We are lucky sons of bitches in San Diego, sharing a border with an internationally celebrated culinary hot spot. This place I speak of, Northern Baja, consists primarily of the restaurants of Tijuana, Valle de Guadalupe, and Ensenada. The region’s food is luring folks like Anthony Bourdain and Rick Bayless to fly in, eat, become enlightened, and write glowing reports for the rest of the world to drool over. And we in SD are a mere 15 miles away from this wonderland.
Needless to say, I’m slightly excited to be working with an incredible group of people to create a dinner and exhibition in Valle de Guadalupe called Death for Food. My comrade Jaime Fritsch started this photographic project in 2012, documenting the life and death of small-farm animals, humanely raised for food. The event is going down today, July 13th, and will be a hybrid of food and art. The feast features local animals prepared by Baja chef Javier Plascencia paired with Jaime’s images displayed in an art installation conceived by my wife Stacy Kelley in collaboration with architect Manuel Martinez.
Jaime’s images ask tough questions about eating meat, and for me personally, have unearthed a deep reverence for the animals that died so I could eat. The phrase “fully connected eating” is at the heart of this project– it’s about knowing where your food comes from, from the farmer to the animal to the land, and embracing the entire process, not just the parts that we’re comfortable with.
Working on the project over the past few months, I’ve been reflecting on how I’ve gotten to know the food of our region, known as “Baja Med” cuisine (a term I often use despite my hatred of labels). What follows is that story…
Sometime around 2008, Tijuaneses (the citizens on Tijuana) were starting to get out on the town more frequently after a few years of gnarly violence (a product of a cartel power grab). A military general was brought in to clean up the situation, but San Diegans were still extremely weary of crossing South as the media remained fixated on a problem that TJ had been able to overcome. TJ continued to get lumped into articles about violence in places like Ciudad Juarez, and most Americans were scared to cross South.
My perspective of TJ was much different. We had a few American friends living in TJ telling us things were getting better, safer. Stacy and I visited some new artist friends down South, and we ate well as they showed us around town, but we had no clue what kind of food culture was building down there at the time. I recall being perplexed by octopus on pizza, shoveling it down out of excitement for something new and respect for our hosts. It was just fun and very new. The horrifying stories about corrupt cops or vigilante drug lords were soon squashed by an unsung natural force known as foodie wanderlust.
Meanwhile, a bunch of excitement about Baja food was spreading through our SD foodie friend circles. Sometime in 2009, a farm to table restauranteur friend Jay Porter of the Linkery invited us to join him on a bike ride, visiting a new organic farm in Imperial Beach and continuing Southward for lunch in TJ at a place called Erizo. Stacy was riding a piece-of-shit bike from a thrift store, but we went for it! It wasn’t scorching, but plenty warm as we trekked slowly through two lane traffic across town to the neighborhood of Chapultepec. The restaurant is in an affluent section of TJ, nestled at the bottom of the hills on the South side of town. Our arrival was a relief. 15 miles from our house in South Park ain’t a long journey, but everyone was hot, sweaty, tired, hungry, and ready for a beverage.
I remember having that first sip of Quinto Bueno like it was yesterday. A local blend of five grape varieties grown and produced near Tecate, it was an explosion of grassy, citrusy, but very very smooth wine unlike any white I had ever tasted. I was admittedly still unlearned in the ways of vino (and big deal if a cold crisp white wine tastes good after a bike ride), BUT I still know how important that glass was to my wine education. As a wine writer buddy of mine says, that was one of my breakthrough moments.
The wine was just a prelude to what happened next. Without much warning, my foodi-verse expanded in a major way. The morsels that would grace the table over the next hour would feel like an international foodie mind fuck. Octopus carpaccio, chicharrones de atun, Peruvian-inspired ceviche built on a foundation of Ensenada… it felt like a parade of dishes designed to make me feel like I’d been living under a rock for five years, yet made me feel nourished and taken care of. I didn’t care if my helmet-head and goofy outfit made the other guests chuckle under their breath. Insecurities dissipate when you see the holy light.
