Popotla, Baja California: Seafood Cocktails and Dreams

Categories: Tijuana Sí!
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Bill Esparza
Fishermen sell their catch at Popotla, B.C.

In 1988's campy bartender melodrama, Cocktail, Brian Flanagan and Doug Coughlin both shared the same dream--to have a place of their own, and live it up like kings. Baja California has been my place to pursue such lofty desires; it's a place where a middle-class guy like me can "make it rain." It's only been the past 3 years that the US media has caught on to the wealth of food products and local cuisine, but they're making up for lost time just swallowing up every delicious find, and every tasty tale from the streets of Baja to its finest dining rooms. But just when you thought Baja couldn't surprise, along came Popotla, the sleepy fishing village that has been my latest obsession as of this past summer.


Popotla may be the most underutilized treasure in Baja California--the locals go to the beach restaurants at the entrance, geared towards Mexican families who go for the pescado zarandeado, Baja lobster, and shrimp cocktails. Down on the beach, Bajacalifornios stick to fried fish, which is done with fresh catch from the fisherman, which is fine, but they're missing out on something bigger. On this beach, the famed Baja lobster dish is a yawn compared to the ease at which you can acquire deep-fried spider crabs, cracked open alive right in front of your eyes, and paired with a spicy a la diabla sauce, or a mojo de ajo. Sea urchin, abalone, pismo clam, black clams, red clams, enormous "huarache" oysters, rare chocolate clams, and sea snail are so cheap it'll have you screaming "whaat" in your best Little John.

The morning catch arrives and is cleaned and ready to go into ceviches, cocktails, and anything your heart desires--this is a place to live out your seafood fantasies and wash it down with a cold Pacifico.


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Bill Esparza
Tamal de camaron


Popotla is located just south of the Fox Studios just south of Rosarito Beach, and this place gets packed on the weekends, so parking on the dirt road leading to the beach can be tricky getting out. When you reach all the barkers shoving menus in your faces, you should smile and keep moving towards the beach, but not before having a shrimp tamale from Los Originales Tamles de Popotla, a plywood tamale shack on your left as you begin the row of beach restaurants. All the tamales are good, but the shrimp tamal is a must, with a spicy shrimp stew in the center that moistens the flavorful masa.  

Did I mention you should bring a crew?--you'll need help with all this. 


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Bill Esparza
Huarache oyster at Los Compadres de Sinaloa


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Bill Esparza
Chocolate clams at Los Compadres de Sinaloa


Start off with raw shellfish, ceviches, and cocktails, and for this you only need one stand: Los Compadres de Sinaloa. Walk past the boats, fish mongers, shellfish stands, and junk food vendors where you'll find an attractive coctelera huddled behind a wall of the typical seafood hot sauces ready to serve you. El Compadre takes care of all the shucking and cracking of live shellfish to be served au natural, or he hands it off to Erika who'll take care of any preparations. Huarache oysters are the ultimate oceanic treat--yourself--right entry into this gourmet seafood buffet. 


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Bill Esparza
Pata de mula, or "mule's foot" clam at Los Compadres de Sinaloa


Get a plate of black and red clams, the famously strong flavored shellfish known as pata de mula, or mule's foot. The bitter liquor is for true seafood aficionados who don't shy away from extreme flavors. 


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Bill Esparza
Erika at Los Compadres de Sinaloa

One visit, I purchased a fine curvina from a boat and brought it over to be marinated for about 20 minutes for one of the nicest traditional ceviches de pescado I've had in a while. If you have a big enough group you can grab a large yellowtail tuna and bring it over. Erika didn't even charge me for the ceviche service. 

