When it comes to playing local vs. tourist in Baja, it can be a very tricky path to walk. And, especially when it comes to food because the lines tend to blur – tourists quickly become locals and savvy locals tend to hit all the best tourist spots. It’s one big mish-mash of chasing down mouthwatering Instagram posts, dirt road whispers about the next hot spot, and noticing new compounds or signs where there used to be nothing but an empty lot. Those are the ingredients for staying ahead of the food game south of the border.
However, sometimes you can’t find that back alley bar that just opened. Sometimes, the new spot is packed and has a waiting list a mile long. And, sometimes, you just want something consistent and guaranteed to please. Here are a few long-standing spots open year-round that always have their A game on because they never know who will walk through the door – the couple just in for a long weekend or the snowbird just in for the whole season.
I would love to call the very traditional Mexican restaurant, Los Mandiles, a local’s only spot, but that is impossible because of their location. Situated directly on the gorgeous malecón in Loreto, this waterfront gem has one of the best setups going, especially in the breakfast game (and just after a cruise ship unloads). The walkup juice bar turns out the most refreshing and vigorous blends of fresh squeezed juices and veggie drinks in town and is perfect after the early stroll half the town seems to be taking every morning to watch the sunrise over the island peaks. It gets even better when it turns into a walk up margarita bar early afternoon. You can order an impeccable fresh squeezed cocktail to go and saunter over to the town square or you can plop down at one of the dozen breezy tables with the rest of the locals (and tourists) and order some of the best chilaquiles and huevos divorciados in town. The light and tangy red and green chile sauces require a stack of tortillas to sop everything up and pretty much everything you order comes topped with crema, big shaved chunks of the homemade white queso, slivered onions and just enough cilantro to make your mouth zing. The family owned (and dog friendly) spot has spent years perfecting the secrets that keep legions of folks coming back – stay consistent with your quality and service, practice Spanish with customers if they try, bake fresh bread and pastries daily, and really – open the margarita station anytime anyone asks.
Little tip: If you do take your libation or juice to go, there is a great new Sushi popup on the town square a few blocks away that is a lovely place to sip your drink and enjoy a few bites of local seafood while watching the town come alive. Easy to ponder what it would take to become a local from that lively vantage point.
The holidays around Todos Santos really start to pull down the tourists from all points north. And, every single one of them is looking for the local vibe while having a tourist worthy experience. There are loads of ways to do that – one could bounce over to the always-popular Cerritos Beach and surf all day. You could do an epic shopping day and hit all the art galleries, tiny trinket shops, and rooftop bars flanking out from the town church. You could take a morning yoga class and volunteer to save the sea turtles later that day. But, no matter what you end up doing, you can’t take too many steps in town without bumping into someone with a camera because the streets are brimming with photo ops. And, most of them are happening directly in front of Tre Galline. This Italian restaurant has one of the most photogenic entryways in town (think prolific bougainvillea and peach colored outdoor seating) and once you pass through the gate, you are transported to the tropical version of Italy…which of course means a meandering meal is to be had.
Start with a glass of crisp white wine (oddly hard to find wine this chilled in town) and unwind to the low-key music drifting throughout while your doggies lap up water the attentive waiters bring out and nap at your feet. After enjoying the simple pleasures of a very lightly dressed balsamic and field green salad with razor thin shavings of parmesan, slowly nibble on a slice of wood fired, fresh basil topped thin crust pizza while taking in the local crafts on display. After listening to the chitter-chatter of what seems to be all the town’s grandmothers out for a special dinner, you really do start to feel like you are in a deeply foreign land where borders are no more. Next up is a pile of spaghetti topped with creamy zucchini and cracked black pepper or the locally caught fresh fish drenched in a tasty wine sauce. The owners import many things from Italy, where they own another restaurant and have managed to magically bring a big dose of la dolce vita to the historic district of Todos Santos. This is no easy feat, but as they saying goes, if you build it, they will come.
Little tip: In 2009, the owners purchased Caffe Todos Santos which is attached to the front of the same restored building that Tre Galline operates out of. By day, they serve up piping hot cappuccinos, enormous salads and fresh baked goods that rival any Italian café. And, recently, the outfit expanded and opened up the seasonal Tre Galline de Valle Guadalupe in sweeping wine country, just east of Ensenada. If you ever wanted to move to Italy, hit up any of these three spots and consider yourself arrived!
About the author: When she’s not sailing her pirate style sailboat or working on her Indonesian based NGO, LA based TV producer Misty Tosh spends all her free time traipsing the backroads of Mexico (Baja in particular) on the hunt for the next great culinary find. Follow her travels at bigsweettooth.com.