Baja California is an incredible place with delicious, cold-water seafood that is different from the warm-water seafood typical of Sinaloa. Both Sinaloa and Baja California have excellent seafood but there are some differences like the sea urchin or erizo de mar. The tostada de erizo de mar is an Ensenada classic that can be interpreted in different ways.
I’m not sure why but sea urchin isn’t commercially harvested much outside of Baja California. I know that sea urchins exist in the warm waters of Nayarit and Michoacan because I have stepped on them. Yet the best Baja-style seafood restaurants in Mexico City and Guadalajara source their sea urchin from Ensenada.
I don’t order sea urchin in Guadalajara because it comes from so far away. After eating fresh sea urchin, recently taken out of the water, eating the several-day-old variety just isn’t as appetizing.
In December of 2019, I drive my 1985 Toyota pickup truck From Guadalajara to San Diego to sell. It was one last trip through the Baja Peninsula looking for waves and seafood. I stopped at Cuchupetas in Villa Union, Sinaloa for some of the best homestyle Sinaloan seafood around. Excellent oysters but they are different from the Ensenada oysters.
The ferry from Los Mochis to La Paz was miserable but nothing that a swim in Balandra Bay couldn’t fix.
The waves were firing at Punta Conejo. It took me an extra two days to drive the peninsula because of the slow pace of the trip. I could have made it much faster if I hadn’t stopped so much to surf and eat.
I skipped breakfast on my last morning because all I wanted to eat were tostadas de erizo de mar from la Guerrerense.
Everything was going right that day. I scored the parking space right next to the street food cart to start. It was still early so there wasn’t much of a line which can be brutal on the weekends.
La Guerrerense is the most famous seafood cart in Mexico. The owner, Sabina Bandera, from Huitzuco, Guerrero (la Guerrerense or the woman from Guerrero state), has been preparing seafood in Ensenada since the 1970s. In 2011 she won the Los Angeles Street Food Fest for the best original dish with her tostads de erizo y almeja (sea urchin and clam tostada). In 2013 placed first in sales at the World Street Food Congress in Singapore.
The tostada de erizo de mar in Ensenada is kind of a big deal. Even Anthony Bourdain raved about it in the No Reservations Season 8 episode named ‘Baja.’
After putting back a few of the most celebrated tostadas in Mexico, I was off to the wine country. I ate borrego tatemado with Doña Esthela who is a wonderful host. She insisted that I try the corn pancakes which may have changed my life they were so good.
La Cocina de Doña Esthela isn’t too far from the Casa de Piedra winery and I really wanted to get my dad a bottle of something nice. My dad loved the Baja California-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. Hugo D’Acosta is going to win over every serious wine drinker and make them a fan of Baja California viticulture.
In addition to a winery, D’Acosta got together with Chef Drew Deckman to put a shellfish and sparkling wine bar on the winery grounds. In Mexico, they call all sorts of different mollusks conchas, or shells. The patio bar is called Conchas de Piedra like the wine which is named Vino de Piedra.
I just came in to buy a bottle of wine for my dad but when I saw tostadas de erizo de mar on the chalkboard menu I had to stay.
The tostada de erizo at Conchas de Piedra is completely different than the tostada de erizo at La Guerrerense. La Guerrerense uses sea urchin ceviche mixed with lime. At Conchas de Piedra the sea urchin is served whole on top of a bed of arugula. The flavor profile is the same but the two tostadas went running in different directions.
Tasting those two tostadas de erizo back to back was a great experience. That tostada is a part of the lore of Ensenada’s culinary arts scene which is still a little underappreciated. Not as many people have chosen to vacation in Ensenada as they have gone to Mazatlan or Cancun.
The style of Ensenada cuisine is heavily influenced by the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean and different patterns of immigration. Baja California has a unique history and a world-class seafood scene.
I can’t write an article about sea urchins in Baja without mentioning Erizo Marketo in Tijuana. Erizo is a small restaurant by celebrated Tijuana chef Javier Plascencia. One of their namesake dishes is piece of sea urchin with a quail egg leche de tigre chaser. You let the sea urchin dissolve on your tongue and slowly take a sip of the briny ceviche juice.
Erizo Marketo Restaurant in Tijuana is a cool local, non-touristy experience. It is on Calle Sonora, across the street from the Club Camprestre country club and around the corner from the Grand Hotel Tijuana. I love the neighborhood and would cross the border just to eat there.
After a full day of eating sea urchins in Baja California, it was time to cross the border and get my truck smogged. My registration was three years overdue and I needed a smog check before I could register it so that I could sell it.
I failed the first smog check on a Friday afternoon right when all the good mechanics in the city were closing for the weekend.
A couple of hours of YouTube research convinced me to buy the oxygen sensor and change it myself.
It worked. I passed the smog check on Saturday afternoon as they were closing, go the registration updated first thing Monday morning, and made my flight Monday afternoon.
But that leaves Sunday, you say. Yup! I had time to surf La Jolla and eat sushi at my favorite spot, Sushi on the Rock. Back in the day when I worked there, they would have live sea urchins in a tank that were used to make the sashimi plate. The spines would move with a couple of drops of lemon juice.
Sea urchin is something that I will always associate with the Californias and prefer to eat near the source. It isn’t the same when it has been shipped 1,000 miles away.
Tostadas de erizo de mar in Ensenada are the best and I can’t wait to go back!