Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Street Food, Friends, Revolutions, Hotels, and Melancholy Sips:Thanks for the Wake-Up Call

Chefs John Sedlar(Rivera, Playa) Javier Plascencia(Mision 19), Pablo Salas(Amaranta), Joseph Panarello(chef d'cuisine-Rivera), Angel Vazquez(Calzada Zavaleta), Kevin Luzande(chef d'cuisine-Playa), and Cristian Bravo(Hacienda Temozon, Hombres en La Cocina) for the first Baja Culinary Fest back in October of 2011.

Oh, yes! What were the best bites of the year, the best dishes, the most enviable reservations and restaurant brands accessed?

Let 2011 be the year we thought more about where we were and who we dined with--well at least that was the case for me--than all the other trappings of the food obsessed lifestyle. And the future holds more of the same. I resolved to accomplish this at the end of last year and it has made my life all the merrier.

The year began with a revolutionary tasting with mi compa Chuy Tovar and my girls at Boobs 4 Food in tow, at the newly opened Mision 19.SGLA would be the first to introduce chef Javier Plascencia's Tijuana masterpiece to what was still a hesitant US media(although Tijuana has been a model of order in the last couple of years travel fears are still stoked by US media about the cartels), yet the wave of press picked up this last year in the wake created by our 2009 FAM that first told the world about a greater scope of Baja cuisine from the streets to its finest dining rooms. This year Baja was featured on Rick Baylesses Mexico: One Plate at a Time, and Tijuana and Plasencia's Mision 19 picked up coverage from no less than the New York Times and the New York Post among others; as well as some pieces that should surface early in 2012.

My unending explorations of Baja have truly enriched my life with people, laughter, and memories that continue to lead me places I'd never expected. We are inextricably linked: Baja and I.

I first got to know chef John Sedlar in Tijuana, wandering the streets looking for inspiration amid sips of mezcal wine. This year I attended an unforgettable event as Sedlar brought back the trendsetting St. Estephe menu for a month at Rivera. It was such a fine evening, exciting and delicious. These were the moments in 2011 where the meals were seasoned with the finest ingredients:friendship, love, bouncing bodies full of giggles,toasts, and romance.

Meals at Mison 19 and the St. Estephe menu at Rivera made the year such a thrill. I also had an unbelievable dinner at the house of the Tamale's Elena family for a birthday party: buttery pozole made from the stock of a whole hog's head, and some of the best moles I've had in and out of Mexico. You never know where your next life changing meal will happen. This was in a backyard in Watts.

Viviana Ley and Chef Marcela Valladolid at the Baja Culinary Fest

I appeared on chef Marcela Valladolid's Mexican Made Easy, and, how much do I love Chela? Adore. Another one of my 7 degrees of Tijuana separation--Marcela is from Tijuana and I look forward to watching her continued triumphs on MME in 2012.

I also got to work with KCAL 9's Suzanne Marques for Dine on a Dime, and made another soul connection with this beautiful Latina that is now such a big part of my life. On a lovely night out with Suzanne and her friend Christine Kirk, I found a pair of angels. The connections we make while dining out can set your table for life. Pretty girls: this is why I blog. Yes, ironic, I know.

For all these extraordinary meals there were stimulating people across the table, behind the stove, manning the POS, and at my sides. Thanks to Chela Valladolid,Chuy Tovar Javier Plascencia, John Sedlar, Patricia Quintana, Evan Kleiman, Josh Lurie, Matt Kang, Suzanne Marques, Christine Kirk, Steve Livigni, Pablo Moix, Julian Cox, Mia Sarazen, Shawna Dawson, Bill Chait, Nastassia Johnson, Patrica Chen, Fiona Chandra, Christina Bellera, Katherine Chen, Jessica Chen, Liberty Huang, Lesley Bargar Suter, Stephane Bombet, Ricardo Zarate, Joanne Robles and Mynor Godoy, Oanh Nguyen, Barbara Hansen, Betty Hallock, Josie Mora, Benito Molina, Misty-Ann Oka, Jahdiel Vargas, Bricia Lopez, Andre Guerrero, Elina Shatkin, Connie Cossio and Bianka Cordoba, Catherine Solomon, Nancy Kim, Helen Kim, Cathy Chaplin, Gustavo Arellano, Dave Lieberman, Esther Tseng, Jo Stougaard, las tias Rosa Tovar and Carmen Esquitin, my friends at Aromas y Sabores, Pablo Aya, Abby Abanes, Marian Bacol-Uba, Lucia Mariegos, the Alfonso family in Havana, and all the people I met in Cuba, Belize, Mexico, and Argentina this year for sharing a meal, some moves on the dance floor at Classico, giving excellent conversation, inspiring without effort, spreading joy, and making great eye contact during toasts. Cheers!! But, a very special thanks goes to Tomoko Kurokawa, who gave the greatest gift of awareness.

