In case you missed it, we here at Salt & Wind have been salivating — pun fully intended — over Baja California for some time now. There are plenty of reasons for that, many which we already laid out. But we realized while we told you lots about where to eat, we forgot to tell you what to eat (and why). We’re here to right that wrong and share what to eat next time you head to Baja.
It must be said that as Mexico’s most northwestern and one of its youngest states, Baja has a newer food culture that it has only crystallized in the last 15 years or so. Though Baja’s cuisine was previously undefined, what is for sure is that there are certain dishes— some of which are taking the food world by storm right now (um, tostadas, anyone?) — that are undeniably “Baja.”
Before we talk what to eat, let us share a little backstory. When it comes to food and Baja California, you may have heard the terms “Baja Med,” coined by chef Miguel Angel Guerrero or “Cali Baja,” which was alternately developed by chef Javier Plascencia, being thrown around. To be crystal clear, those terms refer to the more fine-dining cooking style that emerged in the region during the past few decades. Those chefs’ creativity has been a major force in making the region’s food scene what it is today.
Another major factor? The weather. Baja’s Mediterranean-like climate (read: sunny, temperate days, cool nights, and a moderating breeze from the ocean) means wine, olive oil, and fresh vegetables are right at home. Following in suit with the climate, the modern cooking draws inspiration from the Mediterranean — as in, high-protein meals with plenty of roasted meat, fresh seafood, and exquisite vegetable preparations. Though this high-end, Mexico-meets-Mediterranean cuisine is what the area is becoming known for —- and rightly so —- there are other dishes emblematic of Baja that we wanted to make sure weren’t forgotten.
Here’s our list of essential Baja California dishes which span from old to new, high-end to rustic, and with a few surprising inventions along the way.
Need a new party trick? Quiz people as to the origins of the Caesar Salad. From rigorous (but highly unscientific) research, I can confirm the most answers are Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas or some random town in Italy. Both noble choices, but legend says otherwise because the answer is Caesar’s in Tijuana! The restaurant, which was founded on Avenida Revolucion in 1924 by Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini, was a mainstay of Prohibition-era Tijuana. It’s said the salad was cobbled together due to a lack of other ingredients and the result was the Caesar salad that is now loved the world over. To make an appropriately authentic Caesar, the following is required: romaine lettuce hearts, anchovies, lemon juice, egg yolk, and, grated parmesan cheese. Bonus points if you dress each leaf individually, eating them like you would a toast.
Another bit of food history that often surprises to visitors in Baja is the prevalence of comida China, or Chinese food. Mexicali, which is about 90 miles east of Tijuana, is Baja’s comida China epicenter. In the early 20th century, Chinese workers arrived from China—as well as the United States, thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882— and were contracted to build irrigation systems and other infrastructure. Fast forward to today when over 50,000 people in Mexicali claim Chinese ancestry. All those immigrants brought their food with them, and, over time, was adapted to fit local tastes. Camaron enchilado is one of these dishes. It consists of pan-fried shrimp cooked in a paste of garlic, Pequin pepper, salt, and olive oil, and is usually served with fried or white rice.
It turns out Baja California is Mexico’s leading producer of mini vegetables, which have become a staple of the region’s modern cooking and has helped set the area apart in using these less-than-traditional Mexican ingredients. The family behind Martinez & Sons pioneered this cultivation about 20 years ago, and dishes featuring the brightly-colored and highly flavored minis can be found at Misión 19, Corazon de Tierra, Manzanilla, La Querencia and La Esperanza and at other temples of fine dining in the area. Healthy dishes never tasted—or looked—so good!
Often touted as San Diego’s signature food, the fish taco likely has its origins south of the border. Two different tales place it either in San Felipe, on the Sea of Cortez or in Ensenada, on the Pacific Ocean, but either way you slice it, the fish taco is distinctly Baja. The original is made with shark meat, but can also be found with some type of white fish. These days Tijuana’s taco scene extends way beyond fish tacos and the city as recognized across the country as a sort of taco epicenter (just go to “Las Ahumaderas” aka taco alley to see what we mean). But fish fried in batter and topped with cabbage, salsa, crema and a fresh lime squeeze, it doesn’t get more California — whether Alta or Baja — than the fish taco.
