Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Kentucky Fried Buches:The Original Gangstas of Tijuana soul food since 1963

After a day of frying chicken necks, it's Miller Time at KFB

Fresh tortillas from a nearby tortilleria

Crispy,crunchy buches

The tribute band fulfills a unique role in the entertainment world. There is a universal set of songs that all bar bands, casual outfits, and party bands call from their reperatory. Rolling Stones, Earth Wind and Fire, Jimmy Buffet, CCR, James Brown, etc.But, some bands are so iconic and unique in either lead vocals(ACDC), I've watched hundreds of singers crumble trying to do "You Shook Me...", their arrangements(Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd),their vistuosity and style(Van Halen), or in their theatrics(Kiss), that they have to be studied by all participants and well rehearsed. It's the love of their favorite bands music that makes so many dedicated fans commit to a tribute band weekend after weekend to recreate it as authentic as possible. Some of these acts are quite good, like the Van Halen Tribute, the Atomic Punks.

Kentucky Fried Buches represents one of these artists, so iconic, that they are the only ones in their category. To the best of my knowledge, deep fried chicken necks aren't done anywhere else in Mexico.Since 1963, Felipe Escoto Barajas(owner) and his family have been serving their savory neck tacos to the people of Tijuana and many a traveler.Along with brothers Juan Escoto Barajas and Fco. Chavez, Felipe works alongsode his son Ivann Escoto Sainz. It's a family affair.

The house special, deep fried chicken necks with a signature salsa

The menu!!

After struggling with hot fried necks, a taco is assembled

Magic salsa

While reading a post by kindred spirit, Teenage Glutster, I saw that he found a couple of fried buche trucks in East LA, serving the same salsa to accompany, claiming to be Tijuana style buches.

Well, they are from TJ, but KFB is the lone keeper of this culinary tradition. As the Teenage Glutster accurately described, the ratio of skin to meat is utterly pleasing, and calling themselves KFB was a stroke of genious.It's Tijuana soul food, greasy and heart warming.Deep fried buches are everything KFC wishes it could be.Economical, novel, and luscious.

KFB is all about simplicity. There is a fry tank for the buches,and a salsa that looks so simple, tastes so familiar, yet is truly original at the same time to complete the winning flavor formula. Fresh totillas are a stone's throw away at any one of a dozen tortillerias, and only salt and toothpicks are on the tables.I remember coming here back in 2001 and just laughing 'til it hurt at the name, Kentucky Fried Buches! The first time I had these I was eating the whole buche with the bones in the tortillas 'til I saw a local picking the skin and scant neck meat onto the tortilla.OK, party foul, let's try this again.Definitely better without the bones.The menu is a sign on the wall that says "una orden $35", which consists of 5 buches, salsa, and tortillas.There's also soda.Recently they've doubled the menu, there's now pozole on the weekends?After 46 years, one of them says, "I think we should have some pozole, you know, like on the weekends",dad replies,"OK, but you have to make it and put up the sign."

From right to left, Felipe Ecoto Barajas(owner), Ivann Escoto Sainz(son and heir to the throne), and employee

Table salt and toothpicks are all you need

The restaurant is located a couple of blocks from the Tijuana monument arch at La Revo and Art. 123.It's in a seedy but safe part of town.Famous music groups playing in Tijuana stop here, and at some point every family in Tijuana has been here, and the many revelers and night owls make it out each evening to satify their fancy.As I was leaving the other night a banda group came in and blasted away while we tried to talk, and a few street characters came by to amuse.All for under $4USD for food, beverage,live music, and comedy show!

I told the boys that they were being paid tribute by a couple of loncheras in East LA. They smiled and graciously nodded to acknowledge the compliment. Felipe then said,"Esta bien...........pero no es igual." I will go and check out the Atomic Punks and have a good time, but nothing will ever beat the concert I saw with my dad when I was in sixth grade at the Oakland Coliseum. Eddie, Dave, Alex, and Michael when Van Halen only had three albums under their belt. Go to Tijuana and see the original,still as good as ever, in dowtown Tijuana, Kentucky Fried Buches.

A banda serenades the staff at the end of another day in the Zona Norte

Kentucky Fried Buches
670 Ave. Constitución
Zona Norte
Tijuana, Baja California Norte

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Taqueria El Chino-Hermosillo,Sonora:The Head of the Class

Saving face after a night of chelas, tacos de cabeza are para la cruda(hangover)

A pair of El Chino's tacos de cabeza, pure heaven on Earth

Every part of Mexico has their weekend breakfast foods and hangover cures. Menudo,barbacoa, birria,estofado de camaron,ceviche,siete mares,etc. In Baja it's tacos de birria de res, and nearby Sonora, it's got to be tacos de cabeza(head).

