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.
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!)
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!
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:
From the casual Mazateno where we indulged in some seafood tacos and a vibrant, tangy shrimp consomme.
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!
And the glitzy and elegant Cien Años, 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.
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!)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
Noah Galuten of ManBitesWorld