Much happened for this little blogger this year, there were several other TV appearances: ABC7 with Alysha del Valle, the Sundance Channel's Live/ Lust, and more. But most amazing was that I was asked to freelance for the Los Angeles Times, something I hadn't really thought about much nor expected, but I debuted this past year with a story on Salvadoran cuisine that I'm very pleased with. My editor Betty Hallock is, well: divine, patient, full of wit, and a great teacher. I'm grateful.

2012 will be guns blazing, many new TV and writing stuff right away.

chef Patricia Quintana at the waterfalls in Santiago, Nuevo Leon.

As for travel. My initial trip with Patricia Quintana's Aromas y Sabores is one of my happiest moments of 2011. A tour through Nuevo Leon, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Michoacan, and back to D.F. with 2 busloads of serial noshers from around the world. Working with the first lady of Mexican cuisine? A dream come true.

We played a Purepecha sport of a kind of street hockey with a flaming ball that hissed at it flew within an inch of your face in the streets of Michoacan. It was amazing and moving.

And the best eats would always be found from humble, unknown vendors off the itinerary: some blue corn and red corn gorditas at the train station in Divisadero, Chihuahua filled with chile pasado.

Or a perfect taste of raw steak ceviche in Patzcuaro known as carne de apache.

I did dance the tango in Buenos Aires, at a little club in San Telmo.

There was plenty of wine in Buenos Aires, but this bottle of hooch from a plastic bottle poured by Fredi, the austere grill man at a small parrillada might be my choice of drink for my last day on earth. It was a time and place sensation that I could never describe nor expect anyone to understand.

His morcipan deserves a shrine and a set of disciples.

Belize is beautiful, peaceful, and proposes another shade of Latino culture that has occupied my thoughts this last year with frequency, and I finally got to know this interesting Central-American country. I fell in love with this place right away and even enjoyed the neglected Belize City, a place that tourists skip over in their haste to go scuba diving and hang out at the beach. Their loss, and the first of many trips to come for me.

But I did scuba dive on San Pedro Island and held a 5 ft nurse shark in my arms--a utopian dream

Having lunch and the best place on San Pedro Island with Miss Guatemala World 2011, Lucia Mazariegos, and Miss Costa Maya 2010, Gabriela Asturias. It's who you dine WITH!

About the best bowl of chirmol at El Fogon with the beauty queens nearby didn't hurt. Beautiful people, a beautiful island, comforting food...last night I dreamed of San Pedro

Nothing this year compared to the magic, quixotic nights, rumba, and hustle of a week in Havana, Cuba. Slow drinks of aged Havana Club at El Floridita, a flirt on La Rampa, working the malecon, dancing the cubeton, holding hands at the restaurant where they filmed Fresa y Chocolate, sweating like a tourist, rockin 50 Cent at the Partagas factory, the sublime ropa vieja on the patio in Miramar with friends as we all nodded from sun, drink, and strong tobacco.

Rally 'round the family-Ele(lead vocals), Carlos Alfonso(bass), and Eme Valdez(lead vocals).Sintesis in concert at Arte en La Rampa, Habana, Cuba. Summer 2011

No loungy retrospectives for me, but a show by friends and Grammy award winning Afro-Cuban fusion artists: Sintesis. A summer concert at La Rampa was a quintessential local experience.

