Exploring the Flavors of Baja California

The Flavors of Baja California 

Valle chef Roberto Alcocer introduces Californians to an emerging — and thrilling — culinary region of Mexico.

 

By Aaron Peasley

“There’s so much more to Baja cuisine than fish tacos,” says chef Roberto Alcocer, the man behind Valle, the upscale restaurant just unveiled at Mission Pacific. The temple of contemporary Baja cuisine takes both its inspiration and name from the Valle de Guadalupe, a small but increasingly influential corner of the Baja California peninsula.

 


Valle, as the locals simply call it, is a 30-minute drive inland from the Pacific Coast, but its sensibility can seem a world away from what many consider classic Baja. “People are always very surprised by how different it is,” says Alcocer, who was born in Mexico City but spent most of his youth in Valle and Ensenada, a mid-sized port city nearby. 

 

MEXICO’S NASCENT NAPA

In recent years the Valle region has achieved serious cred with oenophiles, who are recognizing the area’s luscious, Bordeaux-style reds and lively blends, many of which are grown organically and biodynamically. Tourism, once unheard of, has grown each year, with upscale resorts and sophisticated boutique hotels and cellars dotting the sleepy agrarian community.

It’s the food scene, though, that’s making the biggest waves. Valle at Mission Pacific, Chef Alcocer’s first restaurant outside Mexico, elevates and refines the formula he created at Malva, the unpretentious and much beloved restaurant he opened outside Ensenada seven years ago. “The restaurant scene really started in Valle about 25 years ago with basic places serving very good food, usually cooked in the open over a bit of coal or wood. What you’d call farm-to-table,” he says.

 

INGREDIENT-DRIVEN 

According to Alcocer, successful Baja cooking is grounded in what’s “fresh, local, and sustainable.” From a young age, the chef learned that the most delicious food was created with what was on hand. “In Baja it all begins with the ingredients: the fruit and vegetables that we have in season, often straight from our orchard out back,” he says. “On weekends the whole family will grill together using some amazing seafood from a fisherman or a friend who farms abalone, lobster, or oysters. It’s easy and not overthought.”

A fidelity to locality and sustainability means the restaurant’s menu will change regularly to reflect the seasons and the bio-dynamism of San Diego and Baja regions. This formula sets the tone for exhilarating interpretations of classic Baja staples. They include a fresh spin on the classic aguachile ceviche, a seductive savory crème brûlée constructed with California sea urchin, and a sensational onion tart, taken to new heights with fresh caviar.

 

RUSTIC REDEFINED

Alcocer’s mesmerizing flavors are often achieved through innovative tweaks on timeless methods. At Valle, the process of grilling takes place in a custom Vesuvio charcoal oven. Diners will love the irresistible lamb borrego, an adaptation of a traditional Oaxacan dish where meat is wrapped in an array of traditional spices and cooked over a raw flame for many hours. At Valle, the delicate dish is paired with miniature local vegetables and a glaze accentuated by charcoal.

Mexican cooking tends to be rule-bound and traditional, but Alcocer believes that Baja’s relative youth offers its kitchens the freedom to mix it up and incorporate outside influences. “Baja is one of the ‘newest’ states within Mexico, so our food traditions are in diapers,” the chef notes. “We have carte blanche to propose new ideas about food and its consumption.” 

 

CULINARY DIPLOMACY

As the restaurant serves its first guests, Valle’s chef has barely had time to celebrate the fulfillment of a lifelong dream — serving his own, highly personal cuisine to an international audience in a space he has conceived from the ground up. Nevertheless, he’s confident that a meal at Valle offers diners a fresh insight into Baja California’s fantastic and often underestimated gastronomy. A meal here, which is structured as a four-part prix fixe menu, is a sensory treat and a cultural experience in its own right. 

“In many ways I see Valle as a kind of embassy for Valle de Guadalupe,” the chef says.“I do feel a sense of responsibility, especially in using the name. I hope it’s a journey into unexpected flavors and an introduction to a very special part of the world.”

FOR RESERVATIONS AND MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE VISIT VALLE’S WEBSITE

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