Sunday, September 13, 2009

Mexican Food That Rocks Your World (or, 18 Hours In Tijuana, Mexico)

Experiencing the greatest version of a dish or cuisine is something you might be lucky enough to encounter every so often, perhaps at a hot, new restaurant, or in someone's home. Having your paradigm completely shifted - the standard and very core of what you thought a dish or cuisine to be - is a true rarity and blessing that should be savored and cherished as long as possible. And so it was with my idea of "Mexican Cuisine" that began with an innocuous phone call and ended 18 hours later, leaving the city of Tijuana, Mexico, heading back home.

It began this past Saturday morning, with a call to my friend, Streetgourmetla, who, before I could finish my initial inquiry, invited me to tag along to visit Tijuana, Mexico. Throwing planning and caution to the wind, I accepted, and was more excited to finally try Mexican Cuisine in Mexico than anything (that, and hanging out with mi amigo on this trip :). Driving down to Tijuana, I'm taken aback at how close that bit of Mexico is to those of us in Southern California. It's easy to take for granted that a mere ~2.5 - 3 hour drive south from L.A. will take you into another country where the cuisine is something far different than what you might expect.

After the brisk drive, we found ourselves standing in the largest city in the state of Baja California, Mexico: Tijuana. Our first stop of the evening was to try authentic Carne Asada Tacos at a favorite stand of Streetgourmetla, Tacos El Poblano.

The first thing that caught my attention was that this taco stand had a dedicated kitchen staffer for each function. Street chimed in to confirm that indeed, at most Taquerias in cities like Tijuana and Mexico City, they don't serve ~7-10 different cuts, but are specialists, and in addition, they will have staff dedicated to one type of meat / function. Throughout the following 18 hours in Mexico, I would soon see how true this was.

At Tacos El Poblano they focus on 3 primary cuts for their Tacos: Carne Asada, Birria and Adobada, and they had a dedicated person cooking and serving each of those different cuts(!), something you almost never see in L.A. But before I could think much further on the matter, the foodlust-inducing smell of freshly grilling steaks over mesquite caught my attention and wouldn't let go. Looking over the counter, we could see 2 cooks patiently grilling the 4(!) different Steaks that would come together for their specialty Carne Asada Taco.

After placing our order, we see the Carne Asada staff in this corner, quickly prepare our tacos with precision and efficiency.

Within minutes, the order arrives: Their Carne Asada Tacos are made with 4 cuts of Beef - Pulpa, New York, Chuleta and Lomo - served over warm Corn Tortillas, Onions, Cilantro, a dab of their housemade Salsa, and Guacamole.

I gingerly take a bite... legendary.

There's an intense, fragrant, mesquite smokiness that never overpowers, but adds the perfect layer to the juicy, tender and truly *beefy* flavors that come through with each bite. This is a far cry from the ubiquitous, charred into crunchy gristly chunks of beyond well-done "Carne Asada" found in L.A. Even the City of Angels' beloved El Parian is leagues below this simple, mind-blowing Taco. Amazing! (^_^)

With the very first dish we tried, not even 1 hour into this whirlwind journey, my paradigm for "Carne Asada Taco" was completely elevated and transformed. I would drive down to Tijuana just to eat these lovely, absolutely delicious Carne Asada Tacos at Tacos El Poblano, which sells for the absurdly low price of 13 Pesos (~$1)!

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

Tacos El Poblano
Bl. Diaz Ordaz, 7813
Otay Mesa
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

The next stop challenged my very notion of what a "Taco" was all about. Taking a route taxi, we arrived quickly at our next destination, Tacos Salceados, which is located a few blocks inland from the large commercial district. It felt like we were in a residential neighborhood, quiet and dark, before we came across this brightly lit and lively little eatery.

Tacos Salceados is run by Chef Javier Campos Gutierrez, a formally trained Saucier who decided to open this eatery in Tijuana reflecting a combination of traditional Tacos with his own creativity and influences from his formal culinary training. One look at the menu and I could see his inventiveness coming through:

There's also a nice glass wall, showcasing their kitchen to the customers in the dining area, and you can see the dedication of Chef Gutierrez' staff with each member of the back of the house specializing in one aspect of the cooking and/or preparation.

