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“Free shrimp ceviche tostada if you Like us on Facebook!”

That’s John Renison calling out to kids drifting by this Friday evening, wondering what his black pop-up tent is doing here in a Coronado parking lot with split wine barrels lining a sit-up counter.

“What do I have to do?” asks a girl.

“Just ‘Like’ ‘the Blue Quetzal,’” says Renison. “That’s us.”

What’s interesting is what the Blue Quetzal’s selling; tacos, yes, but not just same-old carne asada tacos like at your nearest Aliberto’s, but with original takes on the street food of all street foods. The “arrachera asada” flank steak taco has meat that’s marinated in orange juice, lemon juice, and Worcestershire sauce. The shrimp in the ceviche tostada has been butterflied, split and spread out, then doused in aguachile, mainly lemon juice. The citric acids cook the shrimp till it turns white. Beetroot and avocado are involved. They also do shrimp with hibiscus flower, and octopus a la plancha.

So I have to ask: Is this Baja Med?

Because, honestly, I’m confused.

The Baja-Med food revolution is happening. For sure. Hey, if it’s in the New York Times

Video:

Baja Cuisine

Chef Miguel Milland at El Colegio in Tijuana, sophisticated tacos at Chef Fuillermo Moreno's Kokopelli Food Truck, and Tijuana's only culinary school

Chef Miguel Milland at El Colegio in Tijuana, sophisticated tacos at Chef Fuillermo Moreno's Kokopelli Food Truck, and Tijuana's only culinary school

“[Chef Javier] Plascencia, who was born and raised in Tijuana but attended high school and culinary school in San Diego, refers to his cooking as Baja Mediterranean: traditional Mexican cuisine combined with ingredients and flavors that flourish in Baja California’s coastal Mediterranean-like climate, including olive oil, abalone and arugula. It’s a style espoused by other Tijuana chefs, like Miguel Angel Guerrero, of La Querencia; Jair Tellez, at Laja; and Martín San Román, of Rincón San Román. But Mr. Plascencia brings a flair for dramatic presentation, an appreciation for Tijuana street food’s deep flavors, and a binational approach to farm-to-table cooking.”

…Or Anthony Bourdain, on his swing through Baja for No Reservations last year. He discovers Baja Med cuisine in the Guadalupe Valley. Even though chef Benito Molina of restaurant Manzanilla doesn’t really go for the name. “It’s more Mexican than Mediterranean,” he says. “It’s Mediterranean ingredients, but done in a Mexican way.”

But what I want to know is, what is it that’s happening? Is it anything more than sophisticated tacos? Street food that was always around, just getting middle-class-ified? Is it an Emperor’s New Clothes situation where you have to go “Wow!” just to show you’re cool with the in crowd?

Or is it real, like with the San Diego beer scene (and now Tijuana, too). Real experimentation, creating an identity out of whole cloth?

This kind of came together the other night when I was standing outside the Blue Quetzal, chewing the fat with Renison.

“I’m from Mexicali,” says Renison. “But I have spent four years in San Diego, and three years in Boston where I met my wife and we had our two children. It was there we saw the need for authentic Mexican gourmet street food. As in tacos. Not taco shops — Rubio’s, La Salsa... But more original, interesting.”

“Besides, I needed a new entrepreneurial adventure. So I came back to San Diego. I looked at my bank account, and I saw that there was a little money left, and I said ‘I’m going to bring Baja-Med to San Diego.’”

Aha. The word.

He soon realized the reality was, Baja Med was already here, in places like Romesco’s in Bonita. “But I said, ‘That’s a place where you have to sit down, and it’s expensive, and it’s far away from the center of San Diego. Basically, Chula Vista’s a Latino population, a Mexican population, close to the border. So I thought I would open in downtown, Coronado, North County, places like that. All of them. I got a pop-up tent, and started at the corner of Tenth and B, at Chaplos restaurant and bar in downtown.

“I started with a menu: octopus with tamarind, shrimp with hibiscus, and lemon fish with California-pepper refried beans and lemon zest. Everything on a corn tortilla. We made alfalfa and chia water, and cucumber and chia water as well. It worked really good.”

