‘THERE ARE NO RULES HERE’

Wel­come to Baja Cal­i­for­nia — birth­place of the Mar­garita, the fish taco and the cae­sar salad — and to ‘depth and heft, and heat, and grease and joy’. Esquire’s greedy gringo, Tom Parker Bowles, re­ports on a food revo­lu­tion no wall could ever con­tain

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Ori­ana Koren

Tom Parker Bowles heads south of the (US) bor­der to revel in the foodie fi­esta that is Baja Cal­i­for­nia

Ti­juana. You know the place, bro. TJ, dude! That crazy-ass Mex­i­can party town, a hop across the bor­der from sunny SD. Le­gal Vi­codin, man, over the counter. All that shit to make your dick hard, too. Be­cause in the cheap titty bars, they go as far as you want. Oh man. Cheap brewskis, too — no shit with card­ing. It’s Mex­ico, mofo, they don’t have laws there. They love us there, bro. We rule. Oh dude, you’re go­ing to fuck­ing dig TJ. Once you’re spent, you just get the hell out man, back to civil­i­sa­tion. Over that bor­der, the one that keeps them out dude. God bless Amer­ica, man. Go State!

OK, per­haps I’ve gone a lit­tle too far. And got it all wrong. Per­haps the vis­it­ing hordes, who’ve been pour­ing over the bor­der since Pro­hi­bi­tion days — top­ers, gam­blers, sol­diers, sailors, ston­ers and sybarites alike — saw be­yond the sex shows and cut-price Corona, the le­gal highs and lurid lows. And TJ’s eter­nal rep­u­ta­tion as a full-strength Mex­i­can fan­ta­sy­land, the dirty mis­tress, the ay caramba! cour­te­san, a place of guilt-free ex­cess and sin with­out con­se­quence. The start of The Amer­i­can Dream, the bor­der city where any­thing is pos­si­ble (for a price). Or is it the end?

Per­haps in­stead they viewed Ti­juana as the gate­way to Mex­ico, one of the most mag­nif­i­cent, beau­ti­ful, big-hearted and thrilling coun­tries on earth. Then again, maybe not. Ti­juana will never win any prizes for pul­chri­tude. The city sprawls and me­an­ders, stut­ters and stum­bles, drones on, loses the thread, then starts afresh. Up hills and down val­leys, sun bleached, blitzed and washed out, lurk­ing un­der a grim pall of nico­tine-stained haze. Fly­ing in from Mex­ico City, over ragged moun­tains, all you see is beige. Desert. Scrub. Sand. An en­tire city draped in yel­low­ing rags.

It doesn’t have the epic, fran­tic grandeur of Mex­ico City, the colo­nial splen­dour of Guadala­jara, or the faded, sun-kissed glam­our of Aca­pulco. Or the taut skin, tit job and gleam­ing teeth of gym-trim San Diego, 20 miles to the north: the US city hid­den be­hind that fierce, for­bid­ding bor­der with the never-end­ing gleam of vi­cious ra­zor wire and dull, mean, in­ter­minable, cor­ru­gated iron fence, arc lamps, un­blink­ing cam­eras and eter­nal tales of woe. You could hurl a ball from Ti­juana air­port, across the nar­row sliver of no-man’s land, and have it plop into San Diego County, USA. Or sim­ply skip from Ar­rivals, over the new walk­way, and into the Land of the Free. Pro­vid­ing you have the right pa­pers, the good old Green Card, that magic Drink Me po­tion that shrinks you down to fit through that all-too tiny door. No, bor­der towns rarely com­pete, at least when it comes to looks. But Ti­juana has charm, and soul, and co­jones. Big, swing­ing co­jones.

The city is no longer awash in Amer­ica’s ex­cess. Thank God. The famed Avenida Revolu­ción, once slick with piss, puke and quick­spent pas­sion, is now about as rau­cous as Cado­gan Square on a Sun­day night. Sure, the “Amer­i­can phar­ma­cies” still flog over-the­counter sal­va­tion. And if you look hard enough, you’ll still find the strip clubs and sex shops, hid­den away on the back streets.

