Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Sabina Bandera was about to come in from the cold. It was May 28, 2012, the night Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations Baja episode aired. She was about to become famous, even if Bandera didn’t know it yet. Bourdain’s discerning taste and huge megaphone accomplished what 42 years of slinging unimaginably brilliant mariscos from the corner of Alvarado and 1st in Ensenada had never quite achieved. Sabina’s Restaurante, across the street from her still-bustling old cart, is the result.
When Bourdain shined his spotlight on Bandera it resulted in awards for her, yes. It won her a stall in his soon-to-be New York take on a Singapore hawker’s center, the Bourdain Market. But with the opening of her restaurant, Bandera’s food has an indoor home. And it is good. Bourdain had called Bandera’s iconic La Guerrerense spot “the best street cart in the world.” I’ve certainly never tasted better. But now Bandera and her son Luis could leverage her newfound fame into a sit-down restaurant.
At one level, Sabina’s is an indoor incarnation of her iconic street cart. And it would truly be difficult to say that there is any dish there better than La Guerrerense’s most famous dish: the tostada de erizo con almeja . It is a tostada topped first with a layer of erizo (sea urchin aka “ uni ”) paste and topped with Baja’s brilliant Pismo clams. A squeeze of lime, hot sauce and thin slices of still firm avocado at peak ripeness complete the picture. At one level, it’s simple. At another, it’s pure brilliance, offering multiple textural contrasts, deep umami flavors, the freshest possible seafood, a hit of heat and a hint of sweetness. There’s also Sabina’s bar of brilliant proprietary salsas with which you can customize.
Most of the cart’s other best dishes are there. There’s her caracol de mar y calle de hacha tostada , a wonderful scallop and sea snail tostada. But the great discovery at Sabina’s was a tostada de enselada de jaiba con jurel ahumada . Never mind the incorrect translation on the menu, it’s a tostada of crab salad with smoked yellowtail, and it’s excellent. The smoke on the fish gives the dish a beguiling level of depth.
But Sabina’s is more than just La Guerrerense indoors. Freed of the cart’s constrictions she delves more deeply into the soulfulness of her cooking. There’s no better incarnation of that than an incredible green posole featuring ripe, mild chiles and tomatillos, pork and hominy, garnished with a flauta (think taquito or rolled taco), chicharrónes , egg and diced avocado. The depth and comfort of this dish is stunning. The fact it comes from someone exclusively known for her work with seafood is too. But the things that make this work are the same things that make everything else she does work: texture, ingredients, love, patience and passion.
No doubt Bourdain’s spotlight brought Sabina Bandera fame. But it also brought her the ability to bring her food into a more peaceful and comfortable space that has allowed her to broaden the focus a bit. It’s allowed her to bring more of who she is to the plate. It’s allowed her to come in from the cold.