Whenever I visit San Diego as part of my travels for Eater, it’s become mandatory (in my mind, at least) to set aside time for crossing into Baja California. To eat Mexican food in Southern California without ever actually venturing into Mexico is to experience the cuisine as a monologue, albeit an enthralling one when delivered by skilled chefs. Dining in nearby Tijuana and Ensenada tunes you into a rich, ongoing conversation — to the exchange of ideas and culture that inform taco street vendors and restaurantes de comida Mexicana gourmet on both sides of the border.
For a culinary immersion that doubles as an escape, I direct you to Ensenada’s Valle de Guadalupe. The area produces 90 percent of the wine consumed by Mexico. In the last decade vineyards have spiked in both number and ambition; tourism is duly on the rise, though the Valle retains a wonderful ruggedness. You often turn off from paved highways onto dirt roads to reach wineries. From higher points among its rolling terrain, you look across fields and fields of military-straight vine rows toward short mountain ranges cutting through the sky like heart-trace lines on an ECG monitor.
The worthy options for dining in the Valle number so many that a long weekend there requires strategy. Go early for borrego tatemado (shredded roasted lamb) and corn pancakes at La Cocina de Doña Esthela, a local’s favorite for breakfast. Choose among relatively affordable tasting menus that glory in the Baja bounty at Corazón de Tierra, Laja, and Deckman’s. The alfresco pleasures of grilled meats, roasted seafood, and astute wine selections at Finca Altozano, run by Tijuana native and high-wattage chef Javier Plascencia, remain strong.
My friend and frequent Baja guide Angel Miron directed me last month to a slightly lesser-known but equally laudable Valle restaurant called Malva. Attached to Mina Penélope winery, Malva opened in 2014, its dining room evoking an open-air palapa with a thatched roof made of woven palm leaves. Two friends and I settled into a long, calming lunch, with a sweeping view of the valley as our backdrop.
Executive chef Roberto Alcocer taps into the energy that’s making modern Mexican cuisine a current global sensation (long overdue). His plating vacillates from rustic to fastidious, but his dishes all transmit an equal and enveloping sense of place. He’s not interpreting traditional recipes so much as expressing location and riffing on the roots of Mexican flavors: smoke, earth, citrusy acid, spice. And though I’m not much of a day-drinker, this was a meal that unsurprisingly synched with the easy-to-enjoy local wines, including Julio 14, a Syrah-Grenache-Mourvedre blend made onsite.
Alcocer has been praised for his 10-course tasting menus, though we went à la carte and shared most dishes (a happy choice for us). I’m leaving it to images to best illuminate our lunch — though I will first say that you should also order slow-roasted lamb (not pictured below; ours came obscured by chard leaves over a strapping puree of refritos and chorizo), and that a cheese plate might be the most interesting option for dessert.
Fresh and grilled local oysters (these from Baja’s False Bay) kicked off the meal; one splashed with a soy sauce mignonette recalled the culinary influences from the region’s longstanding Chinese and Japanese immigrant communities.
Sea urchin (erizo de mar, literally “hedgehogs of the sea” in Spanish) is one of Baja’s greatest oceanic prizes. Alcocer skips the usual sashimi presentation and fashions uni into creamy-briny croquettes, with a dot of sauce made from uni and dried chiles.
Alcocer brought this stunning plate to the table himself: yellowtail crudo with cilantro flowers and avocado puree. The ruddy sauce cloaking the fish? “My version of Korean gochujang,” he said, “made with a fermented paste of Mexican dried chiles.” Sure enough, it had a subtle garlicky sweetness but also a distinct smokiness — and it didn’t clobber the yellowtail’s clean flavor.
Octopus is the mussel of this decade; it’s on all kinds of menus everywhere and I’m over it. But I still want it in Baja, where it’s impeccably fresh and the chefs know how to cook it with just the right bite. Alcocer served the pulpo in chileatole — a broth made in this case with poblano pepper — bulked up with huge kernels of white corn and enriched with bone marrow. Incredible.
Malva is Spanish for desert mallow, a plant that grows wild in the region. Alcocer used pureed malva (brighter in color than in taste) to sauce a beautifully seared filet of escolar — a fish that can cause some, um, digestive distress, though Alcocer assured us this variety wouldn’t have any such consequences. (He was right, thankfully.)
Sauteed rabbit came with things the animal would enjoy eating: carrots, millet (creamed in a risotto-like preparation), and a scattering of lettuces and nasturtiums. A hint of dark humor, perhaps, but the dish was meticulously executed — like the lunch as a whole. Alcocer is a singular talent, and Malva is yet another enticement to the Valle de Guadalupe and Baja. Add it to your list of dining destinations.
Malva: Carretera Ensenada Tecate Km 96, México 3, Baja California, 52-646-155-3085, malvarestaurant.com. Open 1-9 p.m., Wednesday-Monday. (Closed Tuesday.) 10-course tasting menu $60 per person; à la carte appetizers $6-$10, entrees around $17-$30.
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