“But it’s changed a hell of a lot from 10 years back,” says Bianca Cas­tro­ce­rio, Ti­juana res­i­dent and pas­try chef ex­traor­di­naire. “It’s a lot more trendy now. Chefs come from all over the coun­try to eat, and get in­spi­ra­tion. The state of Baja Cal­i­for­nia is be­com­ing a true food des­ti­na­tion.” From gut­ter town to gleam­ing gourmet mecca: things are cer­tainly look­ing up.

The Baja Cal­i­for­nia Penin­sula, shaped like a bony fin­ger point­ing down the north west side of Mex­ico, is a land apart. With the Sea of Cortez to the east, and the Pa­cific crash­ing to the west, it’s the north­ern­most and west­ern­most of Mex­ico’s 32 fed­eral en­ti­ties. It only be­came a state in 1952, and is still sparsely pop­u­lated, with most of its in­hab­i­tants liv­ing in the cap­i­tal, Mex­i­cali, or Ense­nada or Ti­juana.

You’ll find chap­ter and verse on the glo­ri­ous gas­tron­omy of Oax­aca, Jalisco or Yu­catan, but Baja Cal­i­for­nia barely war­rants a men­tion. I trawl though my favourite Mex­i­can food writ­ers, from Pa­tri­cia Quin­tana and Su­sanna Palazue­los to Eliz­a­beth Lam­bert Ortiz, Mar­garita Car­rillo Ar­ronte, Rick Bay­less and Di­ana Kennedy. And save the odd fish taco, there’s noth­ing. All, though, is about to change.

“It’s a caul­dron here,” says Ruffo Ibarra, the boy­ish chef pro­pri­etor of Oryx Cap­i­tal, one of the new wave of restau­rants draw­ing the hip and hun­gry to Ti­juana. “Ev­ery­thing’s blended.” The traf­fic moves at a steady pace, the air scented with masa (corn dough) and diesel, miles re­moved from the an­gry grid­lock of Mex­ico City. At traf­fic lights, the usual chil­dren weave through the sta­tion­ary cars, flog­ging chew­ing gum, news­pa­pers, crap Chi­nese toys and sweets. “Ev­ery­one seems to end up here, from all over Cen­tral and South Amer­ica. Be­cause ev­ery­one wants to go to the States but not all get in. So they get stuck. Stuck here.”

Cas­tro­ce­rio, Ibarra and I pull up to the Mer­cado Hi­dalgo, dozens of semi-per­ma­nent stalls hud­dled around a sun-bashed square. We pass piles of dried chill­ies, mounds of pastes for mole and adobo, bar­rels of dried shrimp, bun­dles of sage, pad­dles of nopal cac­tus, great gar­ish ears of corn in ev­ery hue and tart tomatil­los, a star­tling green.

“Baja Cal­i­for­nia is as Amer­i­can as it is Mex­i­can,” says Cas­tro­ce­rio as we walk to Tacos Fi­tos, a tiny two-man beef bir­ria cart. “When I was young, ev­ery­thing was shipped in from the US. It’s closer than the rest of Mex­ico.” The men on the stall chop beef and tripe with speed, dip­ping tor­tillas into bright or­ange fat, and throw­ing them on the hot­plate, so they puff and swell. In one deft move, they flip the meat on to the taco, sprin­kle with onion and

The glo­ri­ous fat drib­bles down my fin­gers, through my hands and onto my shirt — it’s the very essence of taco de­light. I wear my stains with pride

co­rian­der, and pass it over on a plas­tic plate. A squeeze of lime, a whack of fierce Chile de ár­bol salsa, then hand­held heaven. The glo­ri­ous fat drib­bles down my fin­gers, through my hands, onto my shirt. There’s depth, heft, heat and grease and joy — the very essence of taco de­light. Washed down with a plas­tic cup of con­sommé, richly bovine, dot­ted with glob­ules of glee, fatty and fan­tas­tic. I wear my stains like medals.

No time for faffing. “There are lots of refugees from Haiti,” says Ibarra, as we get back in the car, chilli still sting­ing my lips. “Obama said he’d let them all in, so they ar­rived. But it got com­pli­cated: 300 a day came, but only 15 to 20 were let in. There are 10,000 now. Ed­u­cated peo­ple, en­gi­neers, ar­chi­tects, stuck here, with­out pa­pers.” He shakes his head. “Still, it’s ex­cit­ing to see how the cul­ture changes, how the food changes. A lot of dif­fer­ent cul­tures in a small place, all try­ing to get through that tiny magic door. That’s got to be good for Ti­juana.”

