Tiny Pueblo Mágico’s dining scene moves beyond provincial
By: W. Scott Koenig
In 2012, Mexico’s tourism board designated Tecate as Baja California’s only Pueblo Mágico due to its Spanish Colonial charm and provincial character. And for the most part, Tecate’s cuisine has largely reflected the small-town character of its populace. In the 1990s, my wife and I spent many tree-shaded, sun-dappled days in the Parque Miguel Hidalgo enjoying a simple lunch of tacos, chips, the town’s namesake cerveza, and other standard Mexican fare such as carne asada and rotisserie chicken.
There were—and still are—restaurants in Tecate that ply in traditional regional Mexican food, mariscos (seafood), and the occasional American-style burger or pizza. But while Ensenada and Tijuana were busy building new restaurants and menus featuring the region’s new “Baja Mediterranean” cuisine—and gaining international attention in the process—tranquilo Tecate lagged behind. Until now.
During a recent visit, I was surprised to see that little Tecate’s culinary scene has grown up. One reason for the gastronomic growth is the sheer volume of female chefs sharpening their knives and skills in chef Denise Roa’s kitchen at La Cocina Que Canta at Rancho La Puerta. Two of the cooking school’s former sous chefs now own and operate successful Tecate eateries that blend Mediterranean, Asian, and French techniques, respectively, with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients—including produce and herbs from Rancho La Puerta’s six-acre organic garden.
Another factor is Tecate’s opportunity to capture tourist pesos and palates as the “northern entrance” to the increasingly popular Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California’s wine country. Bottles of Nebbiolo and Sauvignon Blanc from the state’s five wine valleys have found their way north onto bars at new Tecate wine bistros and alongside internationally-informed tasting menus as pairings. Local chefs who were trained in Europe and throughout Mexico are also choosing to work closer to home to capitalize on the current hunger for Baja California cuisine.
El Lugar de Nos
Arriving for lunch at El Lugar de Nos a half hour early on a recent Saturday afternoon, we were one of about a dozen families anxiously waiting to be seated in the rustic, sprawling, and eclectic restaurant’s dining room or back patio. There’s good reason for the wait. Chef Mariela Manzano—one of the two chefs here who worked and trained at Rancho La Puerto—is busy in the open-air kitchen chopping fresh watermelon radish as garnish or giving her deeply succulent “84 meat” a final stir before service—a combination of lamb, pork, and beef marinated and slow cooked for 84 hours. The thirty-minute wait seems negligible in comparison.
Chef Manzano’s education was primarily in traditional Mexican cuisine, exemplified by menu offerings such as her tortilla soup, or barbecued flank steak. She also embraces the region’s Baja Mediterranean cuisine, which combines traditional Mexican, European, and Asian techniques with local ingredients. One of my favorite examples of this is her dish of tostadas of fresh Bluefin tuna in escabeche negro—a vinegar-based marinade made black by serrano chili ash. Three house-made tostadas are heaped with generous portions of cubed, marinated ahi, then topped with guacamole, pickled cucumber, sprouts, and carrot strips.
El Lugar de Nos is located at Avenida Benito Juarez # 384, Colonia El Refugio. Open Wed-Sat 1-1PM. Sun 11AM-5PM. Closed Tue. +52 665 521 3340. www.facebook.com/LugarDeNos.
Husband and wife team Marcelo Hisaki and Reyna Vedegas of Restaurante Amores are two of the most pedigreed chefs working in Tecate. In 2017, Hisaki represented Baja California at the esteemed El Bocuse d’Or cooking competition in Mexico City, and Vedegas is another graduate of La Cocina Que Canta. The couple met and worked in Europe under the tutelage of French masters Phillipe Gauvreau and Alain Ducasse. Amores’ three, five, or eight course tasting menu options—based on available local ingredients—are as refined as the chefs’ resumes would suggest.
Service is impeccable in the intimate dining room. Each course is presented with an engaging description of its ingredients and inspiration. Pairings of Baja California wines are selected based on how you answer a simple inquiry, “Are you more of a beach or movie theater person?” Answer one way, and lighter varietals are poured, heavier if you prefer a dark room over a sunny playa. Standout dishes during a recent visit included a delightful ceviche of yellowtail and pig knuckle garnished with greens from nearby Rancho La Puerta, and a rich, flavorful bisque of octopus and vegetables that perfectly married Baja California ingredients with French technique.
Restaurante Amores is located at Presidente Adolfo de la Huerta #42, Zona Centro. Open Tue-Thu 1-9PM, Fri & Sat 1-10PM, Sun 1-7PM. Closed Mon. +52 665 122 1323. www.facebook.com/restauranteamores.
El Inicio Lobby Urbano
El Inicio Lobby Urbano is one of several hip new eateries that have opened on the streets surrounding the zocalo amidst aging tourist bars and taco shops—giving the city center a much-needed breath of culinary life. “Our location on the Parque Miguel Hidalgo puts us at the entrance to the Valle de Guadalupe,” owner Hector Esparza intimated during a recent stop at his hip, contemporary, new wine bistro. “We called our place El Inicio as it should be the first stop on your way to wine country.” Indeed, the bistro stocks several excellent Baja California wines and offers sangrias and spritzers made with Valle whites—perfect for hot Tecate summer days.
