As a San Diego-based writer covering food and culture in Baja California, my 2020 was off to a great start.
In January my partners and I completed our first Three Amigos Taco Tour in Tijuana and were already planning the next one. In February, I worked with my friend Mark Weins on a Baja California street food series for his popular YouTube channel. And I enjoyed a great meal at Tijuana restaurant Georgina with my San Diego Red colleagues as we worked on a hospitality media initiative.
Then suddenly — COVID. Following hot on the heels of my wife’s December cancer diagnosis.
Chemotherapy treatments wreaked havoc on her immunity. By the time California’s stay-at-home mandate began in early March, she’d already been in quarantine for a month, anticipating the pandemic. In April, she was hospitalized as her white blood cell count – crucial in combatting infections – dropped from thousands to a life-threatening twenty. COVID in our household is a potential death sentence.
After cancer and COVID’s one-two punch, we scrapped all of our planned Baja California trips. Several Valle de Guadalupe tours I was coordinating canceled. Annual culinary events were postponed, falling like dominoes.
Author with chef Diego Hernandez and wife Ursula. Photo: W. Scott Koenig
Restaurants in Baja shuttered or offered carryout only. Winemakers sat on inventories that stopped flowing to retailers — and into guests’ glasses. Hotels and resorts plummeted from zero vacancies to zero bookings.
My career as A Gringo in Mexico came to a screeching halt. Though I mourned more for my friends in Baja who rely on tourism than I did my now-dormant lifestyle.
When Baja California’s national COVID status was downgraded from red to orange last month, establishments began to cautiously re-open. Strict safety measures now in place often exceed those in the U.S. Bajacalifornianos are slowly returning. And for better or worse, so are visitors from Southern California.
Although land border restrictions remain in place until September 21 – and will likely be extended again – many currently cross the US-Mexico border into Baja for non-essential travel, forbidden according to a U.S. agreement with Mexico. Locals are wary, yet the returning tide was inevitable, if not a bit too soon.
My family and I won’t go back until COVID cases decrease and the restrictions lift. In the meantime, we have great memories of Baja California, and yearn to revisit the places we miss most.
I miss the urban chaos of Tijuana and the seemingly endless variety of its street food. I dream about succulent beef birria tacos at Birreria Martín and the really fast taquero at Tacos Fitos —the guy who tosses a ladle of consommé through the air and into a tortilla in his other hand. I miss suadero at Tacos el Gallito, carne asada at Tacos Chuy, barbacoa at Aqui es Texcoco, adobada at Las Tres Salsas and the seafood at Mariscos Ruben. And it’s been far too long since I’ve had carnitas at Tio Pepe’s or El Jerezano.
Tacos Birreria Martín, Tijuana. Photo: W. Scott Koenig
I missed the opening of chef Martín San Román’s restaurant, The Original Pastel de Crepas last month. Estación Central on Avenida Revolución was becoming a regular stop when I had business in TJ. They made my top ten list last year for their porchetta torta. And I’d love to be at the bar at Restaurant Caesar’s right now, sipping a mezcal and watching the saladeros at work tableside, preparing the restaurant’s namesake salad.
I won’t be judging the Festival del Chile en Nogada at the end of this month. It’s been canceled. For those living or on essential business in Tijuana, Mexico’s most beloved dish will be served through September at Cien Años Terraza.
In the last decade, Ensenada has captured our hearts. We pine for the eclectic port city’s bustling malecón, bounty of seafood, international restaurant scene and the easy conviviality of the Ensenadense.
I ache for fresh seafood from Ensenada’s street carts — El Güero, Almejas Fidel and El Pizón. I miss visiting La Guerrerense, where my friend Sabina Bandera always makes sure I try her latest tostada masterpiece. I miss the bustling Mercado Negro and marveling at the daily catch.
At La Guerrerense with Nicholas Gilman, Sabina Bandera and Francisco Perez. Photo: W. Scott Koenig
I wish I could see my friend Alex at Cava Macias and enjoy some chilled Baja whites on a steamy seaside afternoon. Or sip on reds at Bodegas Santo Tomas. I miss the enthusiasm of Ensenada chefs like Tania Livier and Guillermo Barreto — who impressed with modern tacos at Taqueria Criollo and made my favorite pizza last year at Bocca Lupo Pizzeria. I miss Italian food at Da Toni’s and Il Massimo.