Oryx Cap­i­tal, with its ex­posed bricks, leather ban­quettes and speakeasy bar, could be in Shored­itch. “This is Cali-Baha food,” says Ibarra, don­ning his chef’s whites. “I got bored of cook­ing fine din­ing, so [now] do com­fort food.” Damn, it’s good. Spank­ing fresh raw yel­low­tail with mescal and co­rian­der flower, a taco, stained black with squid ink, con­tain­ing crisp, bat­tered fish and gua­camole, pick­led onion and a whack of ha­banero. Our first taste of the fa­mous Baja fish taco is mod­ern but ma­jes­tic.

It’s a pi­o­neer like La Queren­cia, one of Ti­juana’s most fa­mous restau­rants and our next stop. This place is said to have started the Baja revo­lu­tion. The walls are plas­tered with pho­tos of chef Miguel An­gel Guer­rero bat­tling blue­fish, shoot­ing doves and stalk­ing deer. Stuffed bears and pheas­ants and antlers dot the room. Guer­rero is hard, hand­some and hir­sute, the sort of man who could wres­tle griz­zlies while whit­tling wooden toys for his kids.

“Baja Cal­i­for­nia was never con­quered by the Span­ish,” he growls as we eat yel­low­tail, caught by the chef yes­ter­day, with veni­son crack­ling. “So was never sub­servient to any­one. There’s a free­dom, an open­ness, whether in food, wine or art. There are no rules here.”

Wild veni­son tartare with chervil and fried ca­pers is mighty yet re­fined, beau­ti­fully bal­anced, with a swathe of cool smoked oys­ter cream. “In Baja, we have ev­ery­thing,” says Guer­rero. “An ocean, a sea, and ev­ery­one has their own gar­den… 25 years ago, we had no iden­tity. Now things are dif­fer­ent.”

It’s our fourth meal, and greed turns to sat­is­fac­tion to sa­ti­a­tion to stuffed. Such is life. The end­less ed­i­ble strug­gle. We soldier on.

“There are so many dif­fer­ent peo­ple com­ing in all the time, from all over the world,” Cas­tro­ce­rio says, “so we’re al­ways evolv­ing. ”

Guer­rero nods. “In Pue­bla, ev­ery­one is guarded with their fam­ily recipes,” he adds. “Here, ev­ery­one shares. Right now in Baja, we have the chance to cre­ate our own cui­sine.” He grins. “In Baja, we cook dif­fer­ently, be­cause we are so far away. Of course, we have bir­ria

[a spice stew] and car­ni­tas [slow-cooked pork] and all the rest. But we have French and Ital­ian in­flu­ences, plus our Chi­nese and Ja­panese foods are amaz­ing. And three world-fa­mous dishes come from here. The mar­garita, the fish taco and cae­sar salad.”

Ah, cae­sar salad. The Car­dini fam­ily is still at war over whether it was Cae­sar or Alex or Livio, Ital­ian im­mi­grants from Lake Mag­giore, who cre­ated the damned thing. What­ever the truth, a salad was in­vented us­ing let­tuce, raw egg, gar­lic, crou­tons, an­chovies, mus­tard and Worces­ter­shire sauce. Cae­sars, a tourist trap on Avenida Revolu­ción, is where it all be­gan. Al­legedly. It’s not with­out charm. The floors are che­quered mar­ble, the roof pan­elled wood, and there are mu­rals and mar­gar­i­tas. And the salad, mixed ta­ble-side with much po-faced cer­e­mony, tastes like, well, cae­sar salad. Sea­soned with his­tory, tossed with leg­end. Striptease mu­sic plays on the speak­ers. “A salad un­dress­ing,” jokes Bill Knott, friend, fel­low food writer and sea­soned trencher­man. We pay and move on, out of Ti­juana, down south

Soon, we leave the bor­der be­hind, in­stead star­ing at the Pa­cific Ocean and the sun melt­ing into the dis­tance, pass­ing beach re­sorts and Amer­i­can-owned condos fes­tooned with satel­lite dishes. A huge statue of Jesus gazes down, his hands held out in wel­come.

