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The unintended Baja Med escapade

I misunderstood the BorderChef invitation to Valle De Guadalupe

“Border Chef was born out of my own necessity to express my contrasts in life and inside the kitchen,” said Andrea Aguari, who was born in Ensenada in 1984. “I poured my heart into creating what I define as a bicultural line of products, recipes, merchandise, and even digital content that resonates with my special approach in life.”
“Border Chef was born out of my own necessity to express my contrasts in life and inside the kitchen,” said Andrea Aguari, who was born in Ensenada in 1984. “I poured my heart into creating what I define as a bicultural line of products, recipes, merchandise, and even digital content that resonates with my special approach in life.”

I met “Border Chef” Andrea Aguari — the title is her own — a decade ago when she was cooking for the short-lived Taberna Etxeverri on Calle Sexta. We hadn’t spoken in years when I texted her: “Hey chef, I noticed you already have a great photographer. I’ve been working on my food photography if you ever want another option.” But despite the years, she was still quick to reply: “Sí. Ven el sábado. You can be on my team. I’ll have a panel ready at 10 am. There will be good food and wine, here’s the address in Playas de Tijuana.” I told her I would be there, and not much more was discussed.

My mistake. I misinterpreted the word “panel,” and concluded that Andrea was going to have some sort of food conference. I arrived at Playas de Tijuana 25 minutes late to find disgruntled staff waiting for me: Chef Andrea had meant she had a van to take her team to Valle De Guadalupe for an event. I told her I could have driven myself; she said it was a treacherous road. She was waiting in her car, which was packed with food and kitchen supplies. Her other passenger was Humberto Cuevas of Telefonica’s cheese store Quesos el Popo. I got in the white van with her sous chef Edgard Lara, her personal assistant Cassandra, photographer Xavier “el Terry” Terríquez Chavez, and the rest of the teenage staff. I apologized for being late. No one said a word until we got to Rosarito; there, Cassandra ordered the driver to stop by a stand selling street burritos. 

“Ah, the mushrooms; each piece gets a different mushroom. Is this too much salt?” The plate was a tiradito de jurel, raw Spanish mackerel covered in herbs, topped with two types of caviar and a mushroom (lightly salted).

Burrito stands in Baja usually have all their burritos ready to go in a cooler; they are a third or fourth the size of your standard California burrito, and usually sell for one dollar. But this stand was taking forever. They were preparing each burrito individually. It was luck of the draw as to what burrito you were getting. I got one filled with chicken and potatoes, and another with meat and beans. Great burritos, but not worth the wait — or the delay. Well, maybe a little bit worth it — I still had no idea where exactly we were going or what the event was about, but I assumed there would be brunch. I was mistaken. 

Just over an hour’s drive southeast of Tijuana lies Valle de Guadalupe. There are over a hundred wineries and restaurants in Valle; most of the restaurants focus on Baja-Med cuisine, a style coined by chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero that mixes Mediterranean and Baja flavors. Happily, the pandemic didn’t slow down the tourism boom that Valle has enjoyed for the past couple of years. Now, breweries like Lúdica Artesanal, Cervecería Misioneros, Cervecería Bellinghausen, and more have also started to make a move towards opening in the area.

“Is this too spicy?” she asked her sous chef when preparing the second course, aguachile de callo (scallops in a green tomatillo salsa).

A couple of miles before hitting the plethora of restaurants and wineries in Valle, Cassandra told the driver to take a sudden right at an unmarked gate. This led to the treacherous path through Natal Bosque Escondido, a rugged and narrow terrain running through the hills. We arrived at a small rustic outdoor kitchen near a creek with crawfish swimming in it. Ropes hung from the surrounding trees; gas tanks and cow carcasses were tied to some of them as some sort of modern art piece. Up the hill, there was a picturesque open living room with views of the bosque. There was no running water (except for one sink in the kitchen), no electricity, and barely any cell phone signal.

Andrea and her team got to work, unloading all the kitchen supplies, ice boxes, and food, and then firing up the grill. I was still unsure about what was happening; then Terry informed me what Border Chef was prepping was an exclusive five-course meal that was set to start at 5 pm. I later learned that the art and structures were designed by Seth Sullivan, also known as Art Pusher. The events are organized by Wine Eat & Travel, and feature a variety of rotating chefs and personalized experiences.

