Between Rene Redzepi cruising around Oaxaca and hot-shot chefs turning their attention to masa, Mexican food is having a moment. But as is often the case with south-of-the-border grub migrating into mainstream, not every region shares the spotlight. Case in point: The cuisine of Baja California generally translates to pallid fried-fish tacos outside the confines of L.A. and San Diego, and many gringos still associate Tijuana with that time Marissa Cooper blacked out on the O.C.
That’s a shame, since Baja is more food paradise than culinary backwater. It’s a place where you can get “Le Bernardin-quality seafood” (as Anthony Bourdain once put it) from stands for a couple dollars; a place where locally caught sea urchin, shrimp, oysters, and geoduck are bathed in citrus and chiles and piled high onto plates for less than the price of a Taco Bell binge.
“It’s a place where a middle-class guy like me can make it rain,” says Bill Esparza, the unofficial spokesman of Baja’s food scene, and the man and mouth behind food blog Street Gourmet LA. Esparza first went to Tijuana in 1988 with college friends “to drink dollar beers, meet San Diego State girls, and eat bacon-wrapped hot dogs at 5am before stumbling back across the border.” Around 2000, he started making regular trips to the area, and he’s been leading culinary tours of Baja for the past 14 years.
Bill Esparza with Marisco Ruben chef Mirta Rodriguez
Part of Baja’s obscurity stems from the fact that its rich food scene is a relatively recent phenomenon. Esparza explains that, for many years, the prized seafood fished out of Baja waters was shipped straight to Japan, leaving locals with nothing but the dregs of their own bounty. But a decade ago, ambitious chefs like Benito Molina and Jair Tellez decided it was time to flip the script. Reacquainting themselves with these extraordinary ingredients has encouraged experimentation amongst Baja cooks, resulting in some of the most thrilling seafood we’ve ever encountered.
“Puebla has very strong and powerful traditions, as does Oaxaca. If you’re a contemporary chef in either of those regions, you’re bound by traditions,” says Esparza. “In Baja, they don’t have the strict culinary traditions, they just have all these great ingredients, which is why it’s the only completely ingredient-driven cuisine of Mexico. So, when a chef does a marlin pibil taco, no one is going to say, ‘what are you doing?’ When you do a sea-urchin tostada, no one is going to avoid your stand because you’re some kind of heretic.”
Baja is a place where a middle-class guy like me can make it rain.
Fittingly, the region’s seafood makes its way into tacos. Tortillas filled with tender octopus and olive, as well as plump poached shrimp tossed with chile de arbol, are ubiquitous throughout Tijuana. There are also more contemporary seafood-and-tortilla creations, like chef “Oso” Campos Moreno’s octopus and “Mexican pesto” taco, and sea urchin and Pismo clam tostadas made by Sabina Bandera of La Guerrense in Ensanada.
On a recent Baja taco excursion guided by Esparza, we discovered a vast world beyond those run-of-the-mill mahi-mahi tacos back home. Beelining for Baja’s best of the best, we stopped first in Tijuana (the state’s most populated city), then drove an hour South to the coastal town of Ensenada, stopping along the way in Puerto Nuevo for lobster burritos. Throughout the trip, we ran into impeccable seafood dishes inspired by the neighboring states of Sonora and Sinaloa. We completed the culinary blitzkrieg in an impressive 36 hours; if you attempt to recreate this excursion, we suggest you factor in a bit more time off work and take a side trip to Valle de Guadalupe (Baja’s wine country) and Popotla. No matter what you do, Baja will make you feel like a baller on a budget.
Before you embark on your own taco tour, keep in mind Esperza’s golden rule: “You are the sous chef to your taco.” Take time when adorning your tacos with crema, lime, and from-scratch salsas, which are often just as impressive as the fish. Alternatively, you could take a guided culinary tour of Baja with Esparza’s company, Club Tengo Hambre, and learn first-hand how to dress your tacos like the pros.
Taco de Tres Animales at La Cahua del Yeyo
Head to the edge of downtown TJ and Zona Rio to find this temple of Sonoran-style seafood. Start your Cahua del Yeyo dining experience with a styrofoam cup of seafood consommé (called vichi); add a squeeze of lime and a dash of salsa, and you’ve got yourself a breakfast of champions. Then, move on to the taco de tres animales, a surf-and-turf riff filled with stewed manta ray; buttery and gelatinous tuna fin; and mild-but-rich blood sausage. Owner Luis Mena, who hails from Ciudad Obregon in Senora, knew what he was doing when he first combined the three animals in one taco (that was 22 years ago)—the interplay of textures and flavors here is spot on. The day we went, Mena threw sautéed marlin into the taco mix, making this an extra-special taco de QUATROS animales. Fun fact: Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern came here and said it was the first time he’d ever seen or tasted tuna fin—and that dude is not surprised by much.
