Being from the United States, I’m familiar with Baja-style cuisine. We even have a franchise named Baja Fresh, but I had no idea how the meal differs from ordinary Mexican food.
Hip Traveler and the Loreto Board of Tourism recently invited me to join them in Baja California Sur to learn more about this area of Mexico and, of course, enjoy some of the finest Baja cuisine the region has to offer. You know I jumped at the opportunity!
First and foremost, before we get into the cuisine, where exactly is Baja California, Mexico? Isn’t this in California? Isn’t it a state of the United States?
Actually, it’s in Mexico, in what’s known as the other Mexico, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
I know what you’re thinking. Are you certain it’s not in the United States of America? The name alone screams California! Even more perplexing, Baja California is made up of two separate Mexican states: Baja California (sometimes known as Baja California Norte) and Baja California Sur. For those of you who didn’t pay attention in high school Spanish studies, that’s north and south!
Even more perplexingly, Baja California (Norte) shares a border with the US state of California. So you have three California states in a row from two separate nations.
If you want to add to the complexity, all of these were formerly part of Mexico until the United States purchased what is now the American state of California (along with many other states) in the mid-1800s. Yet, as this isn’t a history blog, we won’t go into detail.
Just know that directly underneath the American state of California there are two Mexico states with the name California in them.
Still perplexed? I really hope not. Well, we’ve determined that this isn’t a history blog (and, based on my descriptions, it’s probably not a geography blog either), so let’s get into the cuisine of the area!
- 1 What is Baja California Food?
- 2 6 Must-Try Meals in Baja California Sur, Mexico
- 3 Which of these Baja California meals piques your interest the most? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below!
What is Baja California Food?
Baja cuisine initially gained popularity outside of Mexico, with Californians long praising Baja fish tacos and the like.
Nonetheless, Baja cuisine has lately gained popularity in Mexico, rivaling Oaxacan cuisine and Yucatecan fooda.
With such beautiful shoreline, it’s no wonder that seafood is a big part of the local cuisine. But what are some of the other elements that contribute to this one-of-a-kind cuisine?
The main one is the local climate. As previously stated, this is the other Mexico. The Mediterranean environment (plenty of sun, hot days, chilly nights, and that beautiful ocean breeze) allows for the cultivation of loads of fresh vegetables, grapes for wine, and even olives for olive oil.
Along from seafood and wine, look for grilled meats and exceptionally fresh veggies, and keep reading to learn about a few unusual meals that may surprise you!
Where else should you go in Mexico? Check out these resources:
- 9 Amazing Things To Do In Cozumel!
- 12 Best Cabo San Lucas Restaurants
- 12 Must-Try La Paz Restaurants & Bars
- 13 Must-Try Restaurants in Cancun
- 17 Best Restaurants in Playa Del Carmen
- 15 Best Restaurants in Tulum
6 Must-Try Meals in Baja California Sur, Mexico
Clams in Chocolate (Almejas)
The hallmark dish of Loreto, where we spent the most of our stay in Baja Sur, is chocolate clams.
Several of you who followed my journey on Instagram stories were startled to find that the clams were not cooked with chocolate. The shell is called chocolate clams because it seems to be made of chocolate.
The fact that no two locations appeared to cook them precisely the same was perhaps the most astounding aspect of this meal (apart from the flavor, of course).
Traditionally, they are buried on the beach and covered with vines (similar to tumbleweeds), before being pulled out and eaten.
The majority of the ones we had were cooked inside using a similar method, but the similarities stopped there. Others were simply cooked with butter and garlic, while others were prepared with white wine, ham, cheese, and butter, and yet others were wrapped in freshly baked corn tortillas, doused with mustard sauce, and served as a clam burrito!
You can get this outside of Loreto, but you’ll want to make your way to Loreto during your stay to Baja Sur since Loreto makes the greatest renditions of this trademark meal.
You could spend a full day in Loreto simply traveling from place to place sampling all the various chocolate clam dishes!
Machaca (particularly burritos con machaca) (especially burritos de machaca)
Machaca is one of those foods that can be found all throughout Mexico (I first tried it at one of the top restaurants in San Cristobal de las Casas), but you’ve never truly tasted it until you sample the actual, authentically cooked dish.
The most traditional method of preparing machaca is to dry seasoned strips of beef in the sun until ready to use. Then, it will be rehydrated and pounded to make it soft before being wrapped in tortillas to form one of the greatest burritos you’ve ever had.
It’s also a favorite morning meal when paired with eggs and tortillas. This makes for a very robust and full breakfast, ideal to keep employees energized until lunch.
I believe you should try this meal made traditionally since many variations skip the sun drying procedure and instead use shredded stew beef. It’s decent, but not machaca.
I’ve told you before that I don’t have a sweet tooth, so I wasn’t expecting to like them, but I was pleasantly pleased.
These empanadas are baked or fried (typically fried) turnovers filled with fresh fruit jams from the region. I enjoyed them because the lack of sugar on the pastry provided a wonderful counterpoint to the sweetened jam center.
The tastiest were loaded with guyabano (soursop) and were nicely balanced between sweet and bready. You may inquire about the contents of the empanadas from the sellers. Most sellers we saw had a limited variety of 2-3 different fillings.
I still like my savory empanadas, but these were nice enough that I had two during my stay.
Hot dogs covered with bacon from Jocho
Jochos, or bacon-wrapped hot dogs put into buns and topped with your choice of toppings, are a popular street snack in Baja California.
