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Mexico - Pacific Coast and Baja


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Am considering going to Cabo in July -- has anyone been there at that time of year? Is it unbearably hot? Any suggestions for good restaurants? I've read about Charlie Trotter's restaurant there and some other high end ones -- what about more modest/local places? In terms of hotels -- am considering the Westin, Sheraton and Hilton, as being somewhat reasonable price-wise yet fairly deluxe -- don't want an all-inclusive place. Having a swimmable beach is also desireable. Wild and crazy nightlife is not what we're looking for. Overall, it sounds like a pretty expensive, touristy place, but I have also heard that it's really beautiful. Any feedback (positive or negative) would be appreciated.

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My buddy is letting us use a week of his time share and we can choose from several Mexican resorts in Acapulco, Riviera Maya (near Playa del Carmen), Nuevo Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta, or Puerto Penasco. Food options would be a nice thing to consider as we make our choice. We've been to Playa del Carmen before, so we know that there are a lot of restaurants (some relatively decent) that you can walk to, especially in the touristy area. Essentially we'd like to have options that go beyond resort dining. For what it's worth, this is the web site of resorts http://www.mayanresorts.com/index.cfm?lang=en in case anyone happens to have actually been to any of these places. I'll take non-food tips, too! Posts or PMs are welcomed. Thanks!

Pax,

Brian

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Warning: My experience is three years old or so. Albeit more low key than Acapulco or Manzanillo, Zihua is still a beach town but it's one of those beach towns where you really can't go wrong with any of the offerings in front of the boats at the waterfront. Some may excel slightly more than others and all of them will hawk you with coupons or specials or this or that, but they're all pretty decent from our experience and much more chill for the beachside joint than the other cities. Never ate at Casa que Canta but there is another joint on the cliffs on the other side of the bay whose name escapes me that had beautiful views and tasty food/drink. If I think of it I'll let you know.

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Mazatlan has one world class restaurant in the historic house called Casa Garcia.  In fact, there are two restaurants housed in Casa Garcia, although owned by the same chef and share the same kitchen - El Presidio and Compania Minera de Panuco.  Compania is the bar/pub and El Presidio occupies the courtyard with fountain.  The food is fantastic - from fantastic tortillas served with tacos to ceviche to oysters with grasshoppers.  The menus are vast, which is why I went back 4 straight days....did I mention it was the only world class restaurant that I discovered in Mazatlan?

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We just returned this past weekend from five days spent in the Valle de Guadalupe. TL;DR - It's awesome, and you should totally go. 

In a bit more detail, I'll break this up into three posts, one on the Valle itself, where we stayed and what wineries we visited; one on the restaurants we ate at; and finally one post on the two places we ate lunch in Ensenada. 

First, the Valle de Guadalupe is stunningly beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful wine country I've ever been to (which is high praise, since wine country anywhere is basically always beautiful). The Valle is approximately 15 miles long, and I believe there are somewhere north of 100 wineries. It's an easy drive from San Diego (we drove down the coast as it's more scenic, cutting over on Highway 3 just north of Ensenada). Once there, however, it's one of the more challenging vacation spots we've been to, although in the end this didn't cause us to enjoy it any less.

First, it has perhaps the worst roads I've ever driven on. This was almost certainly exacerbated by the fact that they had just gotten a ton of rain right before we arrived. With the exception of Highway 3, another major road that essentially paralleled Highway 3 through the Valle, and a road called El Tigre that connected these two major roads near the western end of the Valle, we only saw two, relatively short, paved stretches of road. Everything else was dirt, and all of them were covered in holes and ditches, which at times made them completely impassible. You also would periodically come upon ponds or lakes which would cover the entire road. Given that we were driving a rented Nissan Altima, we chose not to plunge blindly in, and instead would turn back around. Because of this there were several wineries we simply couldn't visit (most notably Vena Cava which we really wanted to visit), and heavy rains on Friday morning led to us not visiting any vineyards at all that day, and instead starting our trip north to the border a bit early.

If you want to drive into Mexico there are only a few rental companies that will rent to you (Hertz is one), and you have to have Mexico-specific rental car insurance. This isn't hard to get, but is one extra step you need to go through.

