As recently as 2012, Baja California Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe wine region was a relatively unknown part of the world to many travelers and food aficionados. With its breezy climate, bountiful wine, and locally-inspired cuisine, it was a treasured coastal respite for Mexican nationals and, just a 90 minute drive from San Diego, a secret getaway for southern Californians in the know. Over the past five years, however, the sleepy town, which sits about 30 miles inland from Baja’s port city of Ensenada, has become a bonafide tourist destination. Travel media have hailed the region as a place of gastronomic and atmospheric perfection and coupled with a push by winemakers into the U.S. market, the idyllic spot is firmly marked on Mexico’s must-visit map. Boasting just one traffic light, Valle de Guadalupe has tried to retain its under-the-radar charm, but it’s hard when it’s attractive on so many levels. Restaurants, once sparse, are now opening with frequency, favoring campestre-style, outdoor dining rooms, with a focus on seasonal local produce and fresh Pacific seafood. Swanky boutique hotels are springing up to keep visitors sleeping soundly. And, ahem, it’s Mexico. These days, Valle de Guadalupe is about way more than just wine.
Summer in Valle de Guadalupe is the region’s busiest time with August celebrating the harvest during the Fiestas de la Vendemia, a month-long series of galas, paired tasting dinners, and wine events. What better time to offer up our essential Eat List for Valle de Guadalupe and Ensenada, featuring classic spots to indulge all the region has to offer? And if you want a definitive list to guide you through the wineries, look no further than our Drink List: Valle de Guadalupe. (Disclosure: In addition to my role as co-founder of New Worlder, I also founded culinary events brand Meets NYC, which launched Baja Meets NYC in 2014.)
Valle de Guadalupe
One of the younger chefs in the region is Roberto Alcocer who helms the kitchen of Mina Penélope winery’s restaurant Malva which opened in 2013. An open-air spot with a thatched roof, graffiti-scrawled feature wall, and a view of the Valle that’s hard to beat, Alcocer is fastidious about both his dishes and his ingredients. He’s proud of his on-site garden, makes much of his own dairy (cheese, butter, ice cream), and raises his own animals which are beautifully showcased in his 10-course tasting menu (though a la carte is available and equally encouraged). Alcocer’s menus are one-of-a-kind, constantly changing, and through them, he elevates local ingredient to art form. Oysters in various presentations are a good way to start, followed by whimsical dishes such as sea urchin croquetas. Lovingly prepared meats are a standout, most notably the lamb, which is slow-roasted for over 14 hours. As one of the Valle spots where it’s very easy to linger for hours, plan accordingly. malvarestaurante.com.
Corazón de Tierra
The most difficult reservation to nab in Valle, Corazón de Tierra opened in 2011, just before the restaurant boom took hold. Known as the regional star with a #39 ranking on Latin America’s 50 Best List, Diego Hernández Baquedano’s casual, warm fine dining spot is set among boutique inn La Villa del Valle’s gardens — which provide much of the produce for the restaurant. Showcasing modern interpretations of traditional Mexican flavors and techniques, Ensenada native Hernández learned his craft from Mexico’s greats including Benito Molina, Guillermo Gonzalez Beristain and Enrique Olvera. He’s a fierce proponent of organic, sustainable and local cooking, and herbs, fruits, and vegetables, olive oils and honey, as well as some proteins are sourced on-site and used in the daily-changing six-course menu that consists of light seafood dishes, lush salads, hearty meats, and fragrant desserts. If the tamal (with red and yellow moles) is on the menu, you’re one lucky diner. For $75 (wine pairing for $45), this is one of the best tasting menu deals on the planet. corazondetierra.com.
Following the success of Corazón de Tierra, it made sense to add a more casual spot to the Valle’s mix; guests who reveled in Diego Hernández’ cooking were sometimes in the mood for something much less fussy. Enter Troika in 2012, a food truck that permanently rests on the Villa del Valle property. With offerings like octopus tostadas, shrimp tacos and pork sliders paired with a glass of corresponding Vena Cava winery’s white or red (or one of the many excellent, regional craft brews), the street food simplicity here can’t be beat. On weekends, pigs or lambs are often spit-skewered and cooked open-air, making a day in the Valle a little bit more exciting. Facebook Page.
