Monday, July 7, 2008

Los Quesotraficos take on the TJ Cartel:Tacos Salceados,Baja Med Pizza Co.,La Guerrerense,Manzanilla,and Muelle Tres

I started out smuggling extra bottles of alcohol past customs, but when I began to smuggle Mexican cheese and Chicharon prensado, I had now hit rock bottom.Like Alex,my new friend and partner in crime on this whirlwind tour in Baja Norte, I had to air out my bag after crossing the border on Sunday to get rid of the queso sicho de Guerrero smell out of my backpack.Actually, I didn't mind at all.If Homeland Security didn't have enough to worry about............

This weekend, KR and I did 36 hours in Tijuana and Ensenada where we ate at 16 different restaurants/stands, by my count,reconed another dozen establishments, smoked Cuban cigars,"tasted" fine Mexican beers, drank Baja wines,slammed tequila con vivora,did a tequila tasting, a barrel tasting at La Escuelita,braved the mean streets of Tijuana in the wee hours of the morning, and experienced the "Miles Davis" of the culinary world in Benito Molina, a true bon vivant.

This report shall be a joint effort between KR and I, who will also be throwing up those delicious photos as the narrative unfolds.Here are the highlights of our trip.
Chapter 1)Ensenada the Benito way.
The mission.Meet the chef extraordinaire for a little taste of Ensenada and trip to La Escuelita, the wine school located in Francisco Zarco and run by the great Valle de Guadalupe winemaker, Hugo D'Acosta.

After stopping for a fabulous fish taco located about 5 blocks behind the main drag, and having an Ensenada style ceviche tostada at El Guero, we were ready to hang with Benito.Now, I like Mariscos El Guero, the guys are great and the mariscos fresh and tasty, but alas, I will not be returning.Why?Benito took us to El Guerrerense, the place he mentioned on a previous post about Ensenada for the best seafood stand of our lives and I will now only go here for mariscos on the street.This place is the Water Grill sobre ruedas.Exquisite tostadas of bacalao,sublime tostadas de herizo(urchin) topped with the profoundly delicious local clams, a huarache(giant oyster), and fresh abulon served unadorned.The superlative Ensenada style ceviche de pescado tostada, finely chopped. The agua fresca de cebada!Amazing! I never imagined such a level of street cuisine, in fact, I don't know many fine restaurants that could achieve such amazing flavor and creativity.We are ruined.Sorry El Guero, but I have to move on.

The genius of Miles Davis(Benito is a fellow jazz lover) was his ability take fine local ingredients and let them play.In the 50's, Coltrane,Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and "Philly" Joe Jones;the 60's,Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Herbie Hancock.This is the brilliance of Benito Molina, and his restaurants Manzanilla, Silvestre, and Muelle Tres, the latter of which we had the priviledge of dining with the maestro himself.Benito's cooking talent is only rivaled by his generosity and passion for the finer things in life.That fresh cut rose and view of the Valle.... It takes a sybarite to know one, verdad?Bigotes, eres mi hermano, totalmente!Super bien chido,buey! Anyways, go to Benito's restaurants when in town,any or all of them.Go to La Guerrerense and any of the places Benito talks about in his posts.If you miss these places you are not in Ensenada and will be forgoing true chow worthy destinations.

La Escuelita, the wine school run by Hugo D'Acosta in the Valle de Guadalupe.
I had seen video of La Escuelita and read many pieces about it, so when Benito told us we would go there to drink wine, we were ecstatic.The liquor was flowing my friends.Benito had started us out with a Mezcal tasting at Manzanilla at 11:30AM, this of course was after a couple of beers.Victorias.We grabbed a little more refreshments for the wine tasting.Let me just say that these youngsters can't keep up with us seasoned veterans,KR. :)

