8 Food Reasons to Visit Ensenada When It’s Safe to Travel Again
Is Ensenada, Baja California, on your food travel bucket list yet?
You may have come across the name Baja California when ordering your fish tacos or planning a cruise. You may have heard of Baja because of the bustling resort town Cabo San Lucas or spring break hot spot Rosarito. But what nobody tells you is that 1,000 miles north of Cabo (Baja is a very long peninsula) and a mere hour south of San Diego lies food and wine lovers’ paradise known as Ensenada.
This small and unassuming harbor town would likely be ignored by the outside world if it wasn’t for US cruise ship passengers stocking up on cheap prescription medicine.
Here’s something few visitors seem to recognize. Ensenada, together with the up-and-coming wine country of Valle de Guadalupe, is one of the most exciting off the beaten path food travel destinations we’ve discovered on our travels to date. We fell in love with its people, its endless ocean cliffs, its wine, and most importantly – its unrivaled food.
Baja is for true gastronomes at heart. The lovers of seafood straight off the boat. Those who appreciate good food rather than the insta-worthiness of a venue.
Baja is quaint and rough around the edges (in a most beautiful way, if you ask me). “To love — or even enjoy — Baja is to appreciate its oddities” writes Freda Moon. It’s not for everyone. But it certainly is for true gastronomes at heart. The lovers of seafood straight off the boat. Those who appreciate good food rather than the insta-worthiness of a venue. If that sounds like you – start planning your trip.
Best bit? When you visit Ensenada you’re bound to practice sustainable tourism. With virtually every business a mom and pop business, everywhere you sleep, eat and shop you will be not only boosting the local economy but also directly contributing to that very family’s wellbeing. Unless, of course, you arrive on a cruise ship, which you shouldn’t do for several reasons.
Here are 8 reasons Ensenada should be top of your food travel wish list for when it’s safe to travel again:
1. Ensenada Fish Tacos
If you love fish tacos then Ensenada should be your holy pilgrimage site. Not only is it the birthplace of the fish taco as we know it, but today the fish taco still reigns over the city. There is a fish taco cart on every other street corner (not exaggerating), and every local has their favorite.
I promise you, fish tacos just don’t taste the same outside of here. Sure, they have access to fresh fish, but so does Tijuana and San Diego, no? The devil is in the batter and in the toppings. Each cart will have their own twist to the original batter recipe and their own more or less elaborate salsa and toppings bar.
A detailed post on where to have the best fish tacos in town coming soon. But if I was to name just one cart to have a really good classic Ensenada-style fish taco it’d be Tacos Fenix on the corner of Calle Espinoza and Avenida Juarez. They are super no frills yet everything about the experience is just perfect in its simplicity. And at 17 pesos or $0.68 a pop it’ll pay for your road trip gas in savings…
If you love fish tacos then Ensenada should be your holy pilgrimage site.
Some people dispute the claim that Ensenada is the birthplace of fish tacos and argue that it may be San Felipe town on the other side of the peninsula. However, most local Spanish language evidence suggests it is in fact Ensenada.
What is known for sure is that San Felipe is home to the much loved US fish taco chain Rubio’s Coastal Grill. You may want to take a detour on your road trip and visit San Felipe as well. Listen to the fascinating Fish Taco episode of The Dish podcast here.
2. Street (Sea)food
Street food in Ensenada is en par with some of the best. That’s right, it’s not just any street food – it’s street seafood. If fried fish on a tortilla is not your thing then A. are you sure? 😉 and B. fear not because the second most popular thing served on the streets of Ensenada is mariscos. That is, fresh (often raw) seafood served in form of ceviches, cocteles, and on crispy tostadas.
You’d be charged top dollar for this quality of seafood in a US restaurant, just because they can. Here in Ensenada it’s simply fruit of the sea caught by hard working people, served to hard working people, in its purest form.
They are served straight off the street carts which is the second best thing to fresh off the boat. This is why you’ll see small crowds of people gathered around tiny hawker carts munching on almejas, oysters and shrimp cocktails as early as 10am in Ensenada. It really is the freshest catch. So leave your fears of street food at the hotel, find the biggest crowd and do as the locals do.
The hottest mariscos cart in town is Mariscos El Güero and it totally lives up to the hype. We did not expect to have seafood as fresh and sumptuous standing on a busy street corner eating with our fingers. Have you ever heard of chocolate clams? There will be shellfish in your mixed ceviche so bountiful you won’t even recognize some of it.
It really is the freshest catch so leave your fears of street food at the hotel, find the biggest crowd and do as the locals do.
You’d be charged top dollar for this amount and quality of seafood in a sit down US restaurant, just because they can. Here in Ensenada it’s simply fruit of the sea caught by hard working people, served to hard working people, in its purest form.
Other street carts to look for are Mariscos Yiyo’s (ask for smoked clams – almejas ahumadas!) and Mariscos el Zarape (ask for tostada especial).
