Mexicali & Ensenada Trip Report - Long
Just got back from a quick two days in Mexicali and one in Ensenada. Mostly I ate very well. Unfortunately I was in Mexicali to do some research on the Chinese community there for a book, so two of my meals were at Chinese restaurants. Having lived in Hong Kong for 9 years and having traveled a lot in China and Taiwan, and living in L.A. which has the biggest Chinese community in the world outside of a native Chinese country, I'm pretty fussy about Chinese food. Suffice to say that the food I had in Mexicali was about on par with Chinese food that one can get anywhere in mediocre restaurants that cater to a largely non-Chinese clientele. That said, I'll bet if I showed up with some Chinese friends and we talked our way into the kitchen and could consult with the chef about what we wanted, we'd get something a whole lot better.
Still, on to the Mexican food I had in Mexico. My very favorite taco stand in Los Angeles is Mexicali Tacos & Company. They set up at 1st and Beaudry on the edge of downtown, Wednesday through Saturday nights. They are fantastic and they recommended two asaderos to try in Mexicali. (They are from Mexicali.)
I ate first at Sarita's on Benito Juarez in front of UABC. I had two asada tacos and one al pastor. They were good, but not spectacular. The asada lacked much smoky flavor and was somewhat gristly and tough. The pastor was better, but it wasn't cut directly off the spit - which is the way to go if you ask me - and had been sitting around for a bit waiting to be reheated on the grill. (I was there at around 11pm and it was fairly crowded, so it wasn't that I was there during an off hour.) The selection of salsas and other accompaniments - grilled and pickled jalepenos, grilled green onions, quacamole, cucumbers, etc. were all quite fresh and nicely made, though the salsas lacked a lot of punch and for some reason didn't have much depth of flavor. The tortillas were not particularly fresh. Actually, while writing this I've realized I didn't think their tacos were all that good at all.
I fared far better at their other recommendation - Ocotlan on Cardenas, just to the east of Benito Juarez. There the asada was of higher quality with a much more pronounced char to it. The salsas had more oomph and the array of accompaniments - which were brought to the table - was great. The tortillas tasted fresher, though still not quite as fresh as I would have liked. I also had a chicken vampiro - with a garlic sauce. That was a disappointment. The chicken lacked char and the garlic sauce was meek enough that it really wouldn't scare away any vampires for long. Still, the place was great atmospherically, the sides were fantastic and I will happily return when I am next in Mexicali.
I found my own way to El Nuevo Tecolote on Av. de las Americas, not too far east of Justo Sierra. The smell of grilling beef made me pull my car over. It was very good, almost as good as Ocotlan, and for the same reasons, but the meat was just slightly inferior. They did have one particularly fierce bright red salsa that was my favorite of the three places I went.
That was it for Mexicali. I arrived in Ensenada for a late lunch and went straight to Manzanilla, which I'd read about and wanted to try. It is the restaurant of chef Benito Molina and is quite well known. It was phenomenal, fantastic, superlatives fail me. It was as good as any light, but complex lunch I’ve ever had in a fancy Paris restaurant or places like that. Started with an amuse bouche of really tender squid (I think) in a very light chipotle crème on top of a house made, really strong wheat cracker, sprinkled with just enough sprigs of anise that you could taste them. Then there was an appetizer of baby local abalone that had been lightly doused in local olive oil, a bit of lemon and sea salt and grilled perfectly, served with a roasted tomato salsa that was incredible and little crispy bits of toast made from a homemade bread that was sort of a lightly sourdough wheat. The presentation was also beautiful. Then I had the absolutely best, over the top perfect, grilled yellowtail – super fresh – with a crispy but not burnt skin and moist perfect flesh, served on top of a bed of greens – either collards or mustard, not sure which – that were tender but somehow also a bit crispy, with a chickpea puree and bits of citrusy tasting chayote squash. It was truly one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever had. I had two glasses of a wine called la llave (the key) from the Valle de Guadalupe. It was a white blend of sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and muscatel (oddly) and it was a truly superb white wine. Finished with a perfect espresso. A beautiful place, unbelievably nice people – the chef and the owner both came out to introduce themselves.The bill came to about $37, but in L.A. it would have easily cost at least $65-70 per person. I was simply blown away by it.