Towards the front of the restaurant, you can see some of the many specialized, homemade, made-from-scratch Salsas that are featured at Tacos Salceados, from traditional Salsas, to specialized Salsas made with Almonds and Egg Whites (instead of Cream).

After placing our order, our server brings out a simple amuse bouche of Fresh Cucumbers, House Crema with one of their Salsas and Black Pepper. It's simple, grassy and just wonderful with their combination of the Crema and housemade Salsa complementing the fresh Cucumber slices.

Every table is also provided with a visually stunning bowl of fresh-roasted Chile Gueros, marinated with Soy Sauce, Lime and other spices. I'm not one to devour whole Chili Peppers, but these Roasted Chile Gueros were truly divine: So luscious, with a spring, garden-like aroma, slightly spicy, but nothing outrageous, it was so surprisingly savory that I could've eaten the whole bowlful as my dinner. :)

My Callo y Camaron Quesataco (Scallop and Shrimp Cheese Taco) arrives soon after and it looks nothing like the standard "Taco" one might expect.

The signature item at Salceados, their Quesataco is literally a fried Monterey Jack Cheese "outer crust" that serves to house the various fillings you choose (such as Trout, Salmon, Scallops, etc.), combined with Mushrooms and Bell Peppers, then topped with fresh Avocado and a pairing of certain Salsas (depending on what filling you order).

There's a light crunch from the fried Monterey Jack Cheese crust, which gives way to this oceanic playfulness from the fresh Scallops and Shrimp, both excellent quality and not overcooked in the least. Along with their housemade Salsa pairing (a nice light creaminess with slight heat), it's like nothing I've had before.

And then our Taco de Dulce arrives which goes completely beyond what I'd imagine a Taco to be: Fried Montery Jack Cheese outer crust stuffed with Pineapple, Mango Puree and Shrimp(!), topped with Strawberry Puree and Jam and Roasted Almonds.

And as bizarre as it might sound, it actually works: The tropical, sweet, fruity, crunchy all somehow come together to support the Camaron (Shrimp) within.

After having the amazing Carne Asada Tacos at Tacos El Poblano, the creations of Tacos Salceados took my notions and destroyed them even further, transforming any ideas I had of "Tacos" and changing them forever.

Rating: 8.2 (out of 10.0)

Tacos Salceados
Av. Ermita #30, A Norte
La Mesa
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

And from there, we move on to sample "Fine Dining Mexican Cuisine" at Villa Saverios. As we arrive, I'm struck by how large and grand the building is that houses Villa Saverios.

Created by Chef-Owner Javier Plasencia, Villa Saverios focuses on his own style of cooking known as "Baja Cuisine."

Taking a seat in their main dining room, it's a beautiful space, with white tablecloths, a large open kitchen in the back and a pianist on a grand piano playing Brazilian Jazz melodies and American Classic Pop tunes the whole evening.

I start with a unique-sounding Tamarindo Martini, which doesn't disappoint: They use freshly-made Tamarindo (Tamarind) juice, Gin and the rim of the glass is garnished with a thick housemade Salsa mixed with Tamarindo as well. They even serve it with the pod of the Tamarind Fruit for garnish.

It's a very smooth, lightly tart and fruity cocktail, quite a bit thicker than the usual Martini due to the Tamarindo pulp, but it's absolutely delicious! :) It's an outstanding cocktail.

Glancing over the menu and it's clear that what Chef Plasencia is doing is something very different than the modern Mexican cooking I've found at respected places like Babita in L.A. We begin with their Yellowfin Seared Tuna Sashimi (Ponzu Sauce, Fresh Jalapeno, Salicornia, Micro Greens).

While the Yellowfin Sashimi tasted quite fresh and gristle-free, their Ponzu and Soy Sauce completely overpowers the dish. Streetgourmetla mentions that this is due to the local palate, where with Japanese and Chinese food, the locals enjoy and have grown accustomed to "bigger, bolder flavors."

The Salicornia, a local vegetable, is intriguing, tasting like nothing I've had before: Firm, a bit fibrous (but not in a bad way), and rather mild, but unfortunately, it, too was drowned in the very salty Ponzu-Soy Sauce.