The sun is los­ing its power as we pull into Puerto Nuevo, a tourist town built on lob­ster. It’s quiet now, out of sea­son, but at La Casa de la Lan­gosta, we just about man­age a whole beast, grilled, then ripped from its shell, doused in but­ter and folded into a huge flour tor­tilla, thin, elas­tic and translu­cent. With beans, good beans, and about the 10th michelada (beer with lime juice and salt) of the day.

The sun’s gone now, along with any ves­tiges of ap­petite. Noth­ing more can pass my lips. Save a glass of red wine at Adobe Guadalupe, a ha­cienda-ho­tel and vine­yard in the Guadalupe val­ley. It’s a rev­e­la­tion, my first taste of good Mex­i­can red wine. I fall into heavy slum­ber, dream­ing of let­tuce, naked and un­adorned.

I wake, to bril­liant sun, and acres of vine­yard, and beau­ti­ful horses, graz­ing in the dis­tance. The land­scape could be Si­cily in sum­mer, all gnarled olive trees, um­ber hills and a fa­mil­iar Mediter­ranean feel. Break­fast is in Ense­nada, a port town 20 min­utes south.

We pass through the val­ley and hit the Pa­cific once more, break­ing to our right. Fish­ing boats sport rods like por­cu­pine quills and put­ter in and out. Ense­nada is a work­ing port with vast con­tain­ers and hulk­ing cranes bent dou­ble like arthritic old men. But we’ve only one thing on our minds: La Guer­rerense tostada stand, owned by Sabina Ban­dera, small of stature, big of leg­end. I’ve met her be­fore, eat­ing her epic tostadas in Mex­ico City and Aca­pulco. But this is a place of pil­grim­age. One stall, serv­ing up a crisp seafood tostada that could make that bishop for­get his hot blonde and still kick a hole in that stained-glass win­dow. The low, filthy growl of sea urchin, chunks of freshly shucked pismo clam, peanut and chipo­tle salsa, slices of av­o­cado. Three bites, of zing­ing, pri­mal, oceanic vim — Nep­tune’s roar meets mer­maid’s sigh. We chew in si­lence, grins slathered like salsa across our faces. Damn, it’s good to be alive.

A swig of mescal, or two, at Sabina, our host­ess’s new epony­mous restau­rant over the road. More fried fish tacos with crisp white cab­bage, and seafood posole, and cold smoked tuna tostada, and sea snails in hot sauce, and oc­to­pus ten­ta­cle, soft and charred, wrapped in tor­tilla, slathered with gua­camole. The best seafood, al­lowed to sing shanties to its own bril­liance. If I lived in Ense­nada, I’d move in.

But wine calls and off we slog, back up to that “fog moist­ened val­ley”, the home of Mex­ico’s old­est vine­yards, where Span­ish fri­ars started mak­ing al­tar wine in the 18th cen­tury. “The Guadalupe val­ley is a small vac­uum of in­ter­na­tional wine mak­ers,” says To­mas, a Swiss fel­low, at Casa de Piedra. “Like Napa in the Sev­en­ties.” I find wine tours dull. Skip the chat, let’s drink. “Ten years ago,” he says, “there

were no tours. And very lit­tle food. A one-lane high­way. But gas­tron­omy and oenol­ogy grew hand in hand. And you need a paved road to get the Amer­i­cans here.”

We drive a few more min­utes, along that paved road, to what looks like a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic Mad Max camp. Roofs are made of up­turned boat hulls, walls con­structed from dif­fer­ent coloured boards, and there’s a small, in­con­gru­ous lake in the mid­dle. We’re greeted by a man with flow­ing white hair and a strong Derby ac­cent. The great wine­maker Phil Gre­gory. He takes us through some of his friends’ favourite reds. Bode­gas Henri Lur­ton, made by the French: rich, deep, spec­tac­u­lar. Las Nubes: com­plex, smooth. And his own Vena Cava. I’m blown away. Even Bill, a se­ri­ous oenophile, nods his ap­proval. “Very good,” he mur­murs.