While some complain about not finding cuisine in Cuba, I dined like a king on the streets, in the paladares, cafeterias, and private homes of Cubans. Ele Alfonso's--lead singer for Sintesis--arroz con pollo is an all time favorite dish. Its flavors and soft, warm textures fall into a rapturous unity that betrays the simple construction of this recipe.

How could I forget the house specialty at Paladar La Mulata in Miramar--one of the original paladars that began when Cuba first instituted the program--snapping and crackling chicharrones. The pork skin is meticulously trimmed of all fat leaving a light, practically transparent food that sounds like Rice Krispies bubbling in milk at your table and then ignites like Pop Rocks in your mouth. Who needs modernist techniques here?

The Cuban people are fascinating, you almost feel like each one of them would lead you to a discovery of some sort if you were to engage them. Walking the streets of Habana Vieja, Centro, and Cayo Hueso is like a rhythmic dream sequence.

Again at the home of friends: a spread worthy of a magazine shoot of Cuban home cooking. Fried sweet potato, ropa vieja like I've never encountered, giant Cuban tamales, kimbombo(okra), and Cuban salads served with fresh juices. We shared stories, many cuba libres and Cristals(Cuban beers), and finished with coffee and cigarettes, cigars for me: Cohibas.

Lunch with friends and family of Sintesis in the Miramar neighborhood, Habana, Cuba.

What a year. Change is here, though. Big change is all aspects of this business of sensual pursuits. Thanks for the wake-up call, Tomo.

On a much sadder note, we finally received the official announcement that Evan Kleiman's 27 yr. old LA institution--Angeli Caffe--will be closing on Jan. 8th. I've known this was coming for some time and can't even find the words to say to my friend, but I shall try anyway. I will be dining at Angeli for the last time on Jan. 4th at 7PM with a few friends. Please go and experience one of the longest running restaurants in our fair city, and one of the historic dining establishments in the history of Italian cuisine in America. We are going because it's still a great restaurant, and to help take care of the employees that have been with the restaurant for so long as they go off to find jobs in this tough economy.

Evan Kleiman opened Angeli Caffe in 1984 at a time when using fresh, seasonal ingredients was a revolutionary idea. It was an exciting time in Los Angeles in the early, Wolfgang Puck opened Spago, a young Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton were part of the crew; John Sedlar had the seminal St. Estephe that introduced modern-southwestern to the world down in Manhattan Beach; the two hot tamales Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Millikin had City where they struck a chord with Latin spices; and up north the California cuisine giant Alice Waters had just begun to offer a more affordable menu at her cafe--Chez Panisse was a little over 10 years old.

Angeli's mission was to serve simple food in a friendly atmosphere, and to anyone that's ever been, the the casual spirit is realized from the moment you walk in the door. And the food was to be served at room temperature--a radical approach in 1984.

Back then, Evan wasn't the media giant, nor passionate spokesperson for Los Angeles food and politics that she is today. She was shy, and preferred to stay behind the scenes. Over the year Evan has transformed herself into that engaging wit that stirs up the airwaves on KCRW's Good Food every weekend.

When the cook on California cuisine is written, and a history of Italian cuisine in America is documented, the contribution of Evan Kleiman and Angeli Caffe will be monumental. And, Angeli in its 27 years has outlasted the original Spago, lived long enough to watch chef John Sedlar rise like the Phoenix, and saw all the best restaurants of the 80's, 90's, and the last decade come and go. The restaurants we call the best in town, and we obsess over on twitter mostly aren't even a year old--Angeli had faced those trials and kept on cooking.

In a recent review of Sotto by Los Angeles Magazine food critic Patric Kuh wrote that Evan "captured something fundamental about the cuisine when she opened Angeli Caffe on Melrose Avenue in 1984, narrowing her sights on the most humble elements of the food with her austerely dressed pastas and her love of wild greens." Today we take these things for granted, but Kleiman boldly laid the foundation for our restaurant of the moment.

For years Angeli Caffe stayed on the list, Jonathan Gold's 99 Essential Restaurants in LA. In his recent 99 rundown he(Gold) stated that "this restaurant crystallized the affinity of Angelenos for this kind of casual Italian cooking decades ago, and hundreds of imitators have come and gone, but Angeli endures.."

