"I didn't think Mexico could still surprise me," says Rick Bayless, the star chef at Chicago's Frontera Grill and the host of PBS's Mexico—One Plate at a Time. Yet a recent eating tour along the 775-mile Baja peninsula left him so excited that he decided to devote the entire eighth season of his TV show to his Baja food finds: "Friends laughed at this, but I probably have enough material for more than 14 episodes."
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The series, which debuts in September, follows Bayless on a taco crawl through Tijuana: "I used to think Mexico City had the best tacos, but Tijuana blows it away." Then he heads south to Los Cabos, where the incredible seafood led him to create new dishes like a tuna ceviche with avocado. What follow here are Bayless's most thrilling finds and the recipes they inspired, plus his travel black book.
Rick Bayless in Baja: Tijuana
"I used to think it was a crummy border town," Bayless says. "But it's actually gotten quite beautiful."
Misión 19 (photo) Plascencia sources ingredients from within 120 miles for dishes like slow-cooked short ribs topped with a Mission fig syrup and black mole. "He's one of Mexico's top talents, a chef to watch," Bayless says.
Rick Bayless in Baja: Valle de Guadalupe
Adobe Guadalupe (photo) "I loved this six-room bed-and-breakfast in a vineyard. You can taste wine, ride horses and view the art collection."
Restaurante Laja Laja is set amid vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe. An on-site garden inspires specials. "Chef Jair Téllez trained at Restaurant Daniel in New York City, and here he works in a Mediterranean style. Order the geoduck (large saltwater clam) ceviche."
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Rick Bayless in Baja: Ensenada
South of Tijuana, the birthplace of the fish taco is home to extraordinary seafood. Says Bayless, "I usually don't eat raw seafood at street markets, but I made an exception."
Manzanilla (photo) "Chef Benito Molina's house-smoked oysters are more than memorable."
Casa Natalie At this boutique hotel on the beach, some rooms have fire pits on the balconies.
Rick Bayless in Baja: La Paz
"It feels like the town time forgot," Bayless says. "It's on the Sea of Cortez and perfect for outdoor activities."
Baja Expeditions "This outfitter took us on an hour-long boat ride to Isla Espiritu Santo, a UNESCO-protected biosphere." People can kayak, snorkel and swim with sea lions.
Rick Bayless in Baja: Todos Santos
"This surf town is full of aging hippies," Bayless says. "What surprised me most is that it's a true agricultural oasis."
Hacienda Cerritos (photo) The boutique hotel has two surf shops and overlooks one of Mexico's best surfing beaches.
Hotel California (photo) "This famed hotel was falling down, but a Canadian couple recently renovated it. In March, a great restaurant, Santo Vino, opened. Now if they would only get rid of that infernal soundtrack—'Hotel California' is on a constant loop."
Sweets Stalls "Visit the stalls on the edge of town. They have sweets you'll find no place else in Mexico, like empanaditas filled with mango jam."
Rick Bayless in Baja: Cabo San Lucas
Located at the tip of the Baja peninsula, Cabo has enormous all-inclusive hotels and a rugged coast, best for fishing and surfing.
Capella Pedregal A new, super-luxe resort that offers cooking classes. All 66 rooms have plunge pools and ocean views.
Edith's This beachfront restaurant with views of the famous Arch of Cabo San Lucas fuses flavors from Baja and the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Mariscos el Torito "Cabo San Lucas locals come here for really fresh, cilantro-loaded ceviche." mariscostorito.com.
Rick Bayless in Baja: San José del Cabo
Bayless encourages people to drive the 30 miles from the hoopla of Cabo San Lucas to this historic mission city. "It has great art and the galleries stay open late on Thursdays."
Baja Brewing Company (photo) "Three guys from Boulder, Colorado, and a friend started this microbrewery. Its red ale isn't like a typical Mexican lager; it's rich and round and pairs well with the brewpub's pizza."
Flora's Field Kitchen Last year, this organic farm opened a stellar restaurant, bar and grocery.
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