For dinner I stuck to the street. I had a fish taco at a place called Tacos Pescado de Ensenada, or something like that. It's on the corner of Juarez and Gastellum and I have the blog StreetGourmetLA www.streetgourmetla.com to thank for the recommendation. It was by far the best fried fish taco I have ever had. I'm not usually that fond of fried fish tacos, but this wasn't greasy at all, was very fresh fish and the array of condiments to put on it - the taco was served simple - a big hunk of fish on a warmed tortilla - was excellent.
Later I had a good, nothing special but good enough for my by then vodka saturated self, puerco adobada taco from a place that I can't recall the location or name of, but it was probably not any better or worse than dozens of other adobada tacos around town.
For breakfast I got lazy and went to the hotel restaurant in the Best Western - across from the Villa Fontana - where I stayed (funky, old, nice bones to it but sort of musty. There's undoubtedly better to be had for the money - $59 per night - in town.) The people who ran my hotel were very nice and helpful though and when I told them I wanted chilaquiles for breakfast they sent me across the street. They had a good variety of chilaquiles and the verdes proved to be quite tasty. I wouldn't make a special trip for them, but I was far happier than I had expected to be.
When you originally posted your inquiry about Chinese restaurants in Mexicali, I thought about replying and describing to you exactly what you would find there. I changed my mind so as not to prejudice you about the style of Chinese cooking in Mexicali--and indeed, in all of Mexico.
It's unfortunately unlikely that talking to the chefs would have gotten you a better meal. Some years ago, a couple of friends and I went to eat at Restaurante Siglo XX in Tijuana and saw that the menu offered the same kinds of dishes you experienced in Mexicali. One of my companions was a first-generation Chinese woman, a fabulous home cook; the two of us often cooked elaborate multi-course Chinese meals together. She said, 'I'm going to talk to the owner.' He spoke no English and she spoke no Spanish, but it turned out that they both spoke a dialect common to one tiny area of China; his family was from one side of a small lake and hers from the other side. They chattered away in their dialect and he agreed to prepare us a meal of off-menu special treats. The food was okay, but not what any of us had hoped for. We all agreed that the meals the two of us normally prepared were far superior to what we had eaten that day at the restaurant.
The Chinese food that you found in Mexicali is pretty much what exists all over the country. The Chinese who arrived at the border back in the mid-to-late 1800s were mainly from Canton, and so brought the Cantonese style of cooking to the whole border area as well as to the interior of Mexico. Over the course of all the years since then, the style and quality of cooking have diminished tremendously with the passing of generations. Now, the 'Chinese' population of Mexico is predominately a Mexican population, albeit with Chinese ancestry.
Cuisine from other provinces is all but unknown here, although I have found ONE really decent restaurant in Mexico City that specializes in Hong Kong and Szechuan-style foods. The owners are actually from Hong Kong and maintain the real traditions of those cuisines. Given the difficulties of finding the necessary ingredients to prepare traditional dishes, there have been some changes, but the food at their restaurant is excellent over all.
A friend of mine describes Mexico's Chinese cooking as 'Canton style'--Canton, Ohio.
I like that "Canton, Ohio" - unfortunately correct I fear. I was amused to find cha siu translated on the menus as carnitas. Not at all the same thing so far as I know, but kind of amusing if nothing else. I did find one Chinese market in Mexicali and it had an okay selection of canned and bottled goods, along with some dried goods. It's selection of fresh produce was very sad, and there was almost no actual Asian produce - not even of the sort that I know is grown by specialty farmers in Northern Mexico and Southern California. I did, however, pretty much get the atmospherics i needed for my book research, so while it was a failure in terms of Chinese food, the trip was a success in other respects.