Welcome to Baja
To get to my restaurant, Fauna, from the United States, you’ll probably drive south from San Diego and through the busiest overland border crossing in the world.
From there, you’ll skirt the chaotic, hip melting pot of Tijuana and get on the highway that runs along the coast. For an hour, you’ll encounter a procession of fishing villages and housing developments, sheer cliffs and inviting shorelines.
When you are safely past a bay named Salsipuedes—Spanish for “Get out if you can”—you’ll turn inland to find yourself, almost immediately, in Mexico’s most notable wine-growing region, the Valle de Guadalupe. At the end of a dirt road lined with hundred-year-old olive trees, you’ll park, walk up a gravel path, and be here.
The first people to live on this land were the Kumiai, who arrived twelve thousand years ago; their descendants still live a couple miles from this spot, in the community of San Antonio Necua. Meanwhile, the historical presence of the Spanish, who planted our initial grapevines centuries ago, resonates in the Valle, as it does throughout Mexico.
It was a group of Russian emigrants in the 1920s, however, who really made this area into a wine region. They were called Molokans, and they owned most of the Valle then. I’ve been told that Russian was the default language even into the 1950s. You still meet people here with Russian names, and you still see shops that bake and sell Russian bread.
Over a couple generations, others came, including industrial winemakers along with the farmers and workers they require. Eventually, almost all of Mexico’s domestic wine came from this region. Most of it was inexpensive, anodyne, and made according to the principles of large-scale production.
About thirty years ago, a new wave of people became prominent in the Valle, people with ideas to explore its potential for world-class wine and food. Among them were winemakers, chefs, artists, and even the architect who designed the winery and restaurant where I cook.
It’s 7 a.m. when the dogs wake me up. I take them down along the beach, the same beach I grew up walking along. Maribel, who I’ve been with since we were teens, is still sleeping. I head downtown for some morning coffee at Barra D’ Café. It’s one of Ensenada’s newest coffee purveyors. Barra D’ Café roasts very small batches of Mexican coffee in the former home of Santo Tomas, which is one of California’s oldest wineries.
After having coffee, I walk a couple doors down to a little fresh-fish shop called De Garo, to pick up culinary seaweed from Japan, and maybe some local seaweed. Next door at Mercados El Roble, I buy some chickens for that night’s staff dinner, as well as some specialties from the United States that the owner is kind enough to import for me.
If it’s a Sunday, I’ll drive a few blocks to the harbor and its public fish market, which is named Mercado Negro (“Black Market”). My distributors don’t deliver to the restaurant on Sundays; but at the dockside market, I can buy from the guy who sells to my distributors anyway. I pick up jurel
(known in the United States as yellowtail jack or hamachi), oysters, and some chocolate clams or blood clams.
Many people have read Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential
, in which he warns against ordering seafood on Sundays and Mondays in New York City restaurants. Some people think that his advice is relevant in every city in the world. Not true! Around here, weekend fish is super. Local panga
boats—a kind of fishing skiff invented in Baja—bring in a catch on Saturday evening, which gets readied for sale just in time for Sunday morning. And then, early on Monday morning, the local aqua farms bring in their product, so we have great fish on Mondays, too.
Every morning after my errands are done, I try to sneak in some time at the gym. And I’ll probably try to take care of a few more errands, too. Like, I might swing by my uncle’s warehouse to pick up some wine. Or if I’m low on mezcal, I’ll go to a specialty store that’s located in nearby San Dieguito (“Little San Diego”), where it’s hidden in with the Costco and other big-box stores.
By the time I arrive at Fauna, it’s probably around 2 p.m., meaning we’ve been open for a little while already. In Mexico, lunch is the big dining-out meal, even during the week, so our team is probably as busy as we’re going to be all day.
The first thing I do is make sure we are keeping the fridge well organized because organization is the first step to creating great food! Then I get to it: tasting, checking, helping, cooking, serving, and making sure all our guests are happy and well-fed. I’ve been doing this work since I was in middle school; my family’s been doing it for well over a century, here on the Pacific coast of Baja California.
My mom’s family is well-known in Baja and in Southern California. Her grandfather John Hussong founded a bar, called Hussong’s Cantina, in Ensenada in 1892, and it is still open today. We think it’s the oldest continuously operating bar in all the Californias. People on both sides of the border have good memories of hanging out at Hussong’s, with its peanut shells on the floor, old newspaper clippings on the walls, and mariachis leading the crowd in sing-alongs. It’s even thought to be the place where the margarita was invented!
In every generation after John, many Hussongs have worked in the food and hospitality business. My grandfather was kicked out of his house as a young man—it’s a long story—and he moved about a mile out from downtown Ensenada to a place on the beach near where I grew up. There he caught lobsters and sold them at a profit to businesses in the United States. At that time, contraband liquor sales to the States was a booming trade—it was during Prohibition—and I’ve seen a photograph of my grandfather with Al Capone, so it may be that there was more than just lobsters in those crates. But the live Baja lobsters were definitely there, too. And they were—and still are—delicious.
More recently, my uncle Carlos operated a tuna fleet based on the same stretch of beach until the early 1990s, when the embargo atunero
—the effective ban on commercial tuna fishing methods in both Californias—put an end to the industry here. Now, if you go to that spot, you’ll find a steakhouse and bar run by my cousin. And in the early 2000s, my uncle Juan Antonio was the chef at Punto Morro hotel, a nice beachfront place near our house.
Around that time, I was thirteen years old, and my mom asked me, in the way that moms do, what I planned to do with my life. “I’m going to be a chef,” I told her. I loved food and had watched my family cooking with intention since I could remember. Of course I, too, would do that. She called Juan Antonio and told him he had a new pinche
. After that, all through high school, I spent my weekends chopping onions and learning how to cook professionally from Juan Antonio’s sous chefs.
During the week, when I was in school, my dad worked down the road as a university professor. He taught anthropology, sociology, and urban planning. His family never opened a bar—so they are not famous like the Hussongs—but they’ve been in California longer. If I have a claim that I’m an old-school Californio
, it’s through them. Long ago, they were farmers in Santa Rosalia, a ranching and mining town about halfway down the Baja peninsula. In time, my dad’s dad moved to the Sierras of northern Baja and acquired his own ranchland in the mountains, raising cattle and lambs. That land is still in our family, and neighboring farmers use it for pasturing their animals.
When I was eighteen, I left Baja to pursue my career. It’s a funny thing; I tried my hand in a good Italian restaurant in San Diego, where I worked as a pizzaiolo. I hated it for no particular reason—it was a perfectly good place to cook—and ended up working there for not long at all, maybe a month or two. And then I quit, came back to Ensenada, and took Maribel out for a drink to celebrate moving home. At the bar, I ran into my friend and previous boss, chef Jair Téllez of Laja, who was about to open his first restaurant in Mexico City. The next thing I knew, I was packing up my knives again.
Over the following few years, I cooked in Mexico City, San Diego, Copenhagen, and New York. Twice—working at Eleven Madison Park and staging at Noma—I found myself in kitchens in the top five of the “World’s Best Restaurants” list. Two more times I worked at restaurants that have been on the “50 Best” list for Latin America. I settled in as a chef in San Francisco for a couple years, before getting an offer to helm a restaurant that would be my own. In a fun twist, the new restaurant was next to my hometown, in the Guadalupe Valley wine country outside Ensenada.
Copyright © 2020 by David Castro Hussong and Jay Porter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.