Too often, the discussion of Baja’s culinary revolution skips over the Valle de Guadalupe’s sleepier little sister, the port city of Ensenada. Flanked by desert mountains, facing the stark blue Pacific Ocean and bestowed with one of the most pleasant climates on earth, Ensenada is just 90 miles south of downtown San Diego, making it the ideal destination for a day trip. Adding to the allure is its incredible food culture. Excellent and fresh seafood is a birthright here and many of the region’s storied food traditions can be traced back to Ensenada’s streets. Here’s our itinerary for an ideal day in Baja California’s iconic port city.
Rise with the sun and make your way down the coast just in time for breakfast. Stop at El Mirador for sprawling views and photo ops — you’ll see why it’s nicknamed “the Big Sur of Mexico.” Once you get to the city, head to Taqueria Criollo. The space is put together using a mix of materials — cloth canopies drape over corrugated metal walls — with the option to dine indoors or outdoors on its shaded patio. Notable for its lunch and dinner options, locals know that its breakfast is just as worthy. A top choice is chilaquiles with roasted lamb and an egg with the option to have it as a torta instead. Vegetarians can samples the huevos al gusto plate, which comes loaded with avocado, rajas, beans and other vegetables.
Just south of downtown Ensenada is Cerveceria Doble C, which is a newer brewery opened by Alan and Omar Celis, two brothers who grew up in the city. Their industrial and barebones tasting room, now in its second year, is recently revamped with an outdoor patio that overlooks the ocean, which is just across the street. Drinkers love their session IPA, which has muted hops and is a good alternative to the hop bombs you often get north of the border. Beer lovers should also plan for pit stops at the local tasting rooms for notable area breweries Aguamala and Cerveceria Wendlandt.
After taking in some sun and suds, head back into town for a crawl. No Ensenada trip would be complete without a pilgrimage to La Guerrerense, whose owner Sabina Bandera just opened a sit down restaurant across the street from her famed street cart. Raw seafood lovers can’t go wrong with any of her options, which include clams, ceviches, sea urchin, scallops and a suite of housemade salsas.
Stroll across town several blocks to Tacos Fenix, who claim to have invented the Baja-style fish taco with its signature tempura-like batter. Also worthy are the shrimp tacos, fried in the same fashion. Garnishes are left up to you, but the classic style includes salsa cruda, cabbage, crema and a chipotle mayo. Your third course should be from Irene Cocina de Barrio food truck, which is favored locally for its creative riffs on Baja classics, ranging from inventive tacos to tostadas, ceviches and main plates.
Right in the center of Ensenada is Barra de Cafe, a modern and stylish cafe that represents the design-forward aesthetic taking Baja by storm these days. They make a fine latte that will help gear you up for the evening’s culinary agenda.
Head to newcomer Mantou, a gastropub helmed by Omar Armas, an Ensenada native who has cooked at Quique Dacosta in Spain, D.O.M. in Sao Paulo and Pujol in Mexico City. The outdoor dining room is covered and bathed in soft light, creating the sort of wistful ambiance that makes one wonder how it’s possible to feel so far away while being so close to home. Armas’ menu spans a list of globally-inspired dishes using regional ingredients but locals know him for his ramen, which he makes from scratch and is inspired by his time living and cooking in Asia. Don’t miss his Chinese-style buns, the restaurant’s namesake, and the flor de calabaza taco. Mantou recently unveiled a classic cocktail program to join the wine offerings from esteemed local winery Bodegas Henri Lurton.
Not quite ready to head home? Make your way to the port, the location of famed restaurant Manzanilla. Renowned for its seafood, owners and chef-couple-duo Benito Molina and Solange Muris continue to crank out well-prepared dishes from Ensenada’s abundant marine bounty. Though they’re known for seafood, you should try the ribeye steak if you’re still hungry at all. It’s one of the best you’ll find anywhere. An after dinner drink — the bar staff makes a killer Spanish-style gin and tonic — sipped under the shadow of the towering wooden bar and its octopus mural complete a perfect day in Ensenada.