I wanted to see whether the news reports were true; I missed Baja and the laid-back lifestyle it represents. When Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA
offered a quick one-day tour, I jumped at the chance to see whether it was time to go back.
I'm happy to report that it is. No soldiers roaming the streets; no anybody roaming the streets. Read on for the conclusion of twelve hours of utter gluttony in the industrial
capital of northwestern Mexico, Tijuana.
After the festival, our first stop was the Distrito Gastronómico, an offshoot of the high-rent Zona Río where alta cocina restaurants line Escuadrón 201, Sánchez Taboada and Sonora streets. We headed for Erizo Cebichería, a small restaurant that wouldn't feel out of place in Newport Beach. The restaurant's name means "sea urchin", with a column of spent sea urchin shells out front. Inside, I immediately felt underdressed in jeans, untucked button-down seersucker shirt and baseball cap; the woman sitting to our left was a vision of Chanel and Prada, and her husband was dressed in deliberately-casual Ermenegildo Zegna. We'd stumbled into Park Avenue.
It didn't matter; no one batted an eyelash. We were there for fish and seafood, and that was what we were going to have. For those who know ceviche as a tomatoey, gloppy mess served with crackers and bad beer, Erizo is an awakening: ceviche as it was meant to be served. Erizo is owned by Javier Plascencia, the mastermind behind many of Tijuana's finest restaurants and sells screamingly fresh, strictly local seafood. No fish flown in from God-only-knows-where, no flash-frozen seafood bought at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market; everything Plascencia sells is plucked straight from the waters of Baja.
While the entire menu looks enticing, a few items at Erizo deserve special mention. The restaurant's namesake sea urchin is served in a spoon with a dose of a Japanese-inspired, soy-spiked broth. You eat the entire thing at once and revel in the briny, salty, deeply umami urchin going down your throat. The chaser is leche de tigre, the liquid leftover from making ceviche. Leche de tigre is a powerful stimulant and, some say, an aphrodisiac. We didn't feel any carnal stirrings, but we were amazed by the sour, salty liquid, which is served with a quail's egg and a branch of salicornia (sea beans).
Two kinds of scallop, callo de garra de león (lion's paw scallops) and callo de hacha (diver scallops) starred in a dish containing purslane, lamb's quarters and other local greens, as well as cucumbers, onions and a little bit of chile. Callo de garra de león is like a thicker, meatier, more assertive version of the scallops that grace our American tables; it's abundant in Baja but almost never seen in California. Instead of limes for the acidic part of the ceviche, Erizo uses kumquats, which provide a hint of sweetness.
Even better was birria de jurel, yellowtail cooked very gently in a cumin-based sauce made with several kinds of chiles and served in a traditional thin blue cazuelita
. The result was a broth designed to emphasize rather than overwhelm the strongly flavored fish. Wrapped up in a fresh, thick corn tortilla with onions, lime and guacamole, I could eat that every day for lunch. A masterfully made pisco de maracuyá was made from fresh passion fruit and the Peruvian national white liquor and was the perfect accompaniment.
The best dish, however, was ceviche verde de tres almejas, made with standard littleneck-type clams, Pismo clams and almeja chocolata, the "chocolate" clams that come from the Sea of Cortez on the eastern side of the Baja California peninsula. These last are identifiable by their orange color and their briny, rich taste. The clams were mixed with cucumbers and an herbal, citric sauce that really elevated a simple dish to the next level.
Sipping on a round of piscos sour after our meal, we looked around and realized the place was just about empty. Time to move on.
We headed to Revolución to see Caesar's restaurant. I headed for Licores Leyva, between 6th and 7th, to buy a bottle of Orendain membrillo (quince-flavored liquor) and a bottle of Volcán de Mi Tierra reposado. A few bottles were out on the counter, and samples were proffered. A sip of añejo tequila made me briefly reconsider my reposado, but I persevered. Tequila lines one whole side of the surprisingly deep store, everything from that yellow piss known as Cuervo Gold to artisanal tequilas worth hundreds of dollars. My tequila ran me just shy of $11, though, and the membrillo was under $6 after a generous wink at the exchange rate.
On the way back toward El Arco, I was in front of our group when I felt someone grab my shoulder. "¡Joven!
" shouted a big bear of a man. "Oh God," I thought as I turned around with an angry, aggressive look on my face. The guy stepped back a couple of paces, smiled shyly, and said, "Su bolsa va partir. Se le va caer las botellas.
" Your bag is going to split open--do something before you lose your tequila. I thanked him, fixed it, and continued on my way.
When I got back to Villa del Tabaco, a cigar shop between 2nd and 3rd, the rum they were pouring had run out, damn my luck; I got a tiny, but heavenly sip of seven-year Cuban rum, a taste unavailable through legal means in the United States. Men puffed huge Cuban cigars; an espresso machine hummed. For the aficionado of slightly guilty pleasures, this is the first stop and the reason to come to Revolución. The hubbub of the outdoors is kept out by a thick glass door; you're welcome to sit and smoke and drink as much as you want.