Artisan Cuisine of Baja California

This is the theme for Ensenada’s newest restaurant venue located at the coastal development of Viento in El Sauzal, about seven miles north of town and three miles south of the last toll station in San Miguel on scenic Highway One. If you’re a “boomer” or from the “Cheech and Chong” generation we’re not talking gourmet tobacco (mota) here, we’re speaking about authentic Oaxacan food. And, if you’re looking for a romantic hideaway with an ocean view, filled with charming hospitality, you should visit Oaxacan Restaurante de Viento before “this secret” is discovered.

Laura Soledad Lopez Mendieta and her husband Salvador Moises Fuentes Roldan are from Oaxaca with a goal of introducing their Oaxacan provincial lifestyle, traditions, old customs and family cooking styles at their new seaside food venue. “We’re looking to gain recognition here for Oaxacan regional foods like mole negro and five other moles with traditional use of herbs and chocolate.” In addition, they feature Oaxacan organic coffee, premium mescal and premium wines of Baja California Norte. Artisan cuisine will include, cuichiles stuffed with quesillo (cheese) in tomatillo sauce, chile rellenos stuffed with minilla and chapulines (toasted grasshoppers), empanadas de amarillo (turnover filled with yellow sauce), salsita de gusanos, totopos (oven toasted corn chips), quesillo (string cheese), and chorizo bien frito (well fried spicy sausage).

According to Laura, “we’ll focus on an ever-changing menu of Oaxacan cuisine, with our main goal of offering fine food, using the best products ~ shipped directly from Oaxaca. You’ll experience local seafood based on a fusion between Baja California Norte and Oaxaca without compromising either. In our region black mole is the king of mole, although a lot of people think Oaxacan black mole is like mole from Puebla, it’s not! Ours is still artisan in preparation, smoky and roasted, while Puebla mole is more bitter and commercial.” They feature two chocolate moles, black mole and red mole, coloradito mole and mole verde. “The flavors of Oaxaca are magical and unique because we use hierba santa with a subtle aroma and with a strong palate in most of our local dishes.” Their black beans with aquacate (avocado leaf) marinated in rabbit herb is delicious ~ as is their spicy chicken soup infused with local herbs.

One added feature here at this quaint and cozy locale is the fact that the restaurant can access vino from the wine cellar at Viento. They have one of the biggest selections of Baja California wines at value pricing and offer a minimal $5. corkage fee, if you choose a bottle to compliment your dinner. In addition, they have a nice selection of national beers, mescal, and organic Oaxacan coffee. A full liquor bar will come this summer, just in time to enjoy cocktails on their scenic oceanfront deck overlooking Todos Santos Islands and Ensenada Bay.

Mole is historically popular in Oaxaca, but most historians agree that Mole comes from the state of Puebla and specifically from the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla City. There is a lot of misinformation about mole, but most culinary experts agree, there are 6 moles. One thing is certain, all moles are very time consuming, labor intensive and require many ingredients. Mole can be complex and layered in structure with as many as 30 ingredients and 10 different varieties of chiles. Additional ingredients can include: peanuts, almonds, fried bread, plantains, sugar, bittersweet chocolate, cinnamon and cloves. Many Mexican families have their own mole recipes, probably passed down from their mothers via one generation to the next.

Although Oaxaca is famous their mole, a sauce made of chocolate, chili, sesame seed, and spices, it has other culinary wonders to offer the world. Cocido is an amazing stew usually made with beef, pork, chicken, garbanzos, string beans, chayote, squash, cabbage, carrots, “guineo” bananas, often seasoned with cilantro and hierbabuena herb, accompanied by rice and chili sauce. Mole Negro, the most famous of many moles is usually made with turkey. Chiles Rellenos de Sardinas are chilies stuffed with small fish. Tortillas clayudas are large, thick, leathery tortillas and totopos are very large, perforated, toasted tortillas. Dessert items include: alegría which is toasted, popped and sweetened amaranth seeds. Capirotada is a popular dish, especially during Lent, and is a white-bread pudding with various combinations of ingredients, such as cheese, tomato, peanuts, raisins, and biznaga cactus, all covered with syrup. Gaznate are cylindrical sweets filled with meringue and mamón which is a bland, spongy bread of corn starch, egg, sugar, and cinnamon. Of course, you must experience nieves (home made ice creams) like vanilla, rose petal and burnt milk with prickly pear.

A unique Oaxacan beverage is Pozol de Cacao made by grinding boiled corn kernels to form the moist paste called masa, stirring the masa into water, and adding a pinch of salt, sugar, and/or ground cacao. Tejata is made from toasted and ground cacao, seeds of the mamey fruit with a certain local small flower. Chocolate is often stone ground, and served with water or milk, creating a frothy drink that can be drunk hot or cold.

Coffee from Oaxaca comes from mountainous coffee growing regions where indigenous Mixe and Zapotec Indians have grown coffee for over 200 years. In this coffee growing region of Oaxaca there are more than 40 villages spread over 400 square miles. This area hosts about 10,000 coffee-growing families descended from indigenous Indians. Due to low coffee prices worldwide, most of these families will make less than $300.00 (usd) for a year’s work. Thanks to the vision of a dedicated Christian named David Day, the local coffee growers have received organic certification which has increased their yearly income and their quality of life dramatically. According to Day, “it gives the coffee an added dollar value in the global marketplace that we can pass along to the farmers to give them economic sustainability.” Day’s project, Grower’s First, has been able to nearly triple each family’s income to almost $900 per year. In addition, Day and members of his project started a crop diversification program and a beehive program, which increased crop yields six to eight percent. “We integrated honey into their diets instead of raw sugar,” Day says. “We also started a program for the women to hand silk-screen and paint coffee bags to create jobs for those who don’t have farms. We also started a chicken-raising and breeding program for eggs. We buy chickens in bulk and take them up to the mountains. Growers First is about a hand up rather than a handout. We try to give them tools to fish rather than handing them a fish to eat.”

Oaxaca, pronounced wah HAH kah, officially Oaxaca de Juarez, is the capital of Oaxaca, and is a state located in southern Mexico. The region is know for mining, produce farming, forestry, and for creating unique handicrafts. The economy is based on tourism, dairy products, ranching and forestry products. The history of the area is rich in history with the ruins of two ancient Indian cities, Mitla and Monte Alban, located near Oaxaca. The city itself is famous for it’s amazing samples of early architecture, with the origins of the city dating back to about 1486, possibly founded by the Aztecs.

Monte Alban, pronounced MOHN tay ahl BAHN, was the capital and largest city of the empire of the Zapotec Indians. The city once stood on a mountaintop near what is now Oaxaca. Monte Alban means White Mountain in Spanish and also refers to the mountain on which the city’s ruins stand. The Zapotec founded Monte Alban in about 500 B.C. and developed trade links with the city of Teotihuacan and the Maya city of Tikal in present-day Guatemala. The architecture and culture of Monte Alban influenced cultures in other parts of what are now Mexico and Central America. The city had many stone structures, including pyramids with temples on top, palaces, plazas, and tombs. The decline of Teotihuacan contributed to the abandonment of Monte Alban in about A.D. 750. Today, Monte Alban is a major archaeological site and tourist attraction.

For those familiar with the culinary treasures and treats of Oaxaca or for those now ready to explore these delights, please visit this “small wonder of artisan food” next time you pass through El Sauzal. They’re open Wed ~ Sat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sundays open for breakfast and lunch.