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By Colleen Friesen
For Travel Writers' Tales

It's an easy mistake to make.

Judging by the typical Tex-Mex fare delivered by most restaurants, you might believe that Mexican food is comprised of tortillas, tomatoes and cilantro. Perhaps you'd go so far as to include guacamole, blobs of melty cheese and some lime-tarted margaritas on that list.

Maybe, like me, you believe that nobody travels to Mexico for the food. Instead, we make the trip for the culture, the beaches, the history, but certainly not for the food.

On a recent trip to Baja California Sur, all my preconceived notions of Mexican food were thrown out the window. Apparently, I'm in good company, because when celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel show "No Reservations" arrived on the Baja, he said, "Baja was a real education to me. I had no idea...I was shocked by how delicious the food was..."

When you're ready to make this discovery for yourself, I'd suggest starting with a little trip down a dusty road somewhere between Pescadero and Todos Santos until you see the sign for Carlito's Restaurant.

Carlito Cham grew up in a bi-cultural Chinese/Mexican home where both of his parents cooked. One stirred the wok while the other fired up the tortilla pan. Carlito embodies the resulting mix. He makes dreamy dishes like spiny lobster curry or crab-stuffed banana peppers in a panko-crust with a mango sauce, or cracked crab dripping in a stickily-superb sauce.

Back in Todo Santos head to La Casita. Chef Sergio Rivera honed his skills traveling the world as a private chef on a yacht. That international exposure shows up in his unique twists on Mexican classics. Smoked marlin rellenos, empanadas stuffed with sea bass, shrimp and scallops, baby back ribs slathered in a molasses-chipotle-raspberry glaze, ginger-jalepeno-mango sauced grouper, the list goes on and depends on the catch that day. Everything he serves is fresh, fiery and fabulous.

Or drive a little further north to La Paz and pull up to Buffalo Bar-B-Q. It sounds like some cheesy cowboy steakhouse, and though Chef Carlos Valdez definitely delivers on the beef, if you get a chance to try that day's catch of fresh octopus grilled over the mesquite fire? Take it. Then again, you might want something simple. Perhaps the wood-grilled shrimp burger dripping with Gouda, garlic mayo, grilled onions and tomato?

Walking into the high-ceilinged space with the smell from the mesquite fire, the high-energy sound from the roving mariachis, and the wide smile from Chef Carlos, you'll know you've discovered something wonderful. You just have to look around at the satisfied grins on the faces of the patrons to know you're right.

Another La Paz destination is Las Tres Virgines. Start by licking your way around the chile-crusted rim of the baby-orange martini. The tiny oranges are plucked from the courtyard tree and squeezed fresh. You might try the tuna tostada; a deconstructed assemblage of fatty tuna belly, ponzu sauce, kumquat and drizzles of sesame oil. Though the atmosphere is more sedate than Buffalo Bar-B-Q, the food still delivers the same fresh taste.

Of course, with all this restaurant-hopping, you're going to need a place to lay your weary head. If you want to indulge in something divinely decadent, I would suggest Rancho Pescadero. I loved my Crusoe-inspired room with the sliding doors out to a huge outdoor-covered deck overlooking the rolling sea and white sand.

They also win the prize for their standard morning delivery of coffee and fresh fruit. Piping hot coffee delivered in a basket with real cream wins my heart every time. I don't want to make the usual tepid stuff in my room and stir in little packets of tired chemical whitener.

If you'd rather stay in the little town of Todos Santos, I'd suggest the elegant simplicity of the rooms at Hotel Casa Tota, each built around the quiet calm of the inner courtyard pool. Plus, their breakfast menu will leave you stunned with choices and flavours.

Locally sourced and organically grown food is catching on everywhere. It is certainly not the exclusive domain of any one region.

But the lower Baja, with such an incredible growing climate and culinary geniuses, just might have the whole thing nailed.

It's time to book your trip to Mexico. For the food.

More Information:
Photos by Colleen Friesen
1. Carlito's Curried Spiny Lobster
2. Rancho Pescadero's Morning Coffee Delivery
3. Pelicans at Todos Santos
4. Hotel Casa Toto, Todos Santos
5. Street Scene, Todos Santos


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