Next up is their Crab Tostadas Al Chipotle (All White Crab Meat blended with Smoked Chipotle Sauce, Avocado, Citrus-Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil).

The Crab is vibrant and very fresh, their homemade Chipotle Sauce gives the Crab a gentle, spicy kiss, and the combination of that with fresh Onions, Avocado and their Citrus-infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil on top of a perfectly crispy Tostada makes this a wonderful starter. :)

At this point, I decide to try another of their cocktail creations with another mixing of a traditional Mexican favorite: Jamaica Martini (Hibiscus Flower Tea Martini). The Jamaica has that great slightly tart, slightly acidic, lightly floral and sweet flavor that balances out the flavors of the traditional Martini. In addition, the bartender finishes it off with candied Hibiscus Flowers (edible) in the drink itself. You can taste more of the alcohol in this drink over the Tamarindo Martini, but both are wonderful.

The next dish is brilliant celebration of local (Mexican) Cheeses: The "Local Cheese" plate features Aged Ramonetti from Real de Castillo, Fresh Goat Cheese from Valle de Guadalupe, and Aged Cow's Milk from Rancho Castro.

We start with the Fresh Goat's Milk Cheese from Valle de Guadalupe and it's *outstanding*. It's so creamy, tart, intense, but still light; totally sexy food. :) Who knew that there was this level of brilliant Goat Cheese just south of the border, a few hours from L.A.?

The other 3 Cheeses on the plate combined to make a study on different interpretations of the same basic Cow's Milk Cheese: The Fresco (aged 2 months) is lightly creamy with a slight tang. It's the mildest of the Cow's Milk we tried. The Anejo (aged 12 - 18 months) is saltier, intense with a deep funk and odoriferous, not my favorite. Finally the Double Crema (aged 2 - 6 months) is slightly bitter, lightly buttery and also relatively mild. Overall it's a fascinating taste of some of the offerings of local Mexican Cheeses.

I love a good Duck dish, so I was really intrigued to see what Chef Plasencia would create with their Picada de Pato (Duck Meat served in a Spicy Sweet and Sour Glaze, with Mini Flour Tortillas and Fresh Tomatillo Salsa).

Sadly, this was another of dish that was catering to the local palate / expectations of Chinese cuisine, with a really cloyingly Sweet Glaze that dominated the entire dish. We couldn't finish it. But beyond that, the Duck itself tasted extremely fresh.

But the next dish rebounded nicely: Beef Tongue Cazuelita (Pumpkin Seed, Tomatillo and Tomato Sauce, Extra Virgin Olive Oil).

Imagine a just-cooked through slice of Lengua (Beef Tongue) tantalizing in its texture with a firmness and suppleness that's still very meaty. Then infuse that with a gorgeous Pumpkin Seed, Tomatillo and Tomato Sauce that has a toasted nuttiness, light tartness, sweetness from the Tomato, and it gives the Lengua the perfect platform upon which to sing. That's the brilliance of this Tongue dish from Chef Plasencia. Wonderful. :)

I would have loved to continue to explore the fascinating menu at Villa Saverios, but I knew we were continuing our culinary adventures throughout the night, so we stopped at this point and finished up with a nice Organic Hojicha Green Tea (Japan) from Mighty Leaf.

On our way out, we spied a beautiful hallway leading down to their wine cellar. Taking a peak inside, reveals a gorgeous wine cellar private dining room.

One other thing to point out is that their Service was impeccable. Plates were cleared and silverware replaced quickly without being intrusive. If our water or drinks were low, someone would appear to refill the glasses or ask if we wanted another drink. Cordial and professional, it really makes Villa Saverios a standout. Prices range from 38 Pesos - 298 Pesos ($3 - $23).

Villa Saverios represents some of the best of cutting edge Mexican cuisine from Chef Javier Plasencia in the heart of Tijuana. While we had a couple missteps, those were probably due to catering to local expectations for Asian-inspired dishes; everything else we had that night, from the Fresh Crab Tostada to the Lengua (Beef Tongue) with Pumpkin Seed Tomatillo Sauce were stellar. Looking over their menu, I can't wait to return to try their Oven-Braised Lamb "Two Ways" (Frenched Rack of Lamb Chops / Barbacoa Style / Sea Salt Roasted Green Onions with Chimichurri Salsa), Valle de Guadalupe Chicken Breast (served over Couscous with Mango and Portobello Mushrooms, Wild Berries and Tempranillo Wine Sauce) and many other interesting sounding dishes. If nothing else, it was a real eye-opener: That Tijuana, Mexico is home to excellent, fine dining establishments that also feature cutting-edge cuisine that goes far beyond the traditional.

