TIJUANA, Mexico -- Until recently, Baja California’s culinary contribution to the world amounted to the Caesar salad, a dish hardly associated with Mexican food. Beyond that, this long, thin peninsula was known more for its Chinese food and pizza thanks to the thousands of migrants from all over the world who began to settle the Mexican state south of California in the 19th century.
Now a group of chefs wants to change that, working to create a unique cuisine largely based on fresh seafood caught in the seas flanking Baja and the produce from its fertile valley. The culinary craze, known as Baja Med, is a fusion of Mexican food with influences from the Mediterranean and Asia.
The movement has resulted in dozens of restaurants that are helping to pull a new kind of tourist to the beleaguered border city — one who enjoys great food and art rather than a brothel and a cheap drunk. People attending conventions in San Diego think of crossing the border for dinner in Tijuana, said Javier Plascencia, the chef of Mision 19, whose quest to put his city on the culinary map was the subject of a New Yorker magazine profile last year.
Baja Med mixes uniquely Mexican ingredients such as chicharron and cotija cheese with lemon grass and olive oil. Signature dishes include tempura fish tacos and deep sea shrimp served with fried marlin, baby farm tomatoes, scallions and a sauce made with local cheeses.
“What Baja Med proposes is for the ingredient to be the main actor in the kitchen,” said Miguel Angel Guerrero, chef of La Querencia, a Tijuana restaurant serving such dishes as beet carpaccio with blue cheese and mint vinaigrette. “Geographically, we are privileged because throughout the year we have a variety of products available. And yet, many generations have passed, and we still don’t have a regional cuisine.”
The port of Ensenada, 40 miles south of Tijuana, is one of the country’s largest for mussels, oysters, clams and shrimp, as well as a hotbed of blue tuna sea farming. Baja California is the fourth largest producing vegetables in Mexico, according to the state government.
To come up with the right taste, chefs also bring in red lobster, manta rays, sea cucumbers and salicornia, a succulent that grows in sand dunes. They incorporate miniature vegetables from the fields south of Ensenada, olives from the winemaking region of the Guadalupe Valley just northeast of Ensenada, dates from San Ignacio and tomatoes and strawberries from the San Quintin Valley.
“Many of us were working on our own for some time but things fell into place for us to work together, while keeping our individual style,” said Marcelo Castro, a leading producer of cheese in Real del Castillo and great-grandson of a Swiss immigrant who came to Ensenada in the late 19th century.
Area chefs conceived the movement eight years ago when they formed the Baja California Chef’s Association. It’s been boosted in the last three years by the state government, which has organized and promoted food festivals.
Now the 22 Baja Med chefs work with the state’s wine and beer producers and the vegetable growers, fishermen and shellfish farmers. Another boost came when international culinary specialists started to visit some of the restaurants.
“Tijuana is one of the most interesting Mexican kitchens today. It’s one of the great cities to eat across North America,” international chef Rick Bayless said while taping a Tijuana segment for his PBS series One Plate at a Time.