What was it still doing on the 99? Because the 99 is about what defines Los Angeles regardless of fashion, and Angeli has always mattered.

Ricky Pina of Ricky's Fish Tacos with Jaime and Ramiro of La Casita at Street Food Mondays

I suspect many others more important than I shall write about Evan in the near future, but in the last two years I got a glimpse into this amazing woman during our collaborations on Street Food Mondays.All she ever seemed to worry about was making sure her staff and the vendors were taken care of, and we started these events because she wanted to do something for Nina, the famed antojito vendor from Boyle Heights who had increasingly become a target of police harassment.

Packing them in for fish and shrimp tacos at Angeli Caffe

Priyani and her family prepare egg hoppers one last time at Angeli Caffe after she had to close her humble Sri Lankan kitchen

And I started stooping by recently to order take out, like this off menu eggplant past at Angeli, so delicious. Excellent pizzas, and pastas executed exactly like they were in 1984.

And that amazing bread! It really was an awful feeling knowing what was to come.

As I go to say hello to Evan and the Angeli staff one last time as a restaurant I want to express how proud I am of Evan Kleiman for 27 years of business, and for making her mark in food history. Among all of our best restaurant of the last year in list and rundowns, some will be gone in as few years(maybe sooner), and very few will crack the 25 year mark, perhaps none. Will any of them be remembered as doing something new? Not likely.

Evan Kleiman will still be around on Good Food, and a thousand other venues, and I believe will be a huge success in her next endeavors.

Her contemporaries that are still around like Wolfgang Puck made much more money on QVC, catering, book deals, and food products than he ever did in the kitchen at Spago. A similar figure, Rick Bayless--who became to Mexican cuisine what Evan was to Italian in the 80's--had a television show to keep his restaurants packed in recent years, but it wasn't until his win on Top Chef Masters that he moved into Wolfgang's neighborhood.

All the while Evan has taken care of us, and brought us together, and made us crazy for pie.

I'm so upset to see this restaurant go, and where will I get my Sunday take-out pastas, salads, and pizzas? But, Angeli Caffe is a hit, and so are you Evan. See you on Wednesday at Angeli.

Happy New Year to readers and friends of this blog.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tacos Estilo Zacoalco Doña Toña: Let's Give a Hand for Tacos Torteados

While dashing all over Jalisco and Colima last week from the lowlands of Jalisco; to the pilgrim's trail to Talpa; down to Colima's capitol, magical towns, and lime-groved beach cities; and finally to the highlands of Jalisco before a much needed pause in Guadalajara I saw a sign. A sign of tacos yet unknown. Tacos torteados? What could those be? There were a few stands claiming tacos torteados near the town of Zacoalco, Jalisco, on the free highway just south of Guadalajara on the way to Ciudad Guzman.

To the obsessed soul, the curse of perpetual observation has it rewards. I snapped a picture of the sign to remind myself to catch it on the way back from Colima, if the tequila would allow such recall. That's what the picture is for.

When I headed back for Guadalajara I arrived at the perfect time of day at Tacos Estilo Zacoalco Doña Toña at an ideal time. I was in between truckers, police, and vacationers and had these engaging, giggling women all to myself.

These tacos stared about 80 years in the small town of Zacoalco, Jalisco--a place most tourists and big-city Jaliscans will never know--at woman's house who made them for the working men of her community. Antonia had worked for 15 years with one of the original vendors, but struck out on her own a year-and-half ago with her family and the next generation of torteado torchbearers. These tacos have gained a very local reputation with a handful of sellers in Zacoalco--where everyday feels like a lazy Sunday--and a few roadside stands.

The subtlety of this new type of taco--yes, it is a new genre now that it has spread beyond its original vendors and continued to be enjoyed if only by a small group of dedicated regulars, and passersby who'd not likely recall any jolt in any taco revolution--is in the touch of a woman's hand.

