TIJUANA, Mexico – Until recently, Baja California's culinary contribution to the world amounted to the Caesar salad, a dish hardly associated with Mexican food. Beyond that, this long, thin peninsula was known more for its Chinese food and pizza thanks to the thousands of migrants from all over the world who began to settle the Mexican state south of California in the 19th century.
Now a group of chefs wants to change that, working to create a unique cuisine largely based on fresh seafood caught in the seas flanking Baja and the produce from its fertile valley. The new culinary craze, known as Baja Med, is a fusion of Mexican food with influences from the Mediterranean and Asia.
The movement has resulted in dozens of restaurants that are helping to pull a new kind of tourist to the beleaguered border city — one who enjoys great food and art rather than a brothel and a cheap drunk. People attending conventions in San Diego think of crossing the border for dinner in Tijuana, said Javier Plascencia, the chef of Mision 19, whose quest to put his city on the culinary map was the subject of a New Yorker magazine profile earlier this year.
Baja Med mixes uniquely Mexican ingredients such as chicharron and cotija cheese with lemon grass and olive oil. Signature dishes include tempura fish tacos and deep sea shrimp served with fried marlin, baby farm tomatoes, scallions and a sauce made with local cheeses.
"What Baja Med proposes is for the ingredient to be the main actor in the kitchen," said Miguel Angel Guerrero, chef of La Querencia, a Tijuana restaurant serving such dishes as beet carpaccio with blue cheese and mint vinaigrette. "Geographically, we are privileged because throughout the year we have a variety of products available. And yet, many generations have passed, and we still don't have a regional cuisine."
The port of Ensenada, 40 miles south of Tijuana, is one of the country's largest for mussels, oysters, clams and shrimp, as well as a hotbed of blue tuna sea farming. Baja California is the fourth largest producing vegetables in Mexico, according to the state government.
To come up with the right taste, chefs also bring in red lobster, manta rays, sea cucumbers and salicornia, a succulent that grows in sand dunes. They incorporate miniature vegetables from the fields south of Ensenada, olives from the winemaking region of the Guadalupe Valley just northeast of Ensenada, dates from San Ignacio and tomatoes and strawberries from the San Quintin Valley.
"Many of us were working on our own for some time but things fell into place for us to work together, while keeping our individual style," said Marcelo Castro, a leading producer of cheese in Real del Castillo and great-grandson of a Swiss immigrant who came to Ensenada in the late 19th century.
Area chefs conceived the movement eight years ago when they formed the Baja California Chef's Association. It's been boosted in the last three years by the state government, which has organized and promoted food festivals.
Now the 22 Baja Med chefs work with the state's wine and beer producers and the vegetable growers, fishermen and shellfish farmers. Another boost came this year after international culinary specialists started to visit some of the restaurants.
"Tijuana is one of the most interesting Mexican kitchens today. It's one of the great cities to eat across North America," international chef Rick Bayless said while taping a Tijuana segment for his PBS series "One Plate at a Time."
Great food is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of the sprawling, dusty border city of 1.6 million people across from San Diego. Tijuana was once known for its souvenir shopping and cheap good times in border bars, then more recently for gruesome drug violence among cartels warring for the lucrative transport route at the busiest U.S.-Mexico border crossing.
Many of its restaurants had closed as the killings escalated, hitting 800 murders in the year 2007 and making Tijuana one of Mexico's most dangerous cities. That all but shut down cross-border tourism and forced the closure of restaurants including the famous Caesar's, where restaurateur and Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini invented the salad of whole romaine leaves, garlic, Worcestershire sauces, raw eggs and parmesan cheese back in the 1920s.
The violence has since subsided — some say because of a police purge, others say because one cartel managed to dominate the region. Either way, tourism is starting to return and even Caesar's reopened in 2010.
The mix of people who live in the state also accounts for the fusion of flavors. Half of the 3.5 million there are natives of other states of Mexico, where they mix with first- and second-generation families from Asia, Europe and the U.S.
"Baja Med cuisine is a mix of the cultures that all came with the intention of crossing to the other side, but they stayed," Plascencia said. "There were Italian and French restaurants established here because of Prohibition in the United States, and their principle clients were North Americans who came to have a good time at the border."
That's translated into local demand for products grown in the state, said Hector Gonzalez, manager of the Ensenada-based company Max Sea, which is dedicated to Manila clam cultivation and Kumamoto oysters, since 1999. Before, most of Baja California's products were being exported to the United States and Japan.
"What is happening in restaurants is a synthesis of all this," Gonzalez said.
One of those producers is David Martinez, owner of the farm Rancho Martinez e Hijos, who has grown vegetables and mini-vegetables for 25 years.
He first began experimenting with small vegetables that were more colorful and had better taste and texture. Soon, he was selling baby carrots without skin and small green-and-yellow squashes to meet demand from Los Angeles County chefs.
"There was not a market for these products in the United States, much less in Mexico," Martinez said. "We had to go to California to offer it. My idea was to take an old product and modify it and with that get the attention of the restaurants and the housewives."
"In the United States they started calling those vegetables gourmet products," he said. "I had no idea what they were referring to."
Like Martinez, about 80 wine producers of the Ensenada valleys and 20 artisan cheese producers in Real de Castillo, a town southeast of Ensenada, are helping fuel the new cuisine after growing the products for years.
There's no limit, said Plascencia, given the countless ingredients: "It all depends on the creativity of the chef."