Miguel Angel Guerrero owns the trademark for "BajaMed," and he gets ripped for it. The chef gets too much praise, some say, for the new Baja cuisine that's recently become an international sensation. However, the final arbiter of the credit he deserves ought to be the quality of his food. Based on the plates coming out of his kitchen at La Esperanza BajaMed, he deserves a lot of credit indeed.
La Esperanza (Km. 73.5 Carretera No. 3 Ensenada-Tecate) is the most recent of Guerreroís four "BajaMed" restaurants featuring this new fusion cuisine built on Baja ingredients, hints of Asian flavors and executed with European technique. The establishment's setting is striking—a modern, organic indoor-outdoor dining room overlooking L.A. Cetto vineyards. In the northeastern stretch of the Valle de Guadalupe, it has one of the best views the Valle has to offer.
The best way to start a meal at La Esperanza is with one of Guerrero's creative takes on the theme of raw (or raw-inspired) starters. Take, for example, the carpaccio de lengua. Tender and thin, nearly translucent slices of beef tongue are drizzled with olive and chile oils, dotted with a caper-tuna emulsion and garnished with a small pile of red onion, garlic chips and tender pig skin. Beef carpaccio and veal tonnato may be the culinary reference points, but it's the differences in these dishes that excite: equal parts European and Mexican, light and richly flavored. Itís a careful, playful balancing act.
Sopes—masa cakes—with chorizo are a Mexican classic. Guerrero, riffing on that classic, makes chorizo sausage from abalone instead of pork (an ancient preservation technique) and produces a chorizo de abulón sope. He tops the abalone chorizo with chipotle crema and a slice of avocado. The resulting dish has a comforting flavor profile, the slight funk of the abalone adding another level of depth.
In Baja, it seems, no high-end meal is complete without octopus. La Esperanza's take is a dramatic study in textures. A whole mesquite-grilled octopus sits on the plate, tentacles curling around it, doused in saffron aioli and chopped olive tapenade with jamon serrano chips on top. Where the larger parts of the sea beast were tender, the smaller tips were charred and crunchy. Where the serrano ham was crisp, the olives were soft and the aioli creamy. It was impressive and deeply satisfying.
Cordero primal al horno is La Esperanza's take on barbacoa, a classic Mexican dish in which primal cuts are slow-steamed in an earthen pit over maguey leaf-covered coals. Guerrero twists this, roasting a side of lamb in a wood-fired oven for the better part of a day. A bowl below collects a broth of the meat's natural juices. Resting in a pool of this broth is a mound of the meat flamed in Spanish brandy. It's a simple dish with astonishing depth of flavor. Mexican ingredients and flavors are presented with just the right touch of European technique.
Some chefs in the Baja community get visibly angry at the term "BajaMed." No doubt, there's room to argue about the term. Is it synonymous with the new cuisine of Baja or just Guerrero's trademark? Is it good for the culinary community? Some argue other chefs do BajaMed more elegantly. However, sitting with a glass of wine, eating Guerrero's new takes on classic Mexican flavors and looking at the vista of the Valle, it's hard to deny that La Esperanza is BajaMed.