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28 comments
cahillrx
cahillrx

The seafood is as fresh as you can get.  The preparation and sanitation leaves something to be desired.  They did not have a grill going so they prepared the fish and crab by deep-frying it, which totally took away the flavor.  No running water in the restaurant we used to cook up our selections, a bucket was filled with water for washing in the bathroom.  I don't think there is plumbing in the area yet.  I would recommend bringing your own grill, lemons and dont forget the tarter sauce.

cahillrx
cahillrx

I just got back.  The seafood is as fresh as you can get.  But I left thinking the same thing as some other critics have written.  The preparation and yes sanitation needs to be improved there.  It is the whole infrastructure.  The restaurant we went to to have our fish and crab cooked did not have a grill, nor did others on the beach.  We wanted the food grilled, not fried-they say fried or frito but it is deep-fried in oil.  The place had no running water, a bucket filled with water was used in the place for washing hands.  Having everything hot fried took away from the flavor.  The tortillas were not fresh, nor was the salad.  An idea might be to take your own grill, tarter sauce and lemons and cook it yourself on the beach.  I dont know what the locals would think, maybe they might wisen up.

christinejchoi
christinejchoi

I just went to popotla last week and my belly had the time of its life! everything was extremely CLEAN and fresh. not once did I question any sanitation issues or hesitate to eat any of the cornucopia seafood. I did not get sick at all even with the insane amount of uni cockails, baked clams, seafood soup, campechana cocktails I had!! It's my new favorite spot in baja. I cannot wait to go back to baja just to visit popotla!! I am so thankful for coming across this article and the great recs It was truly a hidden gem.Thanks, bill!!!

smp2010
smp2010

I drove in one time thinking it might be cool, looks great there but the overall experience is not for the faint hearted. There appears to be little in the way of sanitation or health standards, even by Mexico's standards. Sketchy. Rumored to be the launching point of the now popular smuggling boats... I hate to say this but I would steer clear unless you like gambling with your stomach and points beyond...

Bill_Esparza
Bill_Esparza

max_models You didn't mention a word about the seafood. Is it a fishing village, yes? We're eating fresh catch off plastic benches on the sand. Yes, we like sea urchin, spider crab(can't get that in ensenada), and buckets of shellfish brought to our table by fishermen. You're right about recommending Ensenada though, and so do we, but this is a different experience not found anywhere else in Baja California, not in this abundance, and not at these prices.  

max_models
max_models

for the wise, Popotla is a crap hole, very dirty and rustic-- if you like those things then go for it, if not then make the extra hump and go down to Ensenada.

max_models
max_models

 @billiard68 sure the seafood is fresh, but as another person mentioned about sanitation its what happens in the kitchen in regards that worries me. In general if the kitchen, bathrooms and dinning rooms are filthy then that says allot about the workers.  I do go to purchase seafood from the locals for my personal use but just dont like eating at the restaurants. 

Dave_Lieberman
Dave_Lieberman

 @max_models They have palapas with just-off-the-boat seafood including spider crab in Ensenada, do they? Do tell, because I can't get that stuff even at the Mercado Negro.

rawdogg69style
rawdogg69style

Max_models U sound like a girly man...the food here is fresh and the people know what their doing when it comes to cuisine...being able to drink cold cervesas on the beach and enjoy the sun and sand while feeling a fresh ocean breeze is something u.s. beaches dont have the pleasure of experiencing...the beaches in cali are polluted and the water gives u ear aches...the seafood is frozen and overpriced like the property...jus got back from popotla and its truely a jem...i grew up in New Zealand where fresh seafood is abundant and cooked well but the Mexicans are masters of flavor and spice...this seafood is world class and if u are a snob who lacks class i dont expect u to understand what your missing...however if u know how to live the good life bring your arse to popotla and let yourself free.

Bill_Esparza
Bill_Esparza

 @max_models  @billiard68 First off, I'm not recommending the restaurants up top--not because of sanitation, but because they are tourist traps, for Mexican tourists. I'm recommending buying seafood from the vendors, and I'm recommending ONE stand. They seafood is fresh, their hands are clean, and they have a wash area. We're talking about shucking an oyster and handing it to you--there's minimal food handling when it come to fresh seafood, but they're using plastic gloves in the cocktail area. The crab is fried in hot lard, and can only be picked up with tongs. In a country were there's no HD checking food, you use your won judgement. I eat, I bring people here, and I stand by this experience. People who aren't eating or checking out the places I'm talking about would not be in a position to properly assess. Just had an event in the Valle with top LA chefs--they couldn't get enough.          

smp2010
smp2010

 @billiard68  @Dave_Lieberman  @kwelch29Why try so hard to convince others that it is safe to eat there when it is not Bill? Have you got your life savings riding on the success of Popotla? Probably. Bad move if so... I have seen far safer eating environments on hot dog carts in downtown Los Angeles...

