It was a late night in San Felipe when we decided to make probably our 10th stop of the day at El Filete. We ordered lips, tripe and carne asada as we were all eager to see what kind of tacos we had in store. Women’s boxing played on the overhead TVs in the heavily flourescent-lit shop, and I admit that I got really into it – including the surprising, Pacquiao-esque, end decision.
Bill had been on a mission for lips (labio) tacos and was excited El Filete had them. I, though eager to prove that I had no prejudgments when it comes to parts of the animal, preferred the carne asada ones by far. The tripe indeed was flavorful, but I loved how the carne asada really caught the flavor of the mesquite grill. It was also testament to the fact that not all carne asada is the same.
Far from it. It was probably the most complex flavored carne I had had ever, and when I saw the grill, I could see why: The flame grill glowed with mesquite peeping out at the bottom. It was like I had never actually eaten real carne asada before; I found it almost preposterous how much better these tasted than anything I’ve had in LA when carne, in general, is so common. I guess that’s another way of describing something as “plain.”
Call it the re-education of carne asada. Mesquite is where it’s at. I’ve really no other advice other than to get down to Mexico to see what it’s really supposed to taste like…
11 AM – 12 am
Asadero El Filete
Baja California, Mexico
There in our van, with exterior temperatures having hovered around 90 to 100 degrees for the 5th and final day, were Bill and his wife Ariana, Barbara, Fiona and I being driven by the tireless, hospitable Ruben. We were heading home from San Felipe on our drive through Baja California, concluding with a jaunt through Mexicali – the Chinese food capital of Mexico – and to Tecate. Then, back to Tijuana.
Almost home, but not quite.
Time for a taco.
In between Mexicali and Tecate lies La Rumorosa (in 2001 NYT article), an area named for the sounds made when winds blow through the canyons. You’ll miss it if you blink, but Tacos Lalo is every reason to keep those eyes wide, even if you find yourself there in the blisteringly hot desert in June.
Steamed tacos? I had never heard of Tacos al Vapor. But there they were – surprisingly flavorful and lucious fillings cradled by two damp tortillas. Yes, the damp tortilla thing was new to me, too. But how often have I been non-plussed by a cold, tough (synonymous with store-bought) tortilla? Countless times. Tacos Lalo tortillas just blended in seamlessly with the braised meat. Wet, but also flavorful. There was also just enough potato to fill out my taco without being filler.
If you visit, you’ll definitely want to add your share of salsas (I was negligent with my own taco, above) to compliment the über tender meat. I’m all for a ton of raw onions, at the very least. Eat fast, as you do with delicious and greasy hot messes. But wet tacos make a ton of sense in the desert. It’s almost as if you’re simultaneously satisfying your hunger and quenching your thirst with each taco.
While you’re there, you might as well stay and play foosball at one of the 3 tables.
Could there be Tacos al Vapor in LA that even comes close to this execution?
Northern Baja California
It was my second invitation to Mexico by the famed Baja tours star Bill Esparza, a.k.a. Street Gourmet LA, and not one to be taken lightly. This particular mission: The 10th anniversary celebration of La Querencia, Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero YagÃ¼es’ famous spot in Tijuana. It was aptly named Festival of the Hunt,Â with game meat being the hallmark of 9+ courses in all.
The chef, for whom it is no coincidence that he is also a diver, hunter, and fisherman since his diners see his catches on their platters at La Querencia, had just returned from an expedition in preparation for this event. And so we enjoyed duck, goose, deer, pheasant, quail andÂ rabbit all for the purposes of this 12-hour, round-tripÂ adventure in Mexico. That’s how I roll.
The wine pairings were an unfortunate component of the dinner, and were actually disruptive to our enjoyment of these carefully crafted dishes by Chef YagÃ¼es. After awhile, my fellow diners Bill,Â Chuy (whoÂ was a wonderful translator)Â Tomo and I stopped sipping the wine so we could really taste what we were eating.
I loved this fiery-turned-sweet jalapeno, which encased rabbit escabeche. The pickled mixture inside the brown sugared jalapeno lay upon zags of a bright, delicious beet vinaigrette. It was definitely a dish for the senses; I licked thisÂ plate.
Another favorite of mine was a very unordinary meatball soup. In fact, it was an etouffe of pheasant breast meatballs and white fava beans. I don’t remember the last time I had pheasant, but the taste of these particular meatballs really shone against the mild-yet-still-flavorful tomato based soup and substantiveÂ fava beans. It’s probably the most flavorful breast meat I’ve had – very rich, tender and not gamey as an unexperienced palate like mine might expect (and yes, despite the theme of the night and cuisine of the restaurant). The texture of the soup was really played up with thanks to the addition of crispy onions. So delicious!
Last, but not least, was the linguine dish topped with Blacktail deer – probably the heaviest tasting meat of the night. The sparkling wine reduction and linguine were a great way to complement the shreddedÂ Blacktail, with the subtle,Â smokey charcoal notes bringing everything together. The portioning of this was perfect, with the 9+ course dinnerÂ culminating with this.
All in all, this was a really enjoyable one-off experience with some really extraordinary plates coming out ofÂ the kitchen. I’m told that there is a particularly spectacular scallops dish that is regularly on their menu. So until my next visit, La Querencia…
Av. Escuadron 201, No. 3110
(between Bl. Sanchez Taboada and Bl. Salinas)
Only pork could be worthy motivation to spend a mere 8 hours south of the border. Last night’s trip was my first time crossing that border – and it was well worth it. Bill of Street Gourmet LA guided Jo of My Last Bite, Fiona of Gourmet Pigs (ha ha) and me around that Northern Mexican city and I can vouch that he is an invaluable guide to have.
The flyer said “Pork 5 Ways” and indeed, there were 5 chefs, but there were more than 5 ways in which pig was prepared. My favorite dish was the dessert – and I loved that it being dessert was nary a reason to cop out of the theme. It blew my mind in execution.
The BuÃ±uelos itself was a crunchy, crispy wafer with hints of cinnamon and sat on top of braised, soft pork belly. The pork belly itself wasn’t marinated in anything especially remarkable and was allowed to stand on its own, with the assembly on the plate carrying it through. The sweet agave syrup drizzled over the dish was just the right amount of sweetness to not make it saccharine. It was also infused with bacon, which matched the depth and heft of the dish. But the perfect touch? The ginger and lemon grass ice cream. The refreshing, cold notes of the ice cream brought perfect highlights, really finishing the dessert off nicely with some kick.
This dish was brought to us by Chef Paul Zamudio of Cabo San Lucas, who also prepared delicious pork cheeks sous vide – another one of my favorites for the night. I hope that the border doesn’t continue to separate his cooking from my palate – but I’m sure that Bill will see to it that it doesn’t.
By the way, this post is dedicated to Josh of Food GPS, whose love of pig consumption (and his detailing the best dishes in his Dose of Vitamin P series) has always inspiredÂ this particularÂ Tijuana crew. We were sad to hear of his recent week of disappointing pork dishes, and thought he had somehowÂ “taken one for the team” since our porkÂ dishes in Tijuana were so successful.Â So thanks, Josh.