Arguably, the most popular restaurant in Valle is Baja ambassador Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano. The al fresco restaurant is consistently packed with locals and visitors alike and its mesquite grills churn out heaping, smoky plates from clams to octopus to quail. Owner of Tijuana’s most esteemed fine dining restaurant, Misión 19, Plascencia’s Finca is the rustic counterpart in his restaurant portfolio (which also includes Tijuana’s Erizo and Caesar’s) where chefs work the line in front of diners who relish lingering over Valle wines, beers, and breathtaking sunsets. Wood-fired, campestre-style food — all locally sourced — dominates the menu here which ranges from ahi tostadas to tongue tacos to fresh jurel (mackerel) ceviche and one of the best octopus dishes you’ll ever taste. If you are partial to meats, Plascencia is a fan of roasting them in the caja china to wonderful result. A must-visit on any Valle trip. fincaltozano.com.
Plascencia’s second Valle spot nails fast casual dining. Set on the Finca Altozano lot, Lupe! is a lonche, or snack, truck that operates out of an Airstream. Serving a wide variety of tortas, made on pillow-soft telera bread, and using only area produce and meats such as beef, lamb, pork (smoked on-site), Lupe! is a haven for those who want a killer Valle meal without the hassle or price of some of the region’s other options. Pair with excellent local craft brews, Mexican wines, and aguas frescas. Facebook Page.
One of the most beautiful gardens in which to spend a meal, TrasLomita resides on the grounds of Hacienda la Lomita winery and has slowly become Valle de Guadalupe’s best kept gastronomic secret. Shaded by strung tarps and patio umbrellas, here chef Sheyla Alvarado showcases a daily-changing Baja menu with simple dishes like fish tostadas, tomato salads, succulent roasted pork (lechon), and more complex fare such as borrego adobada al horno de lena, a lamb-hominy stew. The paired dining experience is worth the price, and be sure to try the rosé which has reputation for being the region’s best. Facebook Page.
Creator of Baja Med style cuisine, chef Miguel Angel Guerrero is a rancher/hunter, as well as the chef/owner of picturesque La Esperanza, which adds to his Tijuana restaurant collection that includes La Querencia and El Taller. Overlooking LA Cetto winery, which is one of the larger producers in the region, and nestled at the base of new boutique hotel property Bruma, Guerrero oversees La Esperanza’s bi-level wood-fired oven, out of which comes a predominantly simple, grilled menu that includes oysters, chocolate clams, octopus and local vegetable salads laced with under-appreciated Mexican cheeses. Meats, often prizes of week-long hunts, include lamb, rabbit, and quail and pair with wines made by the chef’s sommelier wife who happens to work at LA Cetto. Facebook Page.
Chef Jair Téllez, who opened the seasonal Laja in 1999 and helms Mexico City hotspots Meretoro and Amaya, is the undisputed pioneer of Baja’s chef movement. Set in a bright hacienda, Laja’s dining room is usually a who’s who of local residents sprinkled with well-informed day trippers. Classy and elegant, it lies in stark contrast to the many casual grill-driven spots that have popped up in recent years and leans more Mediterranean than Mexican. Featuring a daily-changing tasting menu delivered on a folded piece of paper, the meal begins with bread, which is made on-site and some of the best in Valle — it’s a well-known secret that many other restaurants get their bread from Laja — and usually features some a fresh crudo, local vegetables, and a pasta course. Téllez is an ardent proponent of local, organic wines, so be sure to check out his latest offerings. lajamexico.com.
La Cocina de Doña Esthela
Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner you’re after, head to La Cocina de Doña Esthela for authentic Mexican fare that’s rife with tradition. Doña Esthela’s home cum restaurant is a local favorite known for its simplicity and lack of fuss. At breakfast, it’s the machaca, dehydrated, shredded beef – a staple of 20th century Northern Mexico cowboys — served with eggs or the corn pancakes. At lunch, try one of the lamb dishes, either the borrego tatemado (shredded roasted lamb rib) or the borrego en su jugo (lamb steeped in its own juices). Everything is homemade here, from the tortillas to the queso fresco to the chorizo. The decor is basic, the prices are cheap, the plates are worn-in ceramic, but don’t be fooled; the experience is sublime. Facebook Page.
