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Laja WAY OVERRATED

o
orioninthesky Nov 8, 2007 07:26 PM

We visiting Valle Guadalupe a couple of weeks ago and because of all of the hype related to Laja on this board we decided to have dinner there. I can tell you that anyone who thinks that this place rates among the best restaurants in all of Mexico, in Baja, or in Southern California, has to be joking. First of all, both the "La" and the "Ja" who were involved in owning the restaurant are both gone. I think they were married or at least a couple but word is that they have both flown the coop. Also, the place is absolutely stark. No tablecloths, not even candles or flowers on the tables. Not a piece of art work on the walls. Just a room with basic tables. I would add that it was almost an empty room the night that we were there and it was a Saturday night. Obviously word has gotten around to avoid this place. Also, with the few people who were there it was very loud. No sound deadening at all. Additionally, not one person came to our table and said "my name is ....., I'll be your waiter". Didn't even say buenos noches or hello. We were shown to our table, the waiter came over, handed out the menu, walked away, back in 5 minutes to take the order, back when we were finished to deliver the check and that was it. The food was ok considering the restaurant is in the middle of nowhere. However, it doesn't compare to the better restaurants of San Diego and I would say is mediocre at best. Oh, by the way, for what it's worth we had an ok wine and the check was $100 a person. Not extremely expensive but to be honest I'd be embarrassed to recommend that anyone go there.

  1. Alice Q Nov 9, 2007 05:02 PM

    If you could give a more detailed description of what you ate, it might help some of us understand whether it has actually gone downhill, or whether you simply viewed it differently. I ate there about a year ago, and some courses were great - some were just ok. We did have to move outside because of noise, so I can definitely relate to that complaint.

    I think my advice would be (and what I would do in the future) is to go in the afternoon. It's much more pleasant when the room is sunlit and you can see the gardens outside. (We stopped by during the day to take some pictures, but ate in the evening.)

    Did you stay and or eat at either Guadalupe Adobe or at Brisas del Valle? If so I'd be curious what you thought. We stayed at Guadalupe Adobe but are thinking about Brisas del Valle for a return trip.

    1. j
      jayporter Nov 11, 2007 05:35 PM

      Just in case folks are curious, there is a factual error in the orignal post...Jair Tellez is still the owner/chef at Laja. I'm not an employee or owner of Laja, though I am a big fan.

      1. o
        orioninthesky Nov 13, 2007 05:48 PM

        A couple of follow up comments. First, in reply to the person who says there is a factual error in my posting I'll clarify that we heard from a very credible local source that both the La and the Ja of Laja were no longer actively involved with the restaurant. I can tell you that neither made themselves known to our group of 12. Second, in terms of the dishes that we ordered. I'm sorry to say that it's been a few weeks since we were there and I didn't keep notes on what we ate. We dine out very frequently so a couple of weeks plus the fires in San Diego mean that the details of a mediocre meal are not very memorable. I will say that the person in our group who recommended Laja was very embarrassed because we expected a really nice experience. As I said in my original post the food was ok considering that the restaurant is in the middle of nowhere. Also, we arrived at 7pm after dark so the view that we had was the stark interior which is almost impossible to describe other than to imagine nothing but a non descript room with plain wooden tables and plain chairs. No ambience whatsoever. The wine was priced at such a high multiple over retail that we were somewhat perplexed. Maybe the secret is to go for lunch. Finally, we stayed at Adobe which we enjoyed a lot. We've stayed at Brisas in the past which is also very nice. By the way, my intention is not to harm a restaurant owner. I would just never go to Laja again and I would never ever try to describe this as one of the best restaurants in Mexico or even Baja. I actually began to wonder if there were promoters on this board trying to push a restaurant that doesn't deserve the praise that some people seem to give it.

        5 Replies
        1. re: orioninthesky
          Alice Q Nov 13, 2007 09:00 PM

          Jay's a pretty credible source, in my book anyway - also the website indicates that Jair Tellez is still involved.

          It sounds like it just wasn't your thing, or it wasn't up to snuff that particular night, for whatever reason. The way you've described it as "in the middle of nowhere" and having "no ambiance whatsoever", indicates the former to me. It's definitely more Chez Panisse than Four Seasons. Ultimately, to each his own.

