The Top 10 Restaurants in Northern Baja
The Top 10 Restaurants in Northern Baja California
It’s no secret that the food and wine scene in Baja California has exploded in the last few years — gourmands the world over have lavished praise on the sleek, traditionally inspired yet innovation-bent gastronomy that flourishes from cosmopolitan Tijuana to the edenic Valle de Guadalupe, with stops in seafood capital Ensenada and laconic ranchero hub Tecate. And we haven’t even explored Mexicali, the boisterous capital of Baja California Norte that harbors, in addition to many other culinary charms, a robust Chinese food culture.
Despite this heightened profile, the humble spirit of Baja cuisine continues unabated in street side taco stands and fresh ceviche carts all throughout the peninsula. Amidst the simmering cauldron of political tensions with their vecino al norte, Baja California chefs and vintners continue to ladle out their culinary magic as a vehicle for binational cooperation and diplomacy.
We invite you to weigh in on our judgement, and are extremely optimistic that we will have a broader Northern Baja California food and beverage pool to draw from the next time we take a crack at a Top 10 List —
10. Parque Telefonica is a collection of food trucks rather than a traditional restaurant, but it’s a great place to start for someone who’s unfamiliar with the recent gastronomic developments down here.
Non-traditional foods like ramen, ribeye, and pork filled bacon jam sandwiches pair gracefully with more conventional Mexican fare like dorado tacos and menudo — the wisest thing to do is to hedge your bets and try a little of everything — there’s also an abundance of local craft beer on tap here, so treat yourself to an afternoon enjoying the many gustatory and atmospheric charms of Parque Telefonica.
9. Next up, we have Deckman’s — This regional standout is helmed by Michelin starred Drew Deckman, who flawlessly executes the novel concept of bringing the table to the farm — soft shell crab, rabbit, quail, lamb and fat juicy steaks are all sourced from the property or nearby waters, then prepared over an open flame in an alfresco kitchen surrounded by Eucalyptus and Pine trees — and of course the endless stretch of grape vines that produce the fabled Guadalupe Valley wine. If you only have one dining experience in the Valle, you’d be hard-pressed to outdo Deckman’s.
8. La Guerrerense — Heading towards downtown Ensenada, we’ll touch down at La Guerrerense. This cart is a sanctuary of fresh local seafood, with offerings like razor clam tostadas, sea snail ceviche, and shrimp cocktails — Though the proprietor has been dishing out the good stuff for decades right here across the street from the Ensenada Malecon, the late great Anthony Bourdain put it on the map for many of us international foodies. To get seafood any fresher than this, you’d need a table on the Titanic.
7. La Cava de Marcelo — We head south on the highway 3 to the verdant splendor of the Ojos Negro Valley — here, nestled among dairy farms and century old haciendas, we find the only cheese cave in Latin America. La Cava de Marcelo offers a tasting of their remarkable aged cheeses for $7 dollars a person, but there’s a lot more on offer in this agrarian paradise — like locally made wine, sangrias, and these divine ricotta truffles coated in chocolate. The ranchero vibe in these parts is strong, and if it’s authenticity and uniqueness you’re looking for — in addition to some ridiculously good cheese and wine, this is an essential rite of passage on the Baja California culinary journey.
6. Tacos El Franc — What Baja top 10 culinary list would be complete without an authentic Tijuana taqueria — The adobada tacos here are second to none in the city, and you know they mean business when you see the line of Tijuanense that wraps around the block on Saturday afternoons. I was first introduced to this place by my friend, fellow foodie, and dentist (what a trifecta!), a Tijuana local named Marco — In fact, I can attribute several of the places on this list directly to Marco’s willingness to drive me around Baja exploring the food and wine boom resonating through the peninsula. Gracias amigo! I’ll be down soon for another cleaning and some tacos at Franc’s after!
5. Malinalli — A recent contender to enter the scene is Malinalli, which operates out of the sleepy border town ranch hamlet of Tecate. Tecate is famous for the namesake beer brewed here, but a growing movement of forward-thinking chef’s with historical appreciation has pitted it as a respectable force in the region. Malinalli is a mission-driven enterprise that actively rescues the lost art of indigenous Kumeyaay cooking and culinary craftsmanship.
At the heart of the magic here is Alicia Leon, femme de cuisine who charts the course of Malinalli through the ancient process of Nixtamilazation — This arcane and jeopardy-worthy term refers to the process of priming and preparing corn — something that no one in the region does more effectively or in greater diversity than Leon does — one look at the cornucopia of kernel variety that she incorporates into the dishes here will convince you that indigenous culinary genius is alive and ready to take it’s rightful place amidst the pantheon of celebrated foods around the world. This restaurant is a buffet, and many of the dishes will seem familiar yet more nuanced and transformed — an example of this are the phenomenal blue corn tortilla quesadillas, which are the best quesadillas I’ve had anywhere — and the sage water, a delightful surprise that I couldn’t get enough of.
4. Casa Plascencia — For a touch of class and some damn good chophouse fare, look no further than Casa Plascencia. We were treated to dinner here as members of a wedding party and had one of the most spirited, well-rounded, and downright delicious dining experiences of our lives. The restaurant pays homage to the traditional sport of bullfighting, and has a plethora of old-world charm to flesh out the steak and seafood heavy menu.
3. Doña Estela — For the best breakfast anywhere, and I do mean anywhere, swing by Doña Estela in the Guadalupe Valley — This spot has ascended to the apex of culinary legend, yet remains rooted in simple traditions and committed to craftsmanship — it’s as if Doña Estella would continue on in thee same fashion ladling out cafe de ola while serving up Borrego Tatemado, fire roasted lamb served with a saucer of it’s own juices, and magnificent quest fresco even if the crowds up and left tomorrow — which, judging by the 2 hour wait on weekends, is not going to happen anytime soon.
2. Mision 19 — Moving on up, the tasting menu and mis en scene of Mision 19 are a gourmand’s version of the pleasure dome in Xanadu. This fine dining experience is at the vanguard of Baja’s transformation from street food and cheap beer to international gastronomy heavyweight — and at the center of it all stands the kingpin of Baja cuisine, chef Javier Plascencia. Plascencia is responsible for a number of my favorite restaurants on either side of the border — I am also a huge fan of Romesco’s, a Baja-Mediterranean fusion experience in Bonita, San Diego, and also tremendously enjoyed Little Italy’s Bracero when it was around.
The highlight of my experience here was definitely the Picanha, which is a prime cut of steak given the chef’s royal treatment i terms of fixings and garnishes, and also the lamb crepe tacos, which played upon Korean inspiration while maintaining a distinctly Mexican spirit. As in many cases throughout Northern Baja, the plating and presentation of the food here is pure art — some of the dishes on the tasting menu came so thoughtfully arranged and balanced with color and texture, that I could hardly bring myself to take a bite. However, I’m very glad I managed to overcome this visual intoxication.
Caesar’s — Rounding out our top 10 list is perhaps the most iconic fine dining experience in Tijuana, the venerable Caesar’s. The historical photos and authentic prohibition era vibe of Caesar’s command an air of respect and class, not unlike the namesake of the famous salad that was pioneered here. Depending on which version of the story you believe, the Caesar salad was whipped up on a whim with leftover ingredients to accommodate a visiting dignitary. The ruse worked so well that today, nearly 100 years later, Caesar salad’s are a staple on menus the world over.