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Popotla, Baja California: Seafood Cocktails and Dreams

Fishermen sell their catch at Popotla, B.C.
Fishermen sell their catch at Popotla, B.C.
Bill Esparza


In 1988's campy bartender melodrama, Cocktail, Brian Flanagan and Doug Coughlin both shared the same dream--to have a place of their own, and live it up like kings. Baja California has been my place to pursue such lofty desires; it's a place where a middle-class guy like me can "make it rain." It's only been the past 3 years that the US media has caught on to the wealth of food products and local cuisine, but they're making up for lost time just swallowing up every delicious find, and every tasty tale from the streets of Baja to its finest dining rooms. But just when you thought Baja couldn't surprise, along came Popotla, the sleepy fishing village that has been my latest obsession as of this past summer.

Popotla may be the most underutilized treasure in Baja California--the locals go to the beach restaurants at the entrance, geared towards Mexican families who go for the pescado zarandeado, Baja lobster, and shrimp cocktails. Down on the beach, Bajacalifornios stick to fried fish, which is done with fresh catch from the fisherman, which is fine, but they're missing out on something bigger. On this beach, the famed Baja lobster dish is a yawn compared to the ease at which you can acquire deep-fried spider crabs, cracked open alive right in front of your eyes, and paired with a spicy a la diabla sauce, or a mojo de ajo. Sea urchin, abalone, pismo clam, black clams, red clams, enormous "huarache" oysters, rare chocolate clams, and sea snail are so cheap it'll have you screaming "whaat" in your best Little John.

The morning catch arrives and is cleaned and ready to go into ceviches, cocktails, and anything your heart desires--this is a place to live out your seafood fantasies and wash it down with a cold Pacifico.



Tamal de camaronEXPAND
Tamal de camaron
Bill Esparza



Popotla is located just south of the Fox Studios just south of Rosarito Beach, and this place gets packed on the weekends, so parking on the dirt road leading to the beach can be tricky getting out. When you reach all the barkers shoving menus in your faces, you should smile and keep moving towards the beach, but not before having a shrimp tamale from Los Originales Tamles de Popotla, a plywood tamale shack on your left as you begin the row of beach restaurants. All the tamales are good, but the shrimp tamal is a must, with a spicy shrimp stew in the center that moistens the flavorful masa.  

Did I mention you should bring a crew?--you'll need help with all this. 



Huarache oyster at Los Compadres de Sinaloa
Huarache oyster at Los Compadres de Sinaloa


chocolatas.JPG
Bill Esparza



Start off with raw shellfish, ceviches, and cocktails, and for this you only need one stand: Los Compadres de Sinaloa. Walk past the boats, fish mongers, shellfish stands, and junk food vendors where you'll find an attractive coctelera huddled behind a wall of the typical seafood hot sauces ready to serve you. El Compadre takes care of all the shucking and cracking of live shellfish to be served au natural, or he hands it off to Erika who'll take care of any preparations. Huarache oysters are the ultimate oceanic treat--yourself--right entry into this gourmet seafood buffet. 


Pata de mula, or "mule's foot" clam at Los Compadres de SinaloaEXPAND
Pata de mula, or "mule's foot" clam at Los Compadres de Sinaloa
Bill Esparza



Get a plate of black and red clams, the famously strong flavored shellfish known as pata de mula, or mule's foot. The bitter liquor is for true seafood aficionados who don't shy away from extreme flavors. 


Erika at Los Compadres de Sinaloa
Erika at Los Compadres de Sinaloa
Bill Esparza


One visit, I purchased a fine curvina from a boat and brought it over to be marinated for about 20 minutes for one of the nicest traditional ceviches de pescado I've had in a while. If you have a big enough group you can grab a large yellowtail tuna and bring it over. Erika didn't even charge me for the ceviche service. 
 