My good friend Gerardo from Hermosillo took me to a place many years ago for tacos de cabeza. He told me that it's what they do in Hermosillo on the weekends, "para la cruda", he bellowed. Well, the concerts I play at the palenques don't usually get out until 3AM or even 4AM sometimes by the time we get back to the hotel. Palomas and beers before and during the gig, more booze entertaining the local prey back at the hotel after a day of soundchecking, traveling,schleping gear, and performing, then the 8AM lobby call.Makes it hard to get one last food experience in before heading back to the states, but I always try if the hit is doable.

Gerardo told me that he would pick me up at 6:45AM to go have tacos to which I agreed with a wince, already contemplating how screwed I was going to be by the time I got back to LA. No time for a nap either.After the show and a couple hours of whispering strategic blandishments to a Sonoran girl,they only second in beauty in Mexico to the girls of Sinaloa, it was off to the lobby for some tacos.

I have to say that the tacos were amazing.But, sleep deprived, still drunk, and stung by the charms of a Sonoran girl, the experience wasn't fully digested but in that fog of a 24 hour cycle was the haunting memory of a taco so good, that it makes you tremble.

Last month, gigging at the Feria de Hermosillo, I had it on my list to get up and have some tacos de cabeza before I came back home.We had a later call, so time was on my side this time. I was referred to Taqueria El Chino by local consensus, and when I arrived I realized that this was the place I had been with Gerardo a few years back.Hangover free and armed with 3.5 hours of sleep, I was ready.Two tacos de cabeza were ordered and served rapid fire. The cabeza is steamed dark and juicy to the eye. I dressed one red and the other green and then, a rhapsodic smack hit my senses. The saucy and savory beef head meat is so balanced in its flavors, spicing, and texture, the red salsa worked fantastically.Everything fresh, the salsas, the toppings, the meats.This is the perfect taco.

The sesos tacos were levels above anything I've had before. And the taco de frijol made with frijoles maneados, Sonoran refritos, were laughingly good. "A bean taco? Really? "Oh damn, give me another one of those &%$!ing things"

Taco de seso, El Chino

This tacos de cabeza was famously paired with El Chino's salsa roja, a thing of beauty. Take care in finishing this taco, you want to pair, not drown this gem.

The condiments and tacoing at El Chino are standards of excellence

Taco de frijol, Sonoran refritos are addicting

These are better than my favorite tacos de birria de res in Tijuana, and remind me of what a taco should be. A homemade tortilla with subtle flavoring as a launching pad for a baddass filling topped with fresh and complementing vegetables and salsas.A taco should be an event in your mouth. It should be the subject of virulent debate alongside your favorite soccer team. The tacos at El Chino provide a standard that everything else you eat or drink that day has to match.

The menu

A refrescos and aguas station split the outdoor dining area

Taqueria El Chino

Taqueria El Chino is stand with covered seating area in a parking lot. It is right around the corner from Hermosillo's best tacos of carne asada, Tacos Jass.They have a few other branches, but the location here is close to downtown, the hotel district. It's walking distance from the Holiday Inn, where the band always stays when in Hermosillo.

You will see tacos de cabeza all throughout the state of Sonora, but you haven't had them until you've been here.When I was leaving they waved me back curiously questioning why I was taking pictures. After a brief and friendly chat the manager, he showed me their award, as 2008's best taco in Hermosillo. The 2009 awards are coming up,so, you'd better get over to Taqueria El Chino fast and cast your vote.These are some of the best tacos I've had in Mexico, and are a must when visiting Hermosillo.

Best in show, 2008

Taqueria El Chino
Blvd Morelos no. 16
right around the corner from Tacos Jass
Hermosillo, Sonora

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Surprising Taste of Tijuana Tribute: La Diferencia and La Villa del Tabaco

La Diferencia's margarita de tamarindo,one of my many Tijuana obsessions

Chile en nogada no. 4515 during the season a few years ago

This is what I'm talking about,a sensuous crepe filled with huitlacoche and covered in a salsa poblana

The earthy mushroom soup from Aunt Sabina

U-12 shrimp in a mild hababero sauce

I started frequenting Tijuana and Ensenada around 1999. A few years had passed since my annual trips to the clubs on Revolucion during my college days, from 1987 to 1990. Back then my gastronomic crawls were not much more than some average tacos on La Revo and bacon wrappped hot dogs. The clubs and Revolucion were overflowing in those days with lines waiting to go into El Torito and other bars. Bartenders were issuing the TJ Tequila shot, where they cover your mouth and shake your head after the shot, usually paid for by a “so called” friend. I remember talking to some girl until the sun came up as she passed out and wretched on the table in mid conversation. I wasn’t getting lucky that night. Everyone was hammered, my best friend had his arm around a girl one night that was so drunk she had soiled herself. We were laughing hysterically pointing to her ass trying to get my friend’s attention but he just kept smiling throwing his thumb in the air triumphantly. One of the last trips, in our drunk and indulgent stupidity, we were sliding on that building as you walk back to the US from the Yellow Cab stands and got shoved into a couple of Tijuana police vehicles for “violating” a federal building. After a little mordida(bribe) we were on our way, broke and relieved to have gotten off so easy for this heinous crime.

