July 4, 2008

Ensenada: Food and Drink Notes

If you are in California and looking for a budget vacation with great food, I highly recommend Ensenada.

We drove across the border from San Diego during Sunday afternoon and it was a pleasant 2 hour trip. You have to drive from somewhere as there is no airport other than the navy base, but eliminating the flight component from a week long vacation decreases the cost substantially. Add the decreased cost of living and you've got a budget vacation without any real effort.

But the food -- what a wonderful surprise. I expected to be happy because Mexican food is one of my favorite types of food. But I've been more than happy -- I've been almost overwhelmed with food pleasure. Although we've almost been here a week, the variety in Mexican food and flavors that are available have led each of us to be satiated and none of us have yet to tire of the fabulous options.

The first meal, we parked on the small street that leads from the Mex 1 to where we are staying and we walked about a mile. It was Sunday and many stores were closed but we couldn't help but be excited about the options we would have this week.

Eventually, we sat at one of the open air tamale stands and ate ourselves silly on delicious tamales de res y tamales de pollo. The owner plucked each tamale straight from the huge steamer pot and placed them on paper plates where we eagerly untied the tightly tied husks to find deliciously tender masa and wonderfully spiced meat, with a potato added for good measure in the beef offering. I also bought a jar of pickled small yellow peppers mmmm....

From there, we crossed the street and our eyes and noses dragged us into the restaurant with a huge rotating wheel of 10 or so spits turning over a driftwood fire inside an open brick oven. Dos Pollos $140. Los Hermanos it's called -- the logo shows two happy pigs (presumably brothers) sweating in their sombreros inside a pot over a fire. We had a few carnitas tacos (delicious) and discussed the brilliance of their menu offering of la paquetta, which for $220 appeared to be a meal for 8 -- 1 kilo of meat, guacamole, 3 types of salsa, chopped white onions, cilantro, radishes, picked red onions, rice, beans, and a huge stack of corn tortillas from the tortilleria next door. Each day we discuss whether tonight will be the night we go for this option. You know, and whether we should also buy a chicken for good measure...

That first night, we hit the local grocery store to stock up: potatoes, eggs, jalapenos (so *hot* my lips were burning for hours after I cooked with them), some unknown other type of chili that looked like giant habaneros but were tasty and mild, pickled jalapenos and carrots from the deli, nopales, bacon, queso fresco, avacodos ($14 pesos a kilo!), tomatoes (so much tastier than what we can get in this season at home), beer, makings for margaritas, limes, tostadas, chips, beans, hot sauce, and salsa verde. Each morning, Nish and I leisurely compose some form of breakfast from these ingredients to tide us over until our next meal.

One morning, AW came back from his AM walk with pastries from one of the local bakeries. Mmmm... so delicious and buttery without being overly sweet!

Two days ago, we went back to the grocery store for reinforcements to acquire replacements for the few things we'd completely devoured. However, AW had one new item to add to the list -- he wanted chorizo. "It's vacation food," he informed me. "Nish doesn't let me eat it normally because it's so unhealthy."

Nish and I stood in front of the chorizo display and finally, we settled on a single tube of chorizo de cerdo which looked particularly appetizing. However, after a consultation with E, we agreed that perhaps we needed two tubes. So, we put the single tube down and purchased the double tube to its left.

Imagine our surprise yesterday morning to find the label on the double tube read,

Chorizo de Soya

Thankfully, the second ingredient was grasa de cerdo (aka lard) so we weren't in too much trouble, but us Californians were quite amused at the soy-lard combo, which clearly isn't vegetarian friendly, and probably isn't that much healthier than the original. The best guess we could come up with is that it stretches the meat further, which, for once, was a use of soy in a meat-replacement product that E could get behind. For the record, the soy chorizo was actually quite tasty, although I suspect AW will silently never forgive us for missing his one big chance at the real thing before he and Nish move to New York.

Another food highlight was the deep-fried fish tacos by the docks at 8 pesos each. Mmmmm.... it's what Ensenada is famous for, and for good reason. So tasty, fried to order and not too greasy, so many salsas to select from, it's heaven. Like the paquetta, this is another option we regularly discuss as to whether we'll be going back for more. The problem there is that it's downtown, near the cruise ships and full of all of the hawking, yelling, tourist crap, and annoyance that we successfully avoid by staying outside of town. Given that Ensenada is supposedly the least border-town-ish of the border towns, I can say with conviction that I would not enjoy a visit to Tijuana or Rosarito, which, supposedly, make this chaos, debauchery, and peddling look like nothing.

In truth, we haven't had a bad meal yet, although AW and nish did end up with some unidentified organ meat concoction as one of their selections at a Mexico-city-style lunch restaurant offering clay pots of various meat preparations. That was one of the few times on this trip when all of our plates weren't cleaned completely, but we agreed that even though we only enjoyed 3 of the 4 selections of meat (the birria and unidentified spicy stewed pork were amazing, the mole was okay), given the 10 handmade tortillas, beans, rice, salsas and drinks (jamaica for me, 1 coke in a glass bottle and two bottled waters), that lunch was still a steal for a total of less than $110 pesos.

As for drinks, it's what you'd expect, with one twist. Coke has sugar and not corn syrup and thus is a popular option for both E and AW. Bottled water is a necessity as the water in our condo is salty (even in the shower!) and filled with who-knows-what that white film on the bottom of the pan when we boil it is. And, in contrast to the water, it's almost impossible to get a bad margarita, and the beers are always fresh, cold, and light.

The twist is the wine. North of ensenada is a wine region known as the Valle Guadalupe. The oldest winery in Mexico is Santo Thomas, and their winery offers brief tours and tastings. The whites all have an unfortunate common funkiness to them. But several of the heavier reds are quite nice. We bought a bottle of the cabernet sauvignon to enjoy at home. We had plans to go winetasting in the valley, but Mexico-time took over and that plan never really materialized. That's okay, though, since we were able to sample several of the local products with our amazing meal at Laja restaurant (which will get its own post, later).

So, yeah. In our typical true-relaxation vacation style, we've spent time and effort on flavor and food-related adventures, and we've put very little effort into anything else.

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