Km. 83, Carretera Tecate-Ensenada
Valle de Guadalupe
Baja California, Mexico
It was 10 a.m. and we were approaching the interminable traffic jam at the border. Figuring Tijuana was close enough for decent reception, we tuned the radio to KPBS to catch A Way with Words. Serendipitously, the topic was food writing.
The hosts were discussing a 1930s food writer who once wrote that an apple she plucked off a tree in Italy was so good it "positively hummed."
Only a day before I would have dismissed such a description as hyperbole, whereas now I understand completely what this author meant. The difference? The previous night we'd dined at Laja.
Laja is a "destination restaurant," a restaurant so good people travel just to eat there. Destination restaurants are often in remote locales and Laja is no exception, nestled deep in the heart of Baja California's wine country.
Husband-and-wife team Jair Téllez and Laura Reinert opened Laja's doors in 2001, serving locally produced food and wine to an ever-growing clientele from as far away as Los Angeles.
There are two attributes that make Laja special. One is the pedigree of Téllez, who trained at Daniel, one of New York City's top-rated French restaurants, before serving as chef at the Four Seasons hotel in Mexico City. The other one-maybe more important-is Laja's access to great agricultural products.
Consider: an olive grower up the road pressing oil just days before it's on your table; butter produced by a local cheese-maker from a small herd of cows raised on natural grasses; pork from pigs raised in the valley whose meat has never been sullied by antibiotics or hormones; and fruits allowed to ripen on the tree and achieve their fullest flavor.
Large-scale commerce impacts the quality of food in the U.S. in more ways than we can imagine, even fancy food bearing an organic label. I've eaten a lot of locally grown and organic produce, and I've yet to experience anything in San Diego that compares with Laja's vibrant cuisine.
Laja's menu is prix fixe, with four courses for one fixed price. The meal consists of two starters, an entrée and dessert, and each course can be served with an appropriate wine selection for an additional charge. The night we dined, the course choices included arugula salad with Fuyu persimmon; yellowtail carpaccio with avocado and preserved lemon; pan-roasted rock cod with lemon, raisins, capers and almonds; locally raised pork with creamy cauliflower, house-cured jam and blue potatoes; and Mandarin orange and pineapple sorbets with lemon verbena granita.
It would be impossible to adequately describe all that we sampled, though I can say that everything was amazing. Most impressive was how the ingredients' flavors and textures were so much more interesting than their adulterated factory-farm relatives. For example, the cauliflower that accompanied the pork had a sweetness I'd never before experienced. The persimmons in the salad were meltingly tender, and also quite sweet-like eating some miraculous, newly discovered fruit. The pork was wholly different than other pork I've eaten, with a deeper, nuttier flavor.
Even the butter served with the bread was incredible. It actually tasted like something other than salty fat, and instead reminded me of fine cheese. I later found out Laja gets its butter from a local dairy farmer and cheese maker. We sampled some of his cheeses prior to the dessert course, and they, too, did not disappoint.
We opted for wine with our courses, and some of them were really quite good. Mexican wine isn't taken completely seriously yet, but Laja goes to the trouble of acquiring rarities that are often unavailable for export.
One such wine was served with our cheese course, a late harvest Zinfandel with residual sugar, which makes the wine slightly sweet. The total production of this wine was only one barrel, which is a shame because I'd have loved to take some home.
Laja is located on Baja's Highway 3 at kM 83, which is about an hour and a half from San Diego. Reservations are required. The prix fixe menu runs $385 per person, with a special tasting menu of all eight dishes available for $565 per person. But don't make the dumb mistake I did and assume those prices are in dollars. With peso exchange rates what they are, it works out to around $40 per person-though if you get wine, it will be closer to $60. Either way, it's an incredible value. Laja is closed for the holidays; it'll re-open Jan. 6.