When we arrived at Hugo D'Acosta's wine school we were met by his oenologist, Tomas.Tomas was another fantastic person we met that day.Benito let us do a barrel tasting of his 6 month your M3, his zinfandel that's only available at his restaurants.Watching Mr. Molina taste and evaluate his wine, conferring with his oenologist, and trying to decide how to best make this wine match his menus was fascinating.We then began to taste carmenere,and many garnachas(grenache).Labels?We tasted and enjoyed wines in a devil may care fashion, enjoying the flavors and bouquets........Who wants another chela? Sometime during this bacchanalia, KR started to blankly stare at the wall occasionally squinting to maintain focus.Benito and I looked at eachother and snickered.Youngsters.
The school is a place to learn the wine making process, and it even allows you to produce and bottle your wine at the facility.By the way, we had some M3 at Manzanilla and loved it.That's right,wine, mezcal, and beer, and it was only about 5PM! Benito is also an expert on Mezcal, and you can taste some of the best mezcales ever at Manzanilla.

Then, it was off to Muelle Tres, were I had several glasses of the delicious JC Bravo, a fine Valle de Guadalupe carignan.Of course we had to stop at Silvestre, Benito's seasonal restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe that is open on Saturdays and Sundays.There we just soaked in the visceral scene and stopped to smell the roses for a minute.If La Guerrerense had dropped our jaws earlier in the day, what came next was another height of flavor, creativity, and craftsmanship.It's the Rebirth of the Cool.I'm talking about Muelle Tres.

KR, the degustacion at Muelle Tres.Go!

by Kaire_Raisu from Chowhound

Muelle Tres
I will try to do this waterfront restaurant the justice it deserves! The menu is written in chalk along the wall around the open kitchen. is straightforward and based around the ingredients of the sea that are almost too close to them [the building is shared by the principal mussel plant in mexico and fronted by the malecon].
Bigotes did our ordering and before we recieved any of our food - we were brought over the alameja generosa or geoduck plucked out of the sea nearby that would be our second course. I had never seen a whole living one in my life before. Incredibly impressive.
First off we were brought over a tartare of bonito, in the tuna family which is the base fish for Japanese cookery (dashi). This was minced and brought over in rounds restrainedly seasoned with salt, limon and serrano blessed with olive oil and the fatty tuna of the veg world - aguacate.
Yielding, pleasurable texture and clean flavor sparked with limon, chile and salt atop as tostada - just closed my eyes.
Up next was that amazing generosa. The dish was fantastically thought out - with the chopped arm meat comprised in a soy - ginger -citrus melange on the plate below the shell which held the inner clam meat chopped a la mexicana with chile tomato and cilanto. This was my absolute favorite dish the whole evening.
Following were the Mussels with siete chiles and tomatillo. Damn, were these mussels the meatiest and most juicy I have ever encountered. They benefited quite a bit from the sweet steamed tomatillo slices.
The tortilla espanola and papas fritas have no equal in my book. I had eaten at a number of Spanish restaurants up in the Bay area and LA and none come close to the cool, simplicity of this torta. I don't believe I have ever raved about fries since being on chowhound but these salt and peppered golden wedges are worthy of honor.
If you come to Ensenada without visiting Muelle 3 - you have missed the boat. Here at this restaurant is were one can experience a reverence for local cuisine and rethink about your relationship with the fruits de mar.

Back to me.

