Blown Away by Finca Altozana

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To celebrate our 24th Wedding Anniversary, my wife Emily and I and our longtime friends Trace and Teri took a trip to Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano in the Valle de Guadalupe on Mexico’s Highway 3 in northern Baja California. It was a wonderful day and meal, and we were all blown away by the sumptuous meal and spectacular and sublime beauty of the  restaurant and the setting among vineyards.

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The view of the vineyards of the Valle de Guadalupe from Finca Altozano. I would never have predicted that from the ashes of what was the Baja California tourism industry after about 2007, that a world-class wine and food scene would have emerged in the chapparal landscape of northern Baja California and in what were declining urban environments of  Tijuana and Ensenada. I am awed by the creativity, originality and entrepreneurial spirit of the purveyors and dreamers behind this wonderful scene. It is also a strong argument against Mexico’s past model of mega-tourism and demonstrates the vitality of a sustainable tourism model that celebrates Mexico’s diverse and unique landscapes, cultures and natural environment.

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Trace and Teri have been traveling with us to Baja for over 20 years including an epic journeys to Bahia Magdalena, Bahia de los Angeles, and Laguna San Ignacio. Teri and I have been friends for 42 years (we grew up together down the street from each other).

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It is truly a bucolic setting. It was hot yesterday–in the 90s–but the restaurant was an oasis.

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Emily and I met in Lima, Peru, in August 1985, were married in Madison, Wisconsin, on September 2, 1989, and life has been an adventure ever since. Baja is so special to us since we lived in Laguna San Ignacio, Bahia Magdalena and Todos Santos for a total of 2 1/2 years and travel throughout the Peninsula extensively. We are so lucky to live on the Border so we can sample the best of Baja fairly easily.

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Grilled red peppers and rose wine.

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The outdoor grill.

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They do a roast pig on occasion–so here’s the pig that will be roasted. Don’t get too attached!

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Grilled and stuffed squash.

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The open-air kitchen.

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Beef tongue and lamb tacos were tasty.

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Here’s grilled octopus in an Asian style sauce. I have a special place in my palate for pulpo because when Emily and I lived in Laguna San Ignacio in 1993-94 we spent many afternoons hunting it down on low-tide excusions with Maria Luisa “La Yaqui” Camacho de Aguilar and her son Octaviano along with our Australian shepherd Chip and their black lab Black. Pulpo or octopus is one of Javier Plascencia’s signature dishes, and for me, along with freshly harvested bay scallops or almeja catarina.  are my favorite seafood dishes.

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Finca Altozano is all about the little things and food. All these touches like the wine bottles make it such a unique restaurant.

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Emily in the garden.

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An Argentine style roasting spit and BBQ.

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Everything is done in great taste. The aesthetics of what I would call the Baja rustic and especially Valle de Guadalupe design style are really nice.

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After a two-hour meal. I’m happy–I swear! Ilook forward to  many more adventures in Baja and returning to Finca Altozano and the Valle de Guadalupe with Emily.

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The Best Places to Explore in Baja in 2013

Daniel gets a fun one--the light was perfect in the afternoon for photos.

San Miguel in Ensenada.

For years many Southern California surfers and ocean lovers have lived for Baja. Upon crossing the border they experienced endless empty beaches, great fishing, friendly people and perfect waves.

Then when things got a little rough in Mexico a few years ago, due to the drug war, many Baja California lovers bid adios to their old friend.

But an interesting thing happened during the years that American tourists abandoned Lower California. Rather than sit idly by waiting for tourists to show up, the peninsula’s new generation of entrepreneurs reinvented Baja. They developed a new cuisine, built beautiful new eco-resorts and boutique hotels, and produced fine wines.

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The peninsula got a lot safer as well. Highways have been improved. The increased presence of the police and the military has made travel safer.

Over the holidays my sons and I spent a few mornings and afternoons south of the the border carrying out surgical surf strikes during the recent magical run of winter swells. We scored big and never had a single problem. Lots of smiles, great food, and cool, clean, empty waves.

So here are a few of the hottest spots to sample in our sun-kissed neighbor to the south.

