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Laja at 14

Restaurante Laja, in Valle de Guadalupe, opened 14 years ago I beleive. My wife and I were staying at a nearby B&B in 2003 and heard a couple of other guests talking about some exceptional dinners they had there. There weren't many dining options (and few paved roads) at that time so we took the suggestions of the other guests and braved a rather harrowing nighttime drive in a serious downpour, wondering what could be worth getting stuck on a muddy road. We were rewarded with a great meal and have been returning regularly.

Valle de Guadalupe has grown considerably in recent years. Now there are several small hotels, a number of restaurants and dozens of new and continuously improving wineries. There are even a few paved roads that make getting around a bit easier (although it is impossible to avoid some driving on rough dirt).

This past weekend while attending the ultimate celebration of the 2014 Vendemia, the Concurso de Paellas (we have been fortunate to go to this event for 15 consecutive years), we dined at Deckman’s (a great first experience) and Latitud 32 (remarkable grilled octopus). The highlight, however, was Laja. In fact, this most recent meal may have been the best meal we have eaten at Laja.

The presentation, personnel and food are consistently good. The formula doesn't vary much, which might bore some but as long as the quality remains exceptionally high after 14 years in business, I have only praise for Jair Tellez, Andres Blanco and their team. Andres is a warm and gracious host and two of the staff, Jorge and Francisco, are similarly kind and attentive.

A few years ago, we convinced two well-traveled friends from the East Coast to join us for a long-weekend in Baja California. They were flying home from a party in Maui and stopped in San Diego where we picked them up. They had recently eaten at Thomas Keller’s restaurant, Per Se, in New York City. We assumed they would like Laja but did not expect them to describe their experience there as better than Per Se. They were, however, emphatic that it was equally as good as and probably better than Per Se. I have had the pleasure of eating at Bouchon in Yountville but haven’t eaten at the French Laundry or Per Se. I think it unlikely Laja is in the same orbit as these two restaurants but can’t deny the enthusiasm of our friends’ assertion that Laja was superior.

Regardless, Laja, like the Valle de Guadalupe, is going strong and likely to keep doing so. In spite of other notable dining options now available (Finca Altozano, Corrazon de Tierra, La Terrase San Ramon, Deckman's, maybe Latitud 32 and Sylvestre...) Laja is the best the Valley has to offer.

Aug 19, 2014
Ringo Gato in Mexico

A few days in and around Beirut - Great Food & WIne

Just back from a trip that included several days in and around Beirut with many memorable meals and enjoyable wines. Restaurants ranged from a casual breakfast with artful coffee at Cafe Diem (Achrafieh, Petro Trad Street, Sodeco, N* 8 Building;, typical Mezze (Kahwet Leila in the Gemmayze neighborhood), Armenian at well-known Mayrig (282 Pasteur Street; and seafood salads St. Elmo’s Brasserie on Zaitunay Bay.

The highlight meal was at L’Humeur du Chef (in the Achrafiyeh neighborhood on Mar Mkhael St., [Azirian Bldg., Ground Floor; phone 01565495] no website). A set menu ($60 per person, plus wine) featured endive salad, crevettes grilles (very large and tender grilled shrimp), Bar Gros Sel (sea bass, encased in a crust of sea salt and roasted) and, for dessert, delicious, rich brownies that tasted homemade. The affable chef and his staff made the small, contemporary restaurant feel welcoming and homey. He poured a bottle of 2004 Chateau Khoury, Symphonie, (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and syrah) that has aged well in the bottle.
Speaking of wine, we did manage to visit a couple of wineries in the beautiful Bekaa Valley. Chateau Kasara is a relatively large, long established winery that, unlike most, was open on Sunday. Another, Cave Kourunm, was technically not open but we were given a tour and tasting in spite of it being Sunday.

Lastly, we visited Byblos, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world (8,000 to 10,000 years). Bab El Mina is a lovely restaurant overlooking the marina and Mediterranean Sea. The grilled octopus was excellent and went well with 2011 Chateau Musar Cuvée (cinsault, carignan, cabernet and syrah).

