Eating out in Baja California


A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also A Mexican wave of wine

Smells and tastes invariably form my longest-running reminders of any visit to any part of the world but this is particularly so when I travel to a hitherto unexplored region such as Baja California in north-west Mexico. 

But my recollection of our arrival in the city of Ensenada is still so strong that other memories seem to collide: the seemingly sun-encrusted face of the elderly man who ‘minded’ our car while we visited the tortilla stand of Senora Sabina; the fixed expressions of the two young Mexican women who resolutely insisted that we pay 6 pesos for driving in and out of their car park; and finally, the relief on our faces as we finally noticed the sign for Manzanilla restaurant, which was to be our home for Sunday lunch, posted on the lampposts on the street outside.

There was also the juxtaposition of how and where we first enjoyed the bounty of the Pacific.

There was initially the tortilla stand, La Guerrerense, manned by the smiling, silver-haired Sabina and her team, on the Avenue Alvarado a block away from the ocean. Here in sunshine that we considered warm but was considered chilly by several fur-coated, elderly Mexican women, we ate crisp tostadas overlaid with sea urchins, sliced scallops and home-made salsa, all for 50 pesos each or £1.50, a combination that was just fabulous. Enough has been written about this place and Sabrina that anything extra seems unnecessary. Except an exhortation not to miss it should you be in the vicinity. (The picture above is of a typical collection of condiments for the many seafood stands in Ensenada.)

It is only a five-minute drive from here to Manzanilla restaurant, if you know the way. On our return, we would simply follow the derricks, that harbinger of shipping and fishing activity, and head to where the boats come in, to a surprising but ultimately highly sympathetic site that has been home for the past eight years to the culinary skills of Benito and Solange Molina.

Manzanilla, 'olive' in Spanish and an ingredient that delights the Molinas so much that their nine-year-old daughter is called Oliva, is more a way of artfully displaying the warmth that the Molinas can deliver than merely a restaurant. A large fig tree occupies the restaurant’s forecourt. Inside, a vast wooden bar takes pride of place, complete with an octopus painted at its centre, whose history no one is quite sure of – San Diego, Texas, many years ago seems its most likely origin. Then there are the concrete floors, wooden ceilings, chairs covered in exquisitely comfortable red and yellow leather, and an incredibly ornate wooden edifice rescued from another establishment.

Everything we ate had, it transpired, a very common heritage. We began with half a dozen oysters with a mignonette sauce from Bahia Falsa before progressing to a piece of abalone, deep fried with parsley. Then quail, described as ‘tic,tac,toe’, served with kimchee made from local kelp before a piece of cultivated totoaba with a broth of its bones and a red-bean purée.

The common heritage, Solange was only too quick to point out, was that all the principal ingredients, except the local quail, come from the cold waters of the Pacific right on the restaurant’s doorstep. 'It is just the ocean', she quickly responded to my compliments before going on to give a more scientific explanation: that it is the very deep shelves off Ensenada that are the first stop for the Humboldt current as it sweeps down from chilly Alaska and conveniently provide so much impeccable fresh and prized fish and shellfish.

Perhaps the only missing ingredient in all that Manzanilla has to offer is a view of nature, but the views were an obvious attraction that lured American chef Drew Deckman to open his restaurant at the El Mogor winery, a 25-kilometre drive away into the hills of the Guadalupe Valley.

Deckman, an American, was initially drawn to this part of the world 12 years ago because his other job used to be as a fisherman. But then his impressive cooking credentials re-emerged, including spells under Paul Bocuse in France and for the Four Seasons Hotel in Berlin, and two years ago he opened here. Now with a Mexican wife, and a baby daughter Mathilde, it would seem that Deckman’s travelling days are somewhat constrained.

Instead, he has created his version of a restaurant and kitchen heaven. In a climate were rain is fairly restricted, most of the tables are either outside or under the shade of trees, which provide cover for some tables. Blankets are provided for those with sensitive knees. We sat outside, looking over vineyards, a dusty road and a dramatic sunset, kept warm by the heat of the nearby kitchen.

This contains several wood-burning grills, which, when we arrived, looked like a combination of medieval torture equipment with smoke billowing out from underneath. Deckman deftly brought these under control and the fun began.

First up was a tasting of two different oysters, a kumamoto and a kumiai, both enhanced with some salty samphire. Then came a ceviche of sea bass, chilis and diced egg white and then a great dish, a cucumber consommé topped with pieces of yellow tail and goose barnacles and slices of apple. We finished with roasted bone marrow and sea salt, a dish that I have enjoyed many times particularly at St John restaurant in London’s Farringdon but never before in such an exciting, outdoor location.

Manzanilla Avenue Teniente José Azueta, 139 Recinto Portuario, 22800 Enseneda; tel +52 646 175 7073

Deckman’s En El Mogor  Carretera Ensenada-Tecate km 85.5, San Antonio de Las Minas, 22766 Valle de Guadalupe; tel +52 1 646 188 3960