With hours to kill, Terry, Humberto, and I went exploring. The only bathroom on the premises was four walls with a net for a roof, non-existent doors, and no windows. It was full of random structural garbage, piles of hay, desert plants in odd pots, broken mannequins. The toilet sat on top of a stage, like a throne in the middle of the woods. A sign behind the toilet read Cocos con camaron y pulpo. There were no hiking trails, and the few paths that we tried to follow ended abruptly. There was cow and horse feces everywhere. The sounds of rattlesnakes discouraged further exploration. We went back to a mixture of relaxing in the Casita Natal and helping the staff with whatever they needed.

Andrea kept rearranging the third course, the crudo camarón enchilado. Three big shrimp with asparagus underneath covered in a spicy oily sauce and spices.

“So good to relax and escape,” exclaimed Humberto several times as he lay on the couch in the open living room. Humberto is always running around Teléfonica, offering products from his cheese store. He recently expanded Quesos el Popo to a new store called Bodega del Popo in Colonia Cacho. He’s not entirely sure why it’s called “Popo.” His great grandparents opened a butcher shop on Calle Segunda in 1933 called Carnicería El Popo. Over time, that area became the first market in Tijuana popularly known as Mercado El Popo, and the name just stuck to the family. Like me, Humberto met Andrea back in the Taberna Etxeverri days, lost track of her, messaged her just to know what was going on, and ended up in the car with her, unsure of where he was going.

Taberna Etxeverri was ahead of its time. It was a proper restaurant, situated in the middle of Calle Sexta in downtown Tijuana at a time when the environment was more about cheap drinks and parties. The menu consisted of tapas, pintxos, and wine. To create a cozier environment, Andrea hired me to play classical guitar. But the noise pouring in from surrounding bars drowned out my guitar to the point where it didn’t make much difference. I played there only a couple of times on special occasions. “Taberna Etxeverri was my first culinary expression and my biggest teacher in life,” said Andrea. “We often learn in life the hard way. Owning this little bar for four years — and eventually, two locations — made me stronger every day. Facing the challenges of being a woman in the business by myself was the biggest one, and it is still very hard to overcome the outdated system and corruption that makes Tijuana work.”

“Border Chef was born out of my own necessity to express my contrasts in life and inside the kitchen,” continued Andrea, who was born in Ensenada in 1984. “I poured my heart into creating what I define as a bicultural line of products, recipes, merchandise, and even digital content that resonates with my special approach in life. That’s always in the border of several cultures converging in my heart, and it couldn’t be otherwise, because that’s who I am. It wasn’t an easy task, but it feels like honesty to me. I mention this because finding a voice in this world feels impossible, but it came very easy when I decided to share my authentic self. I am a living example of two zip codes in my DNA; I jump from one language to the other hundreds of times a day, as it happens in most kitchens across America. Behind your favorite restaurant counter, most likely at least one bicultural chef is trying their best every day. Those last three years in San Francisco gave me the last drop of confidence in my dream to finally create my own. My dream is a full clothing line and products for all the border chefs of the world creating fusion kitchens, creating new techniques by mixing their own with others, scrambling their passion with other arts, evolving. I’m so much more than a chef, and Border Chef defines all of that. Border Chef is my dream, the one that lives on the borderline of two countries and loves both sides.”

Fourth course: smoked tuna on a bed of black truffle tapenade that was still missing one ingredient. “I told you the carrots were going to be a game-changer,” Andrea exclaimed to her sous chef as she topped the tuna with grilled carrots.

At around 3 pm, a power generator arrived, along with a DJ and a mural painted on two large plywood sheets. “Why would you bring all that to nature?” asked Humberto, criticizing the psychedelic mural and the use of a DJ for an upscale meal. But the musical selections were actually pleasing, so our skepticism faded.

An hour later, the VIP guests started to arrive, a mix of Americans and Baja locals. Reservations cost $100 per person for the five-course meal and a mezcal cocktail. With the wine pairing, the cost was $150.

“This is missing something,” said Andrea, analyzing the first course. “Ah, the mushrooms; each piece gets a different mushroom. Is this too much salt?” The plate was a tiradito de jurel, raw Spanish mackerel covered in herbs, topped with two types of caviar and a mushroom (lightly salted). “Is this too spicy?” she asked her sous chef when preparing the second course, aguachile de callo (scallops in a green tomatillo salsa). “How does this look? Is it better this way? Or what if I drip the salsa this way?” Andrea kept rearranging the third course, the crudo camarón enchilado. Three big shrimp with asparagus underneath covered in a spicy oily sauce and spices. She rearranged it several times before finally deciding on the official plating. “The guests are getting hungry, how much more time?” asked the event manager while Andrea was still working on the fourth course: smoked tuna on a bed of black truffle tapenade that was still missing one ingredient. “I told you the carrots were going to be a game-changer,” Andrea exclaimed to her sous chef as she topped the tuna with grilled carrots. The fifth course was the dessert: a concoction of candied walnuts, figs, plums, concha bread crumble, and a Cabernet Franc sauce.