St. Vincent's Court

Earlier this spring, I understand the city of Los Angeles disallowed sidewalk dining on St. Vincent's Court. Just out of curiosity, is this still the case?

Dec 18, 2013
Ringo Gato in Los Angeles Area

But is it Mexican?

I dined at Laja about 10 days ago, on the Friday of the last weekend of the Vendimia. We were a party of 11 and there were several other large parties dining as well.

I have eaten at Laja a few times per year for over 10 years and it is as good as it ever was. One complaint a few of my dining partners have made is the predictability of the main dishes: fish (more often than not, sea bass) and meat (usually lamb or pork, maybe beef). They are always quite good but the surrounding dishes are the stars; almost always innovative and often surprising. The gazpacho with sea urchin was particularly memorable on this particular visit..

Maitre'd and winemaker, Andres Blanco has his own wine label, Moebius, but he also makes wines for others. We had a wine paired dinner featuring two of his excellent wines from a Tecate, Baja California winery (whose name I regrettably have forgotten). We returned to the restaurant the following day just to buy a bottle of the Tecate-based wine to take to dinner at a friend's house. At 5 PM the parking lot was packed, the restaurant was filled and there were even people seated outside, eating, drinking and smoking cigars.

There are other places to try and this weekend we are having lunch at Finca Altazano (Javier Plascencia's summer restaurant near Laja) and the dependably fabulous Corazón de Tierra.

Aug 26, 2013
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Kärlekens Trädgård: The Viking Bread Reconquista in El Porvenir, Valle de Guadalupe, Ensenada, Baja

We paid a visit to Kärlekens Trädgård in El Porvenir last weekend (on the way to Fiestas de los Vinedos en Flor at Viñedo Las Nubes; a great event, by the way). Caroline Garcia is charming and her breads are outstanding. We did not get to meet her husband, Jaime, but she described his passion for baking. She told us she and her husband met in Los Angeles and lived for a number of years in Sweden. El Porvenir seems like an unlikely next stop but, then again, why not?

May 27, 2013
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Kärlekens Trädgård: The Viking Bread Reconquista in El Porvenir, Valle de Guadalupe, Ensenada, Baja

I will be in El Porvenir May 18 (for Viñedos en Flor at Viñedo Las Nubes) and this sounds like a perfect place to make a stop. Thanks for posting!

May 17, 2013
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Corazon de Tierra

This is the restaurant at La Villa del Valle. Designed by Alejandro D'Acosta, noted green-architect (and brother of winemaker Hugo D'Acosta, [Casa de Piedra and Paralelo] founder of the Guadalupe Valley wine school [la Esculeta]).

The hotel and restaurant are a bit off the beaten path, on a two mile dirt road off Hwy 3 or a shorter dirt road that is poorly marked, such that I ended up in someone's front yard where the residents were burning tires and trash.

The restaurant and hotel are certainly worth the effort. Great food, some grown on the grounds. They were even giving a try to small scale aquaculture to have freshwater fish.

There is a good winery on site too and Alejandro has inverted ship hulls to serve as the roofs over the wine cellars.

I am going down next weekend for Viñedos en Flor.

May 10, 2013
Ringo Gato in Mexico

High Tea in Minneapolis?

I am hoping to take an 80-something aunt to tea in Minneapolis or Bloomington next week. Do you have any suggestions?

Semilla X 2

The Catacombs were closed so we headed back to our hotel, taking Rue de Seine and lucking out by coming to Semilla as it opened for lunch. We had no reservations and the restaurant filled quickly with those who had planned to be there but they had a table available. We made selections from the fixed price lunch menu (€26) which featured two main selections, veal shank with potatoes (served in a skillet) or a quickly seared white fish. Both were outstanding. The three entrées that preceded the main dishes were light, innovative and delicious, particularly a squash soup. We intended to sample different restaurants on the four days we spent in the city but enjoyed our lunch so much that we made reservations for dinner the following night. Dinner had an à la carte menu rather than fixed price. Sesame grilled mushrooms, lamb stew… suffice to say we had no regrets returning. A varied wine list, friendly, welcoming staff and contemporary space compliment the excellent food.

