Ensenada stole a small piece of my heart recently. I have long treasured my ritual breakfast at La Guerrerense, the popular seafood street cart where eating a sea urchin sofrito tostada piled with scallops, avocado, and charred peanut salsa slays all beginnings to the day. But as for the rest of the city, I’ve only had the opportunity to take it in bit by bit, in passing. A walk up the hill that overlooks the city and the Pacific, where a chef friend pointed out the edible plants that sprouted after a fire. A ceviche and beer at Boules, where the magnolia trees shaded chain-smoking women with raspy voices who shared a drink and the gossip around town with me. Birria after a night out, the fried tortillas dipped in a cup of stew relieving my hangover as it coated my lips in deep red oil. I realized on my last visit, a 24 hour mission for a dinner celebrating the region’s indigenous foods, that the more I’m there the more my experiences coalesce into meeting people who like me live for good food and drink. People who dig into obscure corners of food history or plant life. People who find serenity in the extra spicy salsa, the messiness of a tostada as it rolls down their chins, the “last” glass of wine, the shade of a century-old winery in the middle of the city on a sticky hot day. This is a true food city, and the path to it is an easy coastal bus ride from right over the border in Tijuana (which might be one of the nicest two hour bus rides possible). Here are three places for essential beverages while you’re here. A place for a green juice is in this post, don’t think I’d forget to drink my veggies.
Housed on the grounds of the Santo Tomas winery, this mezcaleria feels like you are indeed drinking in one of the secret crevices of a century-old building (more accurately, the former fermentation tank for aguardiente, brandy and cognac). High ceilings are rimmed by garafones and mezcal bottles on the tall shelves, and table-top candles illuminate the cracks that creep up the walls. They carry a few familiar brands like El Soledad and Amores, as well as some special seasonal offerings: a pechuga and an espadin in clay for example. To me, this place is a game-changer for Ensenada as all I usually need to love a city is a no-frills, cozy bar with good taste in mezcal.
I think it was the sip of the Aguamala Sirena pilsner at a local restaurant that sparked my interest in Baja craft beer. It was golden-tan, citrusy and toasty like freshly baked bread. I liked it even more after realizing that when I go to Aguamala it doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m around a beer obsessed crowd (as I would in a California brewery), but maybe just a crowd that likes to have a good time.
You could easily miss this taproom of shipping containers off the highway leading into Ensenada. I did, frustratingly many times. The brewery is built with elevated shipping containers and looks out onto the coast. During sunset the light glares in, but it’s still a great time to go. There is seating on an outside patio, around the bar, and at a row of tables with ocean-views.
Here you can enjoy drafts and taste flights from one of Mexico’s most well know craft breweries, and they usually have guest beers on tap as well. A small bar menu from Valle de Guadalupe chef Drew Deckman is available, and Mondays they have guest chefs. You’ll find staples from the area: oysters, mussels, and ceviche, with some more bar-leaning snacks like a Sonoran hamburger and buffalo wings.
Tucked in the same building as Mezcaleria La Penca is a small café with specialty coffee from Mexico. The staff is super friendly, gladly giving me a whiff of the espresso grain of the day from Nayarit. A small roaster sits in the corner where they roast on off hours, and you can grab 200 gram bags of coffee starting at $96 pesos (about $5 USD) from Nayarit, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The space feels like a cool refuge on a sunny day, with high ceilings, cool concrete walls and light shining in from the glass doors. Black and white tiles border counters and benches, and pops of color come from ceramic artwork and murals that decorate the hallway. There’s comfortable seating in the narrow café or across the hallway in a larger room. You can also order pastries or breakfast from the neighboring restaurant down the hall.
The new kid on the same block as La Penca and Barra de Cafe, Alta Baja is a rooftop bar and restaurant. The space is split up into several sections creating a number of nooks suitable for a romantic moment or a group hang while feeling like you have the place to yourself. The west side was my favorite: a balcony overlooking sixth street with a small bar, a few high tops and lounge area. The red and blue hand-painted facades of the stores and taco stands are right below, deepening in color as the sun goes down behind the hills of Ensenada. My Wendlant pale ale, the cobalt walls and golden mirrors all looked glorious in that light. They have a great beer list of Baja craft beers plus a few on tap from California, a cocktail list and a full dinner menu (I didn’t try the food but hope to be back to do so).