After taking dozens of pictures, I got to try all the courses. The plates featured some of my favorite ingredients, so I felt I was in a fancy food paradise. Humberto was merrily drinking wine and mezcal cocktails; he even got a couple of drinks for me, before finding out they were keeping tabs on him and that he had to pay for them.

I asked attendee Melisa about her experience; she was the only guest who brought a child: her six-year-old son Bruno. “Everything was delicious, but the best was the shrimp,” said Melisa about the meal. “Then the jurel and the dessert. As for Bruno, he ate all the jurel with a smile, and he ate half of the callo and half of the shrimp. He didn’t touch the tuna. That went for ‘Huesos’ the DJ.” Bruno, like a little grown-up, mingled with the adults, making light conversation and eating caviar. He told me he saw a raccoon in the woods; I inquired for more information, but he took my genuine interest as fake and went to tell the next adult.

For the staff, Andrea smoked a pork thigh wrapped in tin foil over the grill for the duration of the entire event — though it was Terry who was mostly in charge of taking care of it. The meat was so tender and succulent that no cutting was required. We all dug in with our fingers. 

With the event nearly over, Andrea took out a couple of bottles of sparkling wine to celebrate as she went from table to table to greet her guests. Everyone seemed beyond pleased as they showered the chef with compliments.

As it got darker, the DJ switched the music to accommodate a dance party. The mural, which obstructed the view of nature and didn’t seem like much during the day, came to life under the UV lights. Half the party got up to dance on the dirt, including Melisa in her high heels and a white and black polka-dot dress.

At around 11 pm, the team got back in the van and we headed back to Tijuana. I passed out on the backseat, and before I knew it, I was back in Playas de Tijuana, ready to get back in my car and back home.

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International Smoke and a $29 lunch

Giving in to celebrity chef culture and hoping the bang’s worth the buck
“Border Chef was born out of my own necessity to express my contrasts in life and inside the kitchen,” said Andrea Aguari, who was born in Ensenada in 1984. “I poured my heart into creating what I define as a bicultural line of products, recipes, merchandise, and even digital content that resonates with my special approach in life.”
“Border Chef was born out of my own necessity to express my contrasts in life and inside the kitchen,” said Andrea Aguari, who was born in Ensenada in 1984. “I poured my heart into creating what I define as a bicultural line of products, recipes, merchandise, and even digital content that resonates with my special approach in life.”

I met “Border Chef” Andrea Aguari — the title is her own — a decade ago when she was cooking for the short-lived Taberna Etxeverri on Calle Sexta. We hadn’t spoken in years when I texted her: “Hey chef, I noticed you already have a great photographer. I’ve been working on my food photography if you ever want another option.” But despite the years, she was still quick to reply: “Sí. Ven el sábado. You can be on my team. I’ll have a panel ready at 10 am. There will be good food and wine, here’s the address in Playas de Tijuana.” I told her I would be there, and not much more was discussed.

My mistake. I misinterpreted the word “panel,” and concluded that Andrea was going to have some sort of food conference. I arrived at Playas de Tijuana 25 minutes late to find disgruntled staff waiting for me: Chef Andrea had meant she had a van to take her team to Valle De Guadalupe for an event. I told her I could have driven myself; she said it was a treacherous road. She was waiting in her car, which was packed with food and kitchen supplies. Her other passenger was Humberto Cuevas of Telefonica’s cheese store Quesos el Popo. I got in the white van with her sous chef Edgard Lara, her personal assistant Cassandra, photographer Xavier “el Terry” Terríquez Chavez, and the rest of the teenage staff. I apologized for being late. No one said a word until we got to Rosarito; there, Cassandra ordered the driver to stop by a stand selling street burritos. 

“Ah, the mushrooms; each piece gets a different mushroom. Is this too much salt?” The plate was a tiradito de jurel, raw Spanish mackerel covered in herbs, topped with two types of caviar and a mushroom (lightly salted).

