Mexican cuisine is one of the most sought after culinary styles on the West Coast, especially within border states such as California. Yet "Mexican cuisine" is far too broad of a category as Mexico is home to a number of diverse regional culinary styles.
'Baja Cuisine' is one such style that is found in the Mexican state of Baja California, on the US state of California's southern border. Known best for its ultra-fresh seafood, the state is home to a number of rich culinary traditions that defy national borders with their shared landscape and local ingredients
In addition to its famous seafood scene, Baja California is also home to a vibrant wine industry in the region's Valle de Guadalupe. Established as a wine region by Spanish colonial settlers, the region has recently been undergoing a revolution in terms of wine quality and production thanks to the work of Hugo d'Acosta who began training local vineyard owners on how to make wine, thereby empowering the next generation of Mexican winemakers.
While previously, it was the small beach towns along the coast that have been the major draw for American tourists, the rapidly developing wine region has now become a tourist destination in its own right, attracting visitors from all over eager to explore the burgeoning region.
And of course, as no great wine region would be complete without several world class restaurants, within the Valle de Guadalupe, several top chefs have begun setting the pace for the emerging culinary hotbed, setting taste trends that transcend national boundaries and attracting diners from both sides of the border.
Transcending National Borders
Baja chef and co-owner of renowned restaurant Corazon de Tierra, Diego Hernandez Baquedano is one such chef who is ignoring national boundaries and exploring the culinary techniques of both north and south of the border.
Baquedano’s very first job was working (unpaid) as a cook in Manzanilla Restaurant in Ensenada. Still living at his parents’ house, the chef knew he could afford to work for free and used his time there to gain valuable experience he would later use at his own restaurant. At Corazon de Tierra, which opened less than five years ago, Baquedano sought out to showcase the vibrancy of Baja California through sourcing ultra-local ingredients that he features in an ever changing tasting menu paired with craft, local beverages.
Receiving top honors for his work at the restaurant, Baquedano has also recently introduced an upscale food truck, Troika, located only steps away from Corazon de Tierra. The truck features more comfort-style cuisine though still maintains its “Baja Fresh” culinary style.
While Baquedano describes his cuisine as “Mexican from the Pacific Coast of Baja California,” his idea of where this culinary region ends does not exactly mesh with geopolitical borders.
“As a culinary region, I think the strip from Los Angeles to Ensenada should be seen as one region,” Baquedano explains. “I see similar ingredients – the ocean is the same. The landscape is the same. The produce is the same.”
In fact, the chef sees so much of a synergy between the culinary traditions of Baja California and the State of California that he is opening another restaurant later this year that will also serve local, Baja California cuisine, though this time he is locating the restaurant in Los Angeles.
“In Los Angeles, the Mexican culture is part of everyday life,” Baquedano states. “So I can do upscale Mexican food and people will understand.”
The chef furthered that he won’t be changing much to the menu to better suit the American palate, although he will be adding some more masa, chili peppers, and shisho to many of the dishes.
“I don’t think I have to change it a lot,” he added. “The food in Baja is very American…so the palate is very similar.”
Yet despite the ease of translating culinary techniques and ingredients, the opening of a new restaurant on the other side of the border is not without its challenges.
“Permits [have] been more complicated than we expected,” Baquedano explains. But the chef is not worried. “LA is a two hour drive and…my sous chef from Corazon de Tierra will move permanently to Los Angeles to be my eyes and brains in this project.”
A Culinary Style All Its Own
When it comes to “Baja California” cuisine, chefs on both sides of the border are able to experiment with a culinary style that incorporates local, fresh ingredients and a long, historical gastronomic tradition. Chefs that work within this style of cooking can experiment with the wide range of flavors, ingredients and culinary styles that exist within the confines of what is referred to as Baja Cuisine.
Baja California is thus a special place, incorporating a fusion of styles, ingredients and techniques from both the US and Mexico to create a culinary style uniquely its own. Yet while the shared culinary heritage may set the region apart from other regional traditions in Mexico, it is this distinctiveness that makes Baja such a culinary treasure.
“It is too Mexican for the US and too American for Mexico” Baquedano explains. “It is a place where past generations were pretending to be one or the other but in my generation, we feel very comfortable being different. For us it is just the food we grew up with and it expresses who we are.”