Nov 30, 2012
Ringo Gato in France

NYer looking for a nice dinner for one in Manhattan Beach this week

Strandhouse, at the foot of the Manhattan Beach Pier, or Cafe Pierre, just up the street on Manhattan Beach Blvd. may also be worth considering. Both are near the aforementioned MB Post.

Aug 27, 2012
Ringo Gato in Los Angeles Area

La Querencia, La Espandana & Mision 19 in Tijuana (Very long review)

I went round-and-round with Border agents regarding whether there was a way to bring more than one liter every 30 days. The San Ysidro and Otay Mesa agents said “No.” They even enforced the rule on my daughter’s boyfriend who has a UK passport. 1 liter for him as well.

Finally, I got a letter from the Trade Enforcement Unit of the California Alcohol Beverage Control who referred to Rule 8 of the California Code or Regulations, Title 4, which defines “common carrier.” I had asked about buses and the scheduled (if infrequent) train service to and from Campo, CA and Tecate, BC. His response follows: “In particular, subsection (a) should address your issue. I assume that the train in question (from Tecate, Mexico to San Diego County, California) falls under this definition. If so, then you can bring in up to five cases (approximately 60 liters) of alcoholic beverages with you aboard this train. Keep in mind that the alcohol must be for personal use and not for any commercial purpose (such as trade samples or for sale). A commercial bus line that travels between Mexico and the United States is also a “common carrier” if it falls within the definition in Rule 8.

I have also been told by winemaker, Pau Pijoan of Vinedos Pijoan, that there are indeed taxis that can cross the border and are licensed to take alcohol. He claims he has done it himself when taking wine to events in San Diego.

That being said, it is still too much of a pain. Maybe a cruise ship from Ensenada to LA is the way to go, except for the cruise.

Jul 06, 2012
Ringo Gato in Mexico

La Querencia, La Espandana & Mision 19 in Tijuana (Very long review)

I tasted L.A. Cetto wines in Tijuana recently and was told they are being sold currently at Costco in Chula Vista (San Diego) as well as a few other locations in San Diego. They are also sold in Los Angeles at San Antonio Winery; I just bought several bottles at very reasonable prices; it is a limited selection. Vinedos Malagon (which has wines that I believe are far better than Monte Xanic or L.A. Cetto) are sold at a few California locations including at least two in Orange County. (The owners live in San Clemente, California).

Jul 05, 2012
Ringo Gato in Mexico

La Querencia, La Espandana & Mision 19 in Tijuana (Very long review)

A bus or taxi could work as passengers on so-called common carriers are allowed to bring something on the order of 150 liters per year. Only some taxis are able to cross the border. Considering the time it takes to cross, the taxi fee could be terribly expensive.

Greyhound, however, has a no alcohol policy on all buses in North America, whether in carry-on or checked luggage. If you have alcohol, Greyhound can seize it. I know there are other bus services but I have yet to get a straight answer from any other than the "No alcohol," from Greyhound.

Jul 05, 2012
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Tijuana breakfast

Barbacoa La Ermita does have good, well, babacoa. It is certainly a unique experience. Where else can you eat that, during the rest of the week, is someone's driveway and front yard?

If you get there in the late morning and spend some time walking around afterwards, you can go to Tacos Salceados, which opens at noon. Pretty hard to beat their unique style of tacos. But then you need to save room for dinner...

Jun 14, 2012
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Tijuana breakfast

I second La Espadana. If you are staying at one of the hotels relatively near Mision 19, you'll be near the Gastonomic District. La Espadana is in the heart of the District. Their cafe de olla (coffee with cinnamon) is a treat. The quality of the food is generally good all around. Be prepared to wait as it is a busy place, especially on weekends.