Burrito stands in Baja usually have all their burritos ready to go in a cooler; they are a third or fourth the size of your standard California burrito, and usually sell for one dollar. But this stand was taking forever. They were preparing each burrito individually. It was luck of the draw as to what burrito you were getting. I got one filled with chicken and potatoes, and another with meat and beans. Great burritos, but not worth the wait — or the delay. Well, maybe a little bit worth it — I still had no idea where exactly we were going or what the event was about, but I assumed there would be brunch. I was mistaken. 

Just over an hour’s drive southeast of Tijuana lies Valle de Guadalupe. There are over a hundred wineries and restaurants in Valle; most of the restaurants focus on Baja-Med cuisine, a style coined by chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero that mixes Mediterranean and Baja flavors. Happily, the pandemic didn’t slow down the tourism boom that Valle has enjoyed for the past couple of years. Now, breweries like Lúdica Artesanal, Cervecería Misioneros, Cervecería Bellinghausen, and more have also started to make a move towards opening in the area.

“Is this too spicy?” she asked her sous chef when preparing the second course, aguachile de callo (scallops in a green tomatillo salsa).

A couple of miles before hitting the plethora of restaurants and wineries in Valle, Cassandra told the driver to take a sudden right at an unmarked gate. This led to the treacherous path through Natal Bosque Escondido, a rugged and narrow terrain running through the hills. We arrived at a small rustic outdoor kitchen near a creek with crawfish swimming in it. Ropes hung from the surrounding trees; gas tanks and cow carcasses were tied to some of them as some sort of modern art piece. Up the hill, there was a picturesque open living room with views of the bosque. There was no running water (except for one sink in the kitchen), no electricity, and barely any cell phone signal.

Andrea and her team got to work, unloading all the kitchen supplies, ice boxes, and food, and then firing up the grill. I was still unsure about what was happening; then Terry informed me what Border Chef was prepping was an exclusive five-course meal that was set to start at 5 pm. I later learned that the art and structures were designed by Seth Sullivan, also known as Art Pusher. The events are organized by Wine Eat & Travel, and feature a variety of rotating chefs and personalized experiences.

With hours to kill, Terry, Humberto, and I went exploring. The only bathroom on the premises was four walls with a net for a roof, non-existent doors, and no windows. It was full of random structural garbage, piles of hay, desert plants in odd pots, broken mannequins. The toilet sat on top of a stage, like a throne in the middle of the woods. A sign behind the toilet read Cocos con camaron y pulpo. There were no hiking trails, and the few paths that we tried to follow ended abruptly. There was cow and horse feces everywhere. The sounds of rattlesnakes discouraged further exploration. We went back to a mixture of relaxing in the Casita Natal and helping the staff with whatever they needed.

Andrea kept rearranging the third course, the crudo camarón enchilado. Three big shrimp with asparagus underneath covered in a spicy oily sauce and spices.

“So good to relax and escape,” exclaimed Humberto several times as he lay on the couch in the open living room. Humberto is always running around Teléfonica, offering products from his cheese store. He recently expanded Quesos el Popo to a new store called Bodega del Popo in Colonia Cacho. He’s not entirely sure why it’s called “Popo.” His great grandparents opened a butcher shop on Calle Segunda in 1933 called Carnicería El Popo. Over time, that area became the first market in Tijuana popularly known as Mercado El Popo, and the name just stuck to the family. Like me, Humberto met Andrea back in the Taberna Etxeverri days, lost track of her, messaged her just to know what was going on, and ended up in the car with her, unsure of where he was going.

Taberna Etxeverri was ahead of its time. It was a proper restaurant, situated in the middle of Calle Sexta in downtown Tijuana at a time when the environment was more about cheap drinks and parties. The menu consisted of tapas, pintxos, and wine. To create a cozier environment, Andrea hired me to play classical guitar. But the noise pouring in from surrounding bars drowned out my guitar to the point where it didn’t make much difference. I played there only a couple of times on special occasions. “Taberna Etxeverri was my first culinary expression and my biggest teacher in life,” said Andrea. “We often learn in life the hard way. Owning this little bar for four years — and eventually, two locations — made me stronger every day. Facing the challenges of being a woman in the business by myself was the biggest one, and it is still very hard to overcome the outdated system and corruption that makes Tijuana work.”