It gets its name from a hand-formed tortilla that is slapped to an imperfect circular shape and filled with a guisado. This results in a slightly thicker tortilla with a softer chew; the guisado can be enjoyed without condiment in this local riff on the taco de guisado.

A taco based on tortilla making means this is one of the few venues where the tacoing is matriarchal. Tortilla making is exclusively the domain of women in Mexico. Let's hear it for the taqueras!

Pictured from left to right: Karina, Lusila Avalos, Antonia Ortega Bentitez(Doña Toña), Rosa Avalos Ortega, and Margarita Avalos will make you feel like part of their family.

The cooking area is a wood-fired camp style set up. Guisados and tortillas share real estate on a rustic, smoky comal that'll leave you with the aroma, and residue of a campsite on your apparel.

Try a taco torteado of refried beans, they are stand alone, a delicious mash of porcine bliss.

These women couldn't stop giggling, teasing, and laughing from the moment I started talking to them--Margarita, or Mago, only stopped laughing when I started to photograph her preparing the chiles largos--but she talked with me my entire stay. I was there for over an hour just for a couple of tacos--too much fun.

The long dry red chile that could be like a chile California is what Mago called the chile largo, which is the base of their main stew.

Oh,and I loved the way each member of the family had their names on their aprons:adorable.

When I asked one of them to hold the chile up they all pointed to Lusila, who had been teasing me with smiles,titters,blinks, and flashes the entire time I was there, in an innocent way that reminded me of when I met a group of female cousins for the first time in Aguascalientes when I was young. I must say it was a little hard to leave, and had it been possible I would have come back the next day, a one and a half hour drive just to have a bite and see the Doña Toña señoras and señoritas one more time before I left for Los Angeles.

Although they offer several tacos the pork in chile largo is a must, and is the type of guisado that I crave: pure dried chile flavor that clings to the surface of the pork and seeps into its welcoming fibers. The dish appears pastoral but delivers a bounty of fruit and developing heat that slowly dissipates at the optimal moment of pleasure, like a fine cigar.

In the soft, and earthy tortillas, nothing is needed but the pork. Mago said, "some people add salsas and whatever, it depends on what they like." But it's best as is, right? "Yes!"

I can't wait to get back to Doña Toña's. I was so intrigued by these women and this memorable lunch that I even took a little walk through Zacoalco just to have that connection. Vendors like this are special, they exist in this one small space and often only know little beyond their stand and some quiet musings that cross their minds at dusk while in the town square shopping for the next day; but all too often there's just the darkened houses they return to at nights to wash away the highway and ash, and rest. All the while, they remain positive in spirit and energy, unaware of the joy, and serenity they brought to this incurable itinerant.

Tacos Estilo Zacoalco Doña Toña
On the free highway from Guadalajara to Cd. Guzman at km 43
Acatlan de Juarez, Jalisco
8AM-2PM 7 days a week

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Aromas y Sabores 2011: Empalmes and Smiles in Allende, Nuevo Leon

The Reina de Turismo, Allende-Tanya Salinas Guzman, gracefully displays her home town attractions and symbols on her scenic regional gown.

The Aroma y Sabores 2011 troupe of munchers and nibblers only had a brief visit in the town of Allende, Nuevo Leon to see the city square and attend an agricultural expo. I slipped away..again..and was on the prowl for pollo en salsa, empalmes, or any other little regional morsel I could handle. We had already encountered quite a bit of food in Santiago earlier that morning and the day was still young.

I was developing a 6th sense to guide me back to the group lest I get left behind. It's far too much responsibility to keep track of over 90 people--I call this newly discovered ability: paranoia. No luck in the downtown area I was frenetically stalked, given such a small allowance of street food recon for these eats that had pricked my ears up earlier in the day.

At the expo we learned about Allende's substantial agricultural presence in Mexico, being one of its largest producers of honey. They also grow oranges, and are big in poultry.

One of the best thing about this stop though was the cute factor. We all had sweet, young girls from Allende holding up the national flags of our Aromas y Sabores press group. Diana was the flag bearer for us few Americans; her smile is one of the most precious moments on a tour that would have magic as an every day luxury.