Eulogio Rivas, formerly chef de cuisine at acclaimed Tecate restaurant Asao, has created a casual menu of tapas, paninis, wraps, and plates to share, including a charcuterie board of local meats, cheese, and fruit. We enjoyed the “El Rural” panini of perfectly-grilled, smoky arrachera (steak) on toasted artisan ciabatta with house dressing, caramelized onions, and locally-sourced gouda. The house-made potato chips served with every sandwich were a revelation—satisfyingly crunchy on the outside, but still warm and soft like a frite on the inside. In addition to Baja California wines, we also spotted local craft cervezas, such as Tijuana’s Insurgente, on offer.
El Inicio is located at Calle Presidente Lázaro Cárdenas 45-2, Zona Centro. Open Mon, Wed, Thu 1-9PM. Fri 1-10PM. Sat 2-10PM, Sun 2-6PM. Closed Tue. +52 665 521 2994. www.facebook.com/El-Inicio-Lobby-Urbano.
Though not new, I would be remiss to not mention Asao as a must-visit Tecate dining destination. When the restaurant, adjacent to the elegant five-star Santuario Diegueño hotel, opened in 2012, it started the culinary shift in town that eateries such as Amores are continuing. Two of Baja California’s most celebrated chefs—Roberto Alcocer and Martin San Román—have taken turns at the helm of Asao’s kitchen. They and others have designed thoughtfully-prepared dishes influenced by the cuisines of Europe and Mexico, often fused. Asao was also one of the first “farm-to-table” restaurants in the region, working only with locally-sourced ingredients.
Asao’s high-ceilinged dining room is separated by glass from its open kitchen, where diners can watch the staff hard at work on their dinner. Lunch is best enjoyed on the restaurant’s spacious outdoor patio, which provides an unmatched view of the entire Pueblo Mágico, below. Though the restaurant is now in between executive chefs, former dishes featured on the menu include grilled octopus with chorizo and guajillo chili atop black bean puree from chef Alcocer, and a four-hour braised short rib in a sauce of pasilla chilies and red wine from chef San Román.
Asao is located at Río Lerma 798, Colonia Esteban Cantú. Open Mon-Sat 7AM-11PM. Sunday 7AM-8PM. +52 665 654 4777. www.facebook.com/AsaoRestaurante.
In stark contrast to the Baja California cuisine—considered Mexico’s “newest” food movement—which is increasingly on offer in Tecate, restaurant Polokotlan Sabores Autóctonos is focused on delighting and educating customers with a Mexican buffet and a la carte menu of pre-Hispanic dishes that reflect Mexico’s deep culinary past. Restaurant owner Alicia León says, “At Polokotlan, we are dedicated to the rescue of our gastronomic and cultural roots and offer a mix of traditional dishes that reflects our flavorful heritage through ancestral cooking”.
Located in a cozy, humble space within a small hotel on Benito Juarez Blvd., Polokotlan offers a daily buffet of pre-Hispanic stews ladled from traditional clay Mexican pots that circumnavigate the dining room. Traditional breakfasts such as machaca con huevos (dried, shredded beef with eggs) are also on offer. In addition to food, Polokotlon also offers pre-Hispanic beverages, including an acorn-based drink derived from the native Kumeyaay community in Tecate. The restaurant’s soft, warm, blue corn tortillas are the best I’ve had anywhere in Mexico.
León is also the president of CANIRAC Tecate, the city’s main restaurant organization. Of Tecate’s growth as a culinary destination in Baja California, she emphasizes, “CANIRAC has been working closely with the city council here so that we’re not just a stopover town, or a place you pass through while on your way to the Valle de Guadalupe. The city now has a number of gastronomic options to offer for a stay of several days.”
Polokotlan is located at the corner of Blvd. Benito Juarez and Prolongación Revolución. Open every day 8AM-4PM. +52 665 121 4743. http://polokotlan.wixsite.com/polokotlan.
Disclosure: A Gringo in Mexico was invited to dine at Asao, Amores, and Polokotlan, complements of our generous hosts. All other meals and beverages were paid for without discounts or promotional consideration. No compensation was received from any restaurant or its affiliates for inclusion in this or any article. We would happily spend our own pesos for meals at any one of the eateries mentioned here. Buen Provecho!
San Diego based lifestyle writer W. Scott Koenig founded AGringoInMexico.com in 2012 to report on Mexican travel destinations, food, culture and adventure. He is also a columnist for DiningOut San Diego, SanDiegoRed.com, and DiscoverBaja.com.
Scott is the Food Expert for Tijuana and the Valle de Guadalupe for ExtremeFoodies.tv, (formerly FoodieHub), an international culinary site curated by over 275 global experts.
Scott organizes and conducts culinary tours of Baja California, and has helped fix film and video productions in the region — working with the BBC, KPBS, and the Culinary Institute of America on recent projects.
Scott has built a bi-national network of culinary professionals, business leaders, tourism officials, media agencies, writers, and photographers to assist in promoting business, education, and the arts in the San Diego/Baja California mega-region.
Scott is also the owner of Koenig Creative LLC and has over 30 years of experience in marketing, creative direction, and graphic design.