Rating: 8.1 (out of 10.0)

Villa Saverios
Blvd. Sanchez Taboada esq. Escuadron 201 No. 3151
Zona Rio
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico C.P. 22320
Tel: (664) 686 65 02

After this wonderful dinner, we went sightseeing, walking around to see all the local monuments including a great statue of Abraham Lincoln in the heart of Tijuana of all places. :) And after burning off some calories, we continued on the adventure, walking over to a simple-looking Sonoran Taqueria: Baja Sonora Asadero.

Proudly representing the state of Sonora, Mexico, I had no choice but to order a Taco featuring the famous Sonoran Beef in the more traditional Flour Tortilla to match: Taco Arrachera Marinada (Taco of their Arrachera cut of Sonoran Beef).

Ostensibly, it didn't look like much, but eaten simply as is, with a dab of their Aguacate Salsa (Avocado Salsa), and it was another complete shattering of my notion of "Carne Asada Taco."

While it lacked the mesquite smokiness of Tacos El Poblano, Baja Sonora Asadero more than made up for it by the sheer, dreamy quality of the Sonoran Beef: Imagine tender but meaty, intense Aged Beef, so truly *beefy* and *focused* it slaps your face and reminds you of what Beef should taste like (not the generic, bland, greasy flavors found too often these days). Mouth-watering and luscious and juicy, and given a silky smooth finish with the Aguacate Salsa and freshly made, soft Flour Tortilla, this was simply amazing! (^_^)

And as if that wasn't reason enough to visit Baja Sonora Asadero, we noticed a small Hot Dog Cart right at the entrance to the restaurant selling Sonora-style Hot Dogs. It seems that when the owners of Baja Sonora Asadero wanted to add Sonoran Dogs to the menu, they properly sought out a specialist to prepare them, instead of trying to tackle something they weren't an expert in.

The specialist turns out to be Chef Mariano Esparza, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America before working in Chicago and then working for Chef Martin San Roman of Rincon San Roman fame (one of the most acclaimed restaurants in Baja California).

I place an order for a Sonoran Hot Dog, which is a Bacon-Wrapped Beef Hot Dog in a Bun that he imports from Sonora (3 times a week), made from Sonoran Trigo (Wheat).

While that aspect is pretty straightforward and traditional, Chef Esparza has fun with the toppings: He offers Local Mushrooms with Sour Cream; Mushrooms in Soy Sauce, Lemon, Salt & Pepper; and a Spanish style topping that he recommends, consisting of Onions, Chorizo from Spain, Bell Peppers and Bacon. Mmm... :)

I'm not a big Hot Dog fan in general, but taking a bite of this Sonoran Hot Dog and it's clear just how well-executed this dish is: A very fresh beefy, porky bite complemented by the nice Spanish Topping mix with bits of the Spanish Chorizo, Bacon, Bell Peppers and Onions. And the soft bun is truly standout: There's a real grain flavor and earthiness that tastes different from a standard Wheat Bun, probably due to the Sonoran Wheat that's used, and ultimately it really accentuates the experience, making this another wonderful treat on this journey.

Prices are 27 Pesos (~$2) for the Sonoran Beef Carne Asada Taco (Arrachera Cut) and 38 Pesos (~$3) for the Sonoran Hot Dog.

Rating: 8.6 (out of 10.0)

Baja Sonora Asadero
Paseo De Los Heroes 10027
Zona Rio
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico
Tel: (664) 634 6111

At this point, I was pretty content (more like in a state of bliss) from all the stellar food experienced on the streets, but another surprise was awaiting me as we continued to walk around Tijuana burning the midnight oil: A Carne Adobada specialist at Taqueria El Franc.

As we were approaching the entrance, my eyes lit up: A massive trompo with layers of fresh Pork slow roasting on a spit.