All that fusing around earlier and low and behold: pollo en salsa. This dish is a local guisado of chicken stewed in tomatoes,peppers, and jalapeños.

And right after that we heard empalmes were coming to our table. Empalmes are made with either beef or pork--ours were pork--with lard fried tortillas and beans with chile piquin(a dried red chile). A second tortilla is placed atop the rich, savory meat and beans to form a sandwich out of the taco--kind of like a mulita done guisado style.

The cute continued as we said goodbye to Allende with a local group of elderly country style dancers. We loved this, and won't soon forget these sweet moments that lightened up our weary souls that afternoon. You should have seen them tear it up; I guess empalmes are good for your health if you can still move like these folks.

Later that night I obliged myself a quiet evening at the Gran San Carlos back in Monterrey, and got in a good night's sleep before we would bid farewell to Nuevo Leon and head off for the state of Chihuahua. Nuevo Leon is amazing: the food, the people, the sights, and the priceless memories. A special thanks to the local tourism agencies in Nuevo Leon that treating us like we were in our own homes. Gracias queridos, nuevoleonense!

To be continued...

Aromas y Sabores 2011, La Ruta del Norte

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Ensenada Gastronomica 2011: Ensenada Receives its Due from Top Mexican Chefs in the City's First Gastronomic Congress

On June 16th we attended the Ensenada Gastronomica: a gathering of Mexico's top chefs to recognize the importance of Ensenada in Mexican gastronomy and to take stock on its wealth of ingredients.

The two-day congress organized by Alejandro Perez Kuri--who stressed the need to include the contributions of Ensenada towards Mexican cuisine's recognition by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage--included cooking demos, workshops with local products and species, and an impressive gathering of Mexico's star chefs. 300 eager culinary students attended to learn from the best, meet their favorite chefs, and immerse themselves in the city that has garnered a reputation all over Mexico for its choice products and style of cooking.

Perhaps the most renowned chef, Enrique Olvera, kicked off the congress with a demonstration and discussion of the role of maize in Mexican cuisine. A cuisine with a base of maize was the presentation given to UNESCO that led to Mexico's award in 2010.

Chef Enrique Olvera is a pioneer of modern Mexican cuisine with his groundbreaking Pujol in Mexico City. He has taken Mexican street food and introduced avant garde techniques in his restaurants. In 2011, his restaurant Pujol received a grand honor by being named 1 of the 50 best restaurants in the world by S.Pelligrino.

It was more apparent than ever at this event that Mexico's chefs, too are now rock stars. A recent phenomena in the US driven by television has taken hold with the new Utilisima network, which features many of the chefs at this congress. Each cooking demo ended with an autograph session--the culinary students were as giddy as a flock of teenagers at a Justin Bieber meet and greet.

During the course of the day we were able to catch some of the chefs and ask a few questions at this very well organized event. On our minds foremost was about the significance of Ensenada in the national scene.

Chef Arturo Fernandez, Raiz Cocina de Estaciones

Chef Arturo Fernandez was at the congress representing the cuisine of the Yucatan. He was the first Mexican chef to work at El Bulli, and opened the modern cuisine restaurant Laos(Merida) before commencing with his latest project at Raiz, in the State of Mexico.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

This is our[Mexico's] store where the best products are coming from. This is where Mexico goes to shop for its seafood. It’s the sparkplug that’s setting off a production based on intelligence, using the appropriate manpower, respect and consideration for its fine products. At this moment, this is our store. Many people all over the country are imitating what they’ve been doing here for the last 80 years; with a theme that Mexican food is meant to be paired with wine, which is very unique to Baja.

SGLA: What will it take for the world to recognize Mexican’s gastronomic contributions to cuisine?

AF: We have been dealing with outside[European] forces that have influenced us. We believe in what we are[now] doing. We are united, and we have a friendship and a brotherhood that is working to revive our own[Mexican] traditions; that is what we are bringing to the national scene. Right now among the 50 best restaurants in the world, there are two of them right here in Mexico. Many other countries can’t make this claim. In 10 years, we will be #1. The best chef will be Mexican. This will happen within the next 7-8 years.