Lodging - We stayed at Encuentro Guadalupe, and I'd definitely recommend it. They have a main "lodge" near the highway, and then a series of "Pods" which are arrayed across the hills above, each of which is a single guest room. The views are absolutely stunning, and at night the stargazing is incredible. The rooms themselves are nothing incredible, but are comfortable, and each room has a small deck with a firepit. It was somewhat cold while we were there (colder than we expected) so we didn't take advantage of the pool and hot tub, although we did eat breakfast every day adjacent to the pool. Staff was super helpful and accommodating. 

Wineries - Here are the wineries we visited, in rough order of our preference. One point I'll make quickly here at the top is that while the wines on the whole were very fruit forward, they were surprisingly low in alcohol, with most coming in right at or around 13.5%. This was extremely welcome news for me, as I was concerned they would be coming in way too hot. Also, everybody produces primarily reds, and some wineries were at least only pouring reds. 

Las Nubes - This was our favorite winery all around. Great wines, fantastic views from the north side of the valley, and tremendously friendly and knowledgeable staff. 

Alximia - This was one of three wineries we visited who claimed to be the only Mexican winery using primarily gravity in their winemaking. It's a very cool building, and we really enjoyed their wines as well. 

Clos de Tres Cantos - This is a particularly small operation, and currently produces about 1,000 cases per year. Their goal is to increase to just over 2,000 cases and year and then stay at that level. It was a bit of a challenge to drive to due to the road conditions, but they've got beautiful views from the south side of the valley, and they were incredibly friendly. There appeared to be only one guy working there, and he happily sat down with us outside and poured us four of their wines (all reds). The buildings were very cool, and most everything there was built from recycled materials. 

Villa de Montefiori - We visited this winery on our first day and it is extremely impressive. Great views, and extremely helpful and knowledgeable woman working there. They make wines primarily using Italian varietals, and their wines were quite good. We didn't realize until after we'd left, but we had purchased one of their wines in DC at Grand Cata in Shaw. 

Vinicola Torres Alegre y Familia - We hired a drive on Thursday, our last full day in Mexico, because it was raining, and by early afternoon we started to get a bit of cabin fever and wanted to get out. This was a winery that we attempted to visit ourselves earlier in the week but turned around because we were unwilling to drive into what looked like a lake that blocked the entire road. Our driver did not have the same concerns, and while I was certain his engine was going to flood fortunately we made it through. They had one wine that I absolutely couldn't stand (an extremely over-oaked, in my opinion, Sauvignon Blanc), but we very much enjoyed the reds they were pouring. 

Adobe Guadalupe - The first winery we visited, and it's a good one worth stopping at. Beautiful estate, and very solid wines. You can also stay here. 

Emeve - Located just down the road from Adobe, and it's an extremely nice tasting room. This was the first place we visited where nobody spoke English, although we were able to get by with my very limited Spanish with little trouble. 

Finca la Carrodilla - Very nice winery and tasting room, and good wines. We enjoyed them. Per them, they're the only organic winery in Mexico. 

Decantos - This is a quite new, and incredibly beautiful facility, with a very large tasting room. I was surprised that currently they're only producing around 1,000 cases per year. We liked their wines, but nothing knocked our socks off. 

JC Bravo - This is also a very small project, and I think they also produce about 1,000 cases per year. It's located essentially in the town of Guadalupe, and we were only able to taste two wines, a heavily oaked Sauvignon Blanc, and a Carignan. the latter was fantastic. No views to speak of. 

Baron Balche - I believe this is one of the older wineries in the area, and one of the larger (I think they're around 10,000 cases annually). It's a really nice facility, just below Decantos. They do their tastings in their wine caves, which is a nice touch. Their wines were good, although too many of them were, in my opinion, way too tanic, and as a result they really kind of wore me out. 

Camou - Probably the only true disappointment for us. They're one of the first wineries in the area, but we didn't particularly enjoy their wines. They were also pouring incredibly old vintages for us, like 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, and a 2002 Bordeaux-style blend. 

You are limited to bringing back one liter of wine (or any other booze) per person duty free. Between the two of us we brought back six bottles (would have brought more but we needed to fit everything in our checked bags) and had no trouble getting back in without paying any tax. Not that we were hiding anything, and we answered all questions truthfully at the border, but they just waved us through. 