If you like the sound of that sort of mariscos but would really feel much more comfortable eating it in a sit down atmosphere, you should try La Cevicheria Oyster Bar. Go around noon just before the lunch crowd arrives to ensure you get a seat at this coveted small venue. They also serve very good fish tacos with a twist and fab tempura oysters! Also note La Concheria seafood bar, another in-the-know local favorite.
You might also like: Where to eat in Rosarito, Baja California
3. Tostadas at La Guerrerense
These award winning tostadas deserve their own entry, even though tostadas elsewhere in town may be just as good. Señora Sabina Bandera is a local icon. She undoubtedly helped to carve out a place for Ensenada on the global food map. Indeed, Sabina’s humble street cart has been visited by the rich and famous. Another argument for you to ditch the fear of street food.
Anthony Bourdain visited for his episode of No Reservations and called this place “Le Bernardin-quality seafood in the street.” Predictably, this took Sabina’s fame to another level. So much so that she now has a brick and mortar restaurant (called simply Sabina) across the street, another location in Mexico City and a retail range of her famous salsas.
Anthony Bourdain visited for his episode of No Reservations and called this place “Le Bernardin-quality seafood in the street”.
Despite all that fame and glory, Sabina still operates her street cart in person and gracefully greets her customers. She’s a true darling as well as a great seafood chef and has been awarded accordingly. The award-winning creative tostadas are clearly marked on the menu. Those are more pricey, but the simplest ones like mixed ceviche or clams are equally delicious.
Go no later than noon for the best selection – some toppings run out quickly. Top tip: be sure to ask for avocado on top, it’s free but it’s optional.
If you’d rather have all that plus fish tacos at a comfortable indoor table, just head to the relatively new Sabina Restaurante across the street. Don’t miss the tacos with spicy chili shrimp, they were our favorite! They also serve cafe de olla. Tip: the brick and mortar location accepts card payments while the street cart is cash only.
4. Margarita at Hussong’s Cantina
These days I’m largely over margaritas and onto mezcal cocktails but in Ensenada I made an exception – the famed drink was created here! That’s right, the mighty margarita was born in humble Ensenada. Specifically at Hussong’s Cantina.
Legend goes that Margarita Henkel, the daughter of the German ambassador, came into the Hussong’s just as the barman was trying out a new mix of tequila, lime juice and Damiana liquor. The new concoction was received with such enthusiasm that it was christened the same day. It would soon conquer bars around the world.
Few things have changed at Hussong’s since that day, even though it is the oldest bar in Ensenada. Open in 1892, it was first an inn for stagecoaches and keeps that frontier vibe to this day. The bar is still bustling 130 years later, although today patrons mostly go for buckets of Tecate Light. Go in the evening for a full on party with live mariachi bands.
That’s right, the mighty margarita was born in humble Ensenada, and specifically at Hussong’s Cantina.
If you’d rather go to a more quiet place, try a margarita at another landmark bar of the city: Bar Al Andaluz. Located inside the former Hotel Playa y Casino, Al Andaluz also claims the honorable title of the margarita creator. In this case the story goes it was named after Margarita King, the owner of the hotel in the 1940s. You decide who serves up a better one!
If you can’t make it to Ensenada, there’s an outpost of Hussong’s in Las Vegas although as you can imagine the vibe is not nearly the same.
5. Gourmet Restaurants
Ensenada may be mostly about no frills street food and old school seafood restaurants, but it definitely doesn’t lack modern gourmet offering either.
Case in point – Manzanilla. Run by renowned chef Benito Molina and his wife Solange, this venue in the industrial harbor area shows off the best of Ensenada’s bounty. The short menu has an emphasis on local oysters, clams and abalone; accompanied by freshly-made bread and locally-sourced olive oil. Don’t miss the clams with grilled blue cheese.
The focal point of the restaurant is a huge wooden bar sourced from a 1930s Los Angeles speakeasy. The skilled bartender made me one of the best dirty martinis (with an oyster!) of my life – who knew.
In the nearby marina, right outside the famous Mercado Negro (where the fish taco was born), you will find another Ensenada gem – Muelle 3. Often described as the best restaurant in Esenada, this tiny and somehow still underrated venue doesn’t even have a website.
Their unpretentious menu features classics such as mixed ceviche, squid (pin pon), sashimi or oysters by the dozen, and creative delicacies like fish risotto Tres Pez. Assorted VDG wines and local artisanal beers available. The whole experience is 100% ensenadense! Top tip: the outdoor patio is dog friendly.
Ensenada may be mostly about no frills street food and old school seafood restaurants, but it definitely doesn’t lack modern gourmet offering.
Whether you decide to check out Manzanilla or Muelle 3 be sure to reserve in advance. Also note Barra Azul and Boules for a more gourmet experience.
6. Hearty Mexican Breakfast
While Ensenada proper may not have the best hotel infrastructure (most foreign visitors spend the night in their cruise ship cabin after all), it sure doesn’t lack venues dedicated to all-day Mexican breakfast. Book yourself a no-frills Airbnb or – for a full experience – stay at one of the surprisingly decent oh-so-Ensenadense ‘love motels’, and start your day with a heaping plate of hearty chilaquiles at one of the area’s many eggcellent (sorry, couldn’t resist…) breakfast joints.