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Northern Baja Cuisine and Wine County: Start off with a late lunch at Javier Plascencia’s gastronomic palace in Tijuana, Mision 19. Then head south and stop for a quick sunset surf before you check into one of the boutique hotels in the Valle de Guadalupe such as the Grupo Habita eco-bungalows or Adobe Guadalupe. For dinner check out the amazingly tasty Corazon de Tierra. The next day, after sampling waves at San Miguel or 3M’s, catch a late breakfast or  lunch at either Boules or Muelle 3. After a second surf session check out the wine, cocktails and dinner at the award winning Manzanilla.

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Whale Watching in San Ignacio Lagoon: The world’s best whale-watching awaits you in this stark and pristine desert lagoon fringed by mangroves, bobcats and coyotes. Filled with more than 200 gray whales during the height of the whale season in February and early March, this is the best place in the world to encounter a friendly whale.

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Whales, Islands and Missions in Loreto and Magdalena Bay: Catch a short flight to the beautiful mission town of Loreto to catch up with old Baja. Tour the amazing azure islands of Loreto Bay National Park, be inspired by the grandeur of Mision San Javier, and take a day trip to Magdalena Bay’s Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos for a day of whale watching and wandering the dunes of the barrier islands.

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East Cape: Fill up on organic goodies and beautiful arts and crafts at the San Jose del Cabo Organic Market and then head out east and discover miles of empty white-sand beaches. Explore the coral reef and schools of fish at Cabo Pulmo National Park, one of North America’s best dive spots. If you’re lucky you’ll catch an early season south swell, but during the winter the East Cape is tranquility and heaven. Be sure to catch the sunset over cocktails and dinner at the iconic Crossroads Country Club at Vinorama, where a boutique hotel will open soon.

Whale shark.  Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Whale shark on the East Cape. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins.

Todos Santos: Officially the hottest, hippest, and coolest little resort town in Baja. Todos Santos is an old school Baja town remade as a trendy little village with great hotels, excellent food and a laid back vibe. My wife Emily and I spent one of the best years of our life living in Todos Santos back in the mid 1990s, so I love to visit and hang out with friends, surf pristine warm-water waves and eat tasty, healthy food.

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So what are you waiting for? Baja is better than ever. Explore it now while the going is good!

Mexico’s election: Citizens seek to succeed despite government

Here’s my op-ed from the San Diego Union-Tribune from Sunday’s paper on June 24th (web-published June 23rd)

The campaign poster on a wall in Tijuana of Mexican presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, referred to as “Bombon,” or Eye Candy, for his preppie good looks, displayed the candidate grimacing while awkwardly hugging a much shorter, darker, Indian-looking woman. The odd ad might be the only kink in Peña Nieto’s seamless campaign about nothing that is designed to earn the trust of Mexican voters who have forgotten the economic disasters and semi-authoritarian rule the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) imposed upon Mexico for more than 70 years.

Enrique Peña Nieto, político mexicano.

The specter of the return of the PRI to Los Pinos, Mexico’s White House, is the reason that the polls show leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is called AMLO for short, closing in on Peña Nieto, who until recently had a commanding lead (Josefina Vázquez Mota, the National Action Party (PAN) candidate is given little chance of winning). The victory of either Peña Nieto or AMLO on July 1 would mean a new but uncertain chapter in Mexico’s evolving transition to democracy. Both front-runners represent Mexico’s semi-authoritarian past in which the state plays a key role in the economy, press, culture and everyday life with little or no oversight and accountability.

El Lic. Andrés Manuel López Obrador en confere...

Although the 12-year rule of Presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, who governed under the mantle of  the PAN, was a victory for the expansion of electoral democracy and the rise of a more robust civil society, it failed to create a political culture of transparency. Calderón’s war on narco kingpins has been a tragedy and a failure.

In my own frequent forays into the bustling cities and forgotten corners of rural Mexico to promote coastal conservation, the bedlam of the narco-war and absence of government is a sharp contrast to the entrepreneurial people I encounter and work with who are carving out a new Mexico that represents the emergence of an authentic civil society. This has resulted in a new optimism and sense of purpose that is propelling Mexicans forward to identify and solve their problems without asking permission of the once-omnipotent government.

