Where to Dine in Border Baja’s Hottest Wine & Foodie Destination, The Valle De Guadalupe
By Wendy Lemlin
It’s no longer any secret that there is some fantastic food in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe. When I first started visiting this tranquil valley in 2005, there were maybe 2 or 3 “gourmet” restaurants being buzzed about in the SoCal/Baja gastronomic circles. These days, visiting wine tasting aficionados can indulge their tastebuds with memorable fine dining experiences at close to 20 eateries ––although, it’s hard to keep track as there seems always to be a new restaurant opening. And by fine dining, I mean the best of the Valle’s ingredients—organic produce usually grown in onsite gardens, locally made cheeses, fresh caught seafood from Ensenada, meats and poultry raised on small Valle ranches and farms—expertly and creatively prepared, and served, for the most part, in a casual, al fresco ambiance. While many of the dishes themselves are worthy of the world’s top restaurants, in this slice of Baja Norte we’re not talking white table cloths and fine china, but more earthy surroundings that reflect the culture of the vineyards and the ruggedness of the surrounding topography, and where you feel totally comfortable lingering over your meal for several hours. In fact, be prepared to do so—there’s no such thing as “grabbing a quick bite” here, unless you’re patronizing the new crop of food trucks at such wineries as Adobe Guadalupe and Vena Cava. I won’t lie—dining in the Valle might seem pricey if you were expecting $1 tacos and beer, but for the most part, I’ve found every culinary experience I’ve had there to provide excellent value for the quality presented.
So, fill your glass with one of the Valle’s excellent wines and pull up a chair at my virtual table. Join me for a mini gastronomic tour to some of the restaurants I recently visited on a three day Valle de Guadalupe getaway!
Named one of Latin America’s 50 Top Restaurants of 2014 and 2015, and recipient of several other prestigious international awards, Corazon de Tierra is the flagship restaurant of Chef Diego Hernandez.
All the produce in the artistically presented dishes, from fruit, flowers and vegetables to olive oil and honey, are grown and produced on the property, and if something isn’t in season, it won’t be found on the plate. In other words, don’t go looking for fresh tomatoes in January! Also, don’t expect to order off a menu—-lunch or dinner is a six to eight course, chef’s choice, tasting menu showcasing whatever produce, local seafood, and meats are at their most exceptional that day. Plan on spending two to three hours enjoying your meal! (Hint: When you make your reservation, let the kitchen know of any dietary restrictions, and they will work around that as best they can). Located on the grounds of Vena Cava Winery and La Villa del Valle B&B, the restaurant is at its most picturesque in the daylight in my opinion, with a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open up to the gardens. As you are enjoying one course, you can watch the cooks moving through the garden, harvesting the ingredients for the next. You can’t get a fresher “farm-to-table” experience than that! The prix fixe tasting menu is around $65 pp for either lunch or dinner, although with the exchange rate these days, it comes out to more like $50, and wine pairings can be added for another $30-40.
Highlights of my dinner there included imaginative flavor and texture combinations, with each ingredient harmonizing with, or providing pleasing contrasts to, the others in the dish. Some examples:
- leaf salad just picked from the garden, beautifully presented with a fragrant lavender vinaigrette, crunches of guava meringue, lemongrass gelee, mint dust, sunflower seed petals, and butternut squash puree (Even a simple salad here is never simple, but always showcases the unexpected)
- confit beets with rich garlic puree, cheese from the neighboring Cortez Ranch, celery dust, borage flowers
- fresh caught ling cod accented with garbanzos, winter parsey, radishes, serrano chile, pickeled onion, blonde chiles, and smoked tomato sauce poured tableside
- totoaba –the rich, meaty fish filet paired with turnip puree, chichilo mole, roasted baby carrots and turnips, pickled peppers and shallots
- the dessert–a quenelle of smoked milk ice cream, almond praline crumble, guava puree, and fermented ginger sauce, also poured tableside. Really—who would think of smoking milk for ice cream? It totally worked, however, and the combination of flavors was amazing.