 

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Post two on the Valle de Guadalupe, on restaurants:

Deckman's - This was the restaurant I was most interested in eating at. It's adjacent to the Mogor Batan winery, which we didn't visit as they're only open on weekends. The chef/owner, Drew Deckman, earned a Michelin star while working in Germany before moving to Baja and opening this restaurant. It was fantastic. The entire restaurant is essentially outdoors (half is surrounded with walls of hay and open windows, but it's definitely outdoors). Given that it was rather cold, we ate with our jackets on, which wasn't ideal, but still worth it. All of the food is prepared at the outdoor kitchen, entirely on wood and embers. We ordered an insane amount of food for three people (a friend of ours drove down for the day from San Diego), plus wine, and the total cost was about $140. Even simple dishes, like mixed grilled vegetables from their own gardens, were stunning. Wonderful restaurant, and a very laid back and cool vibe, complete with dogs and puppies. 

Finca Altozano - Very similar vibe to Deckman's, it's also outdoors (they will bring you blankets), they also have dogs, and much of what they cook is done over wood. Fantastic ceviches, the stuffed squash blossoms were great, and the grilled pork was phenomenal. Again, total check for two people with wine and dessert was less than $80. 

Laja - This is an indoor restaurant, and serves only a four course tasting menu with two choices for each course. The total cost, with wine pairings, is around $40 per person. Probably my least favorite of the four places we ate dinner, which is less a knock on the restaurant and more a compliment to how good every single place was. The food was very good. There was only one other couple in the dining room (who had, coincidentally, also been at Deckman's and Finca Alotzano the previous two days when we were there). 

Corazon de Tiera - While Deckman's was my favorite meal on this trip, Corazon de Tiera was the best. Six course tasting menu, and it's absolutely fantastic. It was kind of odd being the only couple in the (beautiful) dining room, but service was very good without being intrusive. The menu changes constantly, so I'm trying to recreate this from my memory and a few photos, but we started off with a really wonderful and inventive garden salad, followed by a steak tartare with egg yolk sauce; tamale with mole amarillo, dried parsnips and sauteed kale; seared angelfish with some sort of salsa verde; an incredible duck over pureed potatoes with what was described as a five-year red wine and bone sauce but I believe there may have been a translation issue there; and a tremendous flan with mezcal ice cream. Fantastic meal, you should definitely go, although if you go the same time of year as us you should hire a driver as it was one of the most harrowing drives I've ever been on. On at least three occasions our driver drove straight into lakes in the middle of the road, and on at least one occasion the headlights went under water. 

Adobe Guadalupe - At this winery they have a food truck set up just outside the tasting room serving Spanish-style tapas. It's very good. We had sauteed mushrooms with chili threads, a dish with sauteed shrimp, sausage and garlic, and something else that's escaping my mind. As with every other place we ate, the bread was incredible. 

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Ensenada

We didn't stay in Ensenada, but ate lunch in or near the town on three different days. 

Trailero Ensenada - This taqueria is located directly on Highway 1, just north of Ensenada. My friend, who drove down from San Diego for the day, had been here before and recommended it. It's very good, and worth stopping at. They've got a series of little stations set up around where you order your tacos (one for fish and shrimp tacos, one for al pastor, one for asada or cabeza, another for tripe). We sampled a fair amount of what they had available, and it was all very good. The fish tacos were great, as were the al pastor. 

Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix - They have two things, fish tacos and shrimp tacos. They're both fantastic. Strongly recommend it. 

La Guerrerense - I'd seen this food cart on Anthony Bourdain's show, and had read about it elsewhere. They do ceviches (on tostadas), and seafood cocktails, all from a food cart. The fish is fantastic. I loved the ceviche with clams and uni, and the scallops on top of the tostada with crab salad were absurdly sweet. We probably over-ordered because everything was just so damn good, but we ate absolutely everything. Again, strongly recommend it. The food truck is closed on Tuesdays, and apparently doesn't open in inclement weather (or at least wasn't open on Friday when we were in town during an absolute downpour). They did open a brick and mortar restaurant across the street, Sabina's. I can't vouch for it, but they appear to serve the same menu. 

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Those are great reviews.  Thanks. 

I've visited that area several times, the first time in the late '70's and several times thereafter.  As referenced above rugged areas in which to drive.  Conditions kept improving over a decade and a half, but by the mid 90's roads remained terrible.  It was not as developed as it is now though I recall improving and quality meals.

