Baja California’s Pacific Coast beach town of Ensenada is home to hole-in-the-wall taco joints, must-try Med-Mex fusion and fresh-off-the-boat seafood. Beyond traditional flavors, Ensenada’s culinary scene offers a must-try Med-Mex fusion that artfully blends Mediterranean and Mexican influences, resulting in a symphony of tastes that dance on your palate. And of course, the town’s proximity to the sea ensures an unforgettable seafood experience—where you can indulge in dishes featuring the catch of the day, served straight from the boats to your plate. Whether you’re seeking the simplicity of street food or the elegance of fusion cuisine, Ensenada promises a gastronomic adventure that reflects the vibrant spirit of Baja California’s Pacific Coast.
Sitting behind a long, half-moon bay of golden sand less than two hours’ drive from San Diego and Tijuana, Baja’s third-largest city has long been a popular beach retreat for local and international visitors. Its streets and rural environs sizzle with scintillating places to eat – from traditional Mexican family restaurants to delectable dining rooms with vineyard views.
Even visiting chefs – including Anthony Bourdain – have taken a lunchtime pew at this simple seafood stall, where Sabina Bandera and her family have been serving ceviche, seafood salad and tacos since the ’60s. Tacos come on traditional corn tortillas and are prepared on the spot in an astounding variety, from shrimp and clam to avocado and octopus. There’s a vast choice of salsa – volcano-fiery, lime-zesty, tamarind-tangy – and food is served daily from mid-morning to late afternoon.
Fine-dining and fine wines are served al fresco by the fire under ancient tropical cedar trees and a star-filled sky. Primitivo – twenty minutes’ drive from Ensenada in the Valle de Guadalupe – is worth going out of your way for. The menu focuses on barbecued meats and seafood, with picadillo de jurel (horse mackerel with herbs and spices), beef steaks and octopus being favorites. There’s a rotating, themed tasting menu of the chef’s latest specialties, and food comes with sommelier-matched wines.
Tucked away on an office-lined street in Ensenada’s port area and with a plain brick façade, Manzanilla doesn’t look like much. But locals in-the-know will tell you that Benito Molina and Solange Muris’s Med-Mex fusion cooking has been wowing Mexican gourmands since the turn of the millennium. Kick off with a zingy Oaxaca margarita at the wooden bar, then tuck in to the six-course degustation (with mini rib-eye steaks, tacos and gorgeous grilled yellowtail). Pair that with matching Guadalupe wines, on request.
Don’t let the low prices fool you, or the low-key locale – off a busy road in central Ensenada, La Conchería is the place locals go for seafood, plucked that day from Baja’s pristine waters. Oysters, served with a choice of sauces running from chili-hot to ginger-tangy, are as fresh as the dawn, while the abalone is a local legend and the fish skillets and seafood salads are the chef’s signatures. The service, meanwhile, is as crisp as the white wines on the extensive list.
Sunset over the Pacific, mojito in hand, gentle breeze blowing, waves lapping on the rocks. You’ll find it all at Punta Morro, a beachside hotel whose dining room hovers over the ocean and the curve of Ensenada bay. With views this good, the food doesn’t have to be special, but it is: juicy lobster enchiladas, steamed Baja clams, empanada pastries stuffed with lobster chorizo and Mexican beans, plus grilled swordfish with capers. The wine list, mostly of Baja bottles, is exuberant.
Mariscos El Güero de Ensenada
In Ensenada, fast eats can be fabulous, and even a simple stall can serve sumptuous seafood – as the crowds of locals that flock to this shoreside street-eatery attest. Skillful waiters whip up ceviche and seafood cocktails in seconds, made from ultra-fresh Baja yellowtail, clams, shrimps and oysters. Served with tortillas and tangy salsas, they will certainly set your tastebuds tingling. Best of all, the bill will be less than the price of a burger and fries.
Bronco’s Steak House
Of course it’s not all about the seafood in Ensenada. Like all North Americans, Mexicans love their steaks. Ensenada’s best are served at Bronco’s – whose wooden saloon bar façade (complete with sombrero-clad mannequin) could be in a Hollywood western. Steak is served in all manner of cuts, but the local way to eat it is a la parilla – grilled on a charcoal barbecue. Portions are enormous, there’s a more-than-you-can-eat buffet and a heaving dessert trolley, so come with an empty belly.
On the edge of Ensenada’s Valle de Guadalupe wine region, this family-run restaurant, set in palm-filled tropical gardens, offers a menu of Baja and Yucatán dishes, as well as sommelier-selected bottles from the celebrated El Cielo vineyard. Signature dishes include delicious pork belly tacos. Made with blue cornflour and accompanied by avocado purée, red onion and piquant chilmole sauce, these are best washed down with a crisp El Cielo copernicus cabernet sauvignon.
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