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.
Today, the kids are showing off what they’ve learned. Plates are glinting with octopus, seaweed, butterflied shrimp, local mussels, oysters in lemon and pico de gallo, Baja cheeses, aguachile-marinated raw shrimp, goose barnacles. The sea, olive oil, red peppers all play big. Some dishes are lettuce leaves holding, say, oysters on rice. And José Figueroa, one of the student chefs, gives me what may be the clearest definition of what Baja Med’s all about.
“Everything on the menu we picked, plucked, or waded out and caught, today. We got up this morning at four, drove to the mangroves, dove to pluck the mussels, other clams. We picked herbs, vegetables, fruit…then we came back and prepared this lunch. That’s Baja Med.”
So, yes, famous chefs like Javier Plascencia and Miguel Angel Guerrero are leading the Baja Med charge, but the engine of heretical ideas is right here under the mountain with the message.
How seriously is the school being taken? Figueroa is about to take off for the U.K. to join the staff at a famous restaurant, L’Enclume. He follows in the footsteps of school graduate Guillermo “Oso” Campos Moreno, who was hired by a Michelin three-star restaurant in Holland called Oud Sluis.
One dish Figueroa is working on seems more like food design. As food, it looks ridiculously simple. Four lettuce leaves shaped like a propeller, with croutons, cheese, and some creamy-clear liquid in the scoop of the leaves.
“This?” says Figueroa, when he sees me looking. “A Caesar’s salad. Tribute to César Cardini, the Tijuana inventor. My interpretation.”
Crisis leads to freedom
People say that one big reason for the rise and rise of Baja Med is 9/11. The slamming of the border after that, and then the U.S. economy tanking, and drug violence from ’08 onward turned the world’s busiest bordertown into the world’s biggest ghost town. No more tourists, no more market for schlocky trinkets, no more market to sell the unmoving traditional Mexican food that thrived on never changing. The appeal to visitors had always been to “old Mexico,” where things were quaint and predictable. Really, it was a condescending view and the merchants had to play to it. It held back the swelling tide of young entrepreneurs and chefs who kept thinking What about us, our food, our new ideas?
It was the financial/tourist crisis that set these guys free, gave them new confidence, set in motion the idea that looking at new ideas and ancient knowledge south of the border was cool and beautifully uncharted territory. Everything from using huitlacoche — black corn mold that the Aztecs used for flavor — to using native succulents like salicornia, also known as sea beans, or beach asparagus, off the beach marshes.
That idea, of using the food that’s growing around the neighborhood — from Cabo to Diego — is the backbone of this movement. And one of the coolest places right now where you see this happening is on a street not far from the post office, near the giant bandera — national flag — at the top of Revolución, where it curves and morphs into Agua Caliente Boulevard.
It’s a hot, windy lunchtime on Calle Melchor Ocampo. The canvas is flapping and flicking and smoke’s pouring out from underneath. People stand huddled in the shade of the palm-frond-covered canopy alongside this pot-holed street.
Even across the road, you can smell the taco meat roasting. Okay, maybe you smell the fire first. It’s mesquite. Has its own smell. Bodes well.
I cross over, join the little throng. “It’s what they call Baja Med,” says this woman, Norma. “Really sophisticated tacos, but cheap. Usually it’s just at upmarket places like La Querencia, Misión 19. Here, 25 pesos.” All the tacos here are between 22 and 35 pesos, say $1.75–$3.
Three guys in black work away behind a wood-burning grill, cooking meats, peppers, huge mushrooms, and corn tortillas.
I ask the cook in the cowboy hat, Orlando, what he recommends. He says I need to have the Kraken. That’s the taco with grilled octopus in a Mexican pesto sauce. Then, he says, I should maybe have the Black Harder, ceviche de lenguado — of sole — with chile calabasa (squash) and a peanut chili, done “in a style unique to Kokopelli.”
The Kraken explodes with taste in your mouth. It lies there open-faced, waiting for you to roll it up, holding a great, long wad of green Anaheim chili that acts like a peppery boat filled with the chopped-up octopus and the pesto on top of the filling. It has poblano chili peppers, cilantro, and other stuff you know they’ll never tell you about. And is that cheese and avo? What it is is a riot of tastes you need to take time to get your buds around.
Then there’s the Black Harder taco (a play on “Negro Durazo,” the local seafood chain in TJ, Chula Vista, and Lemon Grove). Oh, man. The “style unique to Kokopelli” turns out to be ceviche of sole cooked in lime, stained with squid ink, then slapped on a messy red layer of roasted tomato, toasted chilies, peanuts, and someone says (I think), squash and roasted habaneros in olive oil. Whatever it is, they say the sauce is “oriental.” There’s that Asian Baja Med thing again.
Norma and her friends Gaby and Claudia are leaning over chewing their tacos, letting the drips hit the pavement. They’ve got octopus and pesto tacos that have been flambéed. Look delicious.
Oh, it’s the Kraken pulpo, too. “It tastes very different from the usual tacos,” says Norma. “The tortilla flavor is different because it is cooked on mesquite. It blackens the corn.”