Where to eat in Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe, according to chef Sheyla Alvarado.

By Gowri Chandra
Updated February 28, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Lomita

At 29, Cosme alum Sheyla Alvarado is running two of Mexico's most exciting restaurants: Lunario and TrasLomita, both located at Lomita Winery in Valle de Guadalupe wine country. Lunario, her newest, opened in November 2019, becoming yet another destination restaurant in the Valle, just an hour and a half south of Tijuana.

It’s only relatively recently that Valle de Guadalupe’s restaurants have emerged as destinations in their own right. Although the region’s wine started getting international recognition 15 to 20 years ago, its culinary scene only came into its own around 2017, Gerardo Tejeda estimates. Tejeda works at Lomita Winery, and not coincidentally, is Alvarado’s partner—it’s where they met. 

Credit: Courtesy of Lomita

“Over the past three to four years, the Valle has become a place that people are coming just to eat,” he says. Chefs like Benito Molina and Solange Muris brought experimental, chef-driven fare to the region in the early 2000s, pushing the stereotype of Baja cuisine beyond lobster and fish tacos. Today, Alvarado is carrying this tradition forward. 

We talked to the chef to find out where she and Tejeda eat on their days off. Here are six not-to-be-missed restaurants for your next trip.

Animalon

Animalon is really good; I think it’s one of my favorites,” Alvarado says. Built around a 200-year-old oak tree, Javier Plascencia’s outdoor seasonal restaurant epitomizes Valle de Guadalupe. Plascencia is synonymous with the Tijuana cuisine that he helped propel to international acclaim; he opened his first restaurant in the Valle, Finca Altozana, in 2012. “It was kind of empty for the first year,” recalls Fernando Pérez Castro, the founder of Lomita Winery. Castro has witnessed the evolution of the Valle’s dining scene over the past two decades. 2012 was still early days, and Plascencia was one of the first chefs from outside the Valle to debut here. Eight years since, it’s going strong.

Via Torrel Restaurant at Bodegas Santo Tomás Winery

Alvarado's favorite dish here, a bean risotto with lobster, is an updated riff on lobster Puerto Nuevo style, named for the fishing port where it was conceived, 40 minutes north. 50 years ago, lobster was a poor man’s food, an affordable staple for the city’s fishermen, sold at $2 a pop. Today, Puerto Nuevo is still known as Mexico’s lobster capital, and its culinary calling card is lobster fried in lard, served with refried beans and flour tortillas. It was the first dish that people from other regions of Mexico really began to associate with Baja, Castro explains. And Villa Torrel, the restaurant at Bodegas Santo Tomás Winery—one of the region’s oldest wineries—is the place to experience it.

Muelle 3 

“It’s by the port, so they get super fresh seafood,” Alvarado says. Many Ensenada establishments boast seafood as a specialty, so Muelle 3 has stiff competition. Taste their sashimi and ceviche, however, and you’ll see why they come out on top.

Donna Esthela 

Put plainly, Donna Esthela is a requisite stop. Years ago, Esthela started her business selling burritos to construction workers working on nearby wineries. Today, she has an extensive brick-and-mortar operation that’s frequented by celebrity chefs—and she's decidedly one herself. Her food isn’t that different from Mexican home cooking, and actually, that’s kind of the point. Platters of queso fresco on the table, machaca with eggs, and Bisquick-style pancakes garner hour-long lines, even on weekday mornings. It’s a destination for locals and tourists alike.

Baja Omakase 

Opened in November 2019 by sushi chef Toshi Tsutada and Drew Deckman, the restaurant is located at Deckman’s en el Mogor, Deckman’s ranch, which produces its own wine, vegetables, herbs, eggs, and olive oil. Castro is a fan.

Manzanilla 

The region's superstar chefs Benito Molina and Solange Muris opened Manzanilla in 2000, and it’s widely considered to be the area's first chef-driven restaurant. It has since moved to Ensanada’s hip, still-industrial port, sitting in the shadow of multimillion dollar yachts. The rotating multi-course tasting menu—if you so choose—offers six-year-old abalone with a mole of pipián and seaweed, and infladita, a deep-fried pocket of masa filled with carnitas.

Lunario 

And, of course, there is Lunario, Alvardo’s own restaurant. It was conceived as the fine-dining counterpart to TrasLomita, her outdoor-only restaurant just steps away. Alvarado’s culinary prowess is most evident in the simple dishes. Her carrot soup, for example, drizzled with cream and peppered with buckwheat kernels, is somehow the star of the menu. Her soft-shell crab, deep fried and served on a blue corn tortilla, is a requisite order. And for dessert, strawberries are served with angel hair strands of spring peas, finely julienned. The vegetable-forward dessert is a strong testament to Baja’s bounty. 

Valle de San Vicente, two hours to the south, is particularly agriculturally fertile. The entire region produces a glut of fresh produce: strawberries, blueberries, basil, lettuce. But it wasn’t always easy to obtain.

Credit: Courtesy of Lomita

“It’s been changing, but the sad thing is that most of the big farms that we have are all for exportation,” Alvarado says. “So they take everything. We’ve been working with the farmers to get to a point where the produce stays in Mexico.”

Nearby, there’s a grower of heirloom tomatoes. Two years ago, every single one was shipped to the United States. Now, Alvarado estimates, 70% of the harvest stays here. “We’re trying to support each other as a community, because it’s sad that we have such good things and everything goes away,” she says.

“A half hour away, we have another guy that used to sell all his basil to Costco," she continues. "He also changed his mind, and he’s trying to keep his products in Mexico. He noticed that he was making a lot of money but he was like, not becoming part of the community. And that’s not the way he wanted to live."

Credit: Courtesy of Lomita

It’s not just about food sovereignty. It’s the very thing that defines Valle de Guadalupe’s identity. “I think Baja cuisine right now is the products, the cheese, the vegetables," Alvarado says. “It’s not a way of cooking or specific dishes. For me, it’s tough to have Baja cuisine be just lobster and tacos when we have such great products.”

Here, the food elevates the wine as much as the wine elevates the food. “I would say we put food first,” Castro says. “In a country like Mexico, it’s no contest. The biggest challenge for Mexican winemakers is how to make a good companion for food.”

“In France, it’s completely different," he continues. "There’s 600 years of drinking wine and eating. Considering that the cuisine of Valle is a 20-year-old thing, it’s just as old as the wine movement. And wine was a big influence for Baja cuisine to be how it is."

Credit: Courtesy of Lomita

Castro attributes the boom in Valle gastronomy to two main forces: Benito Molina and Solange Muris, the chefs behind Manzanilla, and Jair Téllez, of the restaurant Laja. “[Jair] opened his place in the middle of nowhere in 1999,” he says. “They were both very conscious of making food that could pair with wine.”

Today, it’s impossible to talk about Valle de Guadalupe’s wine without talking about its food. And chefs like Sheyla Alvarado are a big part of that.