Friday, April 19, 2013

Corazón de Tierra

One of the most amazing places I've eaten this year was in Baja California, in the Valle De Guadalupe, in an intimate garden restaurant called Corazón de Tierra, a restaurant that frequent Baja Bound foodie, Chuy Tovar, recommended. We had just done wine tasting at Vena Cava, the winery on the premises of the restaurant and the hotel Villa del Valle. The winery was an interesting space, with three different reclaimed fishing boats used as roofs.

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

The architecture of Vena Cava was interesting to say the least. It's built underneath a hilltop, creating its own man-made cave. Eileen & Phil Gregory, ex-Hollywood producer and artist/musician from Los Angeles/Europe are the owners of the adjacent Villa del Valle hotel, Vena Cava winery, and the restaurant Corazón de Tierra (with chef Diego Hernández).

 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Underneath a reclaimed fishing boat roof.

 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

All the wood here are recycled, reclaimed wood. So eco-friendly. So hipster. One step ahead. Never saw a winery that looked like this!

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

This is the entrance to Vena Cava and the bathroom is behind the people standing.
We had our very own private tour!

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

So lucky to get the whole winery to ourselves for our tour. Everyone who worked here spoke so highly of Phil and his vision for the winery. All the choices seem deliberate and thoughtful. 

After our wine tour, we bought a bottle of wine and headed over to the restaurant, Corazón de Tierra.

We weren't sure if we wanted to eat here or at Javier Plascencia's Finca Altozano but hunger took over and when we asked what the menu was, a server told us simply, "the garden" and we were immediately taken over by how fresh and beautiful and organic and awesome the garden was.

 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

The flowers and vegetables were in full bloom and bountiful. I was seriously jealous of this garden. I'm no horticulturist but I didn't know half the things thriving here.
 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Looking at the restaurant from the garden. I loved how the restaurant and garden were seamlessly woven together in this landscape. How perfect.
 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)
 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)
 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

From inside the restaurant now, looking out into the garden. We wanted to sit where those kids were, having front row seats to the garden but obviously it's not cool to kick out people who are already sitting there, especially children. So, we got our red faced bums over to the side so we could keep ourselves from creating a scene.

 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Some pictures of the decor inside the restaurant.

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Plus the chairs here were awesome. They were made with hand-woven textile from Chiapas. I wanted to take all of these chairs home with me.

I really wanted to take all this furniture home with me. I had to remind myself that I was not to act like an entitled foreigner, asking the price for everything as if it's even for sale.

 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Annabelle, containing her glee for what is about to happen.

 (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Dawn and I, right before we lost ourselves for a few hours in the gastronomic delight that was presented to us.

On to the food. The best part of this experience actually. The Pre-fixed meal was $65-68 USD and they use a higher exchange rate so it ended up being more like $68 USD (something to ask about before you commit, if that matters to you).

The amuse bouche was a smoked tuna with avo on a tostada. It was bite sized and the tuna tasted almost like a smoked jerky. The green powder reminded me of furikake but not sure. I want to know more about their preparation!

Cheese plate: Dicot and green beet flowers; fresh greens, and almonds decorate the Valle cheese (tasted like a medium hard farmer's cheese), and Asian mustard. This plate completely woke up our palate. There are so many herