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May 17, 2009 09:12 PM

The Baja Med Movement:La Querencia, Villa Saverios,Baja Med Pizza Co., and beyond at the frontier of a gastronomic revolution

Currently, there are three culinary movements going on in northern Baja:Baja Med- a fusion of Asian, Mediterranean, and local Mexican influence,Wine Country cuisine from Jair Tellez's Laja focusing on local products of Baja in a cuisine d'auteur fashion, and the evolutionary Mexican cooking of Benito Molina, a Mexico City haute cuisine master armed with the amazing bounty of Baja and pure genious.It's a pretty amazing time to dine in Baja. It's not often that you can witness a culinary new movement in action, let alone three.

Baja Med is a creation of La Querencia chef Miguel Angel Guerrero, but the roots of this movement are penetrating. The first plantings of wine grapes by Jesuits in 1791, the establishment of Santo Tomas winery in 1888, and the arrival of the Molokanes(Russian immigrants, pacifists fleeing the Czar)in 1904, who expanded the wine grape planting in the Valle de Guadalupe.Italians, French, and Swiss immigrants have flocked to the Valle de Guadalupe over the years bringing their wine heritages in tow. The 80's brought boutique wineries, and Hugo D'Acosta's Casa de Piedra and wine school have raised the bar and technique for quality wine and excellent wine makers.

Many dishes in the genre were already forming, Alex Cardini's Caesar salad in 1924, the emergence of Puerto Nuevo style lobster devoured by hungry tourists, and the chorizo de ablulon from the Isla de Cedros, abalone was preserved in chorizo so they wouldn't spoil waiting for the merchants to show up to the island.Ensenada's famous fish taco was born out of Japanese tempura techique brought by Japanese fishermen, a precursor to the strong Asian influence in Baja Med.The treaure of seafood, wild game,produce, cheese from Real del Castillo, olives and olive oils,and wine have also formed the various culinary movements in Baja California.

At Baja Med Pizza Co. in Tijuana, affiliated with La Querencia, a new Mexican identity is being formed in pizza making.An original thin crust topped with a pure of black beans. Toppings include the mouthwatering chorizo de abulon, locally raised lamb, and machaca of marlin.Armando Medrano, the owner, will pair some of his excellent selection of Baja wines with your pizza of exotic toppings.Seeing his young line cooks, frsh from culinary school is comforting.Many of the top restauranteurs have young aspiring cooks that promise a future for Baja Med cooking.

Other restaurants continue to surface in the Baja Med idiom throughout the peninsula.The ill-fated Baja Kuche, which roared coming out the gates, died with a whimper, the young chef presented stylized food with no flavor or substance. But seeing the wonderful menu at the time we were there was inspiring. There are others that are showing promise and it seems like new ones are popping up here and there.Palmuzul was another amazing concept, a restaurant that featured Baja cuisine from Tijuana to Cabo. I went there about a half dozen times, from the start it was executing all its dishes so well, but then the menu shrank, and so did the quality.They lasted maybe a year.In time, La Querencia and others will yield some other breakaway operations as the young chefs become more confident.

Years ago, Villa Saverios featured a more Mediterranean and Italian menu, one of the best restaurants in Baja by chef and restauranteur, Javier Placensia.But, the moevement is infectious. Over the years the menu changed to reflect Baja Med dishes and sensibilities. They used to seve Baja quail, an iconic dish from the region, and their version had the feel of the street grill with a haute edge to it.You can have a degustation of local shellfish prepared in a variety of ways.Baja scallops, oysters, abalone, or the prized chocolata clams. Order the local Real del Castillo cheese selection to have with a bottle of wine from El Valle de Guadalupe.The other day we tried the chile relleno stuffed with pasta in four cheeses with a huitlacoche emulsion and a traditionally styled tomato sauce. A beautiful representation of the Baja Med imagination.The ccoking at Villa Saverios is stellar. To highlight the Asian touch, a tartar of bluefin tuna with ponzu in a jalapeno and sea urchin sauce, heavenly. How about a quail and duck pate made with Mexican port wine? The grilled baby octopus, the lamb shank tacos.

Camarones rellenos al "Romesco", stuffed bacon wrapped shrimp with machaca de marlin alongside vegetables grown in Baja(La Querencia)

Miguel Angel Guerrero, the man who invented the term Baja Med, is the movements heavy weight champion. A hunter, and chef, realizes this fabulous cuisine at his La Querencia in Tijuana, and EL Aljibe in La Paz.His cuisine screams of terroir. Local game, local catch, and the influences of mediterranean and asian immigrants. Unlike California cuisine which also emphasizes Mediterranean influences and local ingredients, Baja Med has dishes and ingredients that are entirely unique to its region. To this day I can't yell out a California cuisine dish eventhough I've been to the restaurants and looked through a few cookbooks. But hijole, chorizo de abulon on a sope, forget about it. that's Baja Med.Duck tacos, Miguel Angel's sashimi Querencia of callos with its Asian flavors,venison tacos, manta ray sopes,or the local farmed steak in Valle de Guadalupe olive oil and blue cheese made in Baja.

One evening consisted of a special clam au gratin on a bed o sea salt, and the stuffed bacon wrapped shrimp covered in a long thin tube of machaca de marlin, accompanied by fresh grilled vegetables with some Asian flavors thrown in.Dark and rich flavors, brilliantly paired. The marinated duck tacos and chorizo de abulon tacos are served in an original tortilla, thin and toasted. Were not just changing the tires here, this is a culinary overhaul from top to bottom.

With his El Aljibe in La Paz, Miguel Angel covers Baja on two fronts in his campaign to spread the word about Baja Med. La Querencia is a must for the Baja traveler.

Other restaurants have there Baja Med touches, all of them do a Caesar's salad. La Diferencia has an octopus dish that leans Baja Med.All restaurants doing Baja Med and alta cocina in Tijuana's gastronomic zone feature Baja wines

From the vineyards and farms, to the innovative chefs, Baja Med continues to grow and develop its vocabulary. It's real and it is here to stay, the culinary schools are prepping the next generation, and the kitchens of Baja Med restaurants are training the young talented recruits.The Valle de Guadalupe and baja peninsula have found a worthy cuisine to express its diversity and iconoclast character.

Baja Med Pizza Co.
Gobernador Lugo #9531
Col. Dávila
Ph. (01152) (664) 684-0597

La Querencia
Escuadrón 201 #3110
Col. Aviación
Ph. (01152) (664) 972-9935 & 972-9940

Villa Saverios
201 Escuadron
Colonia Aviación
Zona Río
Ph.(664) 686-6442
Fax.(664) 686-6502 ext.102

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  1. SG:A.,

    Beautifully written essay and all so true. We have been big fans of Miguel Angel for maybe seven years, when he opened La Querencia on his family's property in Rosarito (now that place is his prep kitchen and catering set up spot).

    Hubby has dined at Saveriios and tells me that the food is very, very good, but I haven't had the pleasure of visiting yet. IIRC, I believe I read on the SD Reader that a member of the Saverios family has opened an Baja Med cuisine restaurant in San Diego. (But, given the choice, I would prefer to go to the source in TJ, first.) :>)

    6 Replies
    1. re: Gypsy Jan

      Hello Gypsy Jan.I never went when it was in Rosarito.My first time was shortly after it opened in Tijuana.The place in the San Diego area is Romesco, I believe.

      The food at Villa Saverios is outstanding, and being a fan of Miguel Angel and a local, the Baja Med items on Villa Saverios' menu will scream out to you!!

      How about the Baja Med Pizza Co.? Gotta go there.

      1. re: streetgourmetla

        (hand raised) Me too, please!

        BTW, I cut and pasted your essay to a Baja forum, with what is I hope your permission. I gave you full credit (can't list the .com address because the CH police have deleted my referrals before).

        1. re: Gypsy Jan

          No problem at all, and thanks for the credit:)

          I never have much luck in Rosarito.I remember a nice wine bar with Baja wines the last time I was there, near the entrance of town on the north end. Any Baja Med restaurants or menu itmes in Rosarito, in restaurants, wine bars , or hotels.I know Rincon San Ramon is nearby, but he is international, and doesn't really have any Baja Med.But, that guava margarita,uuuffff!

          1. re: streetgourmetla

            In Rosarito, Tacos Manuel is kiind of a mini-chain, they have three locations that I know of, but the mid-town one (the one that the furthest away from both the north and south freeway exits) is the one we like best, and it gets slammed with business when school lets out and parents and kids are looking for a quick bite. Carne Asada, Adobada, and the various offal parts that I am too chicken to try (tripa, suadero, etc.).

            Fish Tacos - hands down, JR's taco just south of the Pemex station that is near the Rosarito Beach Hotel. On the free road, maybe a quarter mile past Rene's, on your right. We know the family, the quality of the food is always top notch. Fried or grilled fish, shrimp tacos, also quesarones, aguachile and cocteles.

            Farther south, -

            in Cantamar/Primo Tapia, there is Tacos Cantam at the Pemex station. The family also owns a restaurant in Puerto Nuevo. They offer great fish and shrimp tacos, along with carne asada, cahuamata (fish soup). There always are locals hanging out at the picnic tables, eating or playing card games.

            A little bit farther south in Primo Tapia is Tacos Mi Puebla (in a building, not a shack).on the ocean side of the road (look for the backhoes and dump trucks waiting to be hired), open 24/7, even on Christmas Eve.

            Across the street is Mariscos Alegria. Fish tacos (bigger and with more breading than most). shrimp tacos (fried in butter or breaded), cocteles (shrimp, oyster, calamari, clams, pata negra), fish soup and, carne asada.

            We have been eating great food at all these places for years. The clientele is mostly locals, visiting surfers and ATV'rs

            1. re: Gypsy Jan

              I really liked Vincent's the one time I was there years ago.But, just wondered if Baja Med showed up in Rosarito. It's down in La Paz and Cabo, not in Loreto or Mulege.

              1. re: streetgourmetla

                Well no, not really. CANIRAC (the restaurant association) has several events to showcase lobster, tacos, etc. Miguel Angel opened a Baja Med across from the Palacio Municipal in Rosarito. The decor was striking and the quality of the food and the execution was up to the standards of La Querencia in TJ, but I think the price point was too high for the local professionals. It closed several months ago and I still have a hand-written coupon from them promising me a free scallop sashimi because they forgot the order, but charged us for it, then when notified, adjusted the bill.

    2. SGLA.

      If you want to amuse/infuriate yourself, go take a look at my cut-and-paste of your essay on bajanomad(cough)com.

      There is a furious argument going on about the meaning/definition of Baja Med.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Gypsy Jan

        Haha, amusing, for sure. Have at it folks.:)

      2. Great info on what is happenig in Baja. I Appologize for being a purist , it would be interesting to see more regional Mexican food over there. Baja does not have a long standing, Mexican culinary tradition, but they can always borrow these kind of recipes from other areas (Oaxaca, Veracruz, Yucatán, Tabasco, Michoacán, Jalisco, Puebla)
        San Jose del Cabo has two restaurants that are doing a decent effort for "real" quality, upscale Mexican food with a twist (no fusion) El Chilar and Don Emiliano
        Kudos to them for being proud of their heritage.
        Try them next time , when in Los cabos

        16 Replies
        1. re: mambooster7

          That' sort of the point, Baja, in addition to these new movements does have a regional Mexican cuisine.Regional cuisine is but a mere snapshot in time of what is happening now and what influences have brought the food there. No regions of Mexico have remained completely unchanged and undulterated.

