The northern area of Baja California, Mexico, used to have a lot of “world’s most…” associations tied to Tijuana. Whether it was the world’s busiest land border crossing or, at times, the world’s most dangerous city, the rest of this bountiful, beachy region an hour’s drive from San Diego was eclipsed. But now, due to a burgeoning creative and culinary scene that proudly draws from Mexico’s regional history, raw materials and endemic ingredients— not to mention endless coast (and fish taco) access and a real-deal wine region— Baja is one of the places we’re most eager to explore. (And not just because we can still get into the country.)
Whether spending a long weekend or tucking into glamping life, Baja’s northern region has some serious superpowers. The main cities of Tijuana and Ensenada have seen a creative boom, while over 80 percent of Mexican wine is produced in the rich soils found in the Valle de Guadalupe region a few miles inland. Or if you just want to stay in your palapa drinking local craft beer, that’s fine, too. Clearly, (just) south of the border is the place to be.
Here’s what to look for:
A 20-minute drive inland from Ensenada’s city center, Valle de Guadalupe’s breezy, Mediterranean-like climate makes it a natural home for vineyards. Its centuries-old olive-green trees, rosemary and lavender bushes and winding routes evoke Napa, but cult-cab tourists might balk at the rugged dirt roads and rustic vibe — not to mention that each of these one-of-a-kind wineries feels like a discovery, not another point on a tasting tour. Wineries to visit include Casa de Piedra (the flagship winery founded by the father of modern Mexican winemaking, Hugo d’Acosta), Vena Cava, Mogor-Badan, Bruma, Vinos Lechuza, whose chardonnay has made appearances on the list at the French Laundry, and many more. Few of these wines are exported, so enjoy them while you can— or try to bring some back.
Located between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortéz, the region is known for its exceptional productivity in terms of agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries. The port of Ensenada is one of the most important in all of Mexico: It’s said that the best restaurants in Mexico City, including Contramar and Pujol, have their fish flown in daily from here. The main market is the bustling black market, known locally as Mercado Negro, located along the port, which earned its name back in the late 50’s when they began to sell illegal species like lobster and abalone that were supposed to be reserved for fishing cooperatives.
After walking the stalls of mackerel, bonito and smoked fish, head over to Tacos Lily or Tacos el Fénix for a genuine Baja fish taco or three. To taste raw seafood at its finest, make your way to the iconic street cart, La Guerrerense, for a seafood tostada (pro tip: add raw scallops and avocado to whichever tostada you order!). We also especially love Muelle 3, a restaurant overlooking the port where you can also sip locally made craft beers. If you’re hungry while driving from Tijuana to Ensenada, you can stop at Sandra’s in Puerto Nuevo, famous amongst locals for its lobster preparations. (Hint: it’s fried in lard and served alongside homemade flour tortillas, melted butter, rice and beans.)
Given its recent international appeal, Valle de Guadalupe is turning heads with its design-forward wineries and boutique-style properties. One of the most renowned architects and designers in the area is Alejandro D’Acosta, who specializes in sustainable and regenerative design, implementing recycled materials and endemic stones in many of his projects. Wineries Clos De Tres Cantos and Vena Cava best reflect his style and approach.
Check out the design at hotels like Encuentro Guadalupe, Bruma and Campera. One of the area’s newest restaurants, Lunario, which was designed by Tijuana-based interior design firm, Casa Duhagón, has also received recent recognition from design folks.
In the last decade or two, young Mexican chefs have stopped either running away to Europe or tailoring their menus to tourists. These days, they’re working with the stellar, hyperlocal produce that surrounds them (usually from their own organic farms, especially at the wineries) and cooking it with deep respect for regional Mexican traditions. For this we have to acknowledge a few visionaries — including Javier González, who opened Tijuana’s first Culinary Art School, and Hugo D’Acosta, who opened La Escuelita in Valle de Guadalupe — who were instrumental in keeping Mexican chefs and vintners within the region, but also providing aspiring chefs and winemakers with the knowledge, tools and techniques needed to produce food and wine of the highest quality. They inspired and empowered others to respect the local land and water.
Today, dishes are served which are authentically of the place — in this case, rustic and unpretentious, highlighting the high-quality local ingredients, which are often cooked simply over flames or in a caja china and served with corn tortillas and fresh salsas. In fall and winter, diners cozily gather around outdoor fireplaces, wrapped in blankets under lovely lighting — and endless stars. Some of the restaurants that best capture this approach include: Deckman’s en el Mogor, Animalón, Fauna, and Jair Téllez’s Laja (the first destination restaurant in the area).
Declared the largest binational conurbation shared between the United States and Mexico by NASA, the Tijuana-San Diego border is also the busiest and most-transited land border in the world, with over 90 million people crossing on a yearly basis. Thus, the northwestern border of Mexico is a mosaic of eccentricities, not to mention a place where ecosystems, cultures, and innumerable cooking styles converge.The proximity to the United States has placed Tijuana in a strategic position as a ciudad de paso, or a city to pass through, granting the emergent Mexican city and its surrounding areas with an eclectic and multicultural demographic comprised of migrant workers coming from diverse regions throughout Mexico, in addition to Asian immigrants, Latin Americans, Middle Easterners — and, in recent years, a wave of Haitian refugees and Central American asylum seekers. It all leads to a city which reflects such richness in cultures through its vibrant art, music, design and food scenes. (It’s even expanded upon the craft beer scene of San Diego, if cult microbreweries are your thing.) Young locals stopped catering to tourists and began looking inward, respecting their country’s raw materials and local talents. The result? A unique and flourishing, highly experimental scene that is unlike anything else you’ll find in Mexico.
Mexico City-born Laila Said earned her Masters degree at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in northern Italy and is fluent in Spanish, Italian and French. Previous to becoming PRIOR’s travel designer, she dedicated her time to exploring global culinary cultures and hosted tours throughout Baja California. She is currently based in Los Angeles.