Bill_Esparza
Bill_Esparza

 @smp2010  @Dave_Lieberman  @kwelch29 There are plenty of people who wouldn't eat here because it's not their thing.  But, your petty alarmist approach goes beyond to-each-his-own--your'e just pushing desperate rhetoric.  I assume if I tell someone to go eat an oyster or scallop, they're big enough to figure it out on their own without Wikipedia or ancestral wisdom. 

smp2010
smp2010

 @Dave_Lieberman  @billiard68  @kwelch29 

I am just saying this is not without risk to eat here, no matter what you say you cannot deny the lack of cleanliness around Popotla. I would prefer to be eating food that was prepared in a clean environment, but that is just me, to each his own...

Dave_Lieberman
Dave_Lieberman

 @smp2010  @billiard68  @kwelch29 Now look, I have been a few times to Popotla and eaten just as well as Bill did, and I have yet to find a single parasite, fall ill, etc.

 

We eat Santa Barbara spot prawns that come from the same waters; thousands of people eat Puerto Nuevo lobster just up the coast, and they don't get sick.

 

Just because you're afraid to live doesn't mean you should convince other people to be afraid to live.

smp2010
smp2010

 @billiard68  @kwelch29 I am in Baja at least once a month, I do know about the quality of Popotla. And you say Bourdain following you off the bridge is something to be relished, he is a drunken chef without much of a care other than to beat the other guy who will eat just about anything to attract viewers. I personally put more stock in someone who likes to eat good food without a camera on them, and judging by the crowd i saw last time at Popotla, they are not eating seafood in Popotla... Again visually it is a great spot, and the seafood and variety is attractive, not to mention the prices, but gambling with my health and encouraging others to do the same is not something I would be willing to do. Sorry now matter how sexy A. Bourdain said it is or was... How many times has he come back without cameras? None I am sure....

 

Bill_Esparza
Bill_Esparza

 @smp2010  @kwelch29 I'll be sure to research wikipedia before I make any other moves. You know nothing of the quality, and actually Bourdain followed us off the bridge. Keep on trolling.

smp2010
smp2010

 @billiard68  @kwelch29 He also has the luxury of full health care coverage and people to get him to an American hospital if he became ill, not all of us travel with a pack of servants... Also my mothers old adage rings true, if someone else jumps off a bridge would you? And my grandfathers; no brains no headache...Like I said it visually looks great, just wish the food quality was to match...

Bill_Esparza
Bill_Esparza

 @smp2010  @kwelch29 Okay, this isn't serious. The same sea urchin that is available at Popotla, is shipped to Japan, so don't eat sushi, pendejo/ja. The pata de mula comes from mangroves, the chocolatas come from the Sea of Cortez, in general the products come from all over the Pacific, and Sea of Cortez, but many fish are caught locally like the curvina, Popotla is the marketplace. Do you not eat sushi because of mercury? No one anywhere in the world is dying because of polluted seafood.     

smp2010
smp2010

 @billiard68  @kwelch29 Mmm really sounds great Billiard...No one is there to lick boats.  You think the fish/shellfish also avoid the polluted waters or the pollution doesn't move? You are foolish if you think contamination is stationary. With that level of intelligence I would think eating at your "stand" might be a death trip...

Bill_Esparza
Bill_Esparza

 @smp2010  @kwelch29 Don't know if your being serious, but I'll respond anyway. Big news--piers and fishing villages are polluted all along the Pacific--Redondo Beach, Long Beach, San Pedro, etc. My stand isn't using ocean water to prepare food, the fishing boats are heading out to sea to fish, and they only pass by polluted waters on their way in, so don't lick the hull of the boats. Am I recommending swimming?--no. Many families are playing on the beach and getting their feet wet, but they head down to La Mision if they want to do water activities. I like the pussy comment.

 

 

max_models
max_models

@rawdogg69style  Just telling the truth.  I Have a house 40 mins from there and there are many great clean places to visit, this is just not one of them.  And reading other posts, others seem to agree.   If you really like this place then you need to get out and see the rest of Baja, preferably Loretto and La Paz if you stay in Baja.  Quintana Roo is also rustic yet clean.  

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