Address: Rancho San Marcos S/N, El Porvenir, 22750 Ensenada, B.C., Mexico— Getting there is half the fun, down a warren of dirt roads with fairly decent signage—look for the sign between km 87 and 88 on Rte 3 that will start you on your way.
Another of my top favorite restaurants in the Valle is the sometimes overlooked Malva –-overlooked possibly because its sign is difficult to see from the road until you are just passing it, or maybe because chef/owner Roberto Alcocer cares more about creating awesome delicacies than splashy PR campaigns. Located right on Rte 3 at the Mina Penelope winery and ranch in San Antonio De Las Minas, this al fresco restaurant is casually comfortable and reasonably priced. As you sit under the woven palm palapa, sipping a refreshing watermelon agua fresca or a lovely bottle of wine, you might hear the bleating chatter of the sheep and goats that are raised there for homemade cheeses and meat.
With a background as a corporate chef, Alcocer has really come into his own with Malva, cooking the food he loves in his own style. Having just opened a new restaurant, Sole, in Mexico City, Alcocer has set his sights on a second restaurant in the Valle, planned for later this year, which will impart a high end, chef’s table dining experience. Also in the works are possible restaurants in Monterrey (MX), London, and hopefully San Diego. A gracious host who takes justifiable pride in his work, Alcocer, to my thinking, is at his best coaxing sublime layers of flavor from the incredibly fresh local seafood, such as the crudo of locally raised bluefin tuna with fermented chile paste, or the citrucy scallop
aguachile I relished on a pleasingly warm afternoon on the terrace. Both dishes of raw seafood, sliced paper thin, tasted of ocean breezes and seashore love. Each were given a gentle kiss of their respective sauces—never a suffocating embrace—just enough to waken in them the brightness of beguiling youth and fulfill an exciting promise of sublime taste.
Address: Km 96 Rte. 3, 22755 San Antonio De Las Minas, Baja California, Mexico
The latest offering from Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero and his family took months longer than expected to open, but now, about a year later I can say that it was totally worth the wait. (Ironically, La Esperanza means “hope”, but the verb, esperar, from which the noun is derived, also means to wait for. I’m sure Guerrero was hoping the wait would be over
sooner that it was!) MiguelAngel Guerrero was the creator of the phrase “Baja Med” and defined it as what has now become the iconic fusion of Mexican, Mediterranean, and Asian influences by which the cuisine of Baja has come to be known. The restaurant sits at the beginning of the road which leads from Rte. 3 to L.A. Cetto winery, and one side of the expansive dining room is open to the sweeping vista of rows upon rows of well established grapevines—some of the oldest in the Valle de Guadalupe. The rustic design of the restaurant reflects Chef Miguel Angel’s lifestyle—he has traveled the entire length and breadth of Baja, hunting and fishing for much of the proteins found on his menus, not only at La Esperanza, but at his Tijuana restaurants, La Querencia Baja Med and El Taller Baja Med. Unique oval shaped wine barrels decorate the La Esperanza’s entrance, and I learned that those were actually used by Senor Cetto when he began making wine in the late 1920s!
I stopped in one unseasonably toasty Sunday afternoon to have lunch with Miguel Angel’s lovely wife, Judith Medrano, who, with her sister Adriana, takes care of much of the day-to-day running of all three of the family’s restaurants. While the leaves on the vines rustled in the warm Santa Ana winds I enjoyed a beautiful baby lettuce salad with lavender soaked pears, candied nuts, and dried blueberries sautéed in butter. Along with that, Judith suggested a hibiscus flower and goat cheese taco, and a crab machata burrito, both of which were exceptionally flavorful and satisfying.