          1. re: orioninthesky
            f
            fauteuil Nov 27, 2007 09:43 AM

            I had read this thread right before our first-time reservations at Laja last Saturday, and was a little worried, but all for naught. It was fantastic. Every member of our well-traveled group of 8 was thrilled. We had been wine-tasting all afternoon without eating, so we were starving, and did the full 8 courses with wine pairing. It was certainly a lot of food, but the portions were relatively light and well-sized and I didn't feel terribly stuffed. Everything was simple and delicious. The wines that were chosen paired beautifully with the courses; you know how sometimes you have a certain wine with a certain food and realize AHA, this is the whole point? It was like that.

            I wouldn't say it was lacking in ambiance, it wasn't the kind of place you'd have tablecloths and flowers and candles. A large room, with beautiful wood floors, wood tables, a roaring fire -- very simple but not rough. The service wasn't "sit-in-your-lap" American style, but it was gracious and attentive -- we got new silverware for every course and new appropriately shaped Spiegelau glasses for each wine. I don't know who our main waiter was, he certainly seemed to be at the top of the food chain, but he was extremely patient with our questions and did all the parings exactly as we asked. The chef came out at the end of the evening and we all shook his hand, (he even consented to have his picture taken with us, which was NOT my idea, but very nice of him). My Spanish is sub-par and I didn't speak with him directly, but I'm pretty sure it was Jair Tellez.

            The 8 courses and 8 bottles of wine plus a few tequilas and scotches came to $115 a person, with tip. After wine tasting all day, I was pretty familiar with the wine prices and they were reasonably priced over retail. The wines that were selected for us were much better than most of what we had tasted, so I will always let them do the choosing.

            Our Tecate crossing was a painless 30 minutes (at about 11am) on Sunday morning of Thanksgiving weekend, so we were lucky. As others have said, I would recommend spending the night, as I wouldn't do the road to Tecate at night or with a drop of wine in me. We're definitely going back.

            1. re: fauteuil
              Alice Q Nov 27, 2007 10:08 PM

              Glad to hear that it sounds like it hasn't changed since we were there last year - we're looking forward to a return trip sometime next year as well.

              1. re: Alice Q
                r
                rubydear Nov 7, 2008 03:30 PM

                Six of us went there for lunch on October 24 and it was just as incredible an experience as it was the first time two years ago. The freshness of the food is hard to match - we have been to Chez Paniesse in Berkeley several times and I would definitely say it compares. I think anyone should still give it a try and make your own judgment. All of us were in agreement that it was a wonderful, beautiful and memorable experience.

            2. re: orioninthesky
              dlglidden Nov 8, 2008 01:34 PM

              Four of us ate there a few months ago and had an excellent meal. In the middle of the meal Jair came out of the kitchen and asked us if we were enjoying the food and having a good time. He also comped us a couple of amuse bouches at the end of the meal. He did this for all the customers in the restaurant. And our server was extremely attentive and helpful. It's true that wine prices are higher than they were a year or more ago, but hardly out of line and still a good value--and tell me what isn't higher these days. I find the dining room stylish and charming (especially during daylight hours), but it is "minimalist." I DO keep detailed notes of when we dine in good restaurants and my notes on eating at Laja over the years bring back very pleasant memories. But I certainly don't want to get into a food fight over the "best" restaurants in Baja or all of Mexico. De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est. There are at least a half-dozen very good/excellent restaurants in the Ensenada area that I can recommend. If you don't want to eat at Laja there are excellent alternatives, so don't write off the area.

              And for future eaters/travelers to Baja wine country: orioninthesky is certainly entitled to his/her opinion, but I'm rather certain it's a minority opinion. But eat there and judge for yourself.

            3. r
              Ringo Gato Dec 17, 2007 08:59 PM

              My wife and I have friends who have a ranch near Laja and they told us that their swimming pool perimeter is paved by Laja stones. These are the same stones that make the stairs leading to the restaurant and that cover the patio. So as I understand it, the La and Ja are not people but the name of the local stones used in construction.

              I have eaten at Laja several times over the past three years and have always had great meals with good service. On my last visit, this past summer, Jair, the owner/chef, was being interviewed by a New York City TV crew. I have always been warmly greeted by Andres Blanco. I love its out-in-the-middle-of-now-where feel. It is noisy on most nights, even with a small crowd. Mexican wines are fine but are probably overpriced for the value (compared to Calif wines) and Laja's prices are steep but not out of line. We usually ask Andres to pick the wines for us and we have never been disappointed. I have recommended the restaurant to several friends and none have ever reported anything adverse.

              1. j
                JamesSanders Jan 9, 2008 03:07 PM

                I'm sure this wasn't the intent of the original post, but it gave me a Proustian moment of being back at Laja. Also on a slow Saturday night Just magical One of the best food memories of my life. Probably helped that we arrived without expectations.

                1. bigotes Jan 13, 2008 05:05 AM

                  Just for the record Laura And Jair originally opened Laja La Laura Ja Jair ... so Laja . Also it is a stone used in construction . Jair and Laura are no longer together .
                  But Jair has kept control of the place at all times Andres Blanco is know in charge of the service .
                  I would strongly recomend going back for lunch or early dinner to apreciate the beauty of the valley and their garden. Less is more ,simplicity is a very hard thing to find and understand.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: bigotes
                    redhannah Feb 18, 2008 09:50 PM

                    I agree with the first post - I went last summer and was expecting a fantastic experience but that is not what we got. I went with an executive chef from Europe (I lived in France many years myself). We found the food to be just all right. In fact, it was a bit too salty. This was definitely NOT a memorable meal. To make matters worse, the wait staff was terrible. The hovered around a neighboring table where some young lovelies were seated and hardly gave us a thought, which is not what we expected from the fabulous Laja we had been hearing so much about. Even what appeared to be the chef or one of them came out and did that.

                    The wines, however, were very good and we enjoyed them immensely but we were rather disappointed in the meal and really disappointed in the service. Cost with tip - $250 for two. Nuf said.

                    1. re: bigotes
                      dlglidden Feb 20, 2008 11:46 PM

                      Haven't been to Laja since 2006 when it was one of the best of the new upscale restaurants in the Ensenada area. I completely agree that the best time to eat there is late afternoon while it's still light outside. (And at that time of day the dining room is unlikely to be crowded or noisy.) We thought it was very reasonably priced with good value for both food and wine. We're going back to the area this spring and will re-check Laja and the other 10 or so excellent restaurants there. I can't wait.

                    2. tastelessfruit Aug 17, 2008 01:17 PM

                      As i drove home last night on a dangerous mexican backroad I wondered to myself "who in their right mind would do this for so expensive a bad meal?" and i was thrilled to see echoed here all of my disappointments.
                      Boring Food
                      Bad Service
                      Loud Dining Room
                      Uninspired Decor (both in and out)
                      Outrageous Prices
                      Do yourself a favor and take this off the must see list. With the dining scene as improved as it now is in San Diego no one in their right mind would endure the drive and border crossing to eat slimy pork bellies, tough beef and pitifully grown weeds
                      masquerading as 'sustainably grown vegetables' and surly inattentive help.Pls. someone get these people a decorator, a landscape architect, some fertilizer and a masseur for their cows!

                      8 Replies
                      1. re: tastelessfruit
                        r
                        Ringo Gato Aug 18, 2008 10:44 PM

                        I just returned from Guadalupe Valley, driving Highway 3, the Ruta del Vino. I admit it is an iffy drive at night because of poor lighting, range animals and stray dogs, but it is far from a backroad. Get off of Hwy 3 and hit some of the vinyards on dirt roads and you will find out what backroads really are. (Time to realign my car).

                        Laja is noisy but the setting is quite beautiful. The food is rather expensive (more so the wines) but our meals (five of us, Saturday evening, August 16th) were great. I always bring a couple of bottles of modest California wines for the chef and host and maybe that makes my service better than it is some but I saw a full restaurant of contented diners, Don't forget that at the end of a meal in Mexico, no one will bring you a check (or even bother you much) unless you ask for it. Turning tables is not part of the game, even in some hole-in-the-wall taco places in Tijuana. Take your time.

