Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bizarre Foods Baja: Part 1-Street Gourmet LA Gets The Call

On April 26, 2010, the new season of Bizarre Foods begins on the Travel Channel. One of the episodes in the new season line-up, Bizarre Foods Baja will feature ME as an onscreen guide during a street food segment. As all amazing things that come our way in this life, there are events, orchestrated, reactionary, and accidental that lead us to most unexpected outcomes.

It was back in July when I led a FAM to Baja of a certain infamy known amongst a FAIR part of the LA blogging community. It tested the stamina of even the most hardcore knoshers, and proved to be a tasty surprise to all who participated at the very least. For the most it was a life changing journey.

I had invested years and several hundred thousands of calories investigating the gastronomy of Baja and had planned to write a guide book when circumstances caused me to start increasing my blog output to lay claim to my "boots on the ground" discoveries in Baja. This is not even worth mentioning to any degree, but, the cache of Baja reviews did get me an invite from the Tijuana Cotuco(Conventions and Visitors Bureau) to attend a FAM(Familiarization Trip) in Tijuana. One look at the itinerary and I thought, really? How could they leave out the incredible street foods, taquerias, and true gastronomy of Baja?

So, I set up a meeting in Tijuana to......consult them on their FAM. An unknown blogger from LA....telling these guys that their trip stinks, and that I could do it better. And no, I hadn't even started drinking that day. I hit traffic coming out of LA and was about an hour late for that meeting. Stressed out from traffic, and disheveled, I pitched these guys another type of trip, a trip that I deeply believed would change the discussion about Baja. More than any tired guide books, hotel pamphlets and flyers, billboard signs, or the handful of articles from major publications that seemed to be using a single source of repetitive stops,or obligatory nods. In my overconfidence, or rather faith in Baja, I alone, with a little help from some friends, could create a new paradigm.

I remember telling the guys at Cotuco and the Crossborder Group that these blog posts would provide a new outlook on Baja cuisine, and that maybe someone like Anthony Bourdain, Rick Bayless, or.....Andrew Zimmern would come as a result of these untold stories.

Well, July came, and the bloggers,photographers, writers, restaurateurs, and chefs climbed aboard the bus at Union Station for an uncertain journey, with some guy that only about 5 of the 27 passengers knew.This trip had almost fallen apart the night before and ultimately was compromised a bit by some folks in Mexico that still were not convinced that, I could deliver the goods.

This trip turned out to be brilliant, and as the sun set in the Valle de Guadalupe on our last night, and we headed home to go our separate ways, the wheels were set in motion for something...but, honestly, I wasn't sure what would come of all this. In the following months, post after post created a splattering of new restaurant information on Tijuana, Ensenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe.

Then, an e-mail from Andrew Zimmern's production company came just a couple months later. I would like to say that they were hooked after my first story about a particular taqueria in Tijuana, that I shall name at a later post. Hey, that's showbiz folks!

Out of those e-mails and subsequent converations came the green light for Bizarre Foods Baja, and a gig as an onscreen guide! I unloaded story after story, restaurant upon restaurant until they cried uncle.

Then, I get the call. "Hello Bill, I'm calling to see if you'd be interested in being a fixer for La Paz, in Southern Baja." I was in a soundcheck in Vegas and could barely hear, but said YEEEESSSSSSSS!!!!! An on camera spot had been discussed with the usual disclaimers, but I thought, if I have proven worthy enough to do this, be a fixer, and can stick this fact finding mission, I'm in. I don't know if there's a precedent for this, but fixers are exclusively locals. In other words, they were flying me in to La Paz in favor of a local operator. Could this be a first time?

On such short notice, the only flight that would work was into Cabo. Cabo? OK, I'll just go to Cabo and get a rentacar, and drive to La Paz. This would give me Friday afternoon to evening, all day Saturday, and MAYBE some time Sunday morning on the drive back to Cabo, about 3-4 hours depending on traffic, or rather the number of times you need to wait for the damn cows to get out of the way. There are free range cattle that roam from south of Ensenada damn near to Cabo and are often in the middle of the two-lane, no shoulder,no services, dessert highway the other side of a blind hill. When you see hazard lights on the opposite traffic lane's vehicle, it means your ASS if you don't slow down.

While La Paz was a city I'd been before, several times, and was leagues ahead of Cabo in regards to its food, finding foods worthy of a Bizarre Foods episode in La Paz is like finding a real Coach bag in the Fashion District.

Three days of cold research in La Paz, Mexico,....and Cabo. Cabo San Lucas is a place that I always thought, "you'd have to pay me to go there!"

