It's tempting to think about the new Baja food scene in dualistic terms: tacos, mariscos and birria sold from roadside stands on one hand, and BajaMed—the celebrated high-end cuisine fusing Mexican traditions with various immigrant flavors, using Baja's native foodstuffs and employing European training and techniques—on the other. Tempting, yes, but also this: wrong.
Javier Plascenscia's Finca Altozano, located in Mexico's Valle de Guadalupe (Km. 83 Carretera Tecate-Ensenada, Ejido Francisco Zarco), makes clear that the new Baja cuisine is about more than that. Plascenscia, with what San Diego Magazine writer Troy Johnson calls "Mexican George Clooney" looks, has become the face of Baja's new cuisine. If there's a Baja food or wine fest, it seems, Plascenscia's image will be there. It's no accident. Not only is he one of BajaMed's prime movers; he also has a keen understanding of what it's all about. And at Finca Altozano, nearly all of that is front, center, on the plate and in the surroundings.
Start, for example, with the two octopus appetizers: mini tostadas of octopus ceviche verde and a pulpo a la brasas (grilled octopus). The mini tostadas are the more direct of the two, featuring tender octopus topped with pickled red onion, avocado and arugula, but the grilled octopus is the more interesting dish. The flavor profile opens in a Mediterranean direction—citrus first—but there are peanuts there, too, and isn't that soy I'm tasting? And ginger? It is a deceptively complex dish drawing on Baja's multiple cultural influences. Also good is the calabazas rellenas de queso oreado—squash stuffed with local cheese, epazote, corn and house-smoked guanciale (pork cheeks).
But the key to what Finca Altozano is about may lie in the astonishingly beautiful setting. The entire place is out in the open, with the Valle de Guadalupe's fields taking center stage. It's so surpassingly pleasant—summer or winter—that hours go by in minutes and daylight dims nearly unnoticed. And a lot of what the place's food is about is bringing that outside onto the plate. The produce and some of the proteins come from those grounds and are brought to the table with culinary manipulation kept to the perfect, necessary minimum.
Sheep raised on Finca Altozano's property, for example, are cooked in a caja china roasting box and arrive on the plate flavored by the essence of the place: the fields where they grazed and the kitchen where they were cooked. Even better were the grilled quails. Finca's version of this simple, counterintuitive Baja classic was the best I've tasted. The experience of eating the oak-grilled quail—which is presented on top of wilted chard and mushrooms and boasts perfectly crisped skin and moist, rich flesh—in such a superlative setting could not have been a more enjoyable experience.
In the end, what Finca Altozano powerfully proves is that the new Baja cuisine, like all great cuisines (and wines), is really about terroir. It's about a sense of place. It's neither street food nor bejeweled high cuisine. It's where you sit as you eat.