An Inspirational Tour of Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe During the 3rd Annual Baja California Culinary Fest

November 13, 2013

There are very few places where one may feel truly at home, and on October 27, during the 3rd Annual Baja California Culinary Fest while touring through the gorgeous Valle de Guadalupe, SanDiegoVille founders experienced a feeling not felt since our very first visit to San Diego - a beckoning, a longing and a welcoming.  Along with a group of travel media, we ventured southeast to 'The Valle,' sipping, swirling and noshing as we explored many diverse and beautiful locations, including Malva at Viñedos Mina Penélope, Deckman's En Mogor at Mogor Badan vineyard, Almazara Gastrobar at Rancho Olivares, Encuentro Guadalupe, Latitud 32 at El Cielo, and finally to Chef Javier Placencia's Finca Altozano where we were treated to a wholesome 'family style' meal. It was a day we will never forget, and we are honored to share it with our readers!

We were picked up at Las Rocas Hotel in Rosarito on a lovely Sunday morning.  We had already spent two amazing days in Baja California, which included an exploration of Tijuana street food with Club Tengo Hambre and an incredible eight course meal at La Caza Club, but it was the day's tour of Valle de Guadalupe that we were really looking forward to.  We had heard so many positive things about the area and were eager to see if/how it lived up to the hype.  By mid afternoon, we were already making hypothetical plans for our future vineyard and restaurant.  By the end of the journey, we were taking down names and numbers for Mexican realtors. The hype doesn't even do it justice. The seduction began immediately and the experience was magical.  

Our first stop was the refined yet rustic Malva restaurant at Mina Penélope vineyard.  Chef Roberto Alcocer graciously toured us through the gorgeous, elevated grounds, explaining the restaurants philosophy for sourcing ingredients.  First, they look to what they grow, raise and can hunt and forage from the property, which includes a wide variety of produce, livestock and natural inhabitants.  Next they look to The Valle, and if they can't find it there, the farthest they'll venture for supplies is neighboring city, Ensenada.  A prime and encouraging example of hyper-localism!

We were provided a small sampling from Malva's open-air, outdoor kitchen and winery.  The intimate restaurant is housed entirely under a handmade palapa roof, inviting the sun to twinkle through the dining room, making for a lovely experience overlooking the vast, picturesque gardens and vineyard.  Chef Roberto presented a duo of seafood delights -  grilled octopus atop corn sope with arugala micro-greens, avocado, and an arugala sauce; and a grilled fresh oyster with lemon and jalapeno butter.  This dish was paired with a dry rosato with fruity undertones from the partnering vineyard.    

Like most businesses in Valle de Guadalupe, Malva is a work in progress. In addition to increasing their wine stock to incorporate offerings from neighboring vineyards, Malva has plans to open a casual eatery on the other side of the property, where they will offer a simpler, deli-style menu, as well as goods made onsite, such as jams and marmalades.

The crew piled back in the van ready for the journey to continue, now joined by Chef Flor Franco of Indulge Contemporary Catering, a San Diego based chef with strong roots in Mexico and an unmatched knowledge of and passion for The Valle.

"Baja - right now, the way all the chefs are cooking and putting things together, is unlike anywhere in the country," boasted Chef Flor. "Baja Chefs are bringing influence from all regions of Mexico, combining them with local produce and influence for something truly amazing."

Next on the list was Deckman's en el Mogur at Mogur Badan, a seasonal, outdoor restaurant by Georgia-born chef Drew Deckman, who spends most of the year at his Baja California Sur location in San Jose, Cabo - Deckman's San Jose.  Deckman's En Mogur is an organic restaurant with a very agrarian feel, due to the minimalist outdoor kitchen and surrounding dining areas, which include picnic tables and a plywood and hay 'patio.'  Only the necessities, but with romantic charm!
Chef Deckman prepared a delectable snack of local lobster ceviche with avocado mousse and micro arugala paired with a 2012 Chasselas des Mogor, a refreshing white wine with a gentle finish.  We explored the property, picked organic produce from bushes and trees, enjoying the lush landscape.  We even noticed that Chef Deckman had both of his parents washing dishes to help out, as he was understaffed on the restaurant's last day of operation for the season. After all, that's what family is for.
A short drive and we arrived at Almazara Gastrobar at Rancho Olivares.  The modern and well manicured grounds of this farm pay homage to the olive oil milling industry.  Chef Alejandro Alvarez uses the surrounding elements to create cutting edge cuisine, including dishes like the slowly roasted lamb "Iturri" style, which showcases lamb raised onsite and fed a diet of only fresh olives and barley, making for a mild flavor without the typical gaminess. Chef Alejandro prepared for us a blue fin tuna tataki with tapioka "sea pearls" (hydrated tapioka cooked in seafood broth), as well as a beef "carrillera" (tail) with lentil ragout.  Both dishes were fantastic, especially when paired with a Claudius Valle De Guadalupe Tempranillo and Nebbiolo.

