Robert Bush 5 p.m., Jan. 23
Ensenada trip part 2: Old Mission Brewery
As we meandered back and forth through the streets of Ensenada in El Jefe's van, looking for the tell-tale signs of a bicycle race about to happen, I spotted the word "microcerveceria" on a signboard. I assumed it was an advertisement for some brewery stationed elsewhere in town, but it turned out that the restaurant and brewery is right there at the corner of Sexta and Castillo. They even have a small parking lot.
We returned later to eat and to see what kind of beers were coming out of what is (if the sign is truthful) Ensenada's first microbrewery.
The restaurant had seven different beers courtesy of the on-site brewing operations, as well bottled beer, liquour, and a meagre selection of wines. The Old Mission beers were all under $5 for pints and I tried a few. The "copper canyon" was a satisfying amber hued glass of ale that had the easy-drinking character of English session bitters. Two different IPAs were on the menu, the first being "dos pablos," which had the straight-forward hops and alcohol flavor of something like Long Hammer IPA; neither fancy nor inferior. The "red agave" IPA, on the other hand, was a different kind of beer. Dark amber in color, it had a funky, musky taste that was not at all in keeping with the conventionally popular American IPA. In a lot of ways, it's what I would have thought a Mexican IPA would taste like, even if I couldn't have described it until I'd tasted it.
All of the beers were on par with what mid-level American brewers are producing. Nothing was of exceptional quality, except perhaps the agave beer, which was noteworthy for its difference. Considering the relatively narrow scope of the present craft brewing scene in Mexico, Old Mission's efforts show that the brewers in Baja understand the kinds of beers they want to make and they're taking steps towards perfecting them.
Of course, the restaurant sold food. Like a sort of south-of-the-border BLAH, pizza was a big menu item. There was much in the way of "conventional" pie with sausage, red sauce, various cheeses, etc., but the "green valley" pizza stood out as a novelty. It sounds a little disgusting: topped with chicken, refried beans, salsa verde, pico de gallo, cilantro, and chipotle cream. It even looked pretty gnarly coming out of the kitchen after an extended wait because the first pizza met some ill fate during cooking.
What could have been a Taco Bell/7-11 nightmare on wheels was actually an artful combination of flavors and textures for just under $20. Refried beans cook down into a wonderful pizza topping and the chipotle cream was fresh tasting in the company of chopped cilantro. It was the crust, however, that stole the show. Deeply flavored and striking a marvelous balance between crisp edges and chewy center, the bread on which the pizza had been built could stand up against any good crust I've sunk my teeth into. Investigating the pie's construction, I deduced that the pizza had somehow been pieced together from multiple shards of dough. While that didn't impact the experience any, it's a curious mystery why the kitchen would do that.
Beyond pizza, the menu listed a grip of appetizers and entrees skewed towards, of all things, Italian-style American food like shrimp scampi and spaghetti with meatballs. Interestingly, some more characteristically Mexican touches made their way onto the menu like "spiedini," which is an Italian kebab, of shrimp in an espresso-chipotle marinade or a dish of chicken in red wine and jamaica sauce.
For what it's worth, the kitchen also produced a delicious, if otherwise unremarkable and haphazardly plated, hamburger.
It seems weird to eat this total gringo food in Mexico, what with so many tasty tacos around, but in a lot of ways it's a pretty great look at the future. Pizza and beer is going to keep getting bigger and bigger in Mexico and this sort of first-round brewpub is a look at what the scene is going to be like. El Jefe said he had heard that Mexico is one of the fastest growing markets in the world for pizza and, truth or fallacy, that makes a lot of sense. If Mexican food found root to grow into new territory and turn into all kinds of exciting things on our side of the border (no better example than the California burrito), how cool is it to see restaurants on the other side of la frontera rehashing the things we've been doing in California? Sooner or later, it has to turn into something new and unexpected.