Chapter 2) Subcomandante Marcos and the Tijuana taco movement;Mexican Pizza Baja Med style.
This was my 3rd visit to La Querencia's "Baja Med Pizza Co.", but having KR there made it a lot more fun.It's like a piece of gossip you've been hanging on to and couldn't wait to tell someone.
Ever since Taco Bell ruined any chance of anyone ever taking Mexican pizza seriously, Mexico has been fighting the pizza wars with one hand tied behind its back.There are pizzas Mexicanas with chorizo(espanola) and diced jalapenos available all throughout Mexico, but that doesn't constitute a movement like the pizzas of Italy,Chicago, New York, Brazil, Argentina, and the California style brought forth by Ed LaDou.But, Baja Med Pizza has fired the first shot in the Mexican pizza revolucion.An original and tasty thin crust with an offering of tomato or black bean puree as a base, and such local toppings as chorizo de abulon, borrego primal, machaca de marlin,calamar gigante, and callo catarina salteado.
We ordered the borrego primal, which Armando(manager/owner) paired with a Monte Xanic cabernet.Our appetizers were 3 sopecitos of machaca de marlin, estofado, and machaca de pato rostizado.We drank a Casta, KR's new favorite beer, and the new Bohemia Oscura.These are full bodied yet still refreshingly Mexican beers.We miss these beers.
The pizza was divine and the wine complemented the gamey texture and richness of the borrego.Tijuana has joined my list of world pizza destinations.
Subcomandante Marcos:Marcos is a sturdy and austere looking man who rules over the kitchen at Tacos Salceados, "La Ermita" in Tijuana, which has created a taco uprising.All tacos go through Marcos, who looks like a commander. Marcos is like a sous chef, and the team of 7 or so cooks at La Ermita resemble the efficaciousness of the line cooks at Spago, Pizzeria Mozza, or Patina. These taqueros are chef school trained, cool under fire and whip out works of pure genious with the expeditiousness of street taqueros.The tacos fly out of that kitchen! I would like to see these guys on Iron Chef.Battle TACO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The ultimate creation is the quesataco.The meat or seafood is cooked on the grill in a fried cheese envelope, placed on the taco, and then dressed and finished by Marcos with a fanned out row of avocado.The escabeche vegetables are juliened and are accented by local olive oil, the 20 salsas and creams are profound, and the chiles gueros in soya are the best I've ever had.The tacos: shrimp and new york steak, shrimp and scallop, arrachera,barbacoa, lengua,trout, marlin, nopal, the taco dulce with shrimp and strawberries, and so many more with your choice of handemade flour or corn tortillas.These tacos are dripping with complex flavors and textures that will overload your senses with sensual delight.
The old, the young, families,nerds,college students,vaqueros, TJ hipsters with Nortec on their Ipods, and couples of Tijuana come and wait for a chance to have these great tacos.You have to sit at the counter to see the show.Best thing, no tourists!
This was my 5th trip to La Ermita, and KR's first.He was like a kid in a candy store wildy ordering tacos until we almost burst; this was on Saturday evening.Like tradition in Mexico, you tell the cashier at the end what you had and then pay, but you might want to write 'em down so you don't forget what you ate during the eating frensy, like we did.
La Ermita makes traditional Mexican tacos with the finest ingredients, a masterful staff of taqueros, and the creativity of chef/owner Javier Gutierrez.It is the best taco destination in Tijuana and the best in Mexico,IMHO.The quesataco is spreading around TJ to other stands, but have yours at this restaurant, my taco center of the universe.The taco dulce is another taco you have to try.La Ermita also has excellent platos, baked potatoes, and mulitas, but get the tacos.It's located far away from Zona Rio, Zona Centro, or any Zona you've ever been in Tijuana, but it is a nice family neighborhood
KR couldn't leave at first, and had the look of a guy having to say goodbye to a woman he had loved and lost. One last glance.KR, there will be other restaurants in your life.
This was a memorable day, Baja Med Pizza for el almuerzo, and Tacos Salceados for la cena.
Photos and comments from KR.
I will just let the pictures talk for themselves. As far as I am concerned La Ermita is the center of the taco universe.
I bow down before street for taking me here!
Mercado Hidalgo's markets definitely overwhelm you with their sheer size and amount of goods. Thus. I was expecting to be dissapointed with Tijuana's cultural market being only a few weeks removed from Jalisco. But boy was I wrong... in fact I was really impressed by its order, neatness, and diversity of goods. I would reccomend anyone here to change their superficial tijuana over on Revo. state of mind. I had my first jugo de cana, sugarcane juice which I could not believe how interesting was upon taste. I was expecting a taste a long the lines of thinned corn syrup. Hell no.. It's an invigorating, frothy, complex drink that is hard to describe in flavor.
The mole pastes in cazuelas were gorgeously displayed and the oaxacan and birria restaurants piqued our interest.
We came acoss a cheese dealer with Real de Castillo and a modern meat maket (Air conditioned!) selling beef purely from the state of Sonora.

