In the past few years, Northern Baja California has stepped into the spotlight for its burgeoning culinary scene. It’s a cuisine that focuses on fresh local ingredients like seafood, locally raised meats, regional cheeses, and native produce. These ingredients are prepared with Mexican traditions and flavors while adding a twist of Mediterranean and Asian influence.
Chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, and Rick Bayless have visited and promoted the region and Baja California cuisine restaurants are opening around the world. With everything from street food to fine dining and craft beer or wine to wash it all down, it’s not hard to see why Northern Baja is one of the best new culinary hot spots.
Cuisine Experiences in Tijuana
Tijuana is a city that has it all in terms of food, with savory street food and beautiful, refined restaurants. Located just across the border from San Diego, Tijuana also has a growing craft beer scene that echoes that of their neighbors to the north. The city is going through a cultural renaissance, with the culinary scene leading the way.
No conversation about Northern Baja’s culinary scene is complete without mentioning the fine dining restaurant Misión 19. Chef Javier Plascencia is the poster boy for Baja California cuisine, and at Misión 19 he delivers dishes like filet mignon, pork belly, bone marrow, and octopus in a sleek and sophisticated setting in one of Tijuana’s most upscale highrise buildings.
Also refered to as “Taco Alley,” Las Ahumaderas is a series of six taco stands that have been serving up tacos to locals since 1960. Don’t miss the adobada tacos (called al pastor in other parts of Mexico), marinated pork that roasts on a spit.
A great way to sample a variety of local food is to head to one of Tijuana’s food colectivos (collectives). With a nice courtyard setting and a variety of options for tasty food, Tijuana’s first colectivo was Food Garden, and it remains a local favorite, with options like chilaquiles, vegetarian food, and crepes. They now have a second location in Plaza Rio mall.
While Tijuana has a number of individual breweries with tasting rooms that are worth visiting, such as Norte Brewing Co. and Mamut, many beer drinkers will enjoy a visit to Plaza Fiesta. Here, dozens of Northern Baja craft breweries have gathered in an old defunct mall to create a collection of mini tasting rooms.
Cuisine Experiences in Ensenada
Just down the coast a few hours from Tijuana, Ensenada is a port town offering delicious seafood that comes straight out of the Pacific. There’s a large craft beer scene here as well, and everything is enjoyed with a beautiful ocean backdrop.
Called the “best street cart in the world” by Anthony Bourdain, La Guerrerense is a must-visit for any visitor to Ensenada. Here, Sabina Bandera and her family serve up sophisticated seafood ceviches and tostadas like the award-winning ceviche de erizo con almeja (sea urchin with clams).
Tacos El Fenix
As Ensenada is one of the Baja cities that claims to be the home of the fish taco (the other is San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez), the battered and delicious street food is not to be missed here. Locals head to Tacos El Fenix, where they’ve been serving up shrimp and fish tacos since 1970.
For a nice dining experience in Ensenada, hip locals and foodie travelers head to eat at Boules (tel. 646/175-8769). Enjoy dishes like queso fundido de mar (seafood in melted cheese), crab ravioli, and tuetano (bone marrow). Seating is outdoors in a patio setting under trees with strung lights.
Ensenada, like Tijuana, is home to a number of great microbreweries. Independent tasting rooms like Agua Mala and Wendlandt are favorites with locals and visitors. The beer colectivo Baja Brews features stands from a number of local craft breweries as well as stunning ocean views.
Cuisine Experiences in Valle de Guadalupe
Mexico’s premier wine region is located less than two hours south of San Diego. With over 120 wineries and a number of gourmet restaurants to accompany them, Valle de Guadalupe is attracting travelers, foodies, and oenophiles from all over the world. The web of dirt roads is spotted with beautiful boutique wineries, intimate B&Bs, and outdoor campestre restaurants, giving the region rustic charm and character.
With incredible views, a large outdoor patio, friendly service, and wines that are easy to drink, Las Nubes is a definite crowd-pleaser. Order one their cheese plates to nosh on for a taste of regional cheeses and local olive tapenade.
You’ll need a reservation to visit the small and intimate family-operated winery, Lechuza. Here you’ll find a tranquil boutique winery offering personal attention, and a rare chance to talk with the winemakers themselves. With some of the best wines coming out of Mexico, Lechuza was recently picked to be on the wine list at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa.
For incredible food and a casual but chic atmosphere, locals and tourists flock to Javier Plascencia’s campestre restaurant, Finca Altozano. The food is cooked over a wood-fire grill and produces unforgettable flavors in dishes such as grilled octopus and lamb birria. After your meal, grab a glass of wine and climb up to the top of one of the giant wine barrels scattered around the property to relax enjoy the vineyard and valley views.
Diners have the option of dining a la carte or choosing from a seven or ten course dining experience at Chef Roberto Alcocer’s Malva. The beautiful outdoor deck with a tall palapa roof is nestled into a grove of trees overlooking the valley, and gives the sensation of being in an exclusive treehouse.