While L.A. has some places that sport a trompo selling their Al Pastor, this one was different: The heating apparatus, the layering and juiciness and wonderful smells of the Pork on this spit looked like nothing I've seen back home.

We excitedly place an order and the wonderful Taco Adobada arrives: Juicy slices of Slow-Roasted Pork marinated in Chile Ancho, Achiote and Vinegar (along with some other spices), topped with a specific Salsa created just for the Adobada (i.e., it's not served with their other offerings), an Arbol Chipotle Salsa, and fresh Guacamole.

Taking a bite:

Absolutely wonderful.

While the Carne Asada Tacos (both types) that we had earlier already were revelations of greatness, this Carne Adobada (at Taqueria El Franc it's essentially an Al Pastor style cooking method with slightly different marinade) was so truly *juicy* with its freshly-roasted Marinated Pork, so truly *porky*, lightly fatty, but still satisfyingly meaty with this great multilayered dance of spices from the Ancho and Achiote and the rest of their proprietary blend of seasonings. It was so juicy, there was a bit of Pork Juice(!) in each bite, recalling reflections of a great Xiao Long Bao ("Soup Dumpling").

One thing to note: Taqueria El Franc also serves Asada, Suadero and Tripa, and what was crazy-cool was that they had a Taquero, a specialist, cooking and serving *each* type! The other items looked and smelled great, but we were reaching our limit by this point (next time!). :) At a ridiculously low price of 15 Pesos (~$1.15) for this legendary Carne Adobada Taco, the Quality-Price Ratio is through the roof. You can taste the care and years of experience that the Adobada specialist had with each Taco he was serving. Outstanding! (^_^)

Rating: 9.0 (out of 10.0)

Taqeria El Franc
On the corner of Boulevard Sanchez Taboada & 8a / Calle Miguel Hidalgo
Zona Rio
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

Hours: Mon - Thurs, 4:00 a.m. - 1:00 a.m. (!)
Fri - Sat, 4:00 a.m. - 4:00 a.m. (!)
Closed Sundays.

The next morning (or, ~5 hours later to be exact :), we woke up and continued the whirlwind adventure, starting with the breakfast of champions known as Menudo at a Tortilla specialist of all places: Auto Tortilleria.

Starting bright and early, Auto Tortilleria features a Menudo specialist, serving up Jalisco style Menudo (and Birria de Borrego (Lamb Stew)).

Even with only ~4.5 hours of sleep, walking into the restaurant and smelling the wonderful slow-cooking pots of Menudo (Slow-cooked Stew of Beef Tripe) instantly awoke my senses. :) There was this wonderful slow-stewed Beef aroma filling the air.

Seeing families in line, bringing their own Soup Pots from home to fill up on this Menudo is always a good sign. (^_~) (By the time we left the line was almost out the door.)

After placing our order, our waitress brings out the classic condiments for the Menudo: Raw Onions, Fresh Limes, Dried Oregano, Chile Arbol and their fresh-made Salsa.

Our order of Menudo arrives soon after, paired with some of their just-made Tortillas.

Auto Tortilleria makes their Menudo with Beef Tripe and Pata de Res (Cow Foot), slow cooked overnight with Guajillo Chiles and basic seasonings.

It was visually stunning and the broth was even better: Surprisingly light, pure and focused with great slow-cooked bovine flavors, along with a tease of heat from the Guajillo Chile. Adding in the Dried Oregano, Onions, Chile Arbol it transformed the earnest goodness into something even greater, adding in a nice herbal, spicy, lively kick to the whole dish.

And the Menudo itself: The Tripe was soft but still had a nice, light chew, and the Cow's Foot was gelatinous, unctuous and delicious! Easily the best Menudo I've ever had. :) And at 50 Pesos (~$3.85) for this hefty bowl of soup, it's an absurd bargain. :)

Rating: 8.3 (out of 10.0)

Auto Tortilleria
Corner of Negrete & 4th
Zona Centro
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

Our next stop was to try one of Tijuana's specialties: Birria de Res Taco (Beef Stew Taco). In front of the Mercado M. Hidalgo is a simple Taco Stand specializing in only 2 items: Birria and Tripas (Small Intestines) of Beef.

