A huge column of smoke rises from a charcoal grill set into a counter; the air fills with the scent of beef grilling and the sound of fat spattering onto the fire below. It takes just a minute or two, and I'm fascinated. My rapt gaze is lost on the taquero, for whom this is not new. He hacks the beautifully charred diesmillo of beef--still miraculously tender in the center--into slices, then throws it unceremoniously into homemade tortillas and cocks an eyebrow at me.
"Con todo," I instruct him, and he throws--literally--salsa, onions, cilantro and guacamole onto each taco and slides the plate across the tile counter. It takes maybe ten seconds from the time the beef comes off the grill to the first bite. The flavor is primordial, the meat perfectly cooked, the red salsa as necessary to the dish as the meat itself. Suddenly, I look up from my food. This is not some shiny franchise; this is a run-down stand open to the air on two sides near the so-touristy Rosarito Beach Hotel. There's a self-service cooler of bottles of water and made-with-real sugar soda. Outside, groups of bewildered norteamericano college students wander by, oblivious to the wonder inside. I pay my bill--$2.50 for three tacos--and shake my head in bemusement.
Welcome to Baja.
Another time, I sat with half a dozen other people in a sleek sliver of a restaurant in Tijuana's zona gastronómica, feasting on freshly harvested sea urchin--the first I've ever liked--garra de león scallops, and geoduck clams, and sipping on a Pisco sour. I could have been in San Francisco.
There's a restaurant in La Rumorosa, in the desert east of Tecate, that specializes only in codornices a la parilla--grilled quail. There's a stand near the Tijuana Technological Institute that serves camarones enchilados and tuna fin, a surprisingly good taco.
There are high-end restaurants that outclass any restaurant, Mexican or not, in Orange County; there are humble street stalls serving menudo or deep-fried chicken necks, with long lines of patrons who know where to get the best. Even the bars make great snacks.
Smoked clams. Fried fish tucked into tacos. Buttery cheeses studded with basil leaves. The best olive oil in North America. Wines that would cause traffic jams in Napa or Santa Barbara. Market stalls full of chiles, cooking chocolate and spices that are simply unavailable north of la línea.
The point of this long and rambling paean to our neighboring state is that there's a lot to eat that we can't get up here. They've been busy reinventing themselves down there, waking up and taking advantage of the mild climate and long growing season, and they're celebrating.
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The Baja Culinary Fest, that celebration of all these foods, will take place from Oct. 5-9 in Tijuana, Ensenada, Tecate, San Felipe, Mexicali and the Guadalupe Valley. There will be cooking demonstrations, special dinners by Baja's finest chefs, cocktail pairings and showing off of the (surprisingly good) craft beers and local wines of B.C., and a festival on Saturday at the El Trompo interactive museum and the World Trade Center of Tijuana.
Go. Go discover it now. Baja is safe, it's easy to get to, and it's a fantastic value. Dismiss the visions of tawdry schlock and painted burros on la Revolución and get to know the rest of the state.
Find all the details in both English and Spanish at the festival's website, bajaculinaryfest.com.