Did you know there’s a wine valley in Baja? In Valle de Guadalupe you’re sure to find good food and wine, beautiful views and probably at least one wrong turn down a country road. Not far away is Ensenada, formerly a big destination for cruise ship and spring breakers, and once you have a seafood tostada from one of these street carts, you might never think of street food or seafood the same way. My first trip to northern Baja was exactly a year ago, and since then I’ve been back a few times. Here are several places I’ve enjoyed. As always, there will be more to come.
Valle de Guadalupe
While the valley has pretty quickly grown to include about 60 wineries, it’s still relatively rustic and meant for tourists who feel comfortable navigating somewhat rural Mexico. Signs are there but many of the roads are dirt and often windy with forks that lead to nowhere— or maybe to Corazon de Tierra, one of Latin America’s best restaurants next to a six-room boutique hotel. You never know here. A trip around the valley requires a driver like my friend Jorge, who passed a locked-up winery gate back and forth before taking an unmarked path to the front of the building and smiled, “No, it’s not closed!” Visit anytime Spring through Fall.
Ismene makes the kind of food you want to eat when in a wine valley: it’s casual and tasty, served family style, with clean flavors showing the best of local ingredients, reminding you of the beauty and bounty that surrounds you with each dish. There’s usually a soup, a main, salad, and some kind of ceviche. The patio tables are next to an open air kitchen at 3 Mujeres Winery. Trees shade the dining area and vineyards are just below. The winery, co-owned by Ismene’s mom, is made up of a team of female winemakers. Being here feels like being a guest at a friend’s ranch home. Because, you know, I have soooo many friends with ranch homes.
My first stop ever to the valley was Cuatro Cuatros, just over the hills from the Ensenada-Tijuana highway. Fourteen tented cabañas are nestled in this 144 acre property that extends from the top of the hills that overlook the coast to the valley of vineyards. Two antique shrimping boats sit next to grape vines. Be sure to take a drive to the top of the hill for a look at the view. In order to taste wine here you have to say you have reservations at the restaurant, a safari-like tent with animal skin rugs— is it called Desert-chic? We ordered a bottle of the rosé, and—best kept secret in the valley—sips of one of the employee’s uncle’s mezcal from Oaxaca. His name is Noe, and if he has enough you can buy a bottle. It tastes like Pineapple.
Malva is the first stop in the Valley on the road to Tecate. My boyfriend is friends with the chef/owner, so the first time we went they sat for five hours and traded kitchen horror stories (the pain of making a club sandwich on a late night room service shifts sounds real) while I devoured plate after plate of food and enjoyed the late afternoon golden light. “This is a place where I would want to eat, with food I would want to eat, with prices I would like to spend,” said Chef Roberto Alcocer breaking it down. I would agree. This is an elegant and comfortable outdoor restaurant, with the “dining room” under a huge palapa, next to an open kitchen, and the restaurant garden near the entrance. The food is gorgeous, but not precious, and changes with the seasons. I love it here.
The theme here is countryside cooking, and oh is it themed out to the max. Sheep on the property are harvested. A veggie garden is just below the open-air dining room, right below the bakery. Most things are cooked on the fire, and the kitchen extends from one end of the dining room to the other. There’s a gift shop with locally made soap and cooking tools, giant wine barrels for you to climb up and sit on while overlooking the valley, and a separate coffee bar inside one of the barrels. Have some snacks and then sit on one of the tall barrels for the sunset.
I didn’t try enough wine to say that this is the best wine in the valley, but my friend who has tried plenty of wine here was very excited about this place. Dr. Torres-Alegre, the first enologist in Mexico to have a PhD in the science of enology, is the winemaker here. The winery itself isn’t the most inviting structure, a little too much concrete for my taste, but the tasting room is small and service is welcoming.
Ensenada is about 30 minutes away, depending on where you are in the Valley. Get dropped off in the touristy center and you might be underwhelmed by shop after shop selling the same touristy tchotchkes. But check out the seafood market at the marina or a street cart, and you’ll be overwhelmed with options.
In partial thanks to Anthony Bourdain everyone knows about Sabina’s seafood stand, and it’s pretty much the only place I said I HAD to get to the first time I went to Ensenada. I think it was a promising sign when my first breakfast with my boyfriend was a sea urchin sofrito tostada topped an inch high with scallops, avocado and chile de jardin salsa (peanuts and charred chiles) sitting on a red plastic stool in Ensenada. For the adventurous seafood eater.
I was desperate for coffee and it was looking bleak for a moment while we were driving through the spring break club-lined streets— and then I saw it: red stools, a counter, hipster writing. “Stop, it’s a cute cafe!” And indeed I was right, just a street side to-go spot with coffees from around Mexico and super sweet staff.
Housed behind La Contra is Boules, a patio restaurant with a bacci ball court surrounded by trees. La Contra is a wine and beer store featuring local bottles, so this is a cool space to stop if you need a gift or something to take home, and then of course, have a drink in the patio under the magnolia tree.
Mariscos El Güero
If you want to seafood cart crawl, hit up Mariscos El Güero too— I mean, everyone else is there. This crowded cart is a machine, with each worker holding down a different station. You want a clams tostada? You gotta ask the clam shucking guy on the corner of the left side. Don’t be fooled by the crowd, food comes out fast and everyone just hangs around eating over plastic-wrapped plates. The most popular items I saw were ground fish ceviche tostadas, patas de mula (bloody clams) in the shell, and mixed seafood tostadas. It’s still a novelty to me to be able to go to a street cart and throw back oysters and octopus tostadas, surrounded by perfect slices of avocado and smells of fresh chiles— all for a very reasonable price. No matter how often I visit I don’t ever expect to get tired of flavors like this.