It's almost 9 p.m. when I sink into a chair at Cien Años restaurant in Tijuana, bone-tired and voracious ― a canceled flight has delayed my dinner.
Owner Jose Sparza's welcome instantly dispels the day's stress, and soon the festive fretwork of a strolling guitarist confirms that I've entered a calm and gracious way of life. The food in front of me ― oysters with chipotle chilies and melted cheese, and tortilla soup with a zesty cream sauce ― is fresh, simple, and very satisfying.
The next few days of exploring the culinary riches of Tijuana and Ensenada in Baja California offer more of the same: ebullient music, a relaxed yet exuberant spirit, and enough good food to inspire me to bring home many a day's worth of recipes.
A leisurely breakfast one morning includes chilaquiles (fried tortillas cooked with chili sauce and cheese) and eggs. Another day it's sweet banana waffles with cajeta (goat's milk caramel sauce) and tropical fruit.
Such a substantial breakfast calls for a lighter, later lunch ― sometime around 2 p.m. I stand at a carreta and grab a couple of fish tacos or ― when the urge for adventure strikes ― a sea urchin tostada drizzled with an avocado sauce hot with habanero chilies. Later I stop for something sweet--carrot-chili ice cream or a coffee-coconut milkshake.
Although most restaurants don't close between lunch and dinner, activity picks up dramatically around 8:00. I sit down to a glass of Château Camou Fumé Blanc, produced in the nearby Valle de Guadalupe, and a bowl of mussels with a creamy cilantro-scented lobster sauce. Quail with tamarind sauce crowns my last delicious day. Mexico has found my heart in the time-honored way.
If you travel to Baja, a similar savory fate is almost sure to be yours (see our list of recommended stops). But you don't have to leave your kitchen to fall in love with the food. Recipes for many of these dishes and others I enjoyed in Tijuana and Ensenada follow. The Mexican ingredients such as dried chilies, cheeses, crema, and cajeta are widely available throughout the West; look in well-stocked grocery stores or Latino markets. You may also substitute the readily available alternatives that are listed in each recipe. It's easy to put the flavor of Mexico into meals right here at home.
If you go
Tijuana and Ensenada are close enough to San Diego for a day trip, but they are worth a longer sojourn. To find out more, check out www.seetijuana.com and www.enjoyensenada.com. For information on using public transportation to cross the border between San Diego and Tijuana, go to www.sdcommute.com. If calling the following numbers from the United States, dial 011-526 first.
Cien Años. José María Velazco 1407, Zona Río; 634-7262.
Rincón San Román. Gobernador Ibarra 252, Col. America; 631-2241.
Saverio's Restaurante Mediterráne. Carlos Robirosa 250, Col. Aviación; 686-3604.
Tepoznieves. Blvd. Sanchez Taboada 4002, Local 14-15 Zona Río; 634-6532.
Other food stops
L.A. Cetto Winery. Take a tour, sample wines, and visit the gift shop. Ave. Cañon Johnson 2108; 685-3031.
Mercado Pasaje Anahuac. Shop for ingredients and cookware. Calle Segunda 8025.
La Embotelladora Vieja. Part of the Bodegas de Santo Tomás winery (Baja's oldest); be sure to check out the adjacent market area, La Esquina de Bodegas. Ave. Miramar 666, Zona Centro; 178-3557.
Pueblo Cafe. Have breakfast or a quick snack. Ave. Ruiz 96, Zona Centro; 178-8055.