Tacos Fitos is also home to the fastest Taquero I have ever seen: Literally in a matter of *seconds* he grabs some of the freshly-chopped Birria de Res (Beef Stewed Meat), adds in Onions and Cilantro and does a quick flick of the wrist, *launching* some of the Birria de Res Soup into the air(!) and he catches it into the Taco he's preparing and serves it to you.

And Street tells me that this person is only the 2nd fastest Taquero at this stand(!). Wow.

Our Birria de Res Tacos are ready and we quickly sit down to partake: Meltingly tender, slow-cooked Beef Stew, lightly grassy and spicy and completely *savory*, it makes my mouth sing in delight! (^_^)

This was just another outstanding dish on this journey and easily the best Birria de Res I've ever had. No joke. And at *10 Pesos* ($0.77) it's a complete steal.

Rating: 8.7 (out of 10.0)

Tacos Fitos
On Calle Javier Mina (in front of the Mercado M. Hidalgo)
Zona Rio
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

We finish up with a trip to a Barbacoa de Borrego (Slow-Roasted Lamb) specialist from Hidalgo who exhibits much love for his craft at Barbacoa Ermita.

Chef Victor Torres is so dedicated to his craft of cooking Barbacoa de Borrego the proper way (traditionally in a Pit, slow-roasting overnight), that he *built* a standing pit that could be properly sealed up to slow cook his Lamb overnight, maintaining the right amount of heat with his custom-built setup.

We arrive only an hour after he opened, and he's already sold out of the Pancita (Lamb Stomach)! We quickly sit down and place our order for a 1/2 Kilogram of Barbacoa de Borrego and their Mixiote (Lamb Cooked in Maguey with a special Spice Mix).

Taking a look into the pit, Chef Torres wraps each Lamb in Maguey Leaves and slow cooks them overnight. It smells beyond delicious.

We're served a traditional set of 4 homemade Salsas as well as Onions, Cilantro and Lime: Their Salsa Borracha made with Guajillo Chile, Pulque (Fermented Agave Sap) is wonderfully deep, complex, bitter and smoky. It's only lightly spicy (despite its dark ominous color) and my favorite. :)

Their Arbol Salsa is made with Chile Arbol and Beer, creating a slightly bitter, direct heat Salsa with a slow burn.

The Habanero Salsa made with Habanero Chilis is an explosion of heat, very herbal and instantly setting my tongue on fire. :) But it's addicting in its freshness and vibrant heat.

Finally their Jalapeno Tomatillo Salsa is the 2nd spiciest of the 4 Salsas, with a very green, grassy, herbal note with a good long burn.

The Consome (Consomme of Lamb) is at the heart of this experience, with a very pure, light slow-cooked broth with Garbanzo Beans and Lamb essence. Unlike most places I've tried in So Cal, this Consome isn't spicy at all, just the pure Lamb Consomme being celebrated, only lightly salty and subtly nuanced.

I also order a classic Jamaica (Hibiscus Flower Tea) drink to enjoy with the Lamb. Their version is thankfully lightly sweet, floral and the perfect cool refreshing drink for this hot Summer morning.

Our order of Barbacoa de Borrego (Slow-Cooked Lamb in Maguey Leaves) arrives soon after. A wonderful mix of various parts of the Lamb.

With the Pancita (Lamb Stomach) sold out already, our order is comprised of 3 main sections of the Lamb: Costilla (Lamb Ribs), Maciza (Lamb Muscle Meat from the Leg and Shoulder) and Faldita (Lamb Skirt). The Costilla is a little drier than I would've liked, but still generally moist. It's subtle and lightly fatty, picking up faint notes of the Maguey Leaves. There's also a gorgeous pink center.

The Maciza (Regular Lamb Meat (from Shank and Shoulder)) is a touch too dry but still pretty decent with its freshness and pure pungent Lamb flavors.

Finally their Faldita (Lamb Skirt) is intense, concentrated in its Lamb gaminess and picks up most of the Maguey flavors due to its proximity to the Leaves during cooking. It's also fatty (but rendered down) and just succulent. :)

But as well executed as their famous Barbacoa is, I'd have to say their Mixiote (Lamb Marinated in a Special Spice Mix and Cooked in Maguey) is even better.

