Tuesday, June 19, 2012

El Balcon: Alta Cocina in San Felipe (Baja, Mexico)

Unlike the more metropolitan Tijuana, there aren't too many high end dining options in San Felipe, a sleepy town during the off-season. Still, there is at least one, and a very good one at that.
El Balcon
El Balcon Cocina Artesanal opened in Jaunary this year by Chef Julio Cesar Gonzalez Zetina who had previous worked at the Ritz Carlton in Cancun and researched Mayan culinary traditions for the university there. Now he also teaches the subject at the local university after a recent move from Ensenada.

El Balcon wasn't a fancy restaurant, just a few cute tables outside on the second floor of La Plazita, and an outdoor kitchen. Thick tortilla chips are accompanied by a bold housemade salsa.

Our lunch tasting began with an Aguachile de Cazon (dogfish marinated in burnt chili sauce and green sauce, smoked tuna, sea asparagus and "Huaxes" (toasted seeds), grasshopper, verdolaga
We have had plenty of bounty from the Sea of Cortez, but this was the first time in San Felipe that we had it raw. The fresh dogfish carpaccio reminded me of kanpachi and both of the chile were so good that despite not being able to eat that spicy, I had to finish the entire plate (while downing plenty of water).

Accompanying our lunch was a famous Baja white wine, the JC Bravo Palomino. JC Bravo is one of the OG wineries in Valle de Guadalupe and apparently his wines are so in demand they are hard to come by (the Palomino is also produced in limited quantities). Lucky us to be able to have his Palomino here! The crisp, dry white with plenty of fruit aroma went really well with all our dishes.

Our next course: Tlacoyo y almeja del mar de Cortez (hand made tortilla stuffed with yori muni beans from yaqui lands, clams from the Sea of Cortez in Mayan sauce)
The dense bean-stuffed tlacoyo proved a good vehicle for the clams. We had plenty of the white clams on this trip, but this was my favorite preparation. I'm not sure what's in the "Mayan" sauce but I loved the lightly sweet, rich sauce all the same.

Tres moles Camaron y Nopales (Green "Pipian", Red "Pipian", Mole Barroque (mole poblano) shrimp and cactus salad)
An excellent dish, with perfectly grilled, sweet shrimp and three fun moles. The green mole, made with hoja santa and squash blossoms, tasted the most unique. It was reminiscent of almonds although they assured us there was no almond in it. The red mole is made with chile ancho (the local chile), mulato, and cascabel chilis. Oh, and remember the holes on the chips in the first course? Here they are!

The dessert was equally impressive: Helado de flores de lavanda (lavender flowers ice cream, topped with amaranth, chocolate)
I'm usually iffy with lavender-flavored food, but this ice cream was very fragrant without being overly flowery and didn't have that "soapy" taste. I especially enjoyed this with the amaranth topping. I wish we had a bigger bowl of this!

The grand finale was a plate of Quesos del Valle de Ojos negros, compota hechas en casa: de platano, naranja y amaranto, de jamaica (cheeses from the Ojos Negros valley, homemade compotes: banana, orange and amaranth, and hibiscus) - with toasted pumpkin seeds, peanut, coconut
The various local cheeses included Queso Oriado and rosemary cheese from Ramonetti Ranch, cheeses from Rancho Gandalfi and Rancho Cortez (my favorite was the rosemary cheese). The banana compote was a unique one that turned out to work quite well with cheese.

The team: sous chef Marcelino Morales Villegas, manager Susana Trejo Ixtepan, Chef Julio Cesar Gonzalez Zetina.

The lunch at El Balcon was one of the highlights of our San Felipe media trip. Chef Zetina produces perhaps the most modern cooking in San Felipe using the best of the local ingredients (and being right next to the Sea of Cortez, there are plenty of that). Whether you are living in or just visiting San Felipe, El Balcon is a must.

El Balcon Cocina Artesanal
Mar de Cortez 614
2nd floor Centro Comercal La Plazita
Zona Centro
San Felipe, Baja California


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