Location: Calle 8, #8761 (at Pio Pico), Tijuana; open 8:30am-2pm daily
Smoked Marlin Taquito at Mariscos Ruben
You’ll notice two things immediately when you drive up to the Mariscos Ruben truck: the arsenal of colorful salsas, and a woman standing to the side of the truck manning a charcoal grill. For the past 20 years, Ruben and Mirta Rodriguez have been parked on the corner of 8th Street and Quintana Roo, selling fresh-caught seafood in the form of ceviches, tacos, tostadas, and soups. If you come here and don’t order the smoked-marlin taquito, you’re a fool. (Sidenote: Esparza says, “Taquitos are tacos. They’re little tacos.”) The smoked marlin is stewed and wrapped up in tortillas, and then the whole package is grilled over mesquite until charred and crispy. The taquitos are then unfolded, topped with cabbage, and doused with chipotle dressing and a creamy avocado sauce. If you’d like to explore other menu items—which you should—order the molcajete (mortar and pestle) lined with crab claws, and filled with shrimp and callo de hacha (scallops) in what Esparza calls “Mirta’s special umami brew.” This is all coming out of a truck!? you’re saying to yourself right now in disbelief. Welcome to Baja.
Location: Parked on the corner of 8th and Quintana Roo, Tijuana; open 10am-6pm daily
Octopus and Olives Taco at Mariscos Walter
Did you know that Baja California is a major producer of olive oil? Suddenly, it makes sense that the octopus and olive taco is a Tijuana classic. Although Sinaloan restaurant Mariscos Walter is arguably more famous for its taco de jamon del mar, or “ham of the sea taco” (think big chunks of braised, smoked marlin on a tortilla), we also loved the octopus-and-olive taco dressed up with cabbage, sliced red onion, chile de arbol salsa, and crema. The octopus is chewy, yet tender, and the lightly-grilled tortilla is lined with melted cheese. Although this cheese-and-seafood combo would infuriate an Italian, it’s delicious and something that is “very Tijuana,” according to Esparza.
Location: Lázaro Cárdenas, Otay Constituyentes, Tijuana; open 9am-7pm daily
Crab “Especial” Taco at Mariscos Los Cangrejos
You come to Los Cangrejos for one thing: the crab tacos (and maybe some shrimp consommé). There are five different varieties on offer; the simple “especial” (pictured above) allows you to taste the sweet crab meat—from nearby Puerto Nuevo—in its purest form, simply sautéed in butter, paprika, and garlic. But the chipotle version is over-the-top in a great way: the crab meat is dressed with chipotle mayo, creating a sort of hot crab Mexican salad. Los Cangrejo’s nautical-themed decor is very endearing—and the mascot, a crab wearing a bib, is adorable. (Photo: Bill Esparza)
Location: Blvd. Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Tijuana; open mornings and afternoons
Perron Taco at Mariscos El Mazateño
Drive through the hilly neighborhoods of Tijuana to this bustling Sinaloan-style seafood restaurant, outfitted with red plastic tables and chairs. The perron especial, or “badass special,” is aptly named—a fried flour tortilla filled with melted cheese and two types of seafood: plump poached shrimp tossed with chile de arbol (called camarones enchiladas), and deep-fried, super-savory chunks of sea bream. Spoon the addictive green sauce—made from cilantro, jalapeños, tomatillo, and garlic—onto your tacos, just like all the blissed-out locals are doing.
Location: Calzada Tecnológico 473, on the corner of Popotla in the Tomás Aquino section of Tijuana; they start serving at 7am and stop when they run out (no later than 5:30pm)
The Kraken at Tacos Kokopelli
“Oso” Campos Moreno has more formal training than some of the other taco-slingers in Baja, having graduated from Tijuana’s Culinary Arts School and cut his teeth at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Denmark. In 2011, Oso opened the first location of Tacos Kokopelli—a stand he built with his brother from recycled materials and fruit boxes—to serve unexpected tacos like the Kraken: octopus marinated in a “Mexican pesto” of herbs, green chiles, garlic, and olive oil, then grilled over mesquite and topped with Jack cheese and avocado. Aside from the stand, there are two brick-and-mortar Kokopelli locations in Tijuana, and the brothers recently opened their first U.S. location in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. At the TJ locations, expect to find innovative salsas like beet-habañero, along with Tijuana craft beers and flavored pulque flown in from Hidalgo. The trippy Dia de los Muertos murals on the walls and Rolling Stones blasting from the stereo made us feel right at home. (Photo: Bill Esparza)
Location: Multiple locations.
