?Baja California isn't the secret it used to be, as evidenced by increasing lines to cross back into the United States on Sundays. But a weekend trip to Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada is a breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively. Come hungry, pack your passport and your patience, and watch out for those topes (speed bumps).
FISH TACOS IN ENSENADA
Something happened to fish tacos when they crossed the border al norte; they lost their flavor. Sure, you've had fried fish in a tortilla before, but you've never had it Ensenada-style, in which you dress it yourself using an array of creams, salsas and vegetables. Most people go to Mi Ranchito El Fénix, but for the best combination of great and cheap, Los Originales is the place to go. Tacos de Pescado "Los Originales," Ave. Gastélum between 5th and 6th, Ensenada; Mi Ranchito El Fénix, Ave. Espinoza and 6th, Ensenada.
VALLE DE GUADALUPE TASTINGS
Most people who cross the border and go south of Tijuana are headed for the Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California's burgeoning wine valley northeast of Ensenada. There are at least 80 wineries, dozens of cheese-makers, hectares of olive groves, and enough restaurants to hold todo Ensenada. Hot-weather wines such as Tempranillo and Grenache are the rule of the day, and nearly all of the wines are blends. Pick one of the three paved roads in the Valley, branch out onto the dirt roads, and watch for little shingles on sticks telling you what's for sale: vino, queso, aceite de oliva, nieve de yaka (jackfruit ice cream) and more. Along Hwy. 3 between Ensenada and Tecate, and along the El Porvenir-El Tigre road from Hwy. 1 to Hwy. 3. Follow signs for "La Ruta del Vino."
A campestre is an outdoor restaurant in the Valle de Guadalupe, set up by chefs from all over Mexico, run only during the summer and concentrating on grilled meats and seafoods and local produce. Eating local produce—nearly all from less than 10 miles away—and sipping Baja wine or craft beer while the summer evening breeze blows is about as far away from the grind as it's possible to get without an airline ticket. We've got three recommendations, but there are many more. Deckman's en el Mogor, just south of Hwy. 3 at km 86.5, Valle de Guadalupe; Finca Altozano, 1.5 km north of Hwy. 3 at km 83 (follow signs for Laja), Valle de Guadalupe; La Almazara, 1.5 km north of Hwy. 3 at km 86.5, Valle de Guadalupe.
LA COCINA DE DOÑA ESTHELA
The finest breakfast (and the longest wait for a table) in Baja California is cooked by a smiling woman named Esthela, who opened her kitchen years ago and served her guests birria tatemada, homemade fresh cheese and pastries cooked in her adobe oven. As time passed, her home grew and grew; nowadays, more than half of it is restaurant. The food, though, is as good as it ever was, even if it can take an hour to be seated on the weekends. Follow the signs from the El Porvenir road. 1.2 km southeast of the Ensenada-El Porvenir road, between Ejido El Porvenir and El Tigre, Valle de Guadalupe.
Ensenada is a city of artisans, and if you wander off López Mateos (First Street), look for signs that say taller, or workshop. Everything from olive-wood decorations in the shape of lotería cards to massive outdoor tables made from found wood and metal can be yours. If the doors are open, the shop is open; just walk in and call out, "Buenos días." Bargaining is accepted, but don't take it seriously unless you are buying a very high-ticket item.
Puerto Nuevo, the famous lobster village south of Rosarito, started with enterprising cooks setting up stands to cook the lobster catch as it came in. While Puerto Nuevo has moved on to cater exclusively to tourists, Popotla, just to the north, is where you can drive down onto the beach, wait for the boats to come in and order the catch of the day prepared simply. You'll be eating garlic butter crab and knocking it open with a rock before you know it. Pro tip: Ask for erizo, or sea urchin; it's the best on the continent. On Hwy. 1 (the free road) 5 km south of Rosarito, just past Fox Studios Baja.
RUSSIAN HISTORY MUSEUM
The Valle de Guadalupe's wine industry was energized by the arrival of the Molokans, religious refugees from Russia. They set up a church and homes in El Porvenir, petitioned the fledgling Baja California government for permission to plant grapes and make wine, and settled in. While remnants of the molocanos remain throughout the Valle, including names such as Bibayoff, the Samarin family has converted one of the original structures into a museum of local history. Purchase tickets in the adjacent store and restaurant. You can also buy rye breads, nearly unheard-of in the rest of Mexico; get some homemade fruit preserves, including nopal (cactus paddle) and tuna (cactus fruit); and sit down to a Russian lunch. Museo Ruso, Ejido El Porvenir, along the El Tigre road 7 km southwest of the junction with Hwy. 3.
