Chef Rosie O’Conner
Special to Valley News
Despite the U.S. State Department’s travel warnings taking over the media, I feel strongly that some parts of Mexico such as Valle Guadalupe and Tijuana have proven to be safe in my recent travels. I believe that if you are going to go to Mexico, get drunk and act stupid, you will probably manage to find trouble.
I hadn’t visited Baja for about seven years since I heard that a friend of a friend’s distant cousin’s girlfriend got hijacked at gunpoint. I naturally felt that it could have been me because I have no filter. I would be the first one to say the wrong thing and get kidnapped. No ransom, just for the fun of it.
Valle de Guadalupe is only a couple of hours south of San Diego and has been named by The New York Times as an “unexpected wine sanctuary” and Thrillist called it “the world’s hottest up-and-coming wine region” and the Los Angeles Times called it “the next Napa.”
I invited our photographer Carl Kravatz, www.carlkravatz.com, mixologist Kristofer Kuhns, www.provechogrill.com, and my best friend Margarita Lynn to take a “daycation.” Claudia Sandoval, the MasterChef season 6 winner, recently collaborated with Fernando Gaxiola of www.bajawinefood.com to provide round-trip transportation and a tour to the Valle. Our host Gaxiola is a gifted sommelier and a well-connected, truly dedicated professional. He has an impeccable reputation in both the Baja and San Diego areas.
The moment we crossed the border and Sandoval popped open a bottle of Champagne, I knew we were in for an adventure. Welcome to Mexico. You can sip and ride, rock out to good tunes and listen to Gaxiola and Sandoval as they point other places for us to visit in the future.
Our first stop was in Zona Urbana Rio in Tijuana at a taqueria called Tacos Fitos, but people know it as Tacos “El Paisa.” I don’t know; it’s Mexico. There are two names for every taco stand. We ordered the “Fernando” special, which is a tortilla dipped in a chili broth and filled with birria or goat meat and tripa or tripe. Maybe it was the buzz from our mimosa, but it was finger-licking good. It was crispy, slightly salty and greasy. We all loved it, and I have been back a few times since my trip.
Our next stop was Lechuza Vineyard, www.vinoslechuza.com. We had the pleasure of meeting with owner Kris Shute, winemaker, who elegantly explained the process of winemaking, her parents’ journey and beautiful stories about harvesting the grapes while carrying her child in her arms. She answered all our questions, was poetic at its best and invited us in for artisan cheese and grapes from the valley. We were pleased to find out that their wine is now served at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, California near Napa.
Our next stop was Torres Alegres, www.vinicolatorresalegreyfamilia.com, where we had the pleasure of meeting charismatic, accomplished winemaker Leo Torres who shared the story of his father Dr. Victor Torres-Alegre’s passion and journey in introducing the gravity filtration system that changed the course of winemaking.
Soon after, we dined at Javier Plascencia’s Finca Altozano, known for farm-to-table cuisine, local wines and artisan beers. We had his “Pulpo de Pacifico ala brasas” which was a magically delicious plate of grilled octopus, soy, citrus, ginger, cilantro and peanuts, homemade chorizo made of 80 percent pork and 20 percent beef and served with tomato toast, local oysters and signature cocktails.
We were enchanted, delighted and impressed by our newfound Baja destination. We’ve been back many times since our first trip and brought friends for “daycations.” I share all my travels on my blog: www.chefrosie.com. You can even book a “daycation” and have me as your personal tour guide.
If you decide to visit Valle de Guadalupe on your own, here are a few tips: tourist and locals dress casually, wear vacation attire but don’t be surprised to see some women sporting high heels. Try to book a place to stay the night after wine tastings. They have beautiful hotels overlooking the vineyards. Also, you are only allowed two bottles of wine per person upon your return to the U.S., so choose wisely. And don’t forget your passport.