Sea Urchin Taco at Cebicheria Erizo
Eating your way through TJ’s dirt-cheap street food is delicious, if not exactly relaxing. If you want to kick back with a pisco sour while you dine, head to to Cebicheria Erizo, where chef Javier Plascencia uses local products like chocolate clams, geoduck, and callo de hacha scallops from the Sea of Cortez to create elegant versions of ceviche, as well as tacos filled with the likes of cooked sea urchin (erizo) and achiote-laced swordfish pibil. Because you will not hit your sea-urchin quota with just one taco de erizo, order the “erizo preparado con leche de tigre” as well—a sea-urchin shot accompanied by a chaser of citrus-based ceviche marinade. Surprise: there’s a quail egg hiding at the bottom of the shot glass.
Location: Sonora 3808, Tijuana
Lobster Burrito at Puerto Nuevo II
On your drive from Tijuana to Ensenada, stop at Rosarito Beach for lobster sautéed in lard with sofrito, wrapped up in thin, buttery flour tortillas, served with a side of rice and exceptional lard-spiked beans. You think you’ve had flour tortillas before—but not like these, which are flaky like a pie crust. When in Rosarito, be careful to avoid the sunburnt and overweight American tourists guzzling beer, and remember that you’re here for the lobster. If you have time to kill, drive south of Rosarito to Popotla for spider crab. (But a burrito is not a taco, right? Esparza explains that burritos are in the taco family, they’re just made with flour tortillas; if you ask anyone in Mexico they will say a burrito is, essentially, a taco.)
Location: Avenida Renteria, Rosarito Beach; 10am-9pm daily (closed Tuesday)
Baja Fish Taco at Los Originales Tacos de Pescado
You can’t go wrong with any of these places in Ensenada for Baja-style fish tacos, but the Los Originales Tacos de Pescado stand is the cream of the crop. Seriously, this is the best $0.84 (12 pesos) you will ever spend. On anything. The dogfish—a firm, flaky white fish—is dipped in beer batter, then double fried in lard so the exterior is crunchy, and the interior tender and moist. While it’s still piping hot, the fish is placed on a gorgeous flour tortilla sans accoutrement. Remember what Esparza said about being sous chef to your taco? Dress it up with roasted poblano salsa, crema or mayonnaise, cabbage, fresh tomato salsa, and a squeeze of lime, creating the ultimate balance of crunchy, hot, cool, tender, and creamy. Owner Juana Ortiz Bardon has been making fried-fish tacos for 23 years, and she is not messing around.
Location: On the corner of Avenida Gastélum and Avenida Benito Juarez
Sea Urchin and Pismo Clam Tostada at La Guerrerense
For more than 50 years, the La Guerrerense stand has been serving “Le Bernardin-quality seafood in the street,” as Anthony Bourdain so astutely put it. He wasn’t being hyperbolic—Sabina Bandera’s tostada topped with sea urchin (stewed with onion, tomato, coriander, and olive oil), raw slices of Pismo clam, and salted avocado is truly a bucket-list dish for any Mexican-food fanatic. Garnish the beautiful disk of fresh-caught seafood with chilitos de mi jardín, a super-concentrated salsa made with dried chiles (from her garden), peanuts, and olive oil, then prepare to slip into seafood nirvana. Besides Bandera’s talent and creativity, there’s a reason La Guerrerense stands out from the pack: Fishing cooperatives deliver fresh-caught seafood to her home between 5am and 8am every morning. She then creates cooked ceviches from sea urchin, salt cod, and whatever else they bring her, then cools them and shepherds them to the stand. Buy one of Bandera’s 16 homemade salsas to take home with you and store in your pantry; weeks down the road, it will be there to prove all the mind-blowing food you ate in Baja wasn’t a dream.
Location: Calle Alvarado and First St, Ensenada; 11am-6pm (closed Tuesday)