Address: km. 73.5 Rte 3, Valle de Guadalupe, 22750 Ensenada, B.C., Mexico
In the fields of vineyards in the ejido El Porvenir, outside the town of Francisco Zarco (the town is also called Guadalupe), down a warren of long dusty roads, sits Hotel Boutique, the largest hotel in the Valle. And on a raised deck looking out at beautifully landscaped grounds, I lingered over a light lunch at Fuego, the hotel’s delightful restaurant and bar. First up was a plate of raw bluefin tuna tostaditos. The bluefin tuna, which is becoming endangered in the wild, is farmed sustainably, healthily, and in environmentally friendly open ocean pens in a bay just north of Ensenada. It has a fresh, clean flavor and butter-smooth texture. Next came one of the most artistically colorful dishes I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying—a vegetable ceviche. Loaded with red and yellow beets, thin slices of pink-running-to-green watermelon radish, dusky mushrooms, red and green peppers, red onion, edible flowers, and pale green avocado cream, with “ceviche” was a veritable rainbow on my plate. Because I ate lightly, I felt I could indulge in dessert, and my companions and I decided to share each of the three desserts on offer that day: a warm apple crisp, a creamy sweet-tart lemon bar, and a sinfully rich dark chocolate lava cake with raspberry sauce. I know, none of these were particularly inventive or “au courant”, but damn, they were delicious!
The team at Fuego recently opened a second, Valle restaurant and nightlife hotspot,
Bodegas Del Valle, directly on Rte 3. It’s a large, cavernous, very contemporary space, which seems like it would be a happening venue on a busy weekend, with a huge selection of wines, craft beers, and cocktails, pizza and local specialties, and a DJ for musical entertainment.
Fuego address: Camino de los Ranchos Parcela #7, Ejido El Porvenir, 22750 Valle de Guadalupe, B.C., Mexico
Bodegas Del Valle address: Rte 3, km 82.5 22750 Valle de Guadalupe, B.C., Mexico
Although I didn’t have time to dine at these on my recent trip, here are a few more recommendations from past excursions:
Dining al fresco in a grove of trees, with gentle breezes rustling the leaves and a view of
the Valle spread out in front of you, as Chef/ owner Drew Deckman wields his magic touch in his hand-built outdoor kitchen is a culinary experience to be enjoyed especially with a group of friends. Most of the wine, vegetables, herbs, lamb, olive oil, and eggs are estate grown or produced there on the Mogor Ranch, and the sustainable seafood is sourced from the Baja Penninsula. The salt is from San Felipe, the cheeses and beef are local, as is the craft beer, from Agua Mala Brewery in nearby Sauzal.
Address: Rte. 3 Km. 85.5, San Antonio de Las Minas, 22766 Valle de Guadalupe, B.C., Mexico
Baja celeb chef Javier Plascencia’s Valle de Guadalupe offering features an “Asador Campestre”, food cooked on wood-fired grills and smokers, in a casual country setting that celebrates the wine area’s culture. Look for regional ingredients, local wines and craft beers in a convivial atmosphere. Transportation from the U.S. side of the border can be arranged.
Address: Look for the sign to the dirt road that is entered at Rt. 3 Km 83, Ejido Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, 22750 Ensenada, B.C., Mexico
Located at ALXimia winery, La Terasse is the project of French-trained Mexican super chef Martin San Roman, who has cooked for world leaders and Mexican Presidents. Fusing traditional French techniques with local ingredients and Baja–style dishes, San Roman has forged a new regional cuisine, which he calls Baja Provençale. Transportation from the U.S. side of the border can be arranged.
Address: Km.3 the el Tigre country road (next to Rancho El Parral) Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico. CP 22766
Specializing in Baja-Yucatan Fusion cuisine, Chef Marco Márin helms the kitchen at the signature restaurant of El Cielo Vineyards & Winery. A bit more “dressed up” than the al fresco campestre-style restaurants that are so prevalent in the Valle, the venue often plays host to large events, including concerts by top-name Mexican musical artists.
Address: Carretera Guadalupe-El Tigre Km. 7.5 Parcela 118, Ejido el Porvenir, 22755 Ensenada, B.C., Mexico