The hangover:
As always, I miss Baja after leaving, and all the wonderful food, people, drink,scenery, and culture.This place never fails to surprize and the chowhounding opportunities are endless, no matter how many times I go.
Some memorable asides.
1)KR talking smack in an incomprehesible spanglish walking down Negrete late at night after the many wines, tequilas, and beers.
2) The street character in Centro chasing us trying to sell us the "Pump" at 4AM."Come on man, I got the pump, the pump man!" It's the pump!!!
3)The Bigotes experience.
4) Watching KR trying to light a cigar frantically under the ceiling fan at La Villa del Tabaco with unrivaled determination.
5) Eating menudo at Constitucion/Baja California Sunday morning and almost having to take out this completely wasted street guy for breaking up our tasting notes discussion.Never get between a man and his menudo!
A few mentions for other street food places we visited, although it's impossible for us to cover all we saw and tasted.
On Madero at 4th, the is a small Pollos Rostizados located in a sliver of space run by Anabel, from Rosario, Sinaloa. For $6 you can get a whole roasted chicken, arroz, salsa, and tortillas.Love this place when I'm feeling the roasted chicken jones.
On Constitucion/Baja California from 7AM until about 1PM, or until the menudo runs out is a woman from Jalisco whose family recipe has been at that corner for 24 years.Great menudo in a not so great part of town, so go with friends if you aren't used to that type of setting.Very "rustic" setting, but well worth the trip.
La Villa del Tabaco for Cuban cigars and expressos, run by Elana Rawman.
Leyva's Liquor on La Revo between 6th/7th for the best tequila selection and prices in northern Baja. He also has many other Mexican spirits and liquors.Ask for Gilberto Leyva.
So, don't buy into the smear campaign against TJ, there is nothing to be afraid of that we don't have in our own backyard.You will only be keeping yourself from this bounty of taste sensations.Others that regularly post on northen Baja know this, but for those a little concerned, don't be.Eat and drink on the edge!


Well, my friends, it has been many visits since the original post here.For me chowhounding in Mexico is a monthly exercise,especially in Baja.In what has become a familiar scene, we sat at Manzanilla after too much good eating, some wine tastings, pizza at the farmer's market in El Valle, having some more alcohol.KR had that glazed despondent look about him while I thought about a little something at Manzanilla.KR was done, while I was pacing myself, he was busy gobbling up any clues that we had ever even been to ensenada that day.No crumb was spared.Can't say I blame him, but all that talk, "come on, you gotta try this,Oooh, wow, come on....".Yeah kid, I've got bigger fish to fry, or should I say shellfish!Eyeing Benito's brilliant menu sipping glass after glass of the fine house sauvignon blanc crafted by Hugo D,Acosta, sitting a table away from us, I found my purpose that day. I would do a tasting of natural oysters witha mignonette and the smoked clam with gorgonzola.Benito has a source about 2 hours south of Ensenada for his oysters, not the usual larger pacific oysters, but exquisite little treasures from his selected estuary.I have not tasted finer anywhere, and the mignonette was a subtley sensual match.Poor KR could only put down a couple of these jewels of the Sea of Cortez.
Oysters an Manzanilla
Benito's magical smoked clams with gorgonzola
The house sauvignon blanc at Manzanilla

Poor KR could only get a couple oysters and clams down, but I bet he'll chime in about their miraculous sapor.
Tianguis Valle de Guadalupe

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