We hurried back to the van so we could make a quick stop at The Valle's most renowned hotel - Encuentro Guadalupe.  Currently offering 20 mountainside, luxurious 'eco-lofts', this hotel also houses a restaurant and vineyard and has big plans to expand, including an additional 40 eco-lofts, a full service spa, and a gastro-cantina operated by one of our dedicated hosts - Chef Flor Franco.  This place is a masterpiece of sustainable, modern architecture and offers expansive views of the countryside. We ordered a sangria, sat back, and just soaked in all that beauty.  We cannot wait to stay the night and be one with nature!
The sun was starting to set as we made our way to Latitud 32 at El Cielo vineyard.  We immediately noticed the roasting goat on the spit in front of the restaurant and had to fight the urge to pinch off a taste.  El Cielo, which means "the sky," is another vineyard with a substantial expansion planned for the future.  A 30-60 room boutique hotel will soon be constructed, which will add to the charm of the winery, gift shop and restaurant.
Chef Ryan Steyn's yellowtail crudo
El Cielo is open everyday, year round, unlike many of the locations which operate only seasonally.  We thoroughly enjoyed Chef Ryan Steyn's yellowtail crudo with avocado mousse, green and purple seaweed and tobiko and a lovely glass of house wine as we watched the sky turn all sorts of majestic colors as the sun set over the valley.

Our final destination was Chef Javier Plascencia's Finca Altozano, another very unique restaurant which boasts an al fresco patio dining room and open kitchen.  We were presented a beef tongue appetizer and a tender and flavorful octopus stew before being whisked away to our dinner under the trees.  We cannot even begin to explain how beautiful this restaurant is, and not just because we arrived at magic hour. Guests are encouraged to explore the many diverse areas of the property, from the firepits to the gigantic wine barrels which have been converted into intimate seating spaces.

We cozied up with many other chefs and organizers from the Baja Culinary Fest for an intimate finale to a surreal weekend.  Chef Juantxo Sanchez prepared for us a modernized paella, and damn, those pieces of quail were memorably delicious!  We were offered an open bar of wine, beer and mezcal, in which the fun loving crowd energetically indulged. Be forewarned - chefs can drink!

Amidst the celebratory hubbub we noticed that a succulent whole pig had disappeared and about a half hour later saw it coming out of a homemade Caja box.  The little piggie was then guillotined by plate-wielding Chef Juantxo.  Parts of the pig were used to make tacos, while the rest of it was man-handled by the ravenous crowd.  Chef Javier even demonstrated to us the proper technique: rip off a piece of "cracklin" (crispy skin), and use it to pinch up some of the juicy meat like a taco - heavenly! The succulent pig was sided by a creamy polenta covered in a stew like substance.  Adequately stuffed, the drunk-eyed and belly-full group convened for a photo, thanked our hosts and stumbled back to the van.  The rest was a blissful blur.

Due to the inherent nature of consumer capitalism, The Valle is in danger of being overdeveloped to a point where the natural landscape is damaged and destroyed, which would be an absolute travesty. Secret meetings and back end deals are putting this gorgeous environment at risk. We the people cannot let this happen.

While our visit may seem plentiful, we left feeling that we had not even scratched the surface of what The Valle has to offer and are eager to return.  Don't be surprised if you see in the near future.

For more photos and descriptions, visit our Facebook photo album from the trip.