Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero's calling card is just above the door, La Querencia: "BajaMed Cocina." It certainly gets people's attention, especially considering Guerrero coined and trademarked the term that we in the food press now use as shorthand for Baja's new take on high-end cuisine. Yes, "BajaMed" may be the calling card for his flagship restaurant, but it's not his claim to fame. That would be the big, bright and clear flavors to be found inside the restaurant. Perhaps we should be paying more attention to that.
Guerrero opened a prior incarnation of La Querencia shortly after graduating from law school and breaking the news to his mother that he would never work as a lawyer. Food was his calling and his passion, perhaps every bit as much as the hunting and fishing that have shaped his cooking. The food at La Querencia (Av. Escuadrón 201 No. 3110 at Blvd. Sánchez Taboada, Tijuana) is about delivering the flavors of Baja's fields and ocean directly to the plate and filtered only through simple techniques.
Perhaps the best dishes at La Querencia are the carpaccios. In addition to beef, Guerrero offers scallop, salmon, squash and beet versions. While beef is the classic carpaccio protein, Guerreroís addition of chile oil gives the dish a new dimension.
The scallop carpaccio, however, is my favorite. Thin, translucent slices of scallops are garnished with capers, green olives, red onion and red peppercorns, highlighting the lusciousness of the callo de hacho scallops without overwhelming them. The beet version manages to feel both old and new at once. Mint vinaigrette enhances the natural sweetness of the beets while the blue cheese offers a poignant counterpoint.
Octopus, it seems, is Baja's national dish and Guerrero is particularly good with the cephalopod. It appears on La Querencia's menu in salads, pastas, tacos and grilled dishes, but there's none better than the Pulpo Querencia. It is simple: five tostadas on the plate with chunks of tender, charred octopus, olives, capers, potatoes and bell peppers with chive and leek garnishes. Simple, yes, and hardly gorgeous to look at, but the flavors are big, the textures intriguing and the message is unmistakably direct.
One thing that's oddly missing from many high-end Baja menus is tacos and burritos in their classic form. Not so at La Querencia. An entire section of the menu is devoted to them with options ranging from roast lamb and lechon to Portobello mushrooms, crab and the ubiquitous pulpo. None, however, is better than the smoked marlin. While "smoked marlin" appears from time to time on U.S. menus, it is almost always swordfish rather than marlin. The real stuff is a real treat, offering the richness of the smoke while maintaining the natural flavor of the marlin.
Guerrero's plates, no doubt, are not the prettiest in Baja. While the carpaccios have a sort of all-over charm, looks and fancy presentations aren't what his food is about. Rather, it's all about the flavor and his plates deliver that. In the end, no trademark or clever turn of phrase would have made a difference if Guerrero had not backed it up on the plate. At La Querencia, he's still backing it up.