“We ar­rived a lit­tle less than 15 years back,” says Phil over more oc­to­pus tacos. “Hugo D’Acosta was the man who started it all. A Bordeaux-trained Mex­i­can. Per­suaded peo­ple to use bet­ter grapes and pro­cesses. His work has changed the face of wine­mak­ing and grow­ing. Fif­teen years ago, there were 19 winer­ies. Now there’s 152.” He laughs. “We’re the Wild West, so ap­peal to real pioneers. The qual­ity of the grapes, the ter­roir, and the lack of rules…

‘Baja Cal­i­for­nia was never con­quered by the Span­ish, so was never sub­servient. There’s a free­dom in food, wine and art’ — chef Miguel An­gel Guer­rero

I started with a bar­rel-and-a-half. We grew slowly. We make wine from the heart.”

We wan­der over, abuzz with half-cut ex­cite­ment, to La Villa del Valle, Gre­gory and his wife Eileen’s home, and also an ex­quis­ite ho­tel. Bags are dropped be­fore a hike through a wild veg­etable gar­den, fe­cund with co­rian­der, chard, scar­let toma­toes and tiny pota­toes, to­wards lunch. Our sec­ond of the day, at Co­razón de Tierra, just past the gar­den.

“The wine, the house, the gar­den… it comes from what we love,” says Eileen. The restau­rant sits in a tem­po­rary struc­ture, like a mod­ernist hippy re­treat with wide glass win­dows and chairs backed with Mex­i­can em­broi­dery. The food is as­sured, el­e­gant, blessed with flavour and the light­est of touches. Pert oys­ter with hazel­nut but­ter and sage, an as­ton­ish­ing mole blanco, wild par­tridge with ar­ti­choke purée. No pre­tences or pomp, just ex­cep­tional in­gre­di­ents. Chef Diego Hernán­dez Baque­dano sure can cook. We drink Phil’s Big Blend red and un­fil­tered Chardon­nay, and chat­ter turns to where we’re go­ing to feast next.

Which turns out to be Deck­man’s, lunch num­ber three — and per­haps the finest of them all. It’s a 10-minute drive across the val­ley to where Miche­lin-starred Drew Deck­man, burly but grace­ful, mans the grills. The floor is cov­ered with straw, the ta­bles and chairs util­i­tar­ian, the rough adobe walls open to a view of pure bu­colic de­light. Slow jazz mixes with the chat­ter of roost­ing birds, the smell of wood smoke and sear­ing fat.

We eat more oys­ters with shal­lot vine­gar, and thick slices of raw tuna, sea­soned with tiny piles of salsa and onion. The flavours are big but the pre­sen­ta­tion pre­cise and pretty, with ed­i­ble flow­ers and zing­ing sal­sas. And steak to make a car­ni­vore cry, the crust thick, bur­nished and salty, the meat deep pink and tast­ing of a life well lived. Un­der the guise of rus­tic sim­plic­ity comes pure undi­luted ge­nius.

“It’s the place where the dis­sat­is­fied come to find sat­is­fac­tion,” says Bill. We’re drunk now

and, the sun long gone, the inky night is lit by tiny or­ange bulbs, the air alive with the crick­ets’ song. We booze on, com­forted by the glow of coals, per­fec­tion found in the mid­dle of this most mag­i­cal of states.

But there’s more. Much more. We fly down to Cabo San Lu­cas, in Baja Sur, where the mod­els and movie stars hang out. We’re deep in the desert here, at the tip of the penin­sula. Palms sway, the waves break on hand­some beaches, and ev­ery­where you look, build­ing is un­der­way — cranes, trucks and work­ers, never ceas­ing. San José del Cabo is small and colo­nial, but blessed with a sort of ex­pen­sively bare­foot Cali-Mex­i­can al­lure. Juices, detoxes, art gal­leries and yoga classes. There’s Drift San José, lots of con­crete and ar­ti­san mescal. And La Lupita, a taque­ria where the tacos al pastor is up there with Mex­ico City’s.