There are other delights in the city from street food (breakfast burritos) to high end. I recently stayed at Hotel Lucerna (an easy walk to Mision 19) and the Sunday brunch was quite good, with all the usual suspects and some surprises like octopus salad (insanely good).

May 31, 2012
Ringo Gato in Mexico

La Mirada, La Habra, East Whittier???

I find myself in unfamiliar territory on occasion and little on this board that relates to these areas, perhaps for good reason.

Anything worth considering, particularly for lunch?

Imperial Hwy at Beach Blvd is a good starting point.

Mar 31, 2012
Ringo Gato in Los Angeles Area

Food and Wine Magazine features Streetgourmetla in Tijuana

My wife handed me the April 2012 copy of Food and Wine, newly arrived in today's mail, opened to a photo of a someone familiar name to Chowhound pages: Streetgourmetla (Bill Esparza).

Congratulations on a flattering article and on keeping our eyes on great places in Baja California, mainland Mexico (and Bogota, Brasil and, of course, Los Angeles).

Mar 10, 2012
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Recommendations in Colombia

Correct. The cost of the items I was referring to is 25,000 pesos, not 250,000. My bad.

BevMo 5 cent sale Feb 2012- anything worthwhile?

I have found some everyday wines in the past at BevMo's occasional 5 cent sales. If you have any recommendations from the current sale, I would like to know.

Feb 11, 2012
Ringo Gato in Wine

Dine LA Jan/Feb 2012 Reviews

We had a great dinner at the Strand House in Manhattan Beach. Great space (perfect for sunsets). Crazy good soup (squash and chestnut with duck) and hamachi crudo (raw fish and buttery avacado- a combo that is hard to beat). Main courses of perfectly cooked (rare) and creatively seasoned hanger steak and flash seared branzino. Desserts were good but the apps and main courses plus the beautiful space and location (especially considering the dive-bar that had been there before) make the $34 charge well worth it. We'll go back and happily pay prevailing charges.

Jan 27, 2012
Ringo Gato in Los Angeles Area

Recommendations in Colombia

One more suggestion that is rather improbable. If you are staying in historic, walled Cartegena, then it is unlikely you will venture into Bocagrande unless you want to go to the beach. If, however, you happen visit Bocagrande or your hotel is there (it is only a few minutes by taxi to Cartegena proper), you might look for Isabella’s Coffee (which I believe is on the corner of Carrera 2 at Calle 7 [San Martin]). We went there looking for tea as the nearby Juan Valdez Coffee shop had only coffee. (Bogota branches of Juan Valdez have tea). Isabella’s serves some serious looking desserts and café food including ceviche. In any case, while waiting for the tea we noticed something interesting being prepared. It turned out to be carpaccio. We decided to try it as well as octopus carpaccio. The beef was sliced a little thicker than what I am used to but was otherwise excellent. The octopus was reasonably tender and tasty as well. I think the total cost for the two plates was 250,000 pesos (about $12-13US) and the servings were generous. I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to find Isabella’s as we were told the carpaccio was a special menu item that day. But if you are in Bocagrande (and you like carpaccio and raw seafood) it is worth stopping by to see if it is on the menu.

Recommendations in Colombia

My wife and I just returned from Bogotá and Cartegena. We had a memorable meal at the oft recommended Andrés D.C., the Bogotá location of Andrés Carne de Res in Zona T or Zona Rosa neighborhood. Great steaks in a night club/carnival atmosphere. We had a good Italian meal in the charming Usaquén area at Restaurante Il Pomodoro (Calle 117, No. 6-09) and ate at another Usaquén restaurant whose name escapes me. Usaquén is full of interesting shops and what appear to be unique restaurants that may be worth sampling but we didn’t have enough time. In La Candelaria we dined at a restaurant just down the street from our hotel (Hotel de la Opera), El Son de los Grillos (Calle 10, No. 3-60) where the ajiaco (soup) was served creamed and it was quite good. Hotel de la Opera has a notable restaurant as well, Restaurante El Mirador. A local resident advised us to visit Bogotá’s Zona G (Av. Chile) which is reputed to be an emerging gastronomic district but we never made it.