Returning at the close of the 20th century I was looking for something a little different. The clubs no longer had anything to offer, but the food? I wandered around Revolucion looking for a break from the old standbys, Café La Especial wasn’t bad, and a few Loncherias provided some familiar but much more soulful versions of everyday Mexican food. Then while I was eating some of my grandmother’s fantastic tamales during a visit to Stockton,CA, my hometown, I spotted an article titled A Surprising Taste of Tijuana by Barbara Hansen, from the LA Times. After a frantic read I almost leaped out of my chair with tamal in mouth a started driving south. I didn’t imagine Tijuana as a place of gastronomy or near wineries. That article, along with a trip to get back in touch with family in Aguascalientes that I hadn’t seen since I was 9 years old, changed my life . I had stopped in D.F. for a couple of days before Aguascalientes, too, and had an unforgettable meal at a souvenir shop on the way to Teotihuacan.

A Surprising Taste of Tijuana by Barbara Hansen from 2002

Umm, tres leches

The next opportunity I had to get back to Tijuana I grabbed a cab and paid extra to get me to La Diferencia, and fast. La Diferencia is a D.F. style alta cocina restaurant in the gastronomic zone of Tijuana’s Zona Rio. There are prehispanic foods like gusanos de maguey(maguey caterpillars and victims of a mezcal marketing ploy), escamoles(ant eggs), and chapulines(grasshoppers) served with little blue corn tortillas and a pico de gallo. Dishes born out of the French occupation of Mexico like crepes of huitlacoche(corn smut) with a poblano chile sauce. These look too good to eat, but you’ll manage. And, during chiles en nogada season in the fall, La Diferencia’s versions are serious. Other chiles rellenos are filled with huitlacoche. The rabbit mixiote is excellent and all dishes are beautifully plated. Alligator machaca has been served among other creations over the years that has earned La Diferencia its name.

The food is substantial enough for the most discerning expert on Mexican cuisine, but you could take mom there and she’d have no problem finding something delicious that need no explanation like salmon in a salsa of mango . The room is classic Mexican elegance from another era. There is a fountain in the center of the main dining area. Waiters here provide professional service, and this is a sure place to have a traditional Caesar’s salad made at your table. Hector Quiroz, the manager, is a true caballero, you will be well taken care of by him and the La Diferencia crew. There are seasonal items like the pre-hispanic foods and the chiles en nogada. Ingredients are top notch and deft cooks are experts in sauces, baking, and grilling. The butter even comes in little corn husk tamale wraps.

Juan Pablo Ussel, the owner has one of the best restaurant experiences you will encounter in Tijuana.

Masters of the chile relleno, La Diferencia makes a devastating relleno de huitlacoche

A simple yet elegant salmon in a salsa of mango

The prized puros cubanos at La Villa del Tabaco

La Villa del Tabaco closed in 2011.

Barbara had also mentioned La Villa del Tabaco in her article for Cuban expressos and cappuccinos. La Villa has become a requisite stop for me when in Tijuana. Cuban ex-patriate Rudy, the late owner of La Villa passed away a few years ago, but he always made you feel welcome like a guest in his home. He was a fine conversationalist. The cigars are authentic Cubans, unlike what you will find on the street. The coffee beans are from Cuba and the expressos here are the best. Rudy’s widow, Elena, now runs the place. She always makes sure I get a little taste of her Havana Club 7 year she has stashed behind the counter. She stocks the usual cigars that we all know, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, and Bolivar, but I adore the San Cristobal de La Habana and Diplomaticos. The staff is friendly, the store is a break from the noise on La Revo, and if you make it there on a Wednesday all the regulars show up and Elena provides a nice spread.

An expresso in the morning before a day of eating in Tijuana and a nice smoke before hitting the Zona Rio for a world class dining experience at La Diferencia,or the many other fine restaurants. This is why Tijuana makes me happy. I’ve made it a mission to know all the high and low dining of Tijuana, but Barbara Hansen’s ground breaking report is what started it all for me. I might still be sitting there in Café La Especial wondering……there’s got to be more than this.What a nice surprise,verdad?