Chef Mikel Alonso, Biko

Biko tops many lists as Mexico's best restaurant. Chef Alonso was born in Biarritz, France, grew up in the Basque country, and has been living in Mexico City for the last 14 years. He has garnered a reputation for being a serious chef that can usually be found in his kitchen. He does events, but there's no time for the beach nor after parties--he wants on a plane and to be cooking immediately. He hoped that the culinary students understood that they are chefs, and should strive to be chefs, not rock stars.

During his cooking demo he said something profound which revealed the singular drive behind his triumphs: If you don't capture someone's attention, there's no memory, and without the element of surprise, there's no pleasure. Well Chef Mikel Alonso certainly has captured the attention of his diners and has achieved Mexico's highest spot on S.Pelligrino's 50 Best Restaurants in the World.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

MA: Mexico has a spinal column in its gastronomy that’s connected to the rest of Mexico, and to the whole world. Several of these vertebrae are Ensenada, not one, but many. Ensenada isn’t only the people, but the coasts, its place, its geographic location--it’s so beneficial. [It's] the cold waters, the bounty of seafood, but it’s not just the people who utilize [the products] these people treat it with lots of care. It’s impressive: the magic of the Valle de Guadalupe. Really, its appearance and beauty is a gift from God. The region--it’s really nothing without the people that treat it with so much care. This is the grandeur of Ensenada.

SGLA: What will it take for Mexico’s cuisine to be more respected internationally?

MA: This is something very sensible: cooking with truth and honesty. Work every day. You have to work, and to not fall into the trap of Hollywood stardom. We are chefs, not rock stars.[You have] to buy the best products and to have the sufficient technique to make them delicious. When the client goes to your restaurant with their mouth and their eyes, they should have an experience that leaves them with a smile, and a feeling that they’re in their own house. Nothing else matters.

Chef Mikel Alonso wants the influence of his grandparents to be present in his cooking.

Local Rockot presented in Biko's signature style. "Cooking is patient, slow"-Chef Mikel Alonso.

Chef Benito Molina, Manzanilla

In Ensenada's vital restaurant scene, Manzanilla is the heart and soul of the city. Chef Benito Molina has established himself as one of Mexico's greatest chefs, and his restaurant is a training ground for the local culinary boom. Many of the young talented chefs in the area started in Molina's kitchen, and his influence can be seen throughout Baja and in other parts of the republic.

Manzanilla is now an outpost where many of the chefs at this conference frequent, to hang out and do special tasting menus when they're in town using the rich, gifts of the Baja waters

Along with his wife, Chef Solange Muris, he is now star of the hit cooking show on Utilisima, Benito y Solange.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

BM: Because the best seafood from Mexico comes from here, the best wine, and the best olive oil; so [it's] the combination of all those three.

SGLA: What will it take for Mexico’s cuisine to be recognized more internationally?

BM: I think it’s going to take more fine dining restaurants promoting the local produce. On the other hand ,we were designated an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. Very few cuisines in the world have this recognition, and like I say, lately I’ve been taking trips to South America; and Oaxaca alone is more intricate than most of Latin America. Oaxaca’s just one state [in Mexico]. We have 32 more states. The richness of what we have here is unquestionable. Where would European food be without tomatoes? Tomatoes came from here. Where would the chocolate world be without cacao that came from here, or vanilla that came from here? Mexican cuisine is not recognized as it should because not many Mexican chefs have opened fine dining restaurants abroad. There are excellent fine dining restaurants in Mexico, but there are very few, we have only one fine dining restaurant outside of Mexico.

SGLA: Lately, you’ve been taking trips to South America and Oaxaca?

BM: Oaxaca--constantly.

SGLA: What have you learned and applied to your restaurants from those trips?

BM: From South America? [That] we should be very proud of what we’re doing in Mexico, not that they’re doing a bad job, especially Brazil – Brazil has some amazing food – but Argentina, Colombia, Republica Dominicana, it’s good, but after five days, that’s it. Here you can go for 30 days and you still have more [to taste].

