Shhh….I recently returned to Los Angeles after a five-day trip to Baja, California. I stayed in Ensenada and in the Valle de Guadalupe, or wine valley, and explored as much of the region as I could squeeze in. I already want to go back.
I’d like to tell the readers of the Los Angeles Blade that my trip was dangerous and that crossing the border was impossible, but it wasn’t.
I’d like to tell you that the food was mediocre and that I got sick from the ice or something undercooked, but in fact everything I ate and drank was better than what you’d find in most of the best restaurants in LA – and it was beyond reasonably priced.
I’d like to tell you it was difficult to get around, and I needed a guide to hold my hand and chauffeur me to all the hotspots, but in fact it was so easy, I drove my own car, easily got car insurance online, and felt like a local immediately.
I’d like to tell you all these things, because I don’t really want people from the U.S. to know how incredible Baja is. I’d like to keep it all to myself. My own version of the South of France meets Napa, with Michelin-star-food and service, all in my own backyard.
But, it’s my job as a reporter to tell you where in Baja I recommend that you stay and eat. But please, I beg you, keep it to yourself.
First off, the drive from San Diego to Ensenada takes about 90 minutes – add the drive time from LA to San Diego, and it’s another two hours.
We stayed at the Hotel Coral & Marina, located just outside of downtown Ensenada. The Wi-Fi was great, the rooms spacious, the pool expansive, and the view of the marina and Pacific outstanding. The staff was warm and helpful, and parking is included. Rooms are approximately $200 dollars per night, depending on the season.
I did not bring my incredible rescue dog, Mocha on this trip. Although Mexico is dog friendly, many of the hotels are not. So, while you won’t need to quarantine your dog going into or out of Mexico, you should bring paperwork from the vet proving your animal is healthy and up to date on all of their shots. I would use BajaBound.com to answer all of your questions about bringing Fido, including best hotels. Most, if not all of the restaurants we went to are outdoors, so bringing your put isn’t an issue.
Now, there are a lot of crappy, touristy restaurants in Ensenada. Places that cater to tourists who don’t know Mexican food from a hole in the wall or as my father used to say, “their ass’ from their elbows.”
Boules, is NOT one of those restaurants. It’s one of Ensenada’s best-kept secrets.
Named after the French game, Boules offers a menu that is at once Italian, and also Mexican. The risotto with duck, and the grilled octopus salad were delightful. And the fish tacos were anything but traditional. The owner, Javier, is the life of the party, and the restaurant is most lively on nights like a Tuesday, when many of the more high-end spots are closed and the chefs from the Valle are off. This is where they come to hang out, play boules, drink wine and eat great food.
After we left Boules, we stopped at Cervecería Doble C, an incredible micro-brew, owned by twins Alan and Omar Celis, 25. These brothers know how to make beer. Like many of the places we visited in Baja, it’s the hip kids who have made the trendy food, wine, and beer center that it is. Alan and Omar were trained in the beer craft in San Diego, and have won multiple awards for their brews.
To explore the Valle de Guadalupe, it’s best to spend the night there, so we spent one night in Ensenada, then drove the 20 minutes up into the Valle, spent a night and returned back to the Hotel Coral & Marina for another two nights.
One of the newest properties in the Valle is the Maglén Resort, located in the heart of the wine valley.
Off the beaten path, but not too far, Maglén, offers the kind of tranquility not easily found in L.A., but abundant in Baja.
From villas, with full working kitchens, and several bedrooms, with views overlooking the vineyards, to more romantic one bedroom and studio casitas, to traditional resort rooms, Maglén is a quiet and sublime getaway.
We stayed in one of the more modest rooms near the center of the property, and enjoyed our huge walk-in shower, comfy bed, and proximity to the restaurant and pool. Best of all there are no TVs.
We ate at both restaurants, Ha’Che and Cantera, and both were outstanding. Chef Joel Quintana creates a menu fusing Mexican, European and Asian cooking techniques, that both delights and surprises the palate.
Ensenada’s food and wine scene may not be on most Americans’ radar, but many of the chefs working in the region are trained in Europe and Mexico City. They are geniuses at using the resources in the area, and take the whole “farm-to-table” concept to another level. Dishes are virtually 100 percent locally sourced. They grow it, they pick it and they plate it. It’s their thing, and they do it very well.
Prices vary at Maglén, but rooms run from $200 to $400 dollars per night depending on room type, and meals are anywhere from $20 to $50 per person, depending on the entree.
After a restful night at Maglén, we headed to La Cava de Marcelo.
Again, I’d like to point out that as long as you have a major cell phone provider, you should have working navigational help on your phone to guide you. Just follow the directions, and you should have no trouble finding these places. I didn’t have any issues, and I drove the whole time.
Located near the town of Ojos Negros, about 20 miles south of Ensenada, La Cava de Marcelo sits on a 100-year-old dairy farm. The family-owned farm makes gourmet, artisanal and all-natural cheeses.
Owned and operated by Marcelo Castro, a fourth-generation cheese maker, La Cava de Marcelo, is the only cheese cellar open to the public in Latin America.
Built in 2008, the cellar sits on 60 acres of grassy lands in the valley of Real de Castillo, and uses grass, alfalfa, corn, grain and fresh water to feed the 200 or so Holstein cows.
The Swiss/Italian family launched their business in 1911, and has been producing small batches of their creamy, fresh basil, rosemary, and pepper and olive oil cheese varietals prosperously ever since.
A tasting cheese plate, with wine, and bread was $10 dollars per person. Amazing!
Next up we travelled to Vinícola y Olivarera Bodegas del Paraíso, one of the lesser-known vineyards producing olive oil, wine and featuring one of the hottest young chefs in the Valle.
At only 27-years-old, the head chef at Xató, the restaurant on the Vinícola y Olivarera Bodegas del Paraíso property, Victor Jara, is fast on his way to becoming a voice to contend with and should soon join the ranks of some of Baja’s best.
For those readers who’re not aware, several of the chefs working in the Valle are world renowned in the food scene.
Chefs such as Javier Plascencia, who single-handedly transformed Tijuana’s food world, with this restaurant Misión 19, to chef Diego Hernandez of Corazón de Tierra, named one of the 50 best restaurants in Latin America, to Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero, the genius behind what’s known as the “Baja Med Movement.” These guys, favorites of the late Anthony Bourdain, after his Baja episode of “Parts Unknown,” have earned multiple awards and are rock stars to foodies in the know.
I could go on and on, there are great little spots all over Baja and throughout the Valle – too many to name.
I suggest you take a look at AGringoInMexico.com for great tips on places to stay and eat. San Diego-based lifestyle writer W. Scott Koenig has traveled throughout Mexico and Baja California for over twenty years, and he founded the site after years of escorting guests to the region.
Have fun. Don’t be afraid. They’re not rapists or animals, and their food isn’t covered in cheese. Don’t do tequila shots, sip a nice tequila or mezcal after dinner, and enjoy your vacation paradise. Everyone is welcome.
Just don’t tell a lot of your friends. Let’s keep it for ourselves.