One of the sad stories of the Baja Riviera is the number of mistreated horses who stand at the side of beaches, with their owners hoping for tourists to ride for a few pesos. Krystal Redmon, a transplant from the U.S., bought her first horse on an impulse after seeing how emaciated she was, and now she rehabilitates several rescued horses at a ranch in Primo Tapia, just south of Rosarito. All the Pretty Horses Rescue, as she named it, hosts wine-and-rides, during which you can ride the rehabilitated horses through the back country of Baja, stopping for snacks and for Baja wine. All of the funds go to help the rescue—a worthy cause and a great way to spend an afternoon. Off the Ensenada toll road at Cantamar, Primo Tapia, 619-642-9864; bajahorses.com.
NIGHTLIFE ON LA REVU
Every SoCali has a story that starts with, "We were 18, and we crossed into Tijuana and partied on Revolution Avenue." And while the ghosts of Tijuana's past as California's naughty playground still haunt the Zona Norte at night, farther south, Avenida Revolución has re-invented itself. After the violence subsided, los tijuanenses took the famous tourist drag for themselves, turned it sideways on Calle Sexta (Sixth Street), and upgraded the nightlife. Whether your taste is live music and mezcal (La Mezcalera), strangers telling tall tales over bottles of beer and plastic bowls of beef jerky (El Dandy Del Sur), craft beer (La Tasca de la Sexta), or a good old-fashioned flesh-jiggling dance club (Las Pulgas), the entire area within two blocks of the corner of Revolución and Sixth comes alive weekend nights around 11 p.m. Along 6th St. from Constitución to Madero, and along Ave. Revolución from 5th to 7th sts., Tijuana.
The simple salad that swept the United States and has remained an enduring favorite is not Italian. It's Mexican: Caesar Cardini, owner of Caesar's Restaurant on Avenida Revolución, threw together a salad with romaine, cheese, croutons, anchovy, egg, lemon juice and olive oil, and a classic was born. Today, you can have it prepared tableside where it was invented, and then continue on to a menu of classic Continental dishes whose time is ripe for a renaissance. Corner of Ave. Revolución and 5th St., Tijuana, 011-52-664-685-19-27; caesarstijuana.com.
Tijuana has an absolutely huge craft-beer scene—it is the San Diego of Mexico, renowned nationwide for its brewing. But until recently, it was sort of on the D.L.: You had to know where to go and when. Brewers would drop off a keg of their latest creation at one or another of the city's post-deregulation beer halls. Now, though, the cerveza artesanal movement has a place to call home. The beer has spilled out from Sótano Suizo, and now there are more than a dozen tasting rooms in Plaza Fiesta, a repurposed open-air mall. Beer is poured until 2 a.m., and it can get crowded on weekends, but there's no better place to taste what happens when Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc, the two macrobreweries, have to make way for the little guys. Corner of Paseo de los Héroes and Ave. Independencia, Tijuana.
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Tucked away in a brand-new, LEED Gold-certified building on the outskirts of Tijuana's zona gastronómica, Misión 19 is arguably the best restaurant in the city (and what a delicious argument to have!). The flagship of owner Javier Plascencia's burgeoning empire, it takes Baja California's fantastic raw ingredients and treats them simply, with Mexican and French influence—Baja Med cuisine. So dedicated is Plascencia to his state's gastronomic reinvention that he instituted a policy of selling Baja wine at cost. VIA Corporativo building, Misión San Javier 10643, near Paseo de los Héroes and Blvd. Abelardo L. Rodríguez, 011-52-664-634-2493; mision19.com.
What happens when businesses shutter on the best-known street in the city? Artists move in, and they display their work. Pasaje Rodríguez and its sister alley, Pasaje Gómez, connect Avenida Revolución and Avenida Constitución, and it's a wonderland of art galleries, coffee shops, beer breweries and quirky stores. It may seem odd to turn down an alley in Tijuana, but these are worth the detour. Enter from Ave. Revolución or Ave. Constitución between 3rd and 4th sts., Tijuana.
Tijuana's central de abastos is not where most tijuanenses shop for their food, but it is worth visiting if you need to stock up on the way back across the border: There's a huge cheese store, a Oaxacan stand, more herbs and spices than you can shake a stick at, and a huge number of fondas behind the main kiosks where you can sit and have the special of the day for just a few bucks. Corner of Blvd. Sánchez Taboada and Ave. Independencia, Tijuana.
The luxe lonchera craze never really hit Tijuana, a city where street food is everywhere and even the sharpest licenciado ever to wear a fancy custom suit and shined shoes will line up for tacos varios, birria or ceviche. Instead, they created food courts, the best of which is Foodgarden, where you can try Tijuana's famous quesatacos (tacos in which the filling is enveloped in crispy mozzarella cheese), vegetarian fare, chilaquiles, etc. Come hungry; you'll want to stop at more than one booth. Blvd. Sánchez Taboada just east of Blvd. Abelardo L. Rodríguez, Tijuana; and Plaza Río, Paseo de los Héroes between Ave. Independencia and Blvd. Cuauhtémoc, Tijuana.