Chef Aquiles Chavez, Lo

Star of two of Mexico's highest rated cooking shows--Aquilisimo and Toque de Aquiles-- Chavez has captured the hearts and minds of the Mexican viewing public. He's arguably the most famous chef in Mexico and has excited the public about Mexican cuisine from his home state: Tabasco.

His recent programs have featured chefs and street food in Tijuana, Ensenada, and the Valle de Guadalupe.

SGLA: Why is Ensenada so important right now in respect to Mexican cuisine?

At the end of the day, it’s the gastronomic center of this country. It’s more about the cooking rather than its plates that represents Baja, California, except for the lobster from Puerto Nuevo with rice and beans, but apart from this, it doesn’t have what they have in Morelia, Yucatan or Tabasco or Oaxaca. The cuisine known as Baja Californian, is relatively new, created by people like Chef Benito Molina Dubost and Solange; in Tijuana, Chef Javier Plascencia; and in Rosarito and Tijuana, Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero. The cuisine of Baja, California, is not about plates or techniques, but about the products. The question has been, what is so special about the products? It has seven of the 10 most expensive species of seafood products in the world: geoduck, lobster, abalone, bluefin tuna, shrimp, sea cucumber, and sea urchin. Seven of the 10 most expensive seafood products in the world come out of these docks. What gives me joy is the rich variety of wines, the microclimates; it has incredible vegetables and wineries, and its spectacular ingredients.

SGLA: What will it take for Mexico to get even more respect for their cuisine internationally?

AC: For me as a Mexican cook, what's most important [are] the products. That’s the reason, we are here in Baja, California, but maybe the success right now with Mexican food is because of the Mexican chefs who are working together, [on] the same side. I’m talking about Mexican local products. I’m talking about the natural products, I’m talking about the local cuisine. We make local cuisine with a global vision. The goal is to take local food and and spread it around the world. We are creating local cuisine with a vision of world cuisine.

There was an incredible buzz about Aquiles's demo. He is from Tabasco where they are famous for their use of the pejelagarto, a pre-historic, amphibious fish. He prepared it camp-style: grilled pejelagarto with hearty, tortillas Tabasco-style, a salsa of chile piquin--tiny grenades of heat--also known as salsa de chile amashito, and a chocolate beverage made from cacao.

Salsa de chile amashito

Grilled Pejelagarto, tortillas tabasquenas, atole de cacao, and salsa de chile amashito.

Chef Aquiles Chavez has taken the pejelagarto to new heights of fame in Mexico. This symbol of pre-hispanic cookery puntuates what all the chefs at this congress are trying to achieve. They're spreading the beauty of Mexican cuisine through Mexican ingredients and techniques in a fearless manner. Stateside, non-Mexican chefs have attempted to present safe cuisine, mild-Mexican flavors to the American public. Well it looks like the pejelagarto might be coming to the US--Chef Aquiles plans to open a branch of his Lo in Houston, Texas. It will be called La Fisheria.

The only other restaurant run by a Mexican chef in the US has been Chef Javier Plascencia's Romesco in Bonita, CA. It seems as the chefs at this congress are putting their words into actions.

The themes that echoed throught the event were that the brotherhood of Mexican chefs are preserving their traditions, increasing their use of Mexican products, using the best ingredients, and striving to bring passion to their culinary creations. Ensenada represents the best Mexico has to offer in seafood, wine from the Valle de Guadalupe, and world class olive oil. Ensenada and Baja chefs are drawing the atttention of culinary giants, many of whom were present at the Ensenada Gastronomica. We ran into Oaxacan master Chef Alejandro Ruiz at the end of the day at Molina's Manzanilla, who informed us that he is now incorporating geoducks into his Oaxacan recipes. Chef Enrique Olvera is a frequent visitor to Ensenada as well as other chefs participating in the congress: Chef Javier Plascencia, Chef Antonio Livier, Chef Paulina Abascal, and Mexico's top wine maker, Hugo D' Acosta.

In the community of chefs, Ensenada and Baja are now mentioned alongside Oaxaca, Yucatan, Tabasco, D.F., and Michoacan when it comes to seeking out about inspiration for their Mexican cuisines. More than ever, Ensenada matters.

Ensenada Gastronomica 2011