I've had my share of food marathons, a delightful epicurean rundown of multiple restaurants, eateries, and the like. But nothing was close to the incredible experience I and a number of bloggers and writers had this past weekend in Baja California, mainly thanks to the brave, arduous efforts of one Bill Esparza of StreetGourmetLA and the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.TijuanaOnline.org)
Though media reports of Baja had been alarming, with detailed and repetitious coverage of the violence associated with the drugs cartels and police, we agreed to proceed with a trip through some fascinating eateries over the course of two days. Little did we really know what to expect since most of us have this conception that Mexican food is mostly rice, beans, and some sort of grilled meat. Even though I've expanded my conception of Mexican food with good meals at La Cabanita and La Casita Mexicana, I was ill-prepared for the gastronomic tour de force that Baja had to offer. Notable guests on the trip included friends Josh Lurie of FoodGPS, Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, HC of LA-OC Foodventures, Cathy of gast*ron*o*my, Pat of Eating LA, Abby of Pleasure Palate, Chef Ramiro of La Casita Mexicana, and Javier of Teenage Glutster. It was great also meeting Noah of the probably world-famous Man Bites World and currently of Squid Ink, as well as Barbara Hansen, a veteran food writer who was formally with the LA Times Food Section and now writes TableConversation.
We hopped onto the Crucero bus at Union Station, which transports travelers in a comfortable charter bus to Tijuana. We arrived famished and tired in a quiet section of Tijuana at our modern hotel of Palacio Azteca. The rooms proved comfortable and well-portioned though we quickly dropped off our gear for a late-night taco run.
Though we in Los Angeles seem to have embraced the humble taco as its greatest culinary earmark, along the lines of New York's pizza and Chicago's hot dog, virtually no taco stands or trucks can rival the best of Tijuana, where a glowing fluorescent joint with a sheen of oil amid ragtag chairs makes for the ultimate in griddled meat incased in tortilla.
At Tacos El Poblano, the taqueros combine three meats to make a savory, toothsome carne asada. Dressed amply with salsa and fresh guacamole, it couldn't have been a better classic taco. The flavors of the meat were unparalleled based on the carne asadas I've had in LA, though just slightly superior to some great carne asada I've had in San Diego. The three meats, comprised of loin, round, and some other hearty meat, made me think of the difference between a cuvee (in winespeak) and a single varietal - a multifaceted melange of flavors exceeding the common carne asada experience. The hardened tortillas were perhaps the only weak spot of the $1 portion, though a crispy/crunchy tostada provided a heartier foundation for the tres carnes. In between we had an intermezzo of crispy, chewy jerky laid out on a platter for our anxious fingertips. I consumed three tacos before I could blink, washing it down with a refreshing Coca-Cola. I was ready for bed.
Then again, I soon realized that this trip wasn't going to be the sort of leisurely affair one would normally call a vacation. It was going to be an end-all, be-all gorge fest and drink fest with an unrelenting pace, something an ancient Roman would jump at with open arms. If General Lucullus had his way around Baja, he'd be leading this trip, but instead we have a modern day version in the plucky Bill Esparza.
We mercifully ended the first night with beers and free appetizers at La Vuelta, with a rambunctious mariachi band, complete with raging violinists, striking trumpeters, grounded guitarists, and a swooning singer. The music was oppressively loud, exactly how I wanted it, while I downed beers from a large ice bucket. A nice nightcap before a long journey through Tijuana and Ensenada's food scene.
Tacos El Poblano
7813 Boulevard Diaz Ordaz in the Tijuana community of La Mesa