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

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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

When Mike Goes to Mexico

My pal Mike likes to taunt me with photos and videos of his business trips to Mexico, which are frequent. See, if you haven’t been paying attention to previous posts, his business is Mexico — mezcal, that is: Del Maguey, the best in the world.

Mike in Mexico

Mike in Mexico

His provocations are most often in the form of eyewitness video accounts of parades in Oaxaca, where there seems to always be a parade in progress, or photos of voluptuous window mannequins with whom he is certain I am a perfect romantic match. More

Tacotopia, Episode #5 — In Praise of Leftovers

Leftover steak is always a welcome thing in our home. It’s uses are many, beyond simply having tasty leftover steak in the fridge: Vietnamese beef salad or spring rolls, pasta Bolognese, steak sandwiches… And, perhaps most deliciously of all, tacos.

The taco

The taco

Even under normal circumstances, I’m always on the hunt for new taco inspiration. This particular day, in addition to the leftover steak, I had some roasted pasilla chiles in the fridge. An exceptional combination, thought I — especially with the addition of some slices mushrooms and monterrey jack cheese. More

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