Most memorable though was drinking at Hussong's Cantina in Ensenada the first visit.  Is it still open?  I know it was commercialized with a namesake in Las Vegas.  Hussongs is the oldest cantina in Mexico.  When we visited it still had its "rustic setting", dirt floor, visibly aged.  Got plowed, walked outside and almost got knifed, made a hasty retreat back to San Diego.  Returned to the region two other times.  As I recall the wineries were welcoming guests in the 80's and beyond.  Very enjoyable stays.  On subsequent visits mostly I recall the grande cameron.  OMG:  fantastic grande cameron on both the Pacific and Gulf sides of the Baja!!!!!  Relaxing and enjoyable visits.  Never returned to Hussongs.

 

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I was in Cabo and ate at all sorts of restaurants, none of them particularly good (even though they receive high reviews ) with one exception.

Lorenzillo's - expensive marina joint that gave me bland fried lobster balls.

Lolita - had Sinaloa style menudo for breakfast with chilaquiles con pollo.  When the chicken came out in sliced strips, I knew it wouldn't be good.

Cabo Wabo - only had their fish tacos - cheap and pretty good.

Mi Casa - conchinita pibil and carnitas - both not that exciting

Los Michoacan - decent pork tacos away from tourist zone, no cerveza to wash it down with

Los Claros - famous for smoked marlin which was good.  My fried fish taco came out oily and there's no topping.

Tres Gallos - I had mixed seafood tacos, all were pretty good.

Pano di Bacco - sick of Mexican food?  Get yourself a Neopolitan pizze here.

Biblioteca by Richard Sandoval - I generally wouldn't eat at his restaurant but I was desperate.  This turned out to be a pretty good restaurant by the marina.

Los Adobes in Todos Santos - nice garden but the fish was a bit on the fishy side

El Farallon - Book this restaurant way in advance.  It's only $55 for a 4 course meal (could be more, depending on your choice of protein).  First course is a soup.  Second course is 3 appetizers, fried shrimp, shrimp ceviche and some kind of salad that I didn't touch.  Third is main, I chose a parrot fish filet and a chocolate clam, and 2 sides.  Fourth is dessert.  They also have a champagne bar - I think my booze cost $160.

Cabo is great for people interested in water activities, whether that is flopping around like beached whales, deep sea fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving or just party boating.  Cabo is also great for partiers.  It is not good for culture or food.  

 Farallon.JPG.3209ba0a35ee934cec54f14b11361032.JPG593601a654a9f_ParrotFish.JPG.057e74eb3ab968243c5ee96b10829c48.JPG

 

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We made a return trip to the Valle de Guadalupe last week, again driving down from San Diego and spending four nights there. There has been a lot of new development, in the form of a lot more places to stay, as well as new restaurants and wineries. Once again, we loved it. The scenery, the food, the wine, the people were all outstanding, and it was a great trip (even taking into account that I likely caught COVID somewhere along the way).

The roads remain bad, and mostly dirt, but this time of year things are so dry that while not ideal, it was much easier getting around. I’ll cover this in two posts, one on lodging and wineries, and a second one on food.

Lodging – This time we stayed at El Cielo, which is both a winery and a resort. It was great. The resort has a series of buildings which all have three suites in them, a king bed suite, a two queen bed suite, and a larger master suite on the first floor. We ended up in the two queen suite, and the room was very spacious and nice. Comfortable beds. Nice balcony looking out on the vines. The location is very convenient to many of the wineries and restaurants we wanted to visit. I’d stay here again.

They were very good about arranging drivers for us to get to dinner at night (we did not want to drive on those roads in the dark, and the cost for transportation was like $20 each way, which we would spend on cabs in DC).

Wineries – Here’s the list of wineries we visited in rough order of preference. All of them were good, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend against any of them.

Vena Cava – Our favorite winery hands down on this trip. Reservations required. The wines were all absolutely fantastic (one white, two reds, one sparkler), but the rest of the experience also played a big part. It was a gorgeous day, we sat outside, by ourselves for the most part, directly next to a pond with ducks, and with stunning views of the Valle (we could see Villa de Montefiori, which we visited next). The person pouring for us was great, spoke excellent English, and was very knowledgeable about the wine. Our tasting came with a charcuterie and cheese board.