After I came back down to earth, 2 orders of chicharrones de atun and another bottle from Valle de Guadalupe later, I wanted to know where this ridiculousness had been dreamt up. Who’s responsible for this madness? Jay gave us a little more depth on the chef and proprietor of Erizo–Javier Plascencia. He was using a lot of local fish, working closely with farms, and rethinking traditional Mexican cuisine through a newfangled Baja seafood lens. He was opening a couple other places, and had majorly influenced Jay’s perception on how our region’s fare could evolve.
To me, Javier was an artist. Just like Jay, this dude was asking new questions about food and life and where culture might want to go. Devouring a mashup of Asian favors and traditional Mexican comfort food at play on a foundation of fresh local tuna in those chicharrones was like listening to Sergeant Pepper’s for the first time. Devour, repeat.
So, needless to say I came back. I started riding my bike more, joining Jay for adventures in East TJ barbacoa. My buddy Ethan and I would drive down, park at the border and ride taxis around TJ like some 2-person Baja street food pub crawl. We’d always start at Tacos Fitos hopefully before they sold out, then beers or Palomas at Dandy del Sur, and who knew what would come next… maybe Mazateña up near Otay, surely Kentucky Fried Buches deserves a visit, Bar Suiso, or maybe Erizo if we felt like splurging. It was always a rush to decide on a given morning to head South, find myself on international soil, and soak up another part of what I’d come to realize was a true cultural phenomenon.
Eventually, Stacy and I would get to Laja in Valle de Guadalupe– a pilgrimage of sorts that the Linkery folk had mentioned countless times. Plus, the aforementioned bottle of Quinto Bueno at Erizo was made by a vintner who also happened to manage the bar at Laja. The interconnected Baja food community was beginning to emerge. Heading to Laja, we were joined by fast friends Jaime and Donna, who each had an impressive depth of food knowledge from traveling to places like Copenhagen and throughout Central and South America. Eating with them is inherently intimidating, but through the grace, humor, and encouragement that is their natural presence as a couple, a shared meal quickly morphs into pure enjoyment with a side of mindfulness.
The sunset bled over the garden at Laja, and revealed a new frontier. A hidden gem, further out of reach than riding a bike across the border, and slightly more contemplative than the hot neon mess of TJ. I’m still not into urchin, but there was something powerful in the seafood informed courses, the understated service, and the clarity in presenting the Laja vision despite a near empty dining room.
Returning to Laja another time with Ethan and Stacy’s old friend Linsey, we had a funny time and a more epic meal within a thick fog bank of red wine. The experience got weirder as local olive oil ice cream provided little satisfaction to taste buds, but strange fascination in its freezing melted butter texture. Cicadas buzzed in my head as darkness washed over the Valle on that warm late-summer evening. The place, the atmosphere, even the way vast amounts of time lapsed in the blink of an eye (or seemed not to pass at all), did not seem real. The most striking takeaway was the pace of this place– the Valle’s pulse would bore its way from my heart to my head.
In 2012, I finally got a chance to visit Plascencia’s flagship restaurant, Misión 19 in Tijuana. Javier had prepared a special luncheon for the Slow Food Urban SD board, I came along for the ride. The building itself is substantial– a modern LEED certified skyscraper (first in Baja Norte) with an immense geometric glass and steel atrium-as-throat, stretching up toward sun and sky. The restaurant itself is a beautiful modern space designed by Manuel Martinez (the aforementioned DFF collaborator).
As the slow food group was seated, a barrage of courses arrived, from steamed oysters on a volcanic rock plating to grilled octopus with pistachio oil, black garlic, burnt habanero and seared tomato paired with Diablo Blanco beer. Wait… what? The foodiest of foodies show up to a white tablecloth restaurant that looks like Dwell magazine took a permanent Baja vacation, and the chef gives us a pairing with some beer that sports a bright red label depicting a devil? No wonder Anthony Bourdain came here! This dude’s an artist with cojones — he does fine dining his own way and doesn’t apologize. That pairing was excellent of course, can’t imagine a better amalgamation of flavor and texture.
