The new La Querencia—he moved from Rosarito to Tijuana last year—combines a casual, contemporary--industrial look (with concrete floors, lacquered steel tables, and exposed ducts overhead) with low-tech touches like mounted game trophies on the walls, a tropical fish tank at one end of the dining room, and a row of rusty old cooking implements hanging between the open kitchen and the dining room.
Blackboards display the menu. Standard items include baguette sandwiches and an assortment of tacos and burritos—filled with things like smoked marlin, oysters, skate, and roast duck—but there are always specials and surprises. One lunchtime, along with herb-crusted bread served with a ramekin of puréed oysters and tuna (in lieu of butter), I ate a tissue-thin “carpaccio” of grilled beets drizzled with vinaigrette and scattered with crumbles of blue cheese; another carpaccio of duck with preserved lemon, pomegranate seeds, pine nuts, and baby greens; Baja oysters in chipotle cream seasoned with soy sauce and Japanese dried bonito flakes; Ensenada mussels stuffed with a risotto of mushrooms and ancho chiles, resting in a thick, salty broth of roasted red pepper and tomatoes; baby lamb and goat cheese ravioli in red wine sauce enhanced with green chiles, goat cheese, and cream; and grilled mahimahi with its roe sac, also grilled, on the side.
“What I’m doing,” says Yagües, “is really a combination of Mexican, Mediterranean, and Asian. In the future, we won’t call this ‘Baja Med.’ We’ll just call it Baja California cuisine.”
The pioneer of Baja Mediterranean cooking in the modern sense was Benito Molina, who discovered the Mediterranean in a roundabout way: A native of Mexico City, he “somehow,” as he puts it, ended up studying cooking at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, then cooking in Boston at Todd English’s original, very Mediterranean, Olives. “I walked into Olives,” he remembers, “and my vision of food changed forever. It made so much more sense to me than the traditional French way. I asked myself why I had wasted all that time turning vegetables into those ridiculous shapes.” (Of course, it didn’t hurt that his boss was En-glish’s then sous-chef, Suzanne Goin, now chef-owner of the L.A. restaurants Lucques and A.O.C.)
After a year tending the wood-burning oven at Olives, Molina returned to Mexico City, cooking at several restaurants before ending up at a place called La Mesa de Babette. “This was my crazy period,” he says. “I would make swordfish with ground dried grasshoppers or wild boar and chilmole [dried chile paste] risotto with both land and sea snails. I’d go to the seafood market at four in the morning, look for the weirdest fish possible, and start from there.” Word of his adventurous cuisine traveled, and in 1996 he was hired as chef at La Embotelladora Vieja (“The Old Aging Room”), the restaurant attached to the Santo Tomás winery in Ensenada.
“I came to Ensenada and thought ‘This is paradise,’” recalls Molina. Remembering his Boston-Mediterranean training, he began to serve dishes like Mediterranean-style seafood stew, scallop ravioli in lobster sauce, and rosemary-scented braised lamb shank, in addition to swordfish with pork rinds and chipotles and braised beef tongue with green mole sauce.
In 2000, Molina opened his own restaurant in Ensenada, in partnership with his wife, Solange Muris, also a chef. Dubbed Manzanilla (as in the Spanish olive), the place is modest in size, with about a dozen tables on two levels and walls filled with art, including watercolors of undersea life by Molina himself. Lettering on the outside windows reads: “Rare Mezcal, Fine Wines, Live Abalone.” Seafood is the focus, and shellfish comes in many forms: raw Manila clams, tiny, sweet, and salty, with lime wedges and soy sauce on the side; smoked littleneck clams topped with crumbs of Gorgonzola (much better than it sounds); thin-sliced abalone (from a tank in the kitchen) in a sauce of smoked tomato, epazote, and cream; small Baja-grown Kumamoto oysters lightly mesquite-smoked and glazed with tarragon and dried chile butter.
Tuna is fattened in pens off the coast at Salsipuedes, just north of Ensenada, and while most of it goes straight to Ja-pan, Molina gets a bit of it, serving very thin slices of buttery raw tuna belly flavored lightly with ginger alongside an eloquent tartare of the fish. Calamares Manchez is a dramatic preparation of grilled squid with beets, enlivened with ginger, garlic, assorted chiles, and several kinds of citrus juice, invented by Molina for his friend the architect Alejandro Sanchez. (The name of the dish is a pun: mancha is Spanish for “stain”—as in what you’ll have on the front of your shirt if you’re not careful while you’re eating.) Simply grilled Baja lobster is served with black-bean risotto and a fresh tomato and chile salsa—another veritable definition of the Baja Mediterranean style.
Molina and Muris have just opened a little oyster bar on the Ensenada waterfront, or Malecón, called Muelle Tres. And in warm weather (which in these parts means May through October), they run an open-air grill restaurant called Silvestre (“Wild”) in the Valle de Guadalupe. A single multicourse menu is offered daily, featuring simple dishes like local oysters, cold marinated beef tongue, grilled fish with nopales, and chickpea salad with ancho chile chicken.
The other young culinary star in the Ensenada area is the aforementioned Jair Téllez of Laja. Born in Hermasillo, Sonora, Téllez studied at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan and did a stage at Daniel, then cooked at the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City and at La Folie in San Francisco before returning to Baja to open his own place.