Caliente Cali-Baja Revolución
Ocean to desert, ranch to table, delicious cross-border cuisine fires up the dining scene in San Diego
WE ARE SOARING ABOVE ROCKY CLIFFS. Beyond, the ocean looks like glistening rolls of cellophane, the sun is a flash bulb floating on the horizon, there’s a nude beach below and a refreshing calmness as the wind scoops us higher and higher over the coast while we sail serenely through the sky. This is the birthplace of California. La Jolla, “the jewel,” is a mecca for paragliding and hang gliding, and
Torrey Pines Gliderport is the largest tandem operation in the world. There’s no fear—i tell myself—as I clench my eyes shut, run down the slope to the cliff-edge, and let the wind and my instructor take over. Absolute exhilaration!
A youthful energy pulses through San Diego, from the active outdoors to the eclectic music scene, Broadway-bound theatre productions, Comic-con International, a diverse palette of art galleries and the Cali-baja food scene that is both a rediscovery and a reinvention of their own exotic culinary milieu.
Farm fresh and splashed with colour, Galaxy Taco presses tortillas with blue masa daily. Crunchy Baja fried fish with a squeeze of lime, a sprinkle of chili, a dollop of cool crema, pico de gallo, and a toss of cilantro and cabbage; a side of charcoal grilled avocados, and an icy cocktail of mescal, guava and orange-vanilla shrub. My taste buds are dancing La Bamba, and I am in So-cal heaven.
Further on up the road is the Hops Highway, the main artery of “America’s Craft Beer Capital.” I can smell the hops in Escondido, as I approach Stone Brewing. Their vast food-friendly beer selection includes Who You Callin Wussie? It’s smooth and
fruity with a mild hop at the end. Jindia Pale Ale tastes of sweet ginger with a smooth mouth feel. At the outdoor patio I snack on hemp seed pretzels with roasted poblano jalapeño cheddar sauce, and chili and garlic-glazed quail knots that I pair with a refreshingly citric Stone IPA. A path winds around a pond amid the sweet smell of wisteria. Some recline on Muskoka chairs with a beer; others meditate by the rock wall. “Beer Garden” has been redefined. “The Pink Lady of La Jolla” is the La Valencia Hotel, with its Mediterranean-influenced architecture and décor. Seated on the terrace of Café la Rue with local snapper ceviche and avocado and olive oil on toast, I’m perched atop the cliff wall with gorgeous views of endless Pacific. Located in the heart of high-end boutiques and galleries, an afternoon stroll here is a must. Nearby, George’s at the Cove offers an exciting menu that typifies the marriage of imagination with the treasure trove of ingredients that defines Cali-baja. Fish tacos are reinvented as thin disks of ahi tuna enveloping beer-battered avocado, crushed corn nuts, radish, cilantro and yellowfin tuna tartar. Charred octopus is steamed then grilled and set with a kumquat-soy glaze, nasturtium kimchee and nori tempura. Smoked chicken with crisped morels and passion fruit hits all the right notes. For the dessert of my dreams: whipped coconut with a dusting of chia seeds, bee pollen and wheat grass crown a coconut sorbet with a ginger consommé pour-over. Light and airy with sweet and zippy notes, this has serious wow factor. Romesco Mexiterranian Cocina in Little Italy serves Mexican-mediterranean fusion. An addictive bowl of Risotto Mexa with parmesano is chock full of mushrooms and shrimp. Chile en Nogada, a roasted poblano pepper brimming with ground beef and pork, mixed with dried fruit, walnuts
and pinenuts, is topped with walnut-goat cheese and a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. Tostada De Pulpo is a display of sautéed octopus elevated with mustard and bell pepper aioli and a balance of chipotle and piloncillo. This is Mexican haute cuisine. At Herb and Wood everything is made in-house and wood-fired. A citrus salad of grapefruit wedges, purple hibiscus, green olives and pistachios looks like a glorious flower patch. Grilled swordfish with a perfect sear is accompanied by crisp pop-in-your-mouth spaetzle that soaks up the delicate flavours of the garlic scapes and lemon relish. This kitchen makes vegetables hip! Roasted carrots are blistered and accented with a yogurt mixed with Aleppo peppers, tossed in a cashew sesame dukkah, and finished with a carrot top pesto. So much bright colour and flavour that is all new to me. A passion fruit pavlova with coconut, micro cilantro, avocado crema, raspberries and pink guava sorbet is a zesty blast of refreshing tropical citrus.
So what is the Cali-baja food revolution? It’s a fusion of California cuisine’s focus on fresh and local, and Mexico’s Baja-med cuisine, which combines Mexican and Mediterranean ingredients. Add to this esthetic the influence of an emerging Asian population and the fact that San Diego’s “local” includes the microclimates of the surrounding hills, mountains and canyons, the desert, the Pacific Ocean and Mexico. It’s an oasis of discovery for eager chefs to create inspiring new flavour combinations and reinvigorate the tried-and-true.