As the meal began to wind down and the group sat back in a lulled state of over indulgence, a giant cart quietly burst from the kitchen doors. All eyes gravitated to two cooks as they wheeled out an enormous leg of pig. We guessed it a local take on cured jamón ibérico. It’s scale, and the design of the cart itself gave the presentation a sculptural emphasis that demanded attention. We did not taste, nor have room in our bellies to do so, but the image of that ham slowly rolling into place on the floor of the dining room has stuck with me.
The next chapter in my Baja food education came courtesy of new buddies Kristen and Antonio of Life & Food. They’ve taken Stacy and I to places all over the region, from torta carts in TJ to wineries in the Valle, to birria enclaves in Imperial Beach. Most recently, they took us to Finca Altozano in Valle de Guadalupe to see what Javier Plascencia had done with an informal “ranch” menu concept. The delicious food was very different from Erizo and Mision 19, but with a common thread.
Partly because I really hate labels, and partly because the setting at Finca was vastly different from the urban setting of those other two joints, I started wondering about this aforementioned label that food writers, foodies, and Mexo-philes have been throwing around a lot – ”Baja Med”, short for “Baja Mediterranean”. Did it really mean anything, or was it just a shallow label for the region’s new food?
Growing up in TJ, and now a veteran foodie tour guide for the entire region, Antonio was the man to ask– what is this region’s food all about, what is “Baja Med”? He paused, somehow ignoring the enticing birria on the plate in front of him, if only for a moment, and told me this (I’m paraphrasing here); Baja Med is about the region’s incredible local ingredients colliding with traditional Mexican recipes through the varied perspectives of a group of talented local chefs. That sounded a little predictable, but then he emphasized; this cuisine is very new, and entirely unfixed aside from the grounding in local ingredients and some inspiration from traditional Mexican recipes. In other words, the food of Northern Baja is a quickly evolving cuisine that the most influential chefs are inventing as they go. Sounds kinda like an art movement.
The idea of this cuisine bursting spontaneously out of the minds of a handful of local chefs brought it all home for me. It took be back to Michael Pollan’s fascination with hunting and killing his own local boar, with Alice Waters infamous farm-driven menu, with The Linkery’s experiment and transformation of San Diego’s connection between farm and table, and ultimately with what makes food and art truly exciting to me.
With Antonio’s words still fresh in my mind, I headed down to the Valle with Jaime Fritsch on a trip to discuss a DFF event collaboration with Javier Plascencia and his assistant Diana. Over the next two days, we visited the cattle and sheep at the traditional Rancho el Cortez, talked with the inspiring intellectually minded Natalia at the holistic farm/ranch/winery of El Mogor, learned how to make tortillas with the Valle’s infamous Doña Estela, and had a meal at Corazon de Tierra that felt more psychedelic than any meal in my life. Most importantly, each place we visited provided another angle of the Valle through Javier’s eyes. The startling amount of Baja hospitality we witnessed at each turn seemed to ooze from the warm blanket of sunlight over the landscape.
Without getting into an ignorant claim from a wine novice like myself on the potential of terroir in Baja’s wine country, did the Valle de Guadalupe have terroir in a broader sense? The years of slowly getting to know Baja food had formed a deep emotional attachment to this concept. As you might imagine, a weekend spent experiencing one chef’s perspective on what makes the Valle special only solidified and focused that idea into a context by which to tie all my Baja food adventures together. The fuzzy thread of Baja Med was now a tightly woven myelin cord ripping through my head.
Perhaps I am a nerd first, and a foodie second. I want the whole story about a place, a farmer, a chef, an artist. And I want to visit the farm and taste greens right out of the dirt, ride my bike through the city where the chef grew up and opened his restaurant, and get to know a place like the Valle from many angles.
And yes, before and after the nerdy thoughtful stuff happens upstairs, I will drink and eat with hedonist abandon. This is precisely why I’m a part of DFF, and it’s why I still can’t believe how lucky we are in SD to be minutes away from the treasure of food found in Northern Baja.
Even if you don’t make it to the July 13th Death for Food dinner and exhibition at Finca Altozano, carve out some time for Baja food. Sooner than later, and especially before they put a golf course through an olive grove, get yourself down to Valle de Guadalupe. Your head will get some exercise, your heart will burst open, and your belly will thank you.
All photos by Jaime Fritsch (except the black & white image of Sean at the barbacoa joint)