“Border Chef was born out of my own necessity to express my contrasts in life and inside the kitchen,” continued Andrea, who was born in Ensenada in 1984. “I poured my heart into creating what I define as a bicultural line of products, recipes, merchandise, and even digital content that resonates with my special approach in life. That’s always in the border of several cultures converging in my heart, and it couldn’t be otherwise, because that’s who I am. It wasn’t an easy task, but it feels like honesty to me. I mention this because finding a voice in this world feels impossible, but it came very easy when I decided to share my authentic self. I am a living example of two zip codes in my DNA; I jump from one language to the other hundreds of times a day, as it happens in most kitchens across America. Behind your favorite restaurant counter, most likely at least one bicultural chef is trying their best every day. Those last three years in San Francisco gave me the last drop of confidence in my dream to finally create my own. My dream is a full clothing line and products for all the border chefs of the world creating fusion kitchens, creating new techniques by mixing their own with others, scrambling their passion with other arts, evolving. I’m so much more than a chef, and Border Chef defines all of that. Border Chef is my dream, the one that lives on the borderline of two countries and loves both sides.”

Fourth course: smoked tuna on a bed of black truffle tapenade that was still missing one ingredient. “I told you the carrots were going to be a game-changer,” Andrea exclaimed to her sous chef as she topped the tuna with grilled carrots.

At around 3 pm, a power generator arrived, along with a DJ and a mural painted on two large plywood sheets. “Why would you bring all that to nature?” asked Humberto, criticizing the psychedelic mural and the use of a DJ for an upscale meal. But the musical selections were actually pleasing, so our skepticism faded.

An hour later, the VIP guests started to arrive, a mix of Americans and Baja locals. Reservations cost $100 per person for the five-course meal and a mezcal cocktail. With the wine pairing, the cost was $150.

“This is missing something,” said Andrea, analyzing the first course. “Ah, the mushrooms; each piece gets a different mushroom. Is this too much salt?” The plate was a tiradito de jurel, raw Spanish mackerel covered in herbs, topped with two types of caviar and a mushroom (lightly salted). “Is this too spicy?” she asked her sous chef when preparing the second course, aguachile de callo (scallops in a green tomatillo salsa). “How does this look? Is it better this way? Or what if I drip the salsa this way?” Andrea kept rearranging the third course, the crudo camarón enchilado. Three big shrimp with asparagus underneath covered in a spicy oily sauce and spices. She rearranged it several times before finally deciding on the official plating. “The guests are getting hungry, how much more time?” asked the event manager while Andrea was still working on the fourth course: smoked tuna on a bed of black truffle tapenade that was still missing one ingredient. “I told you the carrots were going to be a game-changer,” Andrea exclaimed to her sous chef as she topped the tuna with grilled carrots. The fifth course was the dessert: a concoction of candied walnuts, figs, plums, concha bread crumble, and a Cabernet Franc sauce.

After taking dozens of pictures, I got to try all the courses. The plates featured some of my favorite ingredients, so I felt I was in a fancy food paradise. Humberto was merrily drinking wine and mezcal cocktails; he even got a couple of drinks for me, before finding out they were keeping tabs on him and that he had to pay for them.

I asked attendee Melisa about her experience; she was the only guest who brought a child: her six-year-old son Bruno. “Everything was delicious, but the best was the shrimp,” said Melisa about the meal. “Then the jurel and the dessert. As for Bruno, he ate all the jurel with a smile, and he ate half of the callo and half of the shrimp. He didn’t touch the tuna. That went for ‘Huesos’ the DJ.” Bruno, like a little grown-up, mingled with the adults, making light conversation and eating caviar. He told me he saw a raccoon in the woods; I inquired for more information, but he took my genuine interest as fake and went to tell the next adult.

For the staff, Andrea smoked a pork thigh wrapped in tin foil over the grill for the duration of the entire event — though it was Terry who was mostly in charge of taking care of it. The meat was so tender and succulent that no cutting was required. We all dug in with our fingers. 

With the event nearly over, Andrea took out a couple of bottles of sparkling wine to celebrate as she went from table to table to greet her guests. Everyone seemed beyond pleased as they showered the chef with compliments.

As it got darker, the DJ switched the music to accommodate a dance party. The mural, which obstructed the view of nature and didn’t seem like much during the day, came to life under the UV lights. Half the party got up to dance on the dirt, including Melisa in her high heels and a white and black polka-dot dress.

At around 11 pm, the team got back in the van and we headed back to Tijuana. I passed out on the backseat, and before I knew it, I was back in Playas de Tijuana, ready to get back in my car and back home.

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