“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…
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?
“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.