Italian winemaker Paolo Paoloni’s Villa Montefiori winery specializes in Italian, old world-style wines. Fittingly, the winery’s superb restaurant, Tre Galline, run by chef Angelo Dal Bon, trades in classic northern Italian cuisine. Dal Bon’s story is almost as good as his food. The chef, who splits his time between Valle and his original Tre Galline restaurant in the Todos Santos town of Baja Sur, moved to Mexico after an earthquake ravaged his hometown in Italy and his wife saw it as an opportunity to start over. Fresh pasta is the thing here and Dal Bon’s signature cheese tortellinis and raviolis, often stuffed with local seafood, are a must. Specials change based on local availability and be sure to pair Dal Bon’s plates with Paoloni’s wines. Facebook Page.
Deckman’s en el Mogor
The eponymous restaurant from Georgia-born Drew Deckman is a crowd favorite. Set within the vines of beloved Mogor Badan winery, which boasts El Mogor ranch and a weekly farmer’s market, the open kitchen runs entirely on wood-fire and focuses on fresh local seafood like octopus and oysters. Standout land-based dishes include quail and rabbit. Be sure to start with the Chasselas del Mogor white, moving onto a deeper Mogor red as the meal progresses. deckmans.com
The original fine dining establishment in Ensenada, one that launched the sensibilities and stylings of many of Valle de Guadalupe’s current spots, is the husband-wife team of Benito Molina and Solange Muris’ Manzanilla. In operation and fashion for over 15 years, Manzanilla focuses on local, daily catch from the fish market just down the block. A place where regulars congregate at the bar and winemakers share their latest bottles well into the night, the menu changes based on what’s available. Mainstays include oysters, abalone and a killer ribeye, and the ever-changing menú de día which rarely disappoints. manzanilla.com.
La Guerrerense owner Sabina Bandera rose to international fame when she represented Ensenada at the 1st Annual Street Food Congress in Singapore in 2013, after a turn on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. For good reason; the seafood-piled tostadas have been a Mexican mainstay since launching in 1960 when, during her honeymoon, the Guerrero native decided to stay in Ensenada and launch a business. The truck, which sees gathering hordes from the wee hours of the morning, features more than a dozen ceviche tostadas (think: octopus, clam, scallop, crab, shrimp), but her signature is sea urchin and Pismo clam. Customize with Bandera’s many salsas (all available for purchase), and if you prefer sit-down service, her new restaurant just opened across the street with a larger menu. Facebook Page.
With its eclectic design featuring corrugated metal walls, wooden picnic and barrel bistro tables, and shielded from the sun by a light canopy, this is one of Ensenada’s cooler spots for a taco fix. The vast menu features everything from aguachiles and ceviches to guisos and taco platters, but if you need a cure for a wine hangover, hit breakfast where chilaquiles and even French toast deliver equal pleasure. Facebook Page.
A favorite for sunsets on the patio and fresh fish of the ceviche and sashimi varieties, Muelle 3 was originally opened by Manzanilla’s Benito Molina. Located just behind the bustling Mercado Negro (fish market) that delivers daily seafood to the region, this casual spot has since changed ownership, but it essentially maintains the same swagger and excellent, fresh catch ranging from mussels simmered in green chiles to local chocolate clams to octopus in chile de arbol sauce. Facebook Page.
Chef/Owner Javier Martinez, whose brother David Martinez owns Muelle 3 and was also affiliated with Benito Molina’s Manzanilla, runs this consistent, family-friendly spot overlooking El Sauzal and Ensenada Bay. Like most of the region’s restaurants, the Baja-Med inspired menu focuses on seafood from clams to scallops to changing tiraditos. Simple, roasted vegetables, as well as pastas and risottos make regular appearances on the menu, the latter usually laden with shellfish. Facebook Page.
A gastropub from Omar Armas, a local chef who has done stints at Quique Dacosta in Spain, D.O.M. in Sao Paulo, and Pujol in Mexico City, is Ensenada’s latest addition. The menu showcases a list of global plates by way of regional ingredients, served in an atmospheric, shaded outdoor dining room. What you wouldn’t expect to blow your mind, however, is the ramen. Having lived and cooked in Asia, Armas makes his ramen from scratch, as well as killer Chinese-style buns, which serves as the restaurant’s namesake. Everything pairs nicely with wines from Bodegas Henri Lurton or concoctions from the newly minted cocktail program. Facebook Page.
Header image: Corazón de Tierra. Photo Credit: BIEN Media, Luis Meza.