My San Cristbal de La Habana churchill

Make it a double, cappuccino, that is

Products from the homeland

La Diferencia
Bl. Sanchez Taboada 10611-A
Zona Rio

La Villa del Tabaco
Av. Revolucion 868#15
Zona Centro

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Baja Cuisine Movement:La Querencia, Villa Saverios, Baja Med Pizza Co., and beyond at the frontier of a gastronomic revolution

Young chefs at Baja Med Pizza Co., the future of chef Miguel Angel Guerrero's Baja Med

Currently, there are three culinary movements going on in northern Baja:Baja Med- a fusion of Asian, Mediterranean, and local Mexican influence,Wine Country cuisine from Jair Tellez's Laja focusing on local products of Baja in an author's cuisine fashion, and the evolutionary Mexican cooking of Benito Molina, a Mexico City haute cuisine master armed with the amazing bounty of Baja and pure genius.It's a pretty amazing time to dine in Baja. It's not often that you can witness a culinary new movement in action, let alone three.

Baja Med is a creation of La Querencia chef Miguel Angel Guerrero, but the roots of this movement are penetrating. The first plantings of wine grapes by Jesuits in 1791, the establishment of Santo Tomas winery in 1888, and the arrival of the Molokanes(Russian immigrants, pacifists fleeing the Czar)in 1904, who expanded the wine grape planting in the Valle de Guadalupe.Italians, French, and Swiss immigrants have flocked to the Valle de Guadalupe over the years bringing their wine heritages in tow. The 80's brought boutique wineries, and Hugo D'Acosta's Casa de Piedra and wine school have raised the bar and technique for quality wine and excellent wine makers.

Many dishes in the genre were already forming, Alex Cardini's Caesar salad in 1924, the emergence of Puerto Nuevo style lobster devoured by hungry tourists, and the chorizo de ablulon from the Isla de Cedros, abalone was preserved in chorizo so they wouldn't spoil waiting for the merchants to show up to the island. Ensenada's famous fish taco remains a symbol of Baja tradition that has attained a worldwide popularity. The treasure of seafood, wild game, produce, cheese from Real del Castillo, olives and olive oils,and wine have also formed the various culinary movements in Baja California.

The Baja Med Pizza Co. closed but the pizzas are alive and kicking at Miguel Angel Guerrero's El Taller.

The Baja Med Pizza Co., creating a Mexican identity for pizza

At Baja Med Pizza Co. in Tijuana, affiliated with La Querencia, a new Mexican identity is being formed in pizza making.An original thin crust topped with a pure of black beans. Toppings include the mouthwatering chorizo de abulon, locally raised lamb, and machaca of marlin. Armando Medrano, the owner, will pair some of his excellent selection of Baja wines with your pizza of exotic toppings. Seeing his young line cooks, fresh from culinary school is comforting. Many of the top restauranteurs have young aspiring cooks that promise a future for Baja Med cooking.

Other restaurants continue to surface in the Baja idiom throughout the peninsula. The ill-fated Baja Kuche, which roared coming out the gates, died with a whimper, the young chef presented stylized food with no flavor or substance. But seeing the wonderful menu at the time we were there was inspiring. There are others that are showing promise and it seems like new ones are popping up here and there. Palmuzul was another amazing concept, a restaurant that featured Baja cuisine from Tijuana to Cabo. I went there about a half dozen times, from the start it was executing all its dishes so well, but then the menu shrank, and so did the quality.They lasted maybe a year.In time, La Querencia and others will yield some other breakaway operations as the young chefs become more confident.

Sopes of lamb, chorizo de abulon, and machaca de marlin(Baja Med Pizza Co.)

Pizza de borrego primal(Baja Med Pizza Co.)

The quartet of salsas from nice to wicked at La Querencia and Baja Med Pizza Co.

Years ago, Villa Saverios featured a more Mediterranean and Italian menu, one of the best restaurants in Baja by chef and restauranteur, Javier Plascensia. But, the movement is infectious. Over the years the menu changed to reflect his own Baja style dishes and sensibilities. They used to serve Baja quail, an iconic dish from the region, and their version had the feel of the street grill, but with a touch of sophistication .You can have a tasting of local shellfish prepared in a variety of ways. Baja scallops, oysters, abalone, or the prized chocolata clams. Order the local Real del Castillo cheese selection to have with a bottle of wine from El Valle de Guadalupe.The other day we tried the chile relleno stuffed with pasta in four cheeses with a huitlacoche emulsion and a traditionally styled tomato sauce. A beautiful representation of the Baja Med imagination.The cooking at Villa Saverios is stellar. To include an Asian touch, a tartar of blue fin tuna is dressed with ponzu in a jalapeno and sea urchin sauce--heavenly. How about a quail and duck pate made with Mexican port wine? The grilled baby octopus, the lamb shank tacos are delicate but full of flavor.

