It had been a year since I’d been to the Valle de Guadalupe and Ensenada because clearly my brain was taken over by aliens and I forgot how much I love it there. It’s always the casual decadence that gets me: oysters many ways, an abundance of craft beer options, a morning mezcal with an uni/scallop tostada. It was overcast most days so there wasn’t much of a sunset to see but in a way that’s fitting for Ensenada, where the only measure of time should be your hunger or thirst. Until, if you’re lucky enough to be staying on the water, the sky is dark and the waves soothe your food coma into a good night’s sleep. Here are a few places I went to this time.
TrasLomita is like if someone designed a movie set of a restaurant in Valle de Guadalupe: hidden behind vineyards tables sat under fairy lights, cooks casually worked the grills, and water trickled into a lily pad-covered pond, where a little turtle perched on a rock stretched out its limbs as if in a yoga pose. The chef, Sheyla Alvorado, exemplifies the flavors of the valle: produce fresh from the garden, seafood galore, and depths of smoke.
The signature dish here is the chicken with perfectly crispy skin, tender meat (I mean who makes white meat that good?) and the essence of mesquite in every bite. But don’t miss the vegetables here— they’re worked on the grill too and the kale that came with the grilled octopus was silky and crunchy, as if put on the fire and then dipped in a layer of fat. We also started with the oysters grilled with bone marrow, pistachios, and sheep’s cheese melted on top. The dessert was tropical beach meets grandma’s kitchen: arroz con leche, cajeta ice cream and cold burts of guayaba fruit. So basically we kept it super light.
You’ve probably visited this taco stand already as it is known as Ensenada’s best fish taco. In my many times visiting Ensenada I had not been here because my ex-boyfriend makes the best fish tacos I’ve ever had, and at the time had a Baja style taqueria in LA which I ate at constantly. I was always disappointed whenever I had a fried fish taco anywhere else. But not here. I was taking my parents on a beer crawl of Ensenada (read on) and these perfectly battered tacos were a necessary pit-stop. Tacos Fénix is celebrating almost 50 years in operation and it’s no wonder why.
Between our rum from Michoacan, locally made gin and a great bacanora, we feasted. It’s here where my parents immediately got the vibe for restaurant culture in Ensenada: it’s fine dining but without the pretension, where being a coastal city and not far from the border lends itself to a blend of pride for local ingredients and exploration.
We started with a mixed tiradito sprinkled with local seaweed, and oysters with melted chile tatemado butter. For our main I’m glad we tried the quail as well as one of my signature happy-place meals in the region is a breakfast plate of over easy local quail eggs in Rosarito. The tender meat came with a guayaba mole and a soft quail egg.
My favorite surprise of the night was the gin and tonic, a botanical treat made with TJ-based elmira gin and laced with dill, dried fruits and lime zest (the gin on its own is enjoyable too). They serve an affordable pre-fix meal for lunch, a la carte dinner, and it’s good to know that they are open Monday nights too.
A new location for these guys who were priced out of their previous spot on the water, this definitely felt like a work in progress in terms of ambiance. Then again, that’s not usually why people go to breweries. There are picnic tables inside and a terrace overlooking the port on top.
They had three beers on tap: a hazy IPA, a sour mango and the cleverly named Cabrown porter. Ensenada can get cold easily, so a light porter was exactly my mood while the sun set.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve found myself in an Irish pub in a foreign country next to a Bon Jovi poster, under the glow of a Robbie Williams live-in-concert video wondering how the hell I got there (although let’s be honest, probably a cute guy). But the times when an Irish pub has opened up to an oceanside beer garden with taps of the best craft beer in the region? Only once at the totally originally named Lucky Irish Pub. Located off the highway in El Sauzal, if you walk through the original pub you’ll find a garden with 80 beers on tap sectioned by brewery and a kitchen window serving Baja-style pub food (oysters, ceviche tostadas, other non-wing and jalapeño popper things). If you want to sample from Baja’s craft brewers, this might be the best place in the whole area. On Tuesdays beers are 50 pesos.
This is a health-oriented breakfast place in the same building as Barra D Cafe and Mezcaleria La Penca. I am normally not a hotcake girl because I reserve pancake time for my 4-year-old twin nephews in Topanga, but if you want something healthy and hearty to start your day I would get a verde smoothie and a stack of whole grain hotcakes topped with fruit here.
On your way out: Pichino’s in TJ
If you read my blog regularly you know that I am a sucker for a cold elaborate coffee drink in Mexico— something about always being hot and in a food coma. There’s a damn good one here called the espresso fizz: espresso, lemon juice, simple syrup, pineapple shrub and soda. It got me through TJ and over the border line after a long day (and weekend) of food and drinks. This is a new spot by the cocktail guys at Nortico, which you should also visit but more on that in another story coming soon.