Life moves slowly here. Even the breeze is lan­guid and laid-back. The saline air is fresh as the sky, the land­scape wild, un­man­i­cured, sun­nily sexy. The Cape ho­tel is wor­thy of men­tion. It sits over a surfer’s beach. The bal­cony of my room has a ham­mock, so I spend hours swing­ing, lolling, swig­ging down the view of the fa­mous rocky arch and end­less ocean. Proper tacos, icy micheladas, games of pool and the un­fet­tered joy of a cli­mate with­out com­pare.

Lunch at Claro Fish Jr, a fish taco mecca, where we eat mar­lin tacos and prawn aguachile un­der a palm-thatched roof. Then din­ner at Manta, back at the ho­tel, gazing out over that mes­meris­ing sea. It’s black now but the breeze still blows, the walls open to the el­e­ments. Manta’s the new place from that great­est of Mex­i­can chefs, En­rique Olvera. He’s warmly ur­sine, with soft eyes and soft voice. We sit talk­ing at the bar be­fore din­ner.

“There’s an in­cred­i­ble magic here,” he says. “The desert gives it a tran­quil­lity that is hard to find in the rest of Mex­ico.” This is one of the most fa­mous chefs on Earth, with restau­rants in New York and LA. Yet here, he is at peace. “I’m at my most re­laxed in Baja Sud. It gets into your soul.” By now, we feel the same — like palms (al­beit over-fed, mescal-breathed palms), sway­ing softly in the breeze.

Cho­co­late clam aguachile, beef tacos with shiso, more charred oc­to­pus: mod­ern, clean, ut­terly con­fi­dent, not a bite out of place — food you’d eat again and again. We can hardly wrench our­selves from the ho­tel, but man­age, even­tu­ally, to visit the town of To­dos San­tos, one hour north. We drive past the fridge re­pair shops and pool clean­ers, the en­gine rooms of the tourist trade. Trucks roar past filled with fed­eral po­lice, their faces shielded with bal­a­clavas, their au­to­matic ri­fles erect, a re­minder that even Baja is af­fected by those in­fer­nal narco wars. Not sani­tised but safe.

To­dos San­tos is small, tidy, colo­nial and sleepy. We pass al­tar boys, in red and white, ready for mass in the pretty church. Drink a michelada in the Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia, where a gui­tarist croons that bloody song at least 50 times a day… “such a lovely place”. Lunch at Javier Pla­centa’s Jaza­mango, in an­other won­der­ful gar­den hewn from desert rock. So much to in­spire and de­light with more grills and kitchens open to the el­e­ments. “The peo­ple in Baja Sur are not rich, but nei­ther are they hun­gry,” we’re told by our friend Manuel Diaz. Nor are we. An­other flaw­less lunch, of sprightly aguachiles, fresh herbs, crisp suck­ling pig, lamb tacos and clams with Thai curry paste.

“We are so tired of the stereo­types, about Mex­ico and Baja,” says Diaz, “this is the new gen­er­a­tion.” By now, I’ve fallen for Baja Cal­i­for­nia hard. A land apart but Mex­i­can to its core. Ti­juana: dully dusty but de­lec­ta­ble. Ense­nada: with that brac­ing saline al­lure. The val­ley of Guadalupe: for its won­drous wine and restau­rants. And Baja Sur. Par­adise, at the tip of the fin­ger. The long af­ter­noon stretches lan­guorously into dusk. We should go. At some point. But what’s the rush? Down here, time waits for all men. We or­der an­other bot­tle, sit back and thank God, once more, for Baja.

Clam aguachile, beef tacos with shiso, more charred oc­to­pus: mod­ern, clean, ut­terly con­fi­dent, not a bite out of place; food you’d eat again and again

Left: a cig­a­rette break in an Ense­nada dive bar. Be­low: ‘flaw­less’ suck­ling pig at Jaza­mango in To­dos San­tos. Op­po­site: tacos form ranks at La Lupita, San José del Cabo

Left: one of many micheladas (beer with lime juice and salt) to fuel the jour­ney, here at the Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia, To­dos San­tos. Right: back on the dusty road near San José del Cabo

Be­low: Manta, En­rique Olvera’s restau­rant in The Cape Ho­tel, Cabo San Lu­cas. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top: grilled oc­to­pus and cho­co­late clams at Manta; al­fresco din­ing, nat­u­rally, at Jaza­mango

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