In Cartegena, we liked the live music, food and dining on the balcony overlooking Plaza Bolivar at Monte Sacro. The ceviche and other mixed seafood dishes were good and the whole fired fish with arroz de coco (coastal specialties we tried at a few other restaurants as well) were excellent. We had one mediocre meal at a restaurant I have purposefully blotted from my memory but also ate fine meals at some hole-in-the-wall places; it is hard to go wrong with seafood in Cartegena. There are also dozens of great spots to people watch, have a drink and watch the street performers.

Alamitos Bay Marina Eats and Drinks

McKenna's on the Bay is on Alamitos Bay. The food is reasonably good and certainly better than the Crab Pot or other nearby restaurants. I think you can get by with $40 per person but you may want to hunt down their menu to make sure of the cost.

Dec 12, 2011
Ringo Gato in Los Angeles Area

Visiting KL soon- recommendations near my hotels

When you return to KL, you may want to consider a new addition to Heritage Row, Cungdinh relocated from another area to Jalan Doraisamy two weeks ago. It is an upscale restaurant with a bar / night club (Saigon 2). I only sampled a few items. The beef and coconut stew is outstanding, It is served in a coconut shell so the spoon meat can be scraped out, making the rich dish even more delicious.

I was there on Sunday night when the street was quiet so I had a chance to talk to the owner, Van, who is a charming hostess.

Ground Floor, 36-38-40
Heritage Row, Jalan Doraisamy

Visiting KL soon- recommendations near my hotels

Thank you so much for your recommendations. Staying in the Mid Valley area would have been a disaster without your suggestions as the malls are packed with fast food outlets. Little Penang and Belanga were quite good.

In downtown, Yut Key, was a great hole in the wall, and right by the Sheraton, as is Papparich. The whole experience at Yut Key was memorable and the food superb. Lot 10 in Bukit Bintang was wild and the fried pork won ton was crisper and had more pork in it that any I have eaten before.

I also went on an epic search for fresh Durians. Due to this weekend being a holiday, I was told the stands that normally sell them were closed. A long drive almost for nothing (the beautiful mountain station and tropical forest were worth it). I tried to find a stand in Brickfields that I heard sells them but it looks like that spot has become a construction site for a high rise, as much of KL seems to be. I finally found some in a market. Luckily it had just been cut and packaged. I was able to go outside, away from anyone who might not want to smell it, and enjoyed myself.

Laja versus Per Se?

Last week, my wife and I took two friends to Valle de Guadalupe. The friends had asked us to arrange the visit to coincide with their return home to the East Coast after a trip to Maui. Our friends are well traveled and live with a view of the New York City skyline from their hillside New Jersey home. They are rather serious when it comes to fine wine and dining. Before we crossed over the border, one friend mentioned their recent dining experience at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s restaurant. She reported that the food was excellent (in spite of what she said was a ridiculous price).

I have eaten many meals over the past several years at Laja and, in contrast to others on this board, have always found it quite good. We brought our friends there for dinner and the following day our friend made an unsolicited comment, comparing Laja to Per Se. She felt the food was equally good and added that the complete experience at Laja was more memorable than Per Se.
I have eaten at Bouchon in Napa Valley but never at Per Se, Ad Hoc or the French Laundry and I make no such comparison. However, I must admit that last week’s meal at Laja was fantastic. More surprising, neither chef Jair Tellez or Andres Blanco were at Laja that night, just the rest of their team members. Impressive.

We stayed at La Villa del Valle which has opened (unofficially) a new restaurant, designed by Alejandro D’Acosta, the brother of acclaimed wine maker Hugo D’Acosta. (He has also designed the wine cellar which is under construction and has to be seen to be believed). The restaurant may have a few bugs to work out but they have just hired up-and-coming chef Diego. Like Laja, this restaurant has organic gardens on site. Previously I believe dinner was only available to hotel guests but the new restaurant is a destination itself. It will have to prove itself as the two or three miles of dirt road between it and Highway 3 are a challenge at night. There is a shorter route off the El Tigre road but it is poorly signed and is not passable during the rainy season.

