Gourmet Mexico, part 1

Tecate sign at the Zocalo

In early November, Laurel spotted an extra good deal in her vacation timeshare program. It was at Rancho Tecate, which is appropriately in Tecate, Mexico. After some looking into it, we learned that Tecate is only a little more than an hour from San Diego. We’ve gone down to Ensenada several times, and two years ago, we discovered Valle de Guadalupe, the magical wine valley just inland from Ensenada. Well, Tecate is on the other side of the valley, just 45 minutes east and right on the U.S. border. So we decided to spend Thanks-giving week finding out more about the town that we only knew as the source of Tecate Beer.

The real photo

We drove down the Friday before Thanksgiving. It was late afternoon, so it was already dark. We found the rancho just 10 km (six miles) south of town, and turned in toward the gate. The guards checked our papers and told us how to find the business office. A lovely young woman named Esmeralda met us there. She was wearing a parka, as it was chilly outside, only about 40 degrees. (Tecate is at close to 2,000 feet high, so it gets cool as soon as the sun sets.)

She came out and climbed aboard a mini-cart to show us our room. We followed in our car, parked under a grove of trees and walked across to a row of Spanish style rooms. The place looked fine, and we moved  in our luggage, then drove back to the office and asked where we might find the restaurant. It was, as I said, dark, and we didn’t feel like driving back into town for dinner. Esmeralda told us the restaurant was just around the corner. Driving there, we saw a field of grapes on the right. It was labeled 1893. It looked to us like the rancho had deep roots here in Tecate.

The restaurant, Puerta Norte, was nearly empty with only two tables filled. We chose a table and Laurel asked the server what he might recommend.

“Parillada, for sure, ma’am,” was his answer.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Mexican mixed grill,” she said.

We agreed and ordered it, then asked to see the wine list.

“You will want to try one of our own reds, either Nebbiolo or Cabernet Sauvignon,” said the server.

We ordered the Nebbiolo and it arrived with a plate of housemade rosemary bread. The wine and the bread were both excellent, and just the beginning of what was a superior dinner. The parillada came on a large platter— several types of steak, plus chicken and chorizo served with beans, tortillas, chips and guacamole. We returned to our room very satisfied and slept well in the comfortable king-size bed.

On Saturday morning, we drove south on Highway 3 toward Guadalupe. After reading lots of good reviews, we had decided to try Corazon de Tierra (Heart of the Land) for lunch. It had become well known for using local everything in very creative, and sometimes surprising, ways. We reached the valley in just 45 minutes and decided to try a couple of wineries we hadn’t visited before. On the north road through the valley, in Porvenir, is a large winery called El Cielo. We went in for a tasting, but all their tastings included tours, and we didn’t want to take the time. Looking through their store, I found a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Malbec for only twelve dollars, and we got a bottle to try later. Up the road west is a winery known as Pijuan, named after its Spanish owner. We split a tasting there and were both impressed with the quality and the prices, so we bought a bottle there, as well.

Excellent small plates, radish ice cream, the kitchen garden

Driving back toward the center of the valley, we headed down a dusty road and made several turns before we found Corazon. It’s a modern wood frame building with lots of glass, and we could see that on a warmer day, some of the wall windows slid open to the surroundings. We were seated at a corner table that looked out onto the restaurant’s practical and picturesque kitchen garden, and we knew that we’d be sampling the harvest from some of what was growing there. It’s a prix fixe menu, and we had five courses, beginning with a velvety puree of bitter greens, and including minced roast carrot with tiny dice of lamb liver, and sauteed sweetbreads. We only had mixed feelings about the capper, an ice cream dessert made from pureed radish.

Sunday morning was bright and sunny, and we drove east toward Mexicali, which is two hours from Tecate. But we turned north an hour east at the small town of La Rumorosa and drove a few miles to the entrance of Sitio Arqueologico Vallecito, an important national preserve with many cave paintings by the Kumeyaay Nation, as well as others. The Kumeyaay lived in this region and all the way to San Diego. In fact, Highway 8 between San Diego and El Centro is called the Kumeyaay Highway. Some of the paintings at this beautiful piece of high desert are 3,000 years old.

An easy, mile-long trail takes you past five major examples of the paintings, one of which astonished us. The second painting on the trail features a red devil with horns. It’s called El Diabilito o del Solsticio, and to show how advanced these people were, it was positioned so that the sun on the winter solstice hit its eyes and lighted them up. I want you to appreciate the photos Laurel got here—many of them were in such awkward spots beneath over-hanging boulders that she spent a fair amount of time lying on the ground. The other interesting camera note is no flash is permitted, and admission is free except for a 45-peso charge if you plan on taking photos. There were signs everywhere warning of rattlesnakes, but fortunately they’re hibernating this time of year or Laurel wouldn’t have spent so much time on the ground.

Back in Tecate, we drove past the big brewery. We had planned on taking a tour, but they have recently merged with Heineken, and there is a lot of remodeling going on and no tours right now. We’ll have to do that on our next trip here.

Frida’s mural, chair fence, tortilla soup, 84-hour sandwich

We had heard good things about a restaurant named El Lugar de Nos, which loosely translated means Our Place. When we got there, we were sure right away that there were artists involved. Including the parking lot, the place is about a block long, with a large mural of Frida Kahlo next to a fence covered with pieces of chairs. Inside the parking lot, another wall was covered with all manner of wooden kitchen cabinet doors. The restaurant itself was filled with eclectic art pieces, another shrine to Frida, and three large dining rooms, all done in different styles. The place was buzzing with both diners and employees. We were seated right away, and began to peruse the varied menu. We were both impressed with their duck tacos and grilled octopus. Relaxed and friendly, we liked El Lugar a lot and went back a second time during the week, when we ordered tortilla soup which we agreed was one of the very best we’d eaten and a beef sandwich that was beyond tender. After all, it’s called 84-hour beef.

Can you top that? We can. One day we visited Restaurante Amores, a literal hole in the wall. Actually a glass door below a nearly hidden sign that opens into the kitchen. Our host, Joshua, met us at the door and led us past one of the cooks who was cutting large quantities of limes. The dining room feels a little bit like someone’s living room, and I spent the meal rubbing shoulders with a bookcase filled with cookbooks and listening to soft Brazilian sounds. Joshua is the young manager and a graduate and now teacher at a culinary school. The chef, Kenji, a Mexican of Japanese descent, is a brilliant food designer as well as a believer in “eat local.”

Our five-course tasting menu just made us say, “Wow.” Corvina, a delicate white fish, topped with chayote foam. Potato topped with smoky onion powder made from burnt onions. A fork- tender piece of beef. Orange cake gelato. And finally, three Mexican candies: piloncillo, macaroon, and marzipan. As he served each course, Joshua explained the philosophy behind the methods and the ingredients, so we learned a fair bit about cooking as well as eating like royalty. Not surprisingly, Amores is Tecate’s top new restaurant on Trip Advisor.

One morning we drove a little west of town and up into the foothills near the border to a park named El Profesor. It proved to be quite popular with Tecate residents. There were a lot of families and children enjoying the park, and evidently it’s a popular place for weddings, the natural surroundings and the views are so beautiful. We hiked most of a trail that took us to viewpoints that were really stunning.

By the way, you may know that much of the country east of San Diego is batholith, mountains made up of jumbled peaks of boulders. The area around Tecate and to the east where the cave paintings are also has huge slabs of stone, and many of the trails put the slabs, known as slick rock, to good use. Walking from slab to slab, it almost seems at times that you’re hiking on a paved road.

To be continued –








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