                        As for the food, the beet and yogert soup was great. The greens and tomatoes were remarkably fresh. The olive oil, for the freshly baked bread, had a subtle hint of lemon. The fish was seared to perfection; moist and full of flavor. The beef was cooked rare and admittedly was not as tender as the obese-meats from feed lot cattle, but range fed beef is usually a little less tender but no less delicious. One of the desserts was a sorbet with three different, tiny scoops and one flavors was carrot and...I forget what it was paird with but it was great. The other dessert, a peach torte, was very good as well.

                        We brought three bottles of our own wines (from a day of wine tasting at local places such as Vinisterra) and were charged $30.00 (total) for corkage for all three. As I mentioned earlier, Laja's wines are expensive but I have never been disappointed by the wines I have purchased there in the past.

                        The accompanying photo is a couple of diners enjoying a glass of wine on the patio behind Laja, in between courses. I can;t think of a restaurant from LA to SD with this kind of view. Maybe something in Los Olivos or Paso Robles....maybe someone else can name something similar.

                        I enjoy the Ensenada and Valle de Guadalupe areas, the wines, people and food. It is not always and easy trip and I wouldn't recommend it to for a day trip (although I have done it from LA). I like the total experience and wouldn't put Laja's food on a par with, let's say, The Watergrill in LA, but it certainly is not street food. (Not to knock street food!).

                        1. re: Ringo Gato
                          r
                          Ringo Gato Aug 19, 2008 07:18 AM

                          My prior post was supposed to have a picture but the file was too large. Let me try attaching a different photo from Laja, this one without people but still the same view from the patio. If this picture doesn't make, I will stick to talking occasionally about food.

                           
                          1. re: Ringo Gato
                            streetgourmetla Aug 19, 2008 08:22 AM

                            Thanks Ringo Gato.A much more reasonable review was in order.

                            The wines in Mexico are expensive right now due to several factors, so it's not that Laja charges excessively for wines, it's the current situation throughout the Valle.LA Cetto is one of the only wineries able to deliver a value wine due to their much higher output.But, drinking the wines of the Valle is an essential part of the experience, so why not, you've already gone this far.

                            For the style of restaurant Laja is, I could save a drive and overall save money going to Lucques and have a better meal, but if you're only driving to Laja for a bargain meal compared to your local haute cuisine then you went to the Valle for the wrong reason.

                            Jair is a great chef, but I would personally go to Silvestre just because I'm so impressed with Benito Molina's approach.For that matter, I would go to Muelle Tres and La Guerrerense in Ensenada for something that you won't find at the Water Grill, and I believe to be superior to the Water Grill, and true Baja cuisines.

                            I'll take my expensive glass of JC Bravo at Muelle Tres, Manzanillo, or Silvestre over a Laja experience any day.

                            It seems that Laja is both overrated and underrated by some here, but you have hit the nail on the head with your review.

                            By the way, La Guerrerense is street food, and rips the Water Grill to shreds.I'd like to see the Water Grill deliver that quality for the $$.For raw seafood, it's hard to beat that place at any price.

                            1. re: streetgourmetla
                              ibstatguy Nov 17, 2008 01:51 PM

                              why is drinking the wines of the Valle an essential part of the experience? While there are wines from the Valle that I have enjoyed, overall they are simply over matched by the wines that I (and others) could bring with me and which aren't over priced. I suppose I should note that a friend is employed by one of the wineries in the Valle so it isn't as though I have overly harsh thoughts about those wineries.

                              1. re: ibstatguy
                                streetgourmetla Nov 17, 2008 08:56 PM

                                Hello ibstatguy.First question I have would be which ones you've enjoyed and which ones haven't you enjoyed?

                                In a place like Laja that does cocina de autor, I would not be so concerned about having specifically Mexican wines, although I probably would in the Valle because that's the way I roll.

                                There are two types of wineries in the Valle, those that are following a European tradition and thoses trying to create a Mexican identity.Baron Balche and Monte Xanic follow the former with European varietals, of which we could both find better versions from Europe or elsewhere.Casa de Piedra, Cavas Valmar,and JC Bravo are examples of wineries striving to make wines that maridaje with Mexican cuisine.Some are even trying to express the original varietal of the Americas, the mission, in blends and 100% offerings.