True, you’ll find aguachile (a sort of Mexican ceviche) served at various street food stands through Baja, but that's an import brought over mostly by the Sinaloan immigrants. When it comes to street food and seafood, it's all about the tostada in Baja. The tostada is the street food beloved throughout Baja that also helped to put the local cuisine on the map. Consisting of a flat, dried tortilla and piled high with fresh seafood in raw or ceviche form, there isn’t a street corner or roadside stand that can’t whip one up. The most famous comes from the lady behind La Guerrerense, whose real name is Sabina Bandera, FYI. She operates a food cart (and restaurant) in Ensenada and it has reached cult status with often large crowds of food pilgrims. One of our favorites sea urchin, chopped pismo clam, sliced avocado and is best garnished with Bandera's chile de arbol and peanut salsa.
Just south of the beach town Rosarito is the “lobster village” of Puerto Nuevo. This tiny seaside town is dedicated almost exclusively to restaurants that prepare spiny Pacific lobster in signature “Puerto Nuevo” style: fried with rice, beans, fresh flour tortillas and drawn garlic butter on the side. Some restaurants will grill the lobster if you ask, offering another alternative to the classic.
The old story says the tradition dates back to the 1950s and was born out of just a few fishing families that lived in this cliffside town overlooking the Pacific. Its fishermen would return home from the ocean and their wives whipped up what they had available--usually spiny lobster and, not surprisingly, rice, beans and tortillas. Americans began visiting the area, specifically for fishing, and were treated to lobster in the village upon their return. Thanks to a generous land grant, the families were able to legitimize and build restaurants, and American tourism only increased. Fast forward to today, and Puerto Nuevo is still a town dedicated to lobster dinner, not all that different from how it appeared decades ago.
The craft beer and modern wine scene in Baja California has been all the rage the last few years but there’s another lesser-known drink that hails from the area: the margarita. Legend has it that Mexico’s signature cocktail was invented at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada in 1941. Bartender Don Carlos Orozco used Damiana, tequila and lime, which he served over ice in a glass with a salt rim. The recipient was a woman named Margarita Henkel, the daughter of the German ambassador to Mexico. Today, the Margarita is enjoyed the world over but can still be found at its original home, which is the oldest cantina in Baja California. Instead of Damiana, Hussong’s uses Controy (aka Naranja) now, which is an orange liqueur. The original spirit of the bar remains: mariachis play throughout the night while revelers drink in a wood-clad barroom with sawdust on the floor.
A staple in the neighboring state of Sonora, it was only natural that machaca became loved in Baja California, too. The cattle ranching in both states gave way to this local delicacy: dried, salted, and rehydrated shredded beef that is roasted to give a smoky flavor. In Baja, it’s often served mixed with scrambled eggs and served as breakfast, with a heaping side of beans and flour tortillas. Anyone looking for a hearty breakfast, Baja style, needs to try this filling specialty at least once.
Formerly made with turtle and now mostly made with manta ray and shrimp, caguamanta is another Baja dish that is a staple in Sonora, as well. It’s a stew of whatever the main protein is—be it shrimp, manta ray or turtle—cooked with cumin, chili, oregano, shrimp broth and flour and served with corn tortillas for people to make their own tacos. For ecological reasons, turtle consumption has been legislated out of practice but the reality is many locals still eat it that way. The most sustainable and environmentally friendly way to eat caguamanta would be to enjoy the manta ray and fish versions, which can be found all over Baja California and on many street corners in Mexicali or Tijuana.
P.S. Did you know we organize small group trips to Baja California? If you come with us, we promise you’ll get to try many of the foods on this list!
P.S. If you liked this story, you'll probably like our newsletter too!