There's traditional Italian and Mediterranean here,too, but keep your eyes on that menu. Baja treasures await.

Villa Saverios, where Javier Plascencia's journey began in the heart of Tijuana's gastronomic zone.

La Querencia, the champion of Baja Med

Diners among the many trophies of the hunter, Miguel Angel Guerrero, at La Querencia

A cheese plate made from all local products, the cheeses from Real del Castillo(Villa Saverios)

Tartar of local tuna with ponzu, with a sea urchin and jalapeno sauce(Villa Saverios)

The elegant dining room at Villa Saverios

Chile relleno with pasta in four cheeses, with a tomato based sauce and an emulsion of huitlacoche(Villa Saverios)

Tacos of marinated duck(La Querencia)

Almeja gratinada, one of the many Baja Med dishes featuring the delicious local clams

Camarones rellenos al "Romesco", stuffed bacon wrapped shrimp with machaca de marlin alongside vegetables grown in Baja(La Querencia)

Miguel Angel Guerrero, the man who actually patented the term Baja Med, is the movements heavy weight champion. A hunter, and chef, realizes this fabulous cuisine at his La Querencia in Tijuana, and El Aljibe(closed in 2009) in La Paz. His cuisine screams of terroir. Local game, local catch, and the influences of Mediterranean and Asian immigrants. Unlike California cuisine which also emphasizes Mediterranean influences and local ingredients, Baja Med has dishes and ingredients that are entirely unique to its region. To this day I can't yell out a California cuisine dish even though I've been to the restaurants and looked through a few cookbooks. But hijole, chorizo de abulon on a sope, forget about it--that's Baja Med. Duck tacos, Miguel Angel's sashimi a la Querencia of scallops with Asian sauces,venison tacos, manta ray sopes,or the local farmed beef in the Valle de Guadalupe, not to mention olive oil and cheese made in the region--these are becoming a standards.

One evening consisted of a special clam au gratin on a bed o sea salt, and the stuffed bacon wrapped shrimp covered in a long thin tube of machaca de marlin, accompanied by fresh grilled vegetables with some Asian flavors thrown in. Dark and rich flavors, brilliantly paired. The marinated duck tacos and chorizo de abulon tacos are served in an original tortilla: thin and crispy. Were not just changing the tires here, this is a culinary overhaul from top to bottom.

With his El Aljibe in La Paz, Miguel Angel covers Baja on two fronts in his campaign to spread the word about Baja Med. La Querencia is a must for the Baja traveler.

Asia meets Baja in sashimi of scallops(La Querencia)

The original Baja classic: Caesar's Salad(La Diferencia)

Other restaurants have there Baja Cuisine touches, all of them do a Caesar's salad. La Diferencia has an octopus dish that leans towards a more local style. And everyone in Tijuana's gastronomic zone is serving Baja wines.

The vineyards of the Valle de Guadalupe drive the gastronomic movement.

From the vineyards and farms, to the innovative chefs, Baja Cuisine continues to grow and develop its dialect. It's real and it is here to stay, the culinary schools are prepping the next generation, and the kitchens of Baja Cuisine restaurants are training the young talented recruits. The Valle de Guadalupe and Baja peninsula have found a worthy cuisine to express its diversity and iconoclast character.

Fresh catch at the Mercado Negro in Ensenada

Lamb, quail, and ostrich sold at a roadside market along Highway 3, La Ruta Vinicola

Locally grown olives and splendid marmalade made by the descendants of the Molokanes, at the Familia Samarin Russian restaurant and museum in Francisco Zarco

Lucilla of Las Gueritas makes the lengendary Baja quail from her little stand near the pueblo of Francisco Zarco

Produce, salsas,sauces,bread, and other house made items at the Wednesday farmer's market at Rancho El Mogor. It's located on the property of Baja winery, Mogor Badan, known for their fine chasselas

Baja Med Pizza Co.(closed)
Gobernador Lugo #9531
Col. Dávila
Ph. (01152) (664) 684-0597

La Querencia
Escuadrón 201 #3110
Col. Aviación
Ph. (01152) (664) 972-9935 & 972-9940

Villa Saverios
Escuadron 201
Colonia Aviación
Zona Río
Ph.(664) 686-6442
Fax.(664) 686-6502 ext.102