Ensenada hosts my two favorite culinary events — Conchas y Vino Nuevo, the annual seafood and new wine festival, and the month-long Vendimias. Though the harvest continues as usual, this year, I’ll miss celebrating with our winemaking friends.
VALLE DE GUADALUPE
We visited the Valle de Guadalupe nearly every month in 2019. We refer to Baja California’s wine country as our “backyard”. Time slips away as we enjoy the Valle’s unequalled hospitality, world-class cuisine, imaginative wines, verdant vineyards, vast mountain views and the company of our friends who work and play there.
We’ve been locked up in our home for so long, we crave the comfort of our home away from home, Maglén Resort. I miss buying cheese at Los Globos Creameria — and cervezas for the pool at the little tiendita next door. And sharing morning coffee at the little shop on the side of the road built from a giant wine barrel.
Sunset at Deckman’s. Photo: W. Scott Koenig
I miss the region’s Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Barbera, Syrah and red blends. It’s been a while since we’ve enjoyed vinos and views at Alximia, Villa Montefiori, Adobe Guadalupe, Monte Xanic, Bodegas F. Rubio, Casa Magoni, Montaño Benson, Vena Cava, Traslomita, Cava Maciel, Vintango and El Corcha Rosa. We miss our friend Kris Magnussen and her family at winery Lechuza — whose reds are some of our favorites.
I’ve enjoyed the best meals of my life and countless hours of sobremesa at restaurants Malva, Origen, Fauna, Lunario, La Esperanza, Quercus, Once Pueblos, Tre Galine, Parcela 70 and Corazón de Tierra. I long for oysters on the half shell and sunsets at Deckman’s en El Mogor. I’m desirous of sublime sushi in the vineyards at Drew Deckman and Toshi Tsutada’s new Baja Omakase.
And what’s not to miss about wowing friends and guests with fine dining in the boughs of a 200-year old oak at chef Javier Plascencia and Oscar Torres’ Animalón? And I really miss greeting my friend Doña Esthela with a big abrazo before tucking into a huge breakfast.
For us, charming Tecate is more than just a waypoint between San Diego and the rest of Baja California. It’s a destination with a lot to offer its visitors.
Fine dining at Restaurante Amores. Photo: W. Scott Koenig
I miss Parque Hidalgo, Tecate’s town square. It’s a great place for a taco and a cold glass of the city’s namesake beer. I miss buying pan dulce at El Mejor Pan de Tecate. And taking tour guests to the Museo Communitario to learn about the local Kumeyaay and town history.
I miss the warm, pillowy corn tortillas and the rabbit barbacoa at Malinalli Sabores Auctono. I miss the rambling charm and colorful decor at El Lugar de Nos, the nighttime view from the patio at restaurant Asao at Santuario Diegueño, a favorite hotel in Baja. I miss culinary special events at Rancho la Puerta. And sharing good wine and stories with my friends Isabel and Lucy Veramendi at their idyllic vineyard, Casa Veramendi.
Restaurante Amores in Tecate is the only place that’s tempted me to break my hiatus and head south again, COVID and border restrictions be damned! Chef Marcelo Hisaki was primed to compete in the Bocuse D' Or Americas this year. I imagine those plans have been scuttled and wish him the best in 2021.
When I visited restaurant Raices in Rosarito Beach in 2019, I was anxious to return for more of their imaginative cuisine. I miss the carne asada at Tacos El Yaqui, the strong red wine at Claudius and even the eclectic interiors of restaurant El Nido. This year’s all-white culinary event, Sabor de Baja at the Rosarito Beach Hotel has been canceled, so I’ll miss that too.
I won’t be judging the La Parrilla Fest in Mexicali again in 2020. It was a blast last year. I was just beginning to discover the cuisine and craft brewing scene in Baja California’s capital city. Locals I met during the festival couldn’t wait for me to return so they could show me their favorites. Sorry Mexicali. I’ll have to miss out this time.
2019 La Parrilla Fest, Mexicali. Photo: W. Scott Koenig
But the one thing I won’t miss is the opportunity to return to Baja California when the time is right. Look for me there. I’ll be the one with a taco in my hand, my toes in the sand and a smile on my face. We’ll raise a glass, toast our triumphant homecoming and visit our neighbors in Baja California once again.