Last spring while in Acapulco to host the Blue Ocean Film Festival, more than 30 people were murdered prior to and during my stay. As a result I assumed that our free film screenings would be sparsely attended. So I was surprised to find the restored art-deco cinema in the city’s seaside plaza packed with working-class families and beach lovers. Parents and their children sat rapt at the beautiful films and eagerly joined an open forum afterward about solving problems of beach pollution and coastal access.

In the Chontal indigenous village of Barra de la Cruz in Oaxaca, I met with residents fending off proposals to turn their coastline into a walled-off fortress in which they would be unwelcome guests. “We aren’t interested in development,” Pablo Narvaez, a fiery and articulate community leader told me. “We are only interested in receiving training to help us run our eco-businesses. If we have strong businesses, we’ll have a strong community.”

In Tijuana, the city’s new beacon of hope is chef and surfer Javier Plascencia, the proprietor of the elegant yet unpretentious Mision 19. While eating lunch with Javier recently, I was struck by his quiet and determined focus to create something new in the face the dark forces that should have caused him to flee his hometown. Javier’s pride in Tijuana and his driven creativity is changing the face and fate of this once embattled but now secure border city and inspiring a renaissance in music, art, architecture and gastronomy in Baja California and throughout Mexico.

It is the boundless enthusiasm and passion for life that I encounter in Mexico that will sustain our southern neighbor beyond the inadequacies of the current slate of presidential candidates. That is why so many Mexicans, although outraged at what they perceive to be the media-engineered campaign of Peña Nieto or the old-school paternalism of AMLO, are buoyed by their fierce desire for normalcy and the realization that “papá gobierno” is now an absent parent that always seems to let them down and lead them astray. Their future depends on staking out their independence from the government that has little connection to the ordinary citizens who make Mexico a marvel of contradictions, chaos and energy.

Surf and Turf: The Baja Renaissance

Javier Plascencia of Mision 19.

“Last week I surfed K-38’s,” said Javier Plascencia, the chef and proprietor of Tijuana’s Mision 19. “But the surf was pretty bad.”

Plascencia is from Tijuana, attended high school in Chula Vista, and grew up surfing in Imperial Beach, OB and his home breaks in Baja.

The rock-star handsome Tijuana surfer, along with fellows chefs such as Diego Hernandez of Corazon de Tierra, Benito Molina and Solange Muris of Manzanilla, and brothers Javier Martinez of Boules and David Martinez Muelle 3 in Ensenada are leading a gastronomic revolution and Baja Renaissance that is bringing the endemic and earthy colors, tastes and textures of Baja’s land and sea into our palates and hearts.

“Baja is undergoing a virtual renaissance now with a renewed interest in the region’s gastronomy, culture, eco-adventures, lifestyle and unique accommodations,” said Jim Pickell, CEO and founder of Baja.com, a Baja-based company dedicated to helping travelers enjoy an authentic Baja California experience.

This new renaissance and revival of the authentic in Baja is an important and much needed antidote to the ongoing doom and gloom reporting on Mexico that has convinced many Baja fanatics to stay away from their favorite home away from home.

But due to the amazing things happening in the kitchens of these chefs and the still heartbreaking beauty of Baja’s wilderness landscapes and coastal treasures, there has never been a better time to head south across the border.

My first trip across the border was in 1967, when I was three. My mother, an English immigrant, and I joined our Los Angeles neighbors, a Mexican-American family, on weekend trips to Ensenada, where we rode horses on uncluttered beaches.

Later we traveled to San Felipe with my Aunt Jill and Uncle Emile who were visiting from Switzerland. There we reveled in the fresh fish, unfiltered kindness of local fishing families, the endless beauty of the Gulf of California and the towering peaks of the Sierra San Pedro Martir.

That me on the right with my brother Nicky, my mother, and my Uncle Emile in San Felipe either in 1972 or 1973.

After I started surfing at the age of 13 in 1977, I frequently traveled south of the border to surf the coastline between Tijuana and Ensenada. Those quick trips turned into longer expeditions with my father and friends to central Pacific Baja in a beat-up olive green 1964 six-volt Volkswagen van.