                                Benito Molina's Manzanilla and Muelle Tres feature these styles of Baja wines, the ones pushing for a Mexican identity.I accompanied him to la escuelita along with Kaire Raisu and watched the chef extraordinaire check out his Zin he has been crafting for Manzanilla.He was thinking of chiles, tomatillos,hoja santa, as well as baja clams, sonoran beef, and queso real del castillo.Hugo D'Acosta makes an incredible house white served only at Manzanilla, that again, Benito chose for its flavors to match his bold cuisine.

                                I've also been going to Baja for the past 8 years, about 30+ times a year, and have found that Baja wines stand up to the complex flavors,chiles, and spices of Mexican gastronomy.The chilangos in D.F. in the finest retaurants would concur, as they are ardent supporters of the newer Baja wines.I've had wines from Europe or Cali with some pretty spicy dishes with chiles arboles, or habaneros at home that just didn't work as well.In the valle, alongside vineyards you have nopales, chiles, tomatillos, etc.I believe terroir would be just as relevant here as it is in Burgundy.I'm surprised at times with even some Baja reds that were not overpowered by chiles picosos.

                                But, blah, blah, blah.Wherever I go, I want to immerse myself in that gastronomy, and feel I'm pretty good at capturing what that means to me, especially en mi tierra.For me it's that house white at Manzanilla, those tostadas de herizo at my favorite seafood stand,a quesataco at La Ermita,carne asada sonorense or steak with nopal and guajillo chile sauce with a Cavas Valmar red, or finishing myself off with one of Benito's hand selected mescales.That's a hairline fracture of my experiences with food and drink in Mexico, which I plan to keep on counting.So, yeah, I find it an essential part.Bringing my own wine to the Valle?Can't think of a thing farther from my sensory destination.Asi es.

                                I can definitely feel you on the BYOB at Laja, where the cuisine is amazing local ingredients cooked by a great chef, but not Mexican food.I wouldn't press the issue there, nor at a place like Sano's, an American style steakhouse in Ensenada.

                                1. re: streetgourmetla
                                  streetgourmetla Nov 18, 2008 10:53 AM

                                  Oh, I'd like to add from a previous discussion which I believe partly inspired the brilliant thread California makes the best Californian wine.Mexico makes the best Mexican wine! Laja, Manzanilla, La Diferencia, Muelle Tres, La Querencia, etc. serve the best Mexican wine.

                                  1. re: streetgourmetla
                                    Eat_Nopal Nov 18, 2008 05:30 PM

                                    I would add that I recently learned alot about pairing Wines with Mexican cuisine by visiting the Robledo (Sonoma Carnero) & Ceja (Napa) vineyards... they asserted that any well made wine with structure, acidity & minerality will pair well with Mexican spice... only the crappy wines fall apart... of which California makes so many of.

                                    The vineyards Street discusses are making a real niche for themselves... sure the wines are expensive relative to Napa... but they are world class and have a place among anyone who enjoys Mexican cuisine. Of course... there are people who are always going to be drawn to crappy California style wines that have completely informed their wine palates... who will always hold everything else to that misinformed paradigm.

                                    1. re: Eat_Nopal
                                      ibstatguy Nov 18, 2008 07:53 PM

                                      Street - applying your "essential" argument leads, inexorably, to a wine/food rule that one can only eat and drink that which has been prepared in a very particular location. I'm all for eating fresh, local ingredients but I just don't see drinking wine from Valle Guadalupe as "essential". That was and is my only point.

                                      EN: not sure what triggered the last sentence of your post regarding CA wines. No where in my post is there anything remotely close to an endorsement of CA wines. Indeed, were one to take a look at my posts elsewhere on Chowhound, you'd find that a significant number of wines that I enjoy do not come from CA.

                                      Best,

                          2. a
                            anitaboen Oct 19, 2008 11:23 AM

                            One of the most fascinating qualities of human beings related to food or any other esthetic, subjective experience is the diversity of responses we all have to those experiences. I find the "starkness" referred to in the previous post one of the most apealling aspects of Laja's ambience. The simplicity of the room allows the beautiful, unpretentious food to be the focal point. The majority of the produce used at the restaurant is grown on the premises, they butcher thier own meat, bake thier own bread, the olive oil, wine and cheese are from local producers. I also find it refreshing that no one comes to my table to say "my name is ......., I'll be your server. It's all a matter of personal taste, and I'm grateful we have so many choices as to how we indulge them.