Coctel de erizo, or sea urchin at Los Compadres de Sinaloa
Coctel de erizo, or sea urchin at Los Compadres de Sinaloa
Bill Esparza


The usual cocktail takes a pleasurable turn when filled to the top of an 8 ounce cup of tender abalone, or creamy Baja sea urchin swimming in a cold shrimp stock, a seasoned with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. The first time I ordered the sea urchin I realized she had just dumped a bunch into the cup, maybe eight pieces or more, and I thought, "uh-oh, maybe I should have asked how much it was, first?" When she said it was $6 we both just smiled at each other and I understood at that moment what it feels like for money to not be an object.

The callo de hacha, or scallops here ranks up with the best in Sinaloa (perhaps the best traditional seafood practice in Mexico, along with Nayarit)--they're cooked in lime, spiced by fiery chile chiltepin, and dressed with cucumbers sliced into half-moons and the signature slivers of purple onion. These scallops are something else--their firm steak-like texture, and clean flavor are prized among Mexicans, I mean, callo de hacha on a first date is like second base in Sinaloa. 

Ceviche of your dreams at Los Compadres de SinaloaEXPAND
Ceviche of your dreams at Los Compadres de Sinaloa

Bill Esparza


To take it to the next level, just let your cravings do the talking, like when I asked Erika to make a ceviche of sea urchin, chocolate clam, pismo clam, sea snail, abalone, and callo de hacha made to order. We finally made it to the 1%!

Puerto Nuevo style lobster at Popotla Beach
Puerto Nuevo style lobster at Popotla Beach
Bill Esparza


If you want to indulge in Baja lobster without the tourist spectacle of Puerto Nuevo, this is the place to do it. Everyone here can get you lobster, but stick to the season, which runs from about October through March, and do insist on live lobster, or move on. Anyone of the joints at the back of the beach with fry it in lard and cook up[ all the traditional sides: refried beans, flour tortillas, and a melted garlic-butter dipping sauce.
 

Centollo, or spider crab at Popotla
Centollo, or spider crab at Popotla
Bill Esparza



Spider crab fried Baja style
Spider crab fried Baja style
Bill Esparza




Marciano a la diabla at Popotla Beach
Marciano a la diabla at Popotla Beach
Bill Esparza



But the main attraction here is the centollo, or spider crab--it's known locally as Marciano. As you walk down the decline to the beach, the first stand you'll come across on your left is El Guero. El Guero is your Marciano hustler--if he has a stack of them on his table you're in luck as he charges about $3 for a medium sized spider crab. If he doesn't have them and he has to buy from someone else the price can be over $20. In the Fall and Winter the spider crabs will increase in size and in abundance. 

It's about $5 for the frying--I have El Compadre take it to his guy, who fries it to a softer texture than others on the beach, which is necessary, otherwise the claws can get a little dry. This crab is more savory than dungeness, or stone crabs, and the real magic is in the joints. The joints get carmelized in the hot lard and are loaded with crab meat, which runs throughout the legs. The best part is you get to pulverize the rock hard legs with a smooth stone--on a plastic tables! Wear a bib, and keep your beers on another table as you violently have at the pile of crab parts sending crab shell shrapnel flying across the rumbling, bouncing lawn table. 


I'll see your beer commercial in paradise and raise you a sea urchin cocktail!
I'll see your beer commercial in paradise and raise you a sea urchin cocktail!
Bill Esparza



No one is doing this but you! The paisas are eating fried fish and making faces at the strange looking sea urchins, one woman was loudly objecting even to the idea of trying it. There aren't any American tourists here either. Do your homework, study up on the cold bar, hot bar, and grill of the Sinaloan beach kitchen--oh yeah, you can have them cook you up some seafood guisados, too--they can do anything here.

Jay-Z might be able to trip a referee and get away with it, but you get to ball on this beach on a level he couldn't even fathom. Popotla is yours for the taking, and it's now a regular stop for me, a place where I bring friends to sip Pacificos and get messy over some fried Marciano, and another reason why Baja California is one of the greatest seafood destinations on the planet.

Now, how to get to Popotla, B.C.

Take the Popotla exit on the toll highway from Tijuana just past Rosarito Beach and continue along the free highway until you see Fox Studios. Take a right down the dirt road at the end of Fox Studios. Open daily from around 9:30 until mid-day, restaurants may keep later hours.

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