La Ruta

I was recently in Mexico — again. (My brother when he later saw me asked, “Do you have your Mexican citizenship yet?”)

This time, it was with the family — and two of my favorite other families. My birthday this year happened to coincide with the kids’ spring break. So what better opportunity to rent a beautiful beach house half an hour south of the border to relax, cook, eat, sip tequila and celebrate?

The girls in the Valle de Guadalupe

One of the main attractions of the trip was going to be a visit to the much heralded Valle de Guadalupe — Baja Mexico’s buzzy wine region, extolled in publications from the New York Times to Wine Spectator. I’d been reading about the valley for years, had tried many of the wines, and was looking forward to a visit.

It’s hard to go wine tasting with seven kids. They get antsy, child-less adults trying to enjoy their quiet cultured pleasure scowl… But we would do our best.

The valley was about 45 minutes from our house, we took the back route (the free road, versus the coastal toll road) which itself was breathtakingly beautiful, meandering past sleepy riverside villages, through dramatic canyons and up onto meadowy plateaus. Descending into the valley, it looked the illegitimate lovechild of Napa and Chihuahua — the routes up to large stately wineries lined with Oxxo markets and taco stands; orderly vineyards set amidst craggy desert boulders.

Sitting al fresco at the Vinacola Castillo Ferrer

I downloaded the app our Airbnb host had recommended, a guide to the valley called “La Ruta”, which other than providing a handy map and the names of the wineries, was more or less useless. (Let me amend that statement: It is an excellent app, but provided little help curating the valley wine tasting experience for the neophyte. I should have done some research…)

Lacking guidance, we turned left at the first legit-looking winery sign we saw, and ascended a dirt road past some typical Mexican concrete-block houses until we curved around and the handsome Villa Montefiori winery appeared amidst the bouldery hills above us.

There were many young couples, wine snobs and chauffeured women’s groups trying to enjoy themselves when we burst in, the kids needing to go to the bathroom. A few of us parents slipped away like we weren’t with the group and cozied up to the bar to try the wines. They were Italian-style and all delicious.

Castillo Ferrer taco maestro

The experience of the day was to be had at our next stop, Vinacola Castillo Ferrer. We simply followed the sign that said, “Wine and tacos.”

Castillo Ferrer is modest by the Napa-esque standards of many of the valley wineries. You drive into a gravelly parking lot and must walk through a small orchard of citrus trees before you even see the building, which is pleasant though unremarkable. We never made it inside the winery. Some very comfortable-looking tables around an outdoor kitchen exerted a powerful gravitational pull, while the children dispersed to a nearby play structure.

A young gentleman was making very beautiful tacos at a grill. He leaned over the tortillas, carefully placing tasty ingredients on top. “Eres un artista de la comida!” I told him, and he beamed proudly. I ordered two chicharrones and chapulines tacos (crispy pork skin and grasshoppers), as well as a less exótico beef asada taco. They were delicious, as was the white wine we purchased and the complimentary flatbread and pickled vegetables they brought gratis to the table.

Asada and chicharrones chapulines tacos

The last of the three wineries we visited — the Bodegas de Santo Tomas — was both the oldest and the newest. We approached the strikingly modern new winery, where a security guard warned the children not to climb on the boulders. Inside, we saddled up to the bar where the young man attending us poured samples and informed us of the winery’s pretense to being the oldest in the valley. I figured maybe 30 or 40 years?

“1888,” he said.

Tasting at Santo Tomas

Like at the first place, the tasting pours were also mostly Italian style, big and dark and inky. We liked the Santo Tomas wines, especially a syrah, which we later found on sale at the Soriana supermercado and bought in bulk. After our tasting, we also bought some of the fine Santo Tomas chocolate they were selling, figuring that had a bit of tradition in Mexico as well. (As in, the first chocolate EVER.)

As we wound our way out of the valley toward nearby Ensenada, I thought how remarkable it was that you could drive just a few hours south of Los Angeles and be in a world-class wine tasting region in a foreign country!

Driving back to our rental beach house with our various wine purchases, we stopped at the Soriana supermercado to pick up stuff for dinner.

“Curiously,” I said, “I’m not feeling in the mood for Mexican tonight.” We got home, uncorked a couple bottles and set to work making a pasta.

Willa and Ruby in San Antonio del Mar


A Remembrance of Things Past

In “Swann’s Way,” the first of the seven books that made up Marcel Proust’s famous À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), it happened this way:

The narrator, upon a taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, is suddenly flooded with a long-forgotten memory from his childhood.

Wandering North Hollywood

Here’s how it happened to me:

I had to get the car serviced, so had a couple hours to kill in North Hollywood. On the particular stretch of Lankershim Boulevard where the dealership is located, there ain’t much to see. So I set out to wandering. I had gone in and out of the 99 Cent Store, walked under the U.S. 101 overpass, glanced at the menu of an old school French restaurant housed in a small faux chateaux, and was wishing the couple of legit dive bars in the neighborhood opened a little earlier, when I spotted it: H. Salt Fish & Chips. More

A Roundabout Route to Baccalà Mantecato

My local Vallarta Mexican grocery store never ceases to surprise and amaze me.

First of all, it’s just darned cool to have a market that actually feels — smells, sounds, visuals — like you are in Mexico. And in that regard, I have yet to need a Mexican cooking ingredient that I can’t find there.

Secondly, I find countless ingredients I need for other cuisines — the fine tripe they have, for example, that I need (yes, need) for trippa alla Romana, and a dazzling variety of fresh herbs.

Newfoundland salt cod illustration from the 1700s

A recent happy discovery was baccalà, also known as bacalao, also known as salt cod — not something I ever associated with Mexican cooking. In the past, I’ve had to travel to a Spanish purveyor in Harbor City (a heck of a drive to non-Angelenos) or wait until I’m in San Francisco to visit North Beach’s famous deli, Molinari, to get some. Not only does Vallarta have beautiful European baccala, but it’s considerably less expensive than at either of those other places. More

Eating Oaxaca

Oaxaca, they say, is the culinary capital of Mexico. I was eager to put this to the test.

I am still digesting Mexico City tacos when we arrive and check into our hotel. But my pal Mike rouses me from a brief respite on my bed that could’ve easily turned into an evening in, and we are soon walking the beautiful historic streets of the old center of Oaxaca city. More

Into the Maguey Mountains

I’m partial to Del Maguey single village mezcal. And not simply because my pal, Michael, is a partner in the company. (Though he has winced on the rare occasion he has discovered one of his competitor’s products in my liquor cabinet.) The mezcals are complex and delicious, I like the backstory, the commitment to preserving tradition, and the Ken Price labels. But I would become an even greater advocate upon traveling deep into Oaxaca with Mike, visiting two of Del Maguey’s palenques (where the mezcals are made), and meeting the men who make them.

Wild tobala agave at the Del Maguey bodega

It was a bright southern Mexico morning when the car picked up Mike and me, freshly filled up on breakfast mole and huevos, to head south out of the city and into the agave countryside. The day breaks open like an egg, the light harsh and silver as the swords of the espadin, elevation halfway to the sun and soon you are shielding your eyes. The landscape is dusty and weedy and cactusy, not the way I pictured Oaxaca, punctuated with the bursting spikes of the agave that will define our day. More

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