Thursday, December 24, 2009

Special Foodventure #148: Thankfulness for Summer's Trip to Mexico, Part 1

Continuing on my thankful December blog streak and reflecting upon 2009, the experience I'm most thankful for is embarking on a trip down to Baja California with a menagerie of bloggers, writers and chefs as we eat, drink and chatted (about more eats and drinks) our way through Baja California.

The Tijuana Arch
Organized by Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, crossborder agency Cotuco, Tijuana Convention & Visitors Bureau and other tourism and restaurant associations, the primary aim was to showcase the myriad of experiences available in Tijuana, Ensenada and surrounding areas--be it the pursuit of the best carne asada from casual vendors on carts, seeking out refined cuisine mingling Mexican traditions with modern techniques and international flairs or just savor the sumptuous foods that are grown, raised and caught locally (particularly the seafood, no surprise considering it's a peninsula flanked by the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean) and oh yeah, that it's a fun place for tourists too!
Bus ride to Tijuana
Our trip began on Friday evening as we congregated at Union Station, where a normally 2.5 hour busride took 4 hours because of heightened border security measures. Despite the extra long wait, we were all in a jovial mood--eagerly anticipating the treats that lies ahead (though honestly, if it had been another hour longer, there might've been some real border mishaps: you don't mess with starving foodbloggers who didn't have time to eat since they raced in rush hour traffic after work to make the bus!)
Carne Asada Taco w Avocado Crema
After settling into our comfortable, and even slightly posh, hotel rooms (w Mattatouille as my roommate, bless his ears when my snoring commences) we embarked on a near-midnight taco run at Tacos el Poblano, where Bill informed us three types of meat were used to make the taco filling. Combined with a creamy avocado crema and bottles of Mexican cokes, it felt like the perfect way to sate our hunger and slake our thirsts . . . until the next stop where we were treated to Mexican beers, assorted appetizers and lively mariachi entertainment!
Mariachi at Night
Little did I know that would be the last relaxed dining experience our group would have for a while...

After a night of bedrest and about 45 minutes of swimming in their kidney-bean-shaped pool (before they actually open, but the staff didn't care,) we went on an epic nine (official) stop tour throughout Tijuana's numerous eateries:
Seafood tacos
From the casual Mazateno where we indulged in some seafood tacos and a vibrant, tangy shrimp consomme.
French food trio in Tijuana
To the more refined (but just as friendly) L'Abricot, a Parisian bistro serving authentically Parisian dishes (French onion soup, creme brulee) that could hold its own against many French-themed restaurants in the LA and OC. As surprising as finding a French bistro, led by a chef -Maribel Villareal- who actually trained in Paris, was discovering that the wine, a light red with a slight puckery-tartness, came from nearby Valle de Guadalupe, the premier wine-growing region of Mexico . . . that we'll visit the next day!
Smoked Marlin Loaf
And the glitzy and elegant Cien AƱos, producing upscale Mexican fare (alta cocina, literally high kitchen) serving samples of their refined offerings such as salmon-and-mango ceviche and seasoned, smoked marlin loaf with dried chilies -- the style is very similar to what the modern Mexican restaurants in downtown LA is doing, but despite the reinterpretations, the seafood here is still the main star and its natural flavors always shone through, rather than being buried in a pile of other ingredients to the point of being indistinguishable, as Angeleno chefs occasionally do.
Cream filled churro
Of course, we indulged in a little street food too; while others in our pack were getting money from ATMs, Gastronomy, Mattatouille, Teenage Glutster and I seized that opportunity to buy some freshly fried and filled churros from a cart! (Much apologies for how utterly phallic this shot of the cream-filled churro looked!)
Lengua Carpaccio
Also noteworthy is how Mexican chefs tackle the ever-tricky topic of fusion. Fortunately, it prove neither campy-tacky nor over-the-head-haute when we checked out La Querencia and were served assorted carpaccio dishes that proved exciting and familiar at the same time (beet with queso and mint vinaigrette, beef tongue with sea urchin sauce and onion flakes), and exemplifying the "Baja-Med" motto of the restaurant, using locally sourced ingredients but borrowing styles and techniques from Mediterranean cuisine, whose climate and available edibles are greatly similar to that of Northwestern Baja California.

Restaurants, aware of our visits and knowing this is one of few opportunities to mark an impression on a bunch of bloggers and mediafolks to spread the word back North, were generous with their hospitality and their portions.
Roasted Pig
Particular cases in point, at Restaurant Lorca, what was promised to be an "authentic Spanish paella tasting" soon evolved/devolved into us pigging out, literally, over a whole suckling pig brought out as a surprise by the chef; as delicious as eating all that roasted crispy-fatty pork was -- I soon regretted those seconds, and thirds, as subsequent stops came! Not to mention the overshadowed paella, which was tasty but was pretty much a No Contest against the pig.
Skirt Steak w Onions
The generosity of portions continued at Cheripan, an Argentinean themed restaurant (actually across the street from La Querencia in the "gourmet restaurant row" of Tijuana) the dishes just kept coming and coming. What I thought was just a tasting of starters (of crispy-meaty sweetbreads, Argentinean-style sausages and empanadas and a divine heart of palm salad) transformed into skirt steak with pickled onions and then, a trio of desserts (flan, dulce de leche napoleons and chocolate gelato.) Oh yeah, did I mention wine and tamarind martinis too?
Tamarind Martini @ CheriPan
Speaking of tamarind cocktails, the Tijuana trip was certainly no shortage of this sweet-tart fruit and certainly not hesitant to throw them with every imaginable spirit possible (much to EatingLA's delight, and I agree with her there should be more tamarind cocktails back in lalaland); asides from the Cheripan, we were also treated to frozen blended tamarind margaritas at La Diferencia (a much needed cooling respite from the sunny afternoon) and another tamarind martini at our last stop of the day - Villa Saverios, where we were treated to a (fortunately) light four-course Baja-Med style meal, concluding with luscious blackberry tamale with sweet cream that perfectly symbolized the day in Tijuana: warm, sweet and gut-bustingly filling.
Blackberry Tamale w Crema
And I haven't even talked about day 2 in Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe yet! That'll be showcased in an upcoming post (with much less delay, I promise!)

But in the meantime, I'm definitely thankful to be included in this epic epicurean foodventure, the generosity of all parties involved in hosting and (over)feeding us. I'll definitely treasure the memories for a long time and can't wait to sink my teeth into that blackberry tamale, carne asada taco and lengua carpaccio again -- with a tamarind cocktail, of course.

Additional photos on my flickr set here, and also reports of the July trip from:
Eating LA
Noah Galuten of ManBitesWorld
Table Conversations
Gourmet Pigs
Pleasure Palate
Teenage Glutster


streetgourmetla said...

The delight of this belated post is reliving it all again.Fantastic recap of day one, Senor HC.Feliz Navidad.

Ravenous Couple said...

that pig looks fantastic! no apologies needed for that cream filled phallic loong curro... :)) if you guys go again, we'll definitely be interested!

bagnatic said...

what a belly busting adventure! i've had suckling pig before, but that one is too small and too cute!! it's like wilbur, but dead and crispy :(

happy holidays!

Kung Food Panda said...

You finally wrote about Mexico huh? I think I need to get my up and ready from the 2nd trip. I do have to say...totally agree about tamarind cocktails in LA!

Toyota Sudden Acceleration Lawyers said...

That little roasted pig is pretty cute.


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