Anthony Bourdain, an authority on street food, called Sabina Bandera's Mariscos La Guerrerense in Ensenada "the best street cart in the world." Bourdain is not alone. One of America's foremost Mexican (and TV) chefs, Rick Bayless, described it as "one of the best places to eat in Mexico." A legion of food bloggers agrees. What are they on about?
The dish that gets the most attention is the tostada de erizo con almeja: sea urchin (uni) and Pismo clam tostadas with a squeeze of lime, hot sauce and thin slices of still-firm avocado at peak ripeness. On one level, it's a simple dish: a crisp corn tortilla with a bunch of seafood on top. Of course, the seafood came that morning from the nearby Mercado Negro, Ensenada's superb fresh-seafood market. And the uni is in a paste atop the tortilla, providing both a structural matrix for the clams and a tier of deep umami warmth with more than a hint of sweetness. The Pismo clams are tender and toothsome, with a slight suggestion of crunch. A squeeze of lime, a few dashes of hot sauce and some thin slices of avocado complete the dish. It is, like so many great dishes, both simple and complex.
Another great feature at La Guerrerense (at 1st and Alvarado in Zona Centro) is the remarkably extensive salsa bar, featuring a line of 13 unique house salsas bottled by Bandera. The winner for pairing with the clam and uni tostadas was a dark, almost burnt chile de arbol and peanut salsa. Fiery? Yes. But it added depth to a dish that was already so deep.
There are many other choices at the stand: mixed seafood platters, bacalao, shrimp, mussels, octopus, classic ceviches and more. Lots were good, but before my most recent trip to La Guerrerense in June, I'd not tasted another as good as the clam and urchin tostada. I have now. A caracol de mar y calle de hacha tostada—tostada of sea snail and "scallop" (actually a variety of clam, but with a flavor and texture almost indistinguishable from sea scallops)—captured much of what made the clam and uni great, but in a different way. The dish was replete with contrasts, both textural (crunchy tostada, soft scallop and toothsome sea snail) and flavor (sweet shellfish, rich avocado and acidic lime). Once again, biting through the tostada was an adventure in physical layers echoing layers of flavor.
Bourdain's words may seem like hyperbole: "Le Bernardin-quality seafood in the street." Really? No fine china. No elegant presentation. And no ring molds or fancy garnishes. And, frankly, none necessary. Bourdain's point, and those of Bayless and others, is that the precise calibration of flavors and textures, their layering and the simultaneous simplicity and complexity is as sophisticated as one might find in a great restaurant.
Improbable as it may seem, it really is well worth the trip across an international border to try street-corner food fueled by the singular culinary imagination of Sabina Bandera.