Many of the wineries in the valle sell arts and crafts, or are obviously catering to groups and tours, this is obviously just a winery, and I loved that about it. They make approximately 4,000 cases a year.

Vinos Plata – This was a tiny spot recommended by the guy at Vena Cava, it’s across the valley in San Antonio de Minas. Really small operation, you need to make a reservation, and the guy who poured wines for us was the owner/winemaker. Great wines. He poured three of them, a canned white (which was delicious and refreshing), a Tempranillo/Grenache/Syrah blend, and a Merlot.

Las Nubes – Our favorite last time around, and it did not disappoint this time either. Great setting, wonderful tasting room inside and out, and we had a very engaging person pouring for us. They’re larger (about 20,000 cases annually), and they have a distributor you can order from in the US.

Vinisterra – Another smaller producer recommended to us by Vena Cava, also in San Antonio de Minas. We had a Vinisterra wine we really liked at dinner our first night, and it was great to taste their wines. Strongly recommended.

Villa de Montefiori/Paoloni – We returned to this winery from before. They appear to be rebranding, with Paoloni being their higher end wines. Nice experience in their new (to us) tasting room. Great outdoor space, very nice wines. All Italian grapes.

Adobe Guadalupe – It was a return for us to this spot as well, which was very near our hotel. The wines were delicious once again. One white, one rose, and two reds. All of the wineries above were 100% about the wines, while the next three are selling crafts and other things as well. 

Alximia – We hit this spot as we were first arriving in the Valle. The wines were very good, but I think our tasting suffered slightly because the person who started off our tasting poured us one wine that had been open for too long and was no longer good. Once we switched our pourer, our experience improved a lot.

Decantos – Fun space, great tasting room, the wines were fine. They’ve got great views.

Vinos Cruz – Another recommendation from Vena Cava, and by far the smallest producer we tried. The wines were good, but the language barrier was quite a bit to overcome here.

We ate very well on our trip. If you’re heading to the Valle de Guadalupe you should definitely factor in that the temperature drops a lot at night, and many restaurants are mostly, if not entirely, outdoors.

Finca Altozano – This was a return visit for us. It’s all outdoors, mostly cooked over fire, and everything was delicious.  Highlights were the Wood Fired Oyster Mushrooms, the Grilled Octopus From the Pacific (served with a soy sauce, citrus, ginger, cilantro and peanut sauce), Shrimp Sopes with Bone Marrow, Oak-Grilled Local Quail, and the Caja China Suckling Pig.

Bruma Wine Garden – It was hard to find restaurants that were open on Tuesdays, so most of the places we tried to get in were closed. We ended up here, which is the most casual restaurant at the new-ish Bruma resort. All seating is outside. Also, despite the fact that they let us make a reservation for 8 pm, they also close the kitchen very shortly after 8 pm, so don’t make the same mistake we did, and if you’re going to dine here, do so earlier in the day.

This place was great. More casual than the other places we dined at, and we also ordered in a very haphazard manner as we needed to get our entire order in very quickly. Their menu is also not online, so I’m basing this entirely on photos, and my months old memories. Among the dishes we enjoyed were an abalone with quails egg; a broccoli “guacamole” that was outstanding; and a couple of very good and inventive pizzas. Worth doing, and a very cool outdoor atmosphere.

Animalon – This is another restaurant from chef Javier Plascencia, like Finca Altozano. In my opinion it was the best meal of the trip. We opted for the tasting menu, and there wasn’t a miss on there. Strongly recommend it.

Once Pueblos – This is another new-ish restaurant, in a beautiful setting up on top of a hill overlooking the valley. We also went with the tasting menu here, and everything was delicious. I’d rank it slightly behind Animalon, if I had to just choose one, but I’d happily return.

Adobe Food Truck – At the Adobe Guadalupe winery, they serve “Spanish” tapas and it’s quite delicious.

El Trailero – This is a taco stand on Highway 1, right near the turn inland towards the Valle de Guadalupe, but before you enter Ensenada proper. The tacos are outstanding. Strongly recommend it as your first meal in Mexico.

La Guerrerense – Food cart in Ensenada, and some of the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. Just outstanding.

Tacos Mi Ranchito El Fenix – Really good shrimp and fish tacos in Ensenada.

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