The sky is dark, the kind of inky black that only exists without a single streetlight. We bounce down the washboard dirt road and, when it forks, turn toward our destination: the area’s best new restaurant. Or is it the other way? The road keeps twisting and branching off.
My husband, Todd, grips the official map of Baja California’s main wine region, Valle de Guadalupe. All day we used this map, with its cartoonish purple icons of grape bunches indicating wineries, to sip our way among the valley’s 50 wineries. Visiting them often means venturing off the area’s three paved roads onto rutted dirt ones, but Todd laughs now at our assumption that the straight brown dotted line we took to be a shortcut would translate to a straight road. He tosses the map to the floor, I pull a U-turn, and we carefully retrace our path back to the “highway”—a paved two-laner that links the port city of Ensenada, 20 miles to the west, to the border town of Tecate.
This is a booming wine country, with new tasting rooms, a couple of fine restaurants, and hotels with high-thread-count sheets, but it still has a wild side. And for a moment, the utter darkness gives me a familiar feeling, like the one I get hiking in the wilderness or paddling my surfboard into a wave. The natural world is powerful.
Only a few minutes later, we walk through the door of Corazón de Tierra. The sleek one-room restaurant is a Venice-modern oasis, with a large garden off the back deck. Diners can either sit facing rows of beets, basil, and arugula or watching chef Diego Hernandez and his team grilling, searing, and assembling food in the open kitchen. There are no menus. “It’s nature that decides,” says Hernandez, 29, who opened Corazón de Tierra two years ago and cooks and talks about food with equal gusto. “Here in Baja, we have a palette of flavors, like a painter.”
Each dish that comes is a surprise: a pesto of beet greens served with a thick hunk of rosemary bread that’s been both baked and smoked. A salad of broccoli, radishes, and Ramonetti (a soft, local cheese akin to a blend of brie and manchego) with an orange calendula flower and parsnip purée artfully arranged on a slab of slate. Then it’s a piece of perfectly seared fresh tuna bathed in a tangy sour-milk and mint-oil broth, served in a warm stone bowl. After that, roasted partridge with carrots, roasted pumpkin purée, and beef sauce, paired with a spicy Vena Cava Tempranillo from the winery at Villa del Valle, the B&B where Corazón de Tierra is located. Finally, it’s Hernandez’s dessert oeuvre, each tasting portion made from fresh oranges: ice cream, panna cotta, marmalade cake, and a cookie.
Hernandez is building on the region’s farm-to-table legacy established by the valley’s first and most renowned farm-to-table restaurant, Laja, where during a delicious, epic meal the night before, I learned that the restaurant’s refrigerators and freezers often sit empty—the fresh ingredients never make it there.
“We grew up eating sashimi and ceviches,” says Hernandez of his childhood in Ensenada. Now he delivers his own sophisticated take—a mix of Mexican, Mediterranean, and Asian—honed at top restaurants in Mexico City and Tijuana. Hernandez says that visitors who come expecting only traditional Mexican cuisine are surprised. “The truth is, this is the other Mexico.”