Chefs, wine give Baja a new flavor
Region’s gastro scene is boosting tourism and its image
By Michele Parente6:13 P.M.OCT. 18, 2014Updated12:14 P.M.OCT. 21, 2014
Last Sunday, chef Javier Plascencia was in Buenos Aires promoting Baja cuisine, having just taped an episode of ABC’s “The Taste” in L.A.
On Wednesday, chef Flor Franco was in New York cooking for about 160 editors at Condé Nast, publishers of such titles as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Condé Nast Traveler.
And during the first week in November, chef Miguel Ángel Guerrero will be in Paris, serving up rustic Baja Med cuisine to the French.
The trio, with about 12 restaurants between them in San Diego, Tijuana, Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe, are Baja’s Emissaries of Eating. While out promoting their own businesses and brands, these globe-trotting gastro ambassadors are at the same time shifting the narrative of a region once known more for kidnappings and cartels than quail and kumamotos.
More than just reputation burnishing, Baja’s food and wine are driving new development around the region as well as an influx of first-time visitors from within Mexico, Europe, Asia and Latin America. It’s also reviving tourism from north of the border, which plummeted in 2008 as the global economy sunk and Tijuana’s death rate skyrocketed.
“We’ve seen a roller coaster in the last couple of years, but especially in the American market, gastronomy is changing (Baja’s) image,” said Rudy Valdés, vice president of the Mexico-based Grupo Valcas, whose Rancho Tecate luxury real estate development offers home sites with private wineries.
“There were really bad things that went on, but happily we’re experiencing a renaissance. … There are some really rich things going on in Mexico, and I think food and wine are leading the way.”
Leading an informal gastronomic tour of Tijuana recently, White made stops at eateries ranging from ramshackle taco joints to Guerrero’s industrial-chic El Taller Baja Med Cocina and Plascencia’s acclaimed fine dining spot, Misíon 19 — two restaurants that epitomize modern Baja cuisine’s creative interpretations on local produce, seafood and meat.
“It’s amazing, it’s like a food revolution and it’s not just the food, it’s beer, it’s music, it’s art and certainly wine,” White said. “They’ve always been here, of course, but it’s just blowing up.”
ADIOS, ‘$5 TOURIST’
Bill Esparza, a blogger from L.A. who is credited with helping put Baja on the foodie radar, last year started a culinary tour company, Club Tengo Hambre (I’m Hungry Club). “We’ve had five times the number of people coming this second season,” Esparza said.
“I’ve been blown away at how many new places have opened and all the interest the world has taken into what’s happening in Baja.”
According to the Baja tourism secretary’s office, 19.8 million Americans crossed into Baja through August, up by 1.2 million over the same period in 2013.
Estimates vary on how many wineries exist or have opened in the Valle in recent years, but the 100 or so facilities represent up to double the number last decade.
In the past weeks and months, Plascencia, Guerrero and Franco have all opened high-profile restaurants, joining an already established cadre of noted chefs in the Valle, including Diego Hernandez, Drew Deckman and Ryan Steyn.
More wine and more food to consume has brought more consumers.
Five years ago there were approximately 150,00 visitors to wine country, compared with 600,000 so far this year, and the annual two-week Vendimia harvest period in August alone attracted 65,000 visitors to its 52 events, tourism records show.
As news of Tijuana’s drug wars fades into the background, media reports have focused on the chef and winemakers’ cult of personality — Plascencia, for example, was the subject of profiles in both The New York Times and The New Yorker — and such Chamber of Commerce-pleasing topics as the Valle’s rule-breaking grape varietal blending and the area’s wave of eco-architecture. (The hillside-hugging Encuentro hotel, in particular, has been cited in travel articles internationally. It’s also the home for Franco’s new Slow Food restaurant, Convivia.)
The result, said Valdés, the developer, has been change in the reasons people are traveling south of the border.
“It’s … changing the type of tourist we’re seeing,” he said, “moving away from the $5 taco and tequila tourist to a much more sophisticated tourist interested in fine wine and fine dining.”
Esparza, the blogger and tour operator, agrees.
“Regular people that 10 years ago would have bought themselves a stuffed dog, the Al Pacino “Scarface” silk-screen, those are not the people we’re bringing down,” he said.
Can culinary tourism save a region?
“It’s still going to take a couple of years for people to shake off the negative, the fear,” Esparza said.
“Every time I bring people down, there’s somebody’s mom who is scared for them. They’re sending selfies of themselves to their mothers — ‘See, I’m OK’ — and she’s still worried.”
He said even he grumbles at having to negotiate taxi prices with drivers looking to make an extra buck (“Just put a meter on”) and bemoans the intransigence of Tijuana’s city planners and store owners to redevelop downtown’s cheap bars and trinket shops into a true gastro zone. High tariffs on Baja’s craft beer and wines have impeded their exportation, and most of the region’s highest quality brands remain unknown to Americans.
A new Baja Wine Club will soon allow members to buy bottles and have them shipped directly to their doorstep for a nominal fee. Monthly events, held at restaurants throughout San Diego’s South Bay, feature wine tasting poured by winemakers brought up from the Valle.
“Baja wines can’t be (financially) competitive on the same level with Spain and Argentina,” said the wine club’s Simon Shams, who added that the bulk of Baja’s wines is drunk in Mexico.
Another obstacle is the wait at the border, even though it has eased in recent weeks with the opening of new lanes. San Diego chef Su-Mei Yu, who used to own a place on the beach south of Tijuana, said the difficulty crossing prevents people from exploring Baja.
“I think there’s a lot of San Diegans who have open minds and who want to go down to Tijuana because there’s always been a rich culinary scene there,” Yu said. “What stops most of us no longer is the violence, it’s the border. It’s a nightmare.”
On Wednesday, Plascencia and Franco will have a news conference at Zarco, Franco’s just-opened Baja-centric restaurant in Chula Vista, where they’ll be promoting next week’s Baja Culinary Festival. The cuisine, with its focus on seasonal produce, locally caught seafood and whole-cooked naturally raised farm animals, ticks all the boxes on the food trend-list and is sating many people’s desire to change Baja Norte’s image for good.
“We can’t compete against Cabo or Cancún with our beaches,” said Valdés. “What we can compete with is our food.”
This weekend, the importance of Baja cuisine is being highlighted as part of the 10-day Tijuana Innovadora conference with a Batalla Culinaria, or culinary battle, which pits male, female and pastry chefs from both sides of the border in an “Iron Chef”-like competition. The celebrity chef-studded event is being hosted by Plascencia, Guerrero and Chad White, chef-owner of Común Kitchen & Tavern in San Diego’s East Village and La Justina in Tijuana.
Read more about the Baja style of living: http://www.bajarealestategroup.net/