A plus for la Villa del Valle's restaurant is the price of their Vena Cava wine (made with grapes from their small but expanding vineyard and two of Hugo D'Acosta's vineyards); $25. That is the same price if you buy it from the hotel to take home.

Nov 04, 2011
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Visiting KL soon- recommendations near my hotels

I will be in KL soon to check out a business opportunity. I will be staying a few nights in the Mid-Valley area (Boulevard Hotel) and a few nights in central KL (Sheraton Imperial). I would like to find a few places near my hotels where I might get a good sample of the different kinds of food the city has to offer. Recommendations for anything from street food on up will do.

Baja Culinary Fest Oct 5-9, 2011

I was sitting in the dining room just off of the tapas bar so you probably walked by me more than a few times. I did hear people in the tapas bar speaking English. That may have been your party.

You wouldn't recognize me but I have seen you on TV (a food show of course). I have met Jair Tellez and should have recognized him too. The alcohol may have clouded some of my senses, but not my taste buds..

Oct 14, 2011
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Baja Culinary Fest Oct 5-9, 2011

My wife and I had the pleasure of celebrating our anniversary at Caesar's in Tijuana last Saturday night (Oct 8). The cocktail and wine-paired, eight course meal, part of the Baja Culinary Fest, was prepared by three notable chefs, Javier Plascencia, Pablo San Román and Juantxo Sánchez. In addition there were two cocktail mixologists and a sommelier.

The event started in earnest at about 8:30PM with a rum cocktail. Later, as courses were served there were two white wines (the first a bone-dry Sauvignon Blanc, the second a blend of Carignan Blanc [I didn’t know such existed] and macabbeo). Later came a palate-cleansing tequila and honey cocktail and then three red wines including one of my favorites, J.C. Bravo Carignan. Dinner concluded close to midnight.

Suffice to say the dishes were beautifully presented and the flavors and textures were a delight, with each dish seeming to outshine its predecessors. The first attached image shows a menu which may give you an idea of the night’s food and wine pairings. There were some gaps between courses that seemed a bit long but overall the pace was good considering the number of drinks and wine poured. Pauses gave us time to consider what we had just eaten and the impossible notion of trying to duplicate similar things at home.

After dinner, the second photo shows the chefs and drink specialists posing for photographs. The chef to the left is Javier Plascencia whose family operates Caesar’s, reputed to be the home of the salad of the same name. I have been there before and the salad, prepared table-side, is quite good but this night was for bold, new dishes.

I regret not having the time to get to other Baja Culinary Fest events as I am sure they were as well done as this.

Oct 10, 2011
Ringo Gato in Mexico

Where the Locals Eat: Huntington, Newport, Long Beach NEED RECCS

In Long Beach, the most authentic Mexican place is El Taco Loco #3. Hand made tortillas, great tacos ($1.25) and tortas, meat from parts of the cow you may not be used to eating (as well as pork, chicken and I think some goat too). If you want something other than tacos they have, mariscos, soups including pozole, a red salsa that is usually hot and smokey, even a fresh juice bar just like you'll see in Mexico,

If you order at the counter, meals are brought to you but simple orders (a few tacos, a torta) will be called out by number (listen for the order number in Spanish or you may miss it). A hole in the wall feel. Open late Fri and Sat (I think they stay open 24 hours those two days). It is next to a panaderia, El Sol, if you want some postres like tres leches or flan after your meal.

The neighborhood that El Taco Loco #3 is in is a bit sketchy. Someone may be selling knockoff DVDs and CDs in the parking lot or asking for spare change.

If this unsettles you, go to east Long Beach for a safe, very good but more Americanized meal at Enrique's. It is very popular. Be prepared to wait for a table. If you only want tacos, then this may mot be the place but the pork shank is excellent.

Sep 18, 2011
Ringo Gato in Los Angeles Area