          The traditions of Oaxaca, Puebla, Vera Cruz, and Yucatan are well established through their celebrated dishes, but many of those plates are a result of a conglomerationof influences and changing tastes over time.These places have all evolved tremendously.But outside the cooking tours and celebrity chefs that celebrate these areas, there are even many more foods that aren't even talked about. Tabasco's traditions aren't as well known in the US.While Jalisco is a treasure of the most familiar of Mexican foods, and goes deep in its rural cooking, Tijuana and Ensenada are much more interesting on the high end, with places like Manzanilla and more on the edge. The seafood in Baja is superior to many of the places you are talking about.

          But, Baja doesn't need to borrow from anywhere, just a look around will yield wonders. Places like Manzanilla, Muelle Tres, Tacos Salceados, La Guerrerense, La Diferencia, La Querencia, Mariscos El Mazateno, Silvestre, and so many more are 100% Mexican and have there place at the table of these fine cuisines. After D.F., Puebla, Yucatan, Vera Cruz, and the seafood of Sinaloa, Tijuana and Ensenada offer tremendous haute and street experiences in respect to big city dining. Jalisco for traditional cooking, and the unsung cuisines of Tabasco, Chiapas, and Tampico.

          But, none of these places are fusion restaurants, they are in a genre and reflective of the local style,migrations, and immigrations. I won't go to Cabo unless someone pays me, since I play music this may happen, but I'll take your word for it until then:)

          I would probably be accused of being a purist too, so no apologies necessary, and I say all this with respect towards a fellow lover of Mexican cuisine.Check out Baja norte when you get a chance.

          1. re: streetgourmetla

            ok you have made your point...I will do so when in northern Baja.
            By the way Tampico is the name of a city in the state of Tamaulipas.

            1. re: mambooster7

              I was referring to the seafood specific to Tampico, I've only been in northern Tam.,but really am intrigued by Tampico's seafood possibilities. Hope you get there soon, to Baja.Saludos.

            2. re: streetgourmetla

              I concur and let me add that I give Baja a lot more latitude than Southern Mexico with respect to fusion & innovation. The biggest story in Southern Mexico is:

              > 6,000+ year of an awesome agricultural tradition (some of the world's greatest foods / ingredients are the product of agricultural genius in the Southern 1/3 of the country... corn, beans, squash, chocolate, vanilla, chiles, peanuts etc.,)

              > 3,500+ year tradition of Advanced Civilizations (you guys realize that December 21, 2012 marks the completion of a 26,000 year astronomic cycle known to the Mayans but only recently thought about by modern Astronomy)

              > Southern Mexico is one of THE very most ecologically & linguistically diverse areas of the world. (Mexico is considered among the 4 most bio diverse countries... and much of this is concentrated in the southern half)

              So what happens when you take 3,500 years of Advanced Civilizations, Palace cuisines, a storied Agricultural tradition, incredible bio diversity in addition to food traditions that were among the most important traditions in the society... alot of freaking amazing dishes that are unknown outside of Mexico (hell outside of their municipalities they are unknown)... the stuff we get reported by Diana Kennedy and CONACULTA is all great but just a tip of the ice berg.

              With that said... the big story in Baja is:

              > Northern, lightly populated Frontier
              > Home to late 19th century / early 20th century immigration of Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Spaniards, Russians
              > Home to large & significant immigration of Oaxacan Mixtecs in the second half the 20th century
              > Home to the oldest continously operating wineries, olive groves & aquaculture in the Western Hemisphere
              > Possibly the world's greatest depth & breadth of seafood

              Take all those things together and it should be NO surprise to sit down to a plate of Smoked Abulone Ravioli sauced with Mole Negro et al.... Fusion defines Baja.

              1. re: Eat_Nopal

                Beautiful contribution. That's it. What is celebrated misses the true depth and what is ignored misses everything. Mexico is deep from top to bottom. I can't think of a region that doesn't have amazing food, and doesn't preserve its traditions.Get out of the the books and schools, and get on the buses and streets huevones! Check out the pueblos, ejidos, puestos, paraderos,etc.

