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Report 289: 48 Hours Around Ensenada

By Shannon from CA, Summer 2003

Trip Description: A short visit to Ensenada and the Guadalupe Valley Wine Country

Destinations: Countries - North America; Regions/Cities - Mexico

Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Foodie Trip; Wine Trip; Independent Travel; 2 People

Page 1 of 1: Two days of eating and drinking, but not sleeping, well

The purpose of my trip was to accompany the author of a new book on the wines of Baja California to all the wineries, as the representative of his publisher. There is a big wine festival that starts every August called the Vendimia, and all the wineries hold events and concerts, so we were trying to get all the books delivered in time.

I always thought Ensenada was a place to eat fish tacos and get drunk on Tequila shooters, so I was happily surprised by some of the eating and drinking places we went to.

We pulled in Wednesday afternoon and checked in to the El Cid Best Western. The hotel is very nice, and the rooms have real character, but mi dio was it noisy. The first night I was on the street - forget about sleeping. I moved poolside the second night but there was still alot of banging on doors and yelling in the hallway at 3 A.M. Free internet and a nightly rate of about $40 made this easier to swallow.

After visiting the big Bodega Santo Tomas winery and another winery that ended up being closed, we headed for Sede Vino, a wine bar in the tourist area (Avenida Ruiz 138.) We tried a few baja wines and a plate of really nice cheeses. This was my first real taste of the wines here, and the reds reminded me very much of reds from Southern Italy. They have a sort of burnt, jammy quality. After tasting four or five I was able to pick a favorite (which I would order the following night when I went back!) Sede Vino has a wonderful back patio that they are planning to offer live music on soon. It is a great place for people who like to relax with a glass of wine.

For dinner we ate at La Vendimia (Avenida Riveroll #85.) The service was excellent, and the food pretty good - plus we had a bottle of Bodega Santo Tomas Unico, one of their premium wines. I am not sure this restaurant would be my first choice next time - for $80 for two I could eat a lot of better fish tacos than the carne asada I ate here.

The next day we got on the road early and headed to the Guadalupe Valley. From Ensenada, you head North to Highway 3, and that takes you right there. It is a trippy wine country - for one thing there are tasting rooms but sometimes no one is around to let you taste, regardless of "opening hours." The larger wineries, of course, are more reliable. The countryside is dry, desertlike, rocky - some wineries have cool rock sculptures and Monte Xanic Winery has a fantastic stage they built out of giant boulders. They were getting ready for a concert there when we were there. This is an area with tremendous potential, but you are still in a very poor area, with guys trying to sell you parrots on dirt roads. Quite a different experience from the Napa Valley.

We planned to eat at around 2, but got into a heated "discussion" with one of the wineries about the book (there are feuds in this valley and there is a note about how one guy managed this place back in 1972 or whenever - now the guy is an enemy and this winery wanted to rewrite the history.) Thank goodness I had a glass of wine in front of me, because it took forever. Finally we headed for our first meal of the day at 4 P.M.

The restaurant we went to, LaJa, is the reason I wanted to write about this trip. I was thinking it would be a sort of Mexican upscale diner - boy was I wrong. It has a zen feel - beamed ceilings, large windows looking out to the mountains, lots of space between each table. The menu is prix fixe, four courses for $32 or an eight course tasting menu for $50. To start, they brought us tiny plates of arugula and cherry tomatoes that had been peeled, all from their garden. I don't think I have ever had cherry tomatoes that sweet - not even in Italy. Then a bowl of gazpacho, which was a creamy, cold squash puree with tomato sorbet on top. As you can imagine I was pretty hungry by this point, but that soup... I think I ate it in three seconds. My favorite course was next - squash and ricotta canneloni. It was more like crepes, fried in butter, and very, very good. White fish with capers and raisins followed, then an anise panna cotta with strawberry sauce. I still can't believe this incredible restaurant is in this dusty, quiet valley. The total for two with plenty of wine and a cheese plate thrown in - $100.

Back to Ensenada now, where we went back to Sede Vino to drop off some books. Quite a few winery principles and winemakers were there, the order for 10 books turned into 100, many offers of tickets to the Vendimia were offered to me, and then we left because there was one more place to check out.

We went into Manzanita, a wine bar and restaurant owned by a husband and wife team of chefs, that is very avant garde and hip. We had yet another glass of wine, and as our late afternoon meal had ended three hours before, my companion decided to have some mussels - but I couldn't think about dinner. I could, however, think about another dessert, and was not disappointed in a warm chocolate cake, served on a marble slab with chocolate oozing out of the middle. Flan? No thanks hombre. Manzanilla is at Riveroll #122, Ensenada.

I'll save the fish tacos for my own neighborhood. If I go back to Ensenada, it will be for that soup, those crepes and that molten chocolate thing.

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