I’m not sure how frequently these are made sober, but after a night of drinking, we went looking for them. It seems like the ideal kind of street cuisine to soak up a gut full of tequila or mezcal.
To be honest, I didn’t get to taste one of them when I was in town. We had just completed supper when we came across the cart selling them, and I wasn’t in the least bit hungry. When we returned later (after drinking), the cart had already closed for the night.
Now, thanks to Jordan from The Life of Jord for posting his picture of him finding a jocho on the way home, I was able to locate one.
Jordan is a great YouTuber who has also created material from Baja Sur, but from a different region of the state. If you want to see his Baja coverage or his work in general, you can visit his YouTube account here.
Tacos de Pescado (tacos de pescado)
San Diego may have popularized Baja-style fish tacos, but they originated in Baja California. This is the Baja they’re talking about when they advertise Baja fish tacos on menus!
The original fish tacos were cooked using shark flesh, but they are now made with whatever fish is caught fresh that day. The fish is then battered and deep-fried or grilled (the latter is more traditional) and put into new tortillas, topped with shredded cabbage, and smothered with your preferred sauces.
Most people serve their fish tacos with a mayonnaise-based sauce, but I like to add some spice with pico de gallo and habanero salsa. Before you take that ideal first bite, complete the taco with a big squeeze of lime.
Ceviche de Clams
This was a new one for me, and I’ll be honest with you: it wasn’t my favorite. But, it is really local and you should try it if you are in the region.
Most of you have probably heard of ceviche, which is seafood (typically fish or shrimp) cooked (cured) in citrus juice—primarily lime but occasionally lemon.
Here’s a recipe that uses chocolate clams instead of fish or shrimp:
It’s certainly worth a try, however I like my chocolate clams cooked rather than ceviche-style, but many of my buddies on the trip raved about it.
Have a tostada with mayonnaise with your ceviche for something really regional. I’ve had a lot of fish tostadas when traveling in Mexico, but putting mayo on them was a novel twist. I have to say that I didn’t dislike it.
So here are a few of more food things you should try while in Baja that I felt would be cheating if I put in your list of 6 Must-Try Baja Foods.
But if I advised you to travel to Mexico and eat tortillas and bottled water, you’d think I’d failed miserably as a food writer. But bear with me.
Tortillas made with flour
Apart from certain one-off items like gringa tacos and enchiladas Suiza, this is one of the few locations in Mexico where I’ve seen wheat tortillas. Additionally, please keep in mind that the names of both of these meals imply that they are not very local- white girl tacos and Swiss enchiladas!
Corn tortillas are the standard practically everywhere I’ve traveled in Mexico. Even yet, corn kinds differ by location, with some being yellow, others being white, and even blue corn, as seen in traditional Oaxacan cuisines, being my personal favorite. If you’ve never had blue corn tortilla chips, you should do so right now, if not sooner.
But I digress—we were discussing tortillas. Flour tortillas are not only widely available in this region of Mexico, but they are also the most popular. Remember, this is the other Mexico?
Our tourist board representative explained why flour tortillas are used here rather than corn tortillas. The first reason is that this environment is better suited to cultivating grain (flour) rather than corn. The second reason is that grain stores longer than maize in this environment, allowing grain to be gathered and processed in order to be kept and used to create tortillas all year.
And how do they compare to flour tortillas from home? These were just as excellent, if not better, than the ones my dear Mexican grandma used to bake by hand every time I visited.
So, what exactly is the secret ingredient? Manteca, often known as pig fat. Using flour, lard, salt, and a little water, you can make some of the greatest tortillas I’ve ever tasted. Grandma, I apologize!
Sorry to disappoint the vegetarians and vegans who come here thinking they can survive off of beans, rice, and tortillas for the duration of their stay, but the bulk of what you’ll find here is swimming in swine fat. If you’re a diehard vegetarian or vegan, be sure to inquire whether the meal contains manteca.
Topo Chico Mineral Water
I’m a mineral water junkie. It’s even on my Facebook bio.
(If you’re interested in learning more about the dual citizen section of my bio, check here to see how I gained my Mexican citizenship.)
I drink an awful quantity of mineral water- it was a running joke on the trip with folks noting how many bottles per day I would purchase.
And there is one brand that I consider to be the king of mineral waters: Topo Chico.
That is simply flawless. I marvel at how wonderfully bubbly it is every time I take a sip.
Topo Chico is manufactured in Monterrey, Mexico, not in Baja. So why am I suggesting it in a piece on Baja cuisine? Since it’s ubiquitous here, whereas in other regions of Mexico, it’s sparse, if at all.
Every bar, restaurant, and even gas station in Baja California Sur had LOTS of Topo Chico at pricing you’d expect to pay (around 25-40 pesos or $1.20 USD $1.90 USD) per bottle.
In Merida, Mexico, where I am presently living, there is just one store that offers it at a steep markup and in limited quantities. I’ll have to preorder it and wait for it to arrive.
It is not completely available in other areas of Mexico. Although being manufactured in Mexico, the majority of it is shipped to the United States. Strangely, I can get this Mexican product more readily in the United States than in most regions of Mexico.
So, did I just close my food essay by recommending that you go to Baja California, Mexico to sample water and tortillas? Sure, kind of, but be careful to taste them with the more unusual meals indicated above.
And don’t forget to top off your Topo Chico with a hearty squeeze of lime. You’ll be grateful afterwards!