                In Baja, to the plate you can see the influences of the groups EN mentioned, but it's all Mexican.

                1. re: streetgourmetla

                  Ha, Ha, SGLA

                  I wonder how many readers of this post know what the meaning of huevon is? ;>)

                2. re: Eat_Nopal

                  Thanks Nopal, you got my point...saludos

                  1. re: mambooster7

                    I should note though that Baja does have an indigenous cuisine... unfortunately it is largely disregarded just like its cousins in the U.S.

                    1. re: Eat_Nopal

                      The Kumiai people have a colonia near the L.A. Cetto winery, but there food isn't featured anywhere.They've lost a lot of their culture do to the many immigrations and lack of support.

                      The game featured in La Querencia hunted locally is reflective of indigenous traditions, along with the seafood.'

                      1. re: streetgourmetla

                        I wish that some of their produce, herbs & traditions would find their way in to Baja's best restaurants. I am intrigued to learn how they use bellotas (acorns) as I don't think I have ever seen it documented anywhere.

                  2. re: Eat_Nopal

                    Bravo, EN and thanks for the depth and breadth of your summary.

                    P.S. Just a reminder, there is French influence on Mexico's cuisine stemming from the short, unhappy and ultimately unfortunate reign of Emperor Maximilian (one of our dogs is named after him).

                    1. re: Gypsy Jan

                      Actually.... Maximilian / Napoleon the 3rd's influence on Mexican cuisine is WAY overstated. The French started immigrating to Mexico (and if you go hunting around Mexico you will easily find many people like my friend Pepe Michel & the various Jacquez clans in Jalisco) in the 1820's... particularly from the Barcelonette Valley. In fact, immigrants from that poor region of France went on to use their contacts in Manchester to corner the Mexican haute clothing market away from the Germans.... making a killing in the process and going on to deeply influence Mexico by opening the first breweries & other business (in fact Barcel and the cute little squirrel as in the snack foods giant is derived from Barcelonette).

                      So the brief skirmish between Mexico & France known as the Pastry Wars involved 1820's French pastry chefs etc., and this is just indicative of the constant flow of French immigrants to Mexico (encouraged by the Francophilic elites who actively looked to France as an alternative to Spanish domination).

                      As a result of this deeper influence you find much more entrenched French influences throughout Mexico... from Jericallas in Jalisco, to Sparkling Wines in Queretaro, to Cream Puffs in Chiapas, to Chevres in Veracruz to Mussels in Baja, to Crepes in Mexico State.... the French have brought many traditions that slowly but firmly seeped into mainstream Mexican culture in a way that simply being under French imperial rule for a few years could never have accomplished.

                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                        Ahh, but what about the baking tradition? The croissants (can't think of the Mexican name)l. etc?

                        1. re: Gypsy Jan

                          Absolutely.... well I should be precise... there are two & half bakery traditions. The first is the Spanish (we shouldn't forget that the French baking tradition is actually an amalgamation of Italian, Spanish, Greek & Austrian baking traditions... taking to another level in France. But first their was a Spanish influenced tradition which is always overlooked.... the half is the Sephardic Jewish tradition which does give Mexican baking a very different approach than you will find in either French or Spanish today... and then of course the French tradition which predates Maximilian with these varios pre 1850's waves of French immigrants.

                        2. re: Eat_Nopal

                          Also, the pastry traditions found at La Diferencia and La Querencia, the "Thousand Layered Cake" (both of which are outstanding to my taste. and I, as Whoopi Goldberg stated recently on "The View", I am not a "sugar person".

                          Elegant, balanced and light - just like the mille fleurs I have enjoyed in France.

                          1. re: Gypsy Jan

                            Yikes, never try to post in French after an eighteen-hour day. Correction - "mille feuille".

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