We found friendly fishermen, pristine beaches and surfed perfect waves.

In the 1990s my wife Emiy and I spent two years in the remote coastal lagoons of southern Baja to carry out our dissertation research on gray whales and fisheries management.

During those two years, besides the perfect waves I surfed and the incredible encounters Emily and I had with gray whales, sea turtles, sea lions, osprey and sharks, some of the best expeiences I had were sharing freshly harvested seafood with ourfishermen friends and their families.

In San Ignacio Lagoon, Maria Luisa, a fisherman’s wife and daughter, would lead me and my wife on low-tide searches for pulpo, or octopus. These elusive creatures hid in the empty shells of callo de hacha, or hatchet clams. Maria Luisa would use a gancho, or metal hook, to pry the shells out of the tidal flats and then open up the shells to occasionally reveal an octopus hiding in a shell.

A couple of hours later she would serve us up ceviche de pulpo in the dining room of her plywood house on the shore of the lagoon accompanied by a cold Pacifico.

I thought of those meals when I sat down with Plascencia last week at Mision 19 in Tijuana’s modern Zona Rio district and ate grilled pulpo with pistachio and garbanzo. The complex and satisfying dish was a direct connection to Maria Luisa’s pulpo ceviche.

Sashimi is one of the other signature dishes in northern Baja that is offered up at Manzanilla, Muelle 3 and Boules.

“The only time I had eaten sashimi in Baja,” I told Javier, “was with the fishermen of Punta Abreojos.”

Years ago after being hit by an obnoxious mantaraya or stingray, I savored fresh yellowtail sashimi while sitting under a ramshackle fish shack in Estero Coyote, a mangrove lagoon midway between San Ignacio Lagoon and the rocky points of Abreojos.

My fishermen friends Javier, Isidro and Miguel plied me with cold cerveza that combined with delicacy and sabor of the sashimi, dulled the acute pain of the stingray barb.

For the Baja fans who long to return across the border, you can no longer afford to miss out on the experience offered up by these chefs and the great waves in Baja.

But if you need to quickly experience the sabor of the Baja Renaissance, you can catch, Javier, Diego, Solange and Benito at the Baja Bash on June 2nd at the Harbor Pavilion on San Diego Bay. There these master chefs will offer up the best of their innovative cuisine to the background of Tijuana’s genre busting musical innovators Nortect Collective: Hiperboreal.

You can’t afford to miss out on the new taste of Baja.

Dazzled by Mision 19 in Tijuana

The foodie world exploded when the New Yorker published a seminal piece on Tijuana‘s master chef Javier Plascencia and his new temple of gastronomy Mision 19. Additional rave reviews followed an another important article in the New York Times. Javier grew up on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, is a surfer and has done a lot to help revolutionize the image of Tijuana and Baja. Along with Diego Hernandez of Corazon de Tierra in the Guadalupe Valley, Benito Molina and Solange Muris of Manzanilla in Ensenada and Javier and David Martinez of Boules and Muelle 3 in Ensenada have really helped to bring about a food revolution in Baja and Mexico.

Javier Plascencia, who told the New York Times, “I am proud of being from Tijuana.”

Since Javier has kindly agreed to be one of the featured chef’s at the WiLDCOAST BAJA BASH on June 2nd (along with Molina, Muris and Hernandez and music by Nortec Collective-Hiperboreal), I paid him a long overdue visit at his temple of food in Tijuana’s Zona Rio district. Buy your tickets now and get them here.

Let’s just say it was on of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Javier is super gracious and obviously a genius at taking the authentic food of Baja and Mexico and creating a new, unique and brilliant cuisine that is nothing like I’ve eaten before.

I started off the meal with a nopal salad. Delicioso!!

Octopus with pistachio and garbanzo. I love pulpo and this was grilled and incredible.

After an amazing vegetable soup, I dug into my main course, fresh tuna.

Coyotas with cafe granizado and dulce de leche ice-cream.

Mision 19 is located in the Via Corporativo bulding on Mision de San Javier 10643, Zona Rio, Tijuana. Don’t wait to go there.

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