                            1. a
                              arthurkane Oct 8, 2011 04:46 PM

                              Home-grown vegetables sounded scrumptious - ideal for vegetarians. A friend who is a vegetarian told us that when he ate there -- without having let them know in advance that he was a vegetarian -- and found he could not eat much of the meal because it was meat, yet he was charged the same $610 pesos as a meat-eater. I was they enthralled with the idea of vegetables grown on the spot that I tried further. We called in advance to see if they could accomodate vegetarians. "Sure," they said, and told us that the price for vegetarians was the same because was costly to garden-grow all their own vegetables. They assured us they would prepare a delicious vegetarian meal for the two vegetarians in our group of 6. That sounded great so we made a reservation for 6 PM. When we got there they had us down for 8 instead of 6, even though we'd been assured twice by phone that our reservation was for 6.
                              It turned out that the scrumptious vegetarian meal they gave us instead of the meat course was just a half a cup of risotto which is basically rice - not something they grow in their garden. When we asked if we could have on the side a few of the vegetables that accompanied the meat dishes -- some roasted red peppers and squash, they said they'd have to charge for an extra course-- on top of their already super high price. So I asked for the vegetables instead of the rice, so they took away the rice but all they gave me was a small serving of the Squash. Basically about a half cup of cubed squash fried in oil.

                              Even though their menu is very simple - only two choices for each course, and even though we were the only ones in the restaraunt, and even though they wrote down our choices, they repeatedly got it mixed up and brought us the wrong thing. Then one or two of us would have to wait forever for the right item to be brought out -- while the others finished that course.

                              It was in the midst of a beautiful orchard, but other than that it was a very dissapointing experience -- certainly not worth the money. At least for vegetarians, there was no spectacular dish. Save your money and go to Media Camino instead. While the Half Way House lacks the beautiful view and atmospher of Laja, Chef Johnney is a far better cook. His Traditional Chile en Nogada stuffed pepper dish is amazing - and at a far lower price. And he, too, grows his own herbs. Throughout the Ensedada region there are many much better choices than Laja.

                              Visited October 2011

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: arthurkane
                                DiningDiva Oct 8, 2011 05:51 PM

                                Traditional Chiles en Nogada are made with pork and beef. Vegetarian? I'm confused...

                                1. re: DiningDiva
                                  a
                                  arthurkane Oct 8, 2011 11:20 PM

                                  Chef Johnny at Media Camino makes a great vegetarian version - creamy and delicious, stuffed a creamy cheese curd with dried fruits, onions and walnuts sprinkled with pomegranet seeds. One of the best vegetarian dishes I've had in Baja. The only other place I've ever had that was at Pasqual's in Santa Fe, NM

                                  1. re: arthurkane
                                    DiningDiva Oct 8, 2011 11:47 PM

                                    It sounds delicious. Cheese and chiles are a terrific combination. But it's not traditional Chiles en Nogada

                                2. re: arthurkane
                                  redhannah Oct 8, 2011 06:53 PM

                                  The bottom line is that this restaurant is uneven, with both avid fans and detractors, and that, alone should take it out of any extreme, positive or negative. I think you should have complained right then and there about your meal, especially as you had been told that a special, yummy, vegetarian meal would be prepared for the vegetarians. Someone screwed up at the restaurant, front end or back end.

                                  1. re: redhannah
                                    a
                                    arthurkane Oct 8, 2011 11:32 PM

                                    Since it was a birthday dinner for my wife I didn't want to make a big scene and detract from the celebration. I did step into the kitchen to ask them politely to bring out at least the vegetables they were already making on the side of the meat dishes, but they were quite uncooperative. Tonight we celebrated with another vegetarian friend who has a birthday this week at L'escargot Bistro in Tijuana - and had a fabulous meal. A great salad, crusty bread right out of the horno oven, fire roasted vegetables, a rissoto that was much better than Laja's, drinks and a great desert. When we got the bill we couldn't believe it - less than $20 a person. See my separate review of it.

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