The first time I ventured into the Valle de Guadalupe I ended up driving in odd, winding patterns of dirt roads that sometime went to nowhere. I remember spending an hour and a half to try a find the last Russian family winery in the Valle: Chateau Bibayoff. An old man pulled up next to me while I was laying down some thick branches so I could cross a stream of water that had blocked my path--I wouldn't have made it across without it. He asked where I was going and I said Bibayoff, "well, I'm Bibayoff", said the man, "follow me!"
Every path, every bumpy,dusty road holds some promise in the Valle de Guadalupe, whether it be a new winery, an cheese artisan, a roadside olive oil producer, a chorizo maker, or some undiscovered restaurant. It was a quiet morning in the western edge of the Valle de Guadalupe, near El Tigre, that I noticed an official wine country hand-carved wooden plaque for La Cocina de Doña Esthela. Over the hill I went on a scarred road barely suitable for conventional transportation to the home, farm, and kitchen table of Esthela, a baker, traditional Sinaloan cook, and cheese maker. There is no better way to start your day tasting Mexican wine in the Valle than with a profoundly, rich menudo blanco, birria de borrego cooked in an adobe oven, or hunks of salty queso fresco made from the milk of the family cow.
|Burrito de choriqueso|
On my first visit to Esthela's humble, inviting kitchen I arrived at a slow time of the day and was offered seating inside her house, right at the kitchen table. I had spotted the adobe oven as I was walking inside, so I was in for whatever was coming out of there--in this case: birria de borrego, or barbecued lamb. It was more than a delicious plate of food; it was a confirmation of excellence--I trusted from the first taste that all her cooking would be exceptional. A hefty serving of homemade chorizo and melted cheese secreting orange oils onto a flour tortilla was prepared without regard for serving size or tradition--" I made it big because you look hungry", said Esthela.
|Homemade queso fresco|
She then showed off her bowl milk forming into the delicious queso fresco Esthela serves as an complimentary starter, and the fancy olive oil she used from a nearby winery.
|Costillas en salsa roja|
Weekends are when there is a crowd that's been building by word of mouth--they're even diners from the greater Los Angeles area that come to the Valle just for a bowl of Sinaloan style costillas en salsa roja(pork ribs in red chiles) bursting with rich pork and dark, fruity flavors of dried chiles with a simple flavor base that has been cooked at the right temperature and for the optimal length of time. Esthela is a master cook--she cooks in an original fashion you'd only find in the best fondas of Mexico. You want some extra heat?--Esthela will walk out to the garden and snip some painfully hot green peppers that are similar to a habanero.
|Lucky diners at La Cocina de Doña Esthela|
There's machaca, of course--a proper Sinaloan kitchen couldn't be without this dish of dried beef jerky that's nicely browned here to give it a pleasurable crisp. Roll it up in Esthela's fresh flour tortillas and drag it through her ultra-savory frijoles puercos, or refried beans amplified by pork lard.