The hottest spot in town is currently Casa Marcelo. Sit back in their hidden patio under a guava tree, relax and order a plate of their famed chilaquiles rojos or verdes topped with perfectly fried eggs and avocado. Or skip the eggs for a vegan-friendly version.
Then there are huevos divorciados and nopales omelette at El Buen Provecho, a very no frills mom & pop venue serving breakfast daily from 6am till 4pm. And Cafe Toya for chilaquiles and great coffee on a relaxed patio by the ocean.
There are also shrimp omelettes at El Parian and chilaquiles verdes at El Rey Sol, both local favorites especially on weekends. If you want to treat yourself to a fancier breakfast buffet in a charming setting, head to Hacienda San Angel. Their morning menu is very extensive and even features vegan omelette with mushroom chorizo!
A good local favorite for a strong morning cappuccino and simple fresh pastries is The Deli Loop (you can also get some work done there) and Hogaza Hogaza (3 locations).
Finally, check out Victor’s Restaurant, where you can have your eggs prepared in more than 20 different ways, many of those vegetarian or pescatarian.
Top tip: if you’d like to stay at a nicer hotel I recommend looking at accommodation options in the nearby Valle de Guadalupe which boasts several noteworthy eco-friendly boutique hotels and retreats.
7. Almejas Gratinadas
Giant clams loaded with fresh juicy shrimp, seasoned with white wine and grilled under a coat of cheese. Need I say more? I don’t know what makes those tasty morsels so uniquely Ensenada, but they’ll always remind me of our Baja roadtrip.
The best place to try them, and I can’t believe I’m advising you that, is La Bufadora blowhole and the infamous hawkers who will try to get you to buy all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs as well as street food of varying quality. Don’t give in and keep on walking – the almejas await you at the very end of the tourist walk of shame right before you get to the actual blowhole viewpoint.
If you’d like to enjoy them in a more formal setting, head to Mariscos Bahia De Ensenada on Avenida de Riveroll in the center of Ensenada, where you can also indulge in generous molcajete de mariscos (a special traditional stone pot loaded with fresh seafood).
I don’t know what makes almejas gratinadas so uniquely Ensenada, but they’ll always remind me of our Baja roadtrip.
If you can’t make it to Puerto Nuevo to try their famous lobster, you can have one here instead. There is also fresh catch of the day, octopus and squid prepared to your liking (we recommend either the simplest way with butter and garlic, or ‘estilo Veracruz’). Wash it all down with Tecate Light, like seemingly everyone else.
There is a myriad of decent sit-down seafood restaurants in Ensenada and we really struggled to choose the right one, but were satisfied with Mariscos Bahia, and we were the only non-locals there, always a good sign.
8. Craft Beer
Valle de Guadalupe provides some excellent wines to go with your seafood, but if wine is not your thing, Ensenada also boasts a good number of up and coming craft breweries. We heard that even beer lovers from San Diego take regular trips to Baja Norte’s breweries, and that’s very telling coming from one of the US top 3 craft beer cities!
Among the names that should be on your radar is Aguamala, described by some locals as “the happiest place on earth.” Craft beers, octopus tacos and tempura oysters in a beachside setting? I can see why! Mako Ale and Astillero IPA were our favorites.
Best positioned for spectacular sunsets is Wendlandt (there’s a town center location too which we haven’t been to), where aside from great beers made in-house you can also enjoy fresh shrimp ceviche, oysters, veggie tostadas, octopus quesadillas and to finish off – brownies with stout reduction!
Even beer lovers from San Diego take regular trips to Baja Norte’s breweries.
Another good sunset viewing spot is the patio of Transpeninsular Brewery. Try their Carretera 3 IPA or Kilometro 5.5. Milk Stout (tacos de gobernador make for a great beer snack!). Fans of Breaking Bad will appreciate the quaint Heisenberg Taproom and their unique honey ale Cuantica and decent stouts – Alma Negra and Fumata Negra.
Our favorite brewery, or rather a beer hall as they serve a curated selection of different local craft brews, is Alta Baja. If you can only visit one drink venue on your visit to Ensenada, make it this one – you can not only try a variety of Baja beers (plus a couple of Ballast Point signatures), but also Valle de Guadalupe wines from Bodegas de Santo Tomás winery located across the street.
Alta Baja also has a short but impressive food menu. Do yourself a favor and try their ceviche ecuatoriano, or ceviche Ecuadorian style, i.e. with peanut dressing. Hopefully it’s still on the menu. One of the top 3 ceviches we’ve ever tasted, and we had previously spent a month in Peru.
Tired of fish and seafood after a few days? For veggie comfort food that only locals seem to know about, make your way to Los Carbones on Calle Bucaneros for a baked potato with cheesy corn topping (ask for Papa Campirana). They have Wendlandt beer on tap to wash it down with.
For dessert or a morning treat, Pastelitos La Reyna are said to have the best sweet baked goods in town.