'd first unveiled this past New Year's Eve that had been in and out of rotation since then. The dessert's global bent jarred me back to reality enough that I considered asking for another order of lechón. I wasn't quite ready to leave the bewitching Valle, physically or gastronomically.
Cost: Raw bar dishes US $2.65-$13.90, starters and small plates $5.30-$16.55, tacos $3.65-$4, main courses $12.60-$32.50, desserts $4.65.
Sample dishes: Smoked Pismo clams; octopus with soy sauce, citrus, ginger, and peanuts; charcuterie made on site; beef cheek tacos; lamb roasted in the caja china; roasted lechón; suckling pig; wood-fired quail with mushrooms and pancetta.
What to drink: Wines from the surrounding Valle de Guadalupe, of course. We had a bottle of El Coyote de Valle made from Palomino, a grape used most frequently in the production of sherry. It was gentle and refreshing and ideal for day drinking.
Bonus tip: Originally the restaurant was only open in the Valle's visitor-heavy summer season, but this year the owners decided to keep it open year-round. But if you're traveling there during high tourist season, but sure to call ahead for a reservation.
Cost: US $68 per person for a seven-course tasting menu; wine pairings available at $30 or $45
Sample dishes: Menu changes daily (sometimes twice daily), but except upscale presentations of Baja ingredients in dishes that sometimes draw in other regions of Mexico and global flavors.
What to drink: Local wine, including the food-friendly "Big Blend" from the on-property vineyard, Vena Cava.
Bonus tip: The restaurant (on the grounds of La Villa del Valle, a six-room bed and breakfast) is up a bumpy dirt road; buckle up. The dining room is intimate, so definitely call ahead for reservations.