But is this Baja Med? Actually, what is Baja Med?

Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero is recognized as a Baja Med pioneer.

Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero is recognized as a Baja Med pioneer.

“Eight years ago chef Miguel Angel Guerrero from the restaurant La Querencia in Tijuana, and Javier Plascencia from Casa Plascencia, whose family owns Caesar’s, and Finca Altozano in the Guadalupe Valley, they started a new concept, a new trend in Baja California where there was no traditional cuisine. Basically, you can say that Baja California is the only state in Mexico that didn’t have any kind of food that distinguishes it.

“The only food from Baja that’s known in the entire world is the Caesar salad. So, these guys came up with the idea to build some type of fusion of food. Not only tacos. But Mediterranean, and Asian ways of presenting fish.”

He reminds me of how many Asians settled in Baja, many fleeing the anti-Asian laws and the general prejudice that ruled California, back in the bad old days. California’s loss was Baja’s gain. Asian influence in the region’s cooking is subtle but real.

“Sure. Look at my ‘pescado empanizado’ taco,” Renison says. “It’s breaded fish with melted cheese on top. We’re using Japanese tempura methods brought there by Japanese fishermen as they have perfected them in Ensenada.”

He says tomorrow the treatment will be different. “We’ll be at the Mission Brewery in Barrio Logan, and the fish [will be] like fish machaca. It’s kind of shredded fish, could be mahi mahi, could be tilapia. It all depends on the city or the area we are in. And it has a bed of refried black beans, California pepper, and a special signature sauce that I made which is not guacamole, but it’s avocado, jalapeño, cilantro, and tomatillo. So, that’s not Baja Med. I made my own concept. I don’t do Baja Med. I do artisan Baja cuisine.”

So, nailing this isn’t going to be so easy. Guess we’ll have to take a little trip.

Tribute to Cesar

We’re in TJ, above the Rio district, where the mountain with the sign “JESUCRISTO ES EL SEÑOR” carved into it in white looks down at you from a great height. It’s a starkly sunny day, especially in the ultra-modern rust/glass/concrete courtyard and classrooms of the Culinary Art School, maybe this town’s most famous place for wannabe chefs. And for the phenomenon of Baja Med. Its spawning ground, you might say.

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Comments

Fulano de Tal Dec. 27, 2013 @ 12:34 p.m.

"9/11 is the best thing that ever happened to Baja cuisine"?

Could you possibly think of a more demeaning way to portray the deaths of 3,000 people at the hands of terrorists? What will be your next glamor article, "How Hitler was good for the Jews? "

What a pendejo.

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Ed Bedford Dec. 29, 2013 @ 4:09 a.m.

I agree it was an insensitive headline, which I didn't write. I have no control over headlines.

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dhi417 Dec. 29, 2013 @ 2:11 p.m.

Then issue a retraction. This is beyond insensitive. Who chose the title? And does he or she know that thousands died and thousands of first responders continue to suffer from diseases and illnesses caused by the ruins?

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savoryexposure Dec. 29, 2013 @ 3:51 p.m.

It's really too bad about the headline, I'm not sure how someone thought that it was a good idea, and then didn't think to adjust it online. However the article and cover photo are great. Kudos

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Ed Bedford Dec. 30, 2013 @ 6:50 p.m.

Thanks Savory, dh. Here's what I feel about the title: That it was supposed to reflect what I said in the article, which was that the double blows for Baja's economy - the tightening of the border after the terrible events of 9/11, and the horrors of the drug wars that followed - forced the chefs and entrepreneurs south of the border to fall back on their own devices, look more deeply into their own rich culinary traditions, both Spanish-inspired and native-American-inspired, Mayan, Kumeyaay, Aztec. The result has been a flowering of an unbelievably rich cuisine anchored in the foods and traditions that could well have lain dormant had it not been for the local crisis that began with the tragedy of 9/11.

I don't think anybody remotely wanted to sound flippant with the headline. But, for sure, it gave the appearance of a cavalier attitude towards those terrible events, and for that I'm truly sorry.

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