April 24 2015 05:16 PM

Grilled quail and rabbit served here in the Valle de Guadalupe

Las Gueritas’ codorniz
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Street food stands, stalls and trucks are everywhere in Mexico. It's fast food of a very different sort. Unlike their stateside counterparts, with corporate design and homogenized menus, in Mexico you find a place like Las Gueritas. (It's at kilometer marker 77 just southeast of where Highway 3, the road from Ensenada to Tecate, hits Ejido Francisco Zarco in the Valle de Guadalupe.)

Las Gueritas does not offer the stuff of the garden-variety Mexican street food stalls—no fish tacos, tortas, birria, mariscos or carne asada. Lucia Villaseno Padilla, assisted by her husband and two light-skinned daughters for whom the place is named, grills fresh codorniz (quail), conejo (rabbit) and sometimes cochinita (pork) to order over a wood fire. The setting is partly idyllic (abutting the family's nursery in the center of the Guadalupe Valley) with a bit of roadside grit tossed into the mix.  

At first blush, quail might seem an unlikely candidate for Mexican street food treatment. Wrong. California quail is quite plentiful in Baja, and appears frequently on Baja menus. The small birds have a big flavor with a profile more like duck than chicken, more like dark meat than light, with only the slightest hint of gaminess. Padilla marinates the locally sourced birds (I detected pineapple and a soy flavor) and grills them. It's simplicity itself, and hard to imagine anything could make the birds taste better.

What comes off the grill has the makings of an enjoyable carnivorous fest.  There is plastic silverware at Las Gueritas, but honestly, why would you want it? There's no better way to eat the quail than with your hands. You need to get into that bird, pulling the morsels of meat off the little bones. If the price of doing so is dirty hands, so be it.

Many eaters who are not particularly squeamish find rabbit a bit of a task. It's not hard to see why. You don't have to be very imaginative to see the thing on your plate was once a small, fuzzy animal. Then, you taste it. Rabbit both puts the lie and the truth to the old "tastes like chicken" saw. It does taste like chicken, but a particularly meaty, savory chicken, with a dose of game. Treated much as Padilla treats the quail, the grill does very well by the rabbit. Where stews emphasize the gaminess of the meat, the grill highlights its meatiness.  

The meats are definitely what Las Gueritas is about. They're served with rice, beans and an iceberg lettuce salad (with bottled, pour-it-yourself dressing). The proteins deserve better. But, at the end of the day, those grilled meats are so good and the view through the nursery so pleasant that it really doesn't matter. 

Write to michaelg@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. Michael blogs at www.sdfoodtravel.com You can follow him on twitter at @MAGARDINER


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