The Mixiote is Lamb slow cooked with a marinade of Chile Morita, Chile Guajillo and other spices. It inherently boasts stronger flavors due to the spicy marinade rubbed all over these pieces of Lamb, and in this case, the spices create a foundation for the Lamb, elevating the flavors to something beyond the simpler Barbacoa.

The Mixiote has luscious chunks of very moist, meaty Pierna (Leg of Lamb), which not only satisfies texturally, but also flavor-wise, with a lightly herbal, slightly bitter but very savory burst of flavor with each bite.

Ultimately, Barbacoa Ermita is another shining example of a specialist delivering dishes that exceed expectations and surpass anything I've had back home. At 300 Pesos (~$23) for a 1/2 Kilogram of the Barbacoa and Mixiote, it's fairly priced for the quality. As a note of comparison, while Barbacoa Ermita was delicious, I prefer Aqui Es Texcoco just a bit more in terms of the Barbacoa, but Ermita wins with the Mixiote. Wonderful Lamb goodness. :)

Rating: 8.2 (out of 10.0)

Barbacoa Ermita
Ermita No. 807
La Mesa
Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico
Tel: (664) 622-1968

Hours: Sat - Sun Only, 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. (or until they sell out)

And with that final Lamb sendoff, we headed back across the border with full stomachs and heavy hearts knowing very well that the equivalent types of dishes in L.A. fall far short of what was experienced in these 18 hours in Tijuana. It's not surprising that the dishes of a certain culture would be superior in the country of its origin; after all, having an entire *nation* cooking and refining a certain cuisine is going to have a huge advantage over that same cuisine served in a foreign country across a handful of restaurants, but it's still a bit of a wake-up call when you witness just how vast the disparity can be at times.

Just like the revelations of Japanese cuisine on my last trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, from a simple, humble bowl of Ramen to Modern Kaiseki and beyond, so it is with these key dishes from Mexican cuisine. I'll never be able to look at another Carne Asada Taco in L.A. without thinking about my new paradigm of greatness in the Carne Asada Tacos of Tacos El Poblano and Baja Sonora Asadero. Nor another Carne Adobada Taco, Birria de Res, Modern Mexican Cuisine, Menudo or Mixiote. This isn't to say that one day the greater L.A. / O.C. area won't have specialists that can deliver the equivalent culinary highlight, in fact I'm hoping it happens as soon as possible. And with that, another huge thanks to Streetgourmetla for being my personal tour guide. (^_~)


weezermonkey said...

What an amazing adventure! Who knew that Tijuana had all this to offer!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Indeed it was. Like you, I had no idea just how great the culinary offerings were in Tijuana until now.

edjusted said...

Awesome! If I ever decide to do a food tour of Tiajuana, I'm using this post as a guide!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Edjusted,

Thanks. :) I hope you enjoy the visit to TJ. I was pretty happy with the great food.

jason said...

Wow. That looks like an amazing weekend. Great post.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi jason,

Thanks. :) It was definitely an amazing 18 hours of great food and good times.

Gaviotica said...

Nice post from Tijuana

You miss the Carnitas...Deliciuss


Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gaviotica,

Thank you. :) Believe me, I wanted to try some great Carnitas as well, but there was only so much we could try in 18 hours. :) Next time for sure.

If you have any recommendations for places you like for Carnitas, please let me know. Thanks.

elmomonster said...

OK...I've quietly lurked during your extravagant binges at LA's finest eateries, thinking, "Wow, exile kiss knows how to eat!", but this one, this POST truly has me in awe of you! All that in 18 hours! In TIJUANA of all places! Amazing! I'm with edjusted. If I ever get the cojones to do this, I'm just using this as a guide.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi elmomonster,

It's an honor; thanks for the kind words! :) Tijuana is a blast and some of the best food I've had so far.

gourmetpigs said...

Glad to see you managed to tag along w streetgourmetla. I miss the asada tacos from El Poblano so much, can't wait to go back (this weekend in fact!)
Looks like you hit some places we didn't last time, I have to make sure he take us there this time around.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi burumun,

Nice! :) I'm jealous you're going back this weekend for more delicious food! :) I can't wait to go back myself. Let me know how your trip goes.

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