Upon arrival, what struck me was that english was spoken exclusively in customs. Never in all my years of traveling through 22 states in Mexico had I encountered such a surrealistic passage through aduanas, or customs. It was like the movie Starship Troopers by Paul Verhoeven, where Argentina is portrayed, insultingly so, as a place completely devoid of Latino culture and character.

Walking along the beach on my way back from La Paz a few days later I watched this group of tourists ask the beach masseuse in a white canopied tent if a "happy ending" was available.The massuese was female and this was in front of an upscale hotel. The guy working at the massage tent pointed to a chubby male coworker and said, "yes, here you go, amigo!" I call that a draw. And, speaking of happy endings, it was time to get out of there, and fast. Cabo just isn't for me.

The airport was ala Vegas or Hawaii, but could have been Phoenix, too.

And, what a disappointment to go to the Cabo Wabo shop to learn there was no Cabo Wabo for tasting. Cabo Wabo isn't in my tequila collection, but at that point I needed something to numb my senses.No tequila tasting at the teQUILA shop?

Between the Amigos bar,....

the Old Mex Candy shop, and the gaggle of time-share hawkers outside Cabo is one of the more Bizarre places I've been.

Besides, everyone had just about cleaned out all the nachos! The waiting area in the Cabo airport is a movie theater nachos festival!Apparently you can't leave Mexico without nachos and a sombrero.

Todos Santos is a quite artisan and craft village, kind of like Baja's own Sedona. It was a nice great from the Orange County style strip malls and resorts that line the the highway passing through Cabo and San Lucas.

My good friend Benito Molina suggested a stop in Todos Santos on the way for an expresso, and some Italian food at the Santa Fe Cafe.

It's a vision of tranquility at the Cafe, and Ezio Colombo, the owner, came out and sat with me for a while talking in his Italian accented Spanish.

I was saving valuable tummy space for the finds that lie ahead but couldn't resist the complimentary bread. Ezio comes from Liguria, and has been in Mexico for the last 20 years.

I was very nervous cutting across the peninsula in that beautiful isolation where desert tucks itself in between the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific. I had already hit my first snag in Cabo, an expired driver's license. They weren't going to let me rent the car, but I begged and pleaded, "Baja is depending on my trip!" A little bribe and I was on my way, thought it said "expires on birthday in 2010!"

The first signs of some food worthy of the show came about 45 minutes outside La Paz in the village of San Pedro. There I met the shy Guadalupe Martinez-Molina who has been making pit roasted lamb,lamb intestines, and lamb heads for the past six years.

This is the kind of stand that is found all over Latin America, but in the states it's a cultural mirage. It's like from a scene in a movie, the kind of place that Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna might have stopped on their way to some imaginary beach, the dialogue drops in the cue while a narrator reveals a back story. The journey from the nachos of the Cabo airport and the tumbleweeds of San Pedro is profound. Yes, I was back in Mexico wrapped in a stream of consciousness.

I loved talking with Guadalupe, who did more smiling than talking, until I started to take her picture.

The adobe oven and roadside setting was beautiful, lonely, and timeless. I imagined Guadalupe's daily regimine, preparing the barbacoa, stuffing offal into lamb's maw in the wee hours of the morning, attending the customers on this reclusive highway, and cleaning and prepping for the next day in solitude. It was only around 4pm, and San Pedro had nothing left to offer but dust. And, pit roasted lamb? Bizarre Foods had already done it. I knew this, but I relished my few minutes here. It's rich material for those day dreams I frequent, hungering for Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras.......the people, places, heavenly food, lusty drink,women,the human touch, the exploits, the rumba!

Well, here we go. La Paz."Man, I don't remember any unique foods there AT ALL", I laughed nervously to myself."OK, fuck it", "This is what I do, I find shit nobody else finds!"

To be continued........

Cafe Santa Fe
Calle Centenario, 12-9
Todos Santos, BCS

Barbacoa Estilo Jalisco
the entrance to San Pedro
Highway Todos Santos-La Paz


Eddie Lin said...

Can't wait to see the episode! Viewing partay??!!

glutster said...

fucken awesome!

nice to

welcome to the proud, the few...the Bizarre Foods Fellowship.

now all you need is for me and Eddie to jump you in a puras stinky, fermented bambas cabron!

Scotty said...

Congrats on the Bizarre Foods gig. I always enjoy reading about the food you come across in Baja.

e*star said...

This is awesome!! Can't wait to watch!! :)

streetgourmetla said...

Eddie-Yes, there will be a viewing party my friend. It'll be you and me, abucket of beer each, and movie theater nachos. Bring your sombrero.

Javier-Bring your sombrero, too, and those putazos!

Thanks Esther, your a princess, muah!

Scotty, thanks so much, hope you've had a chance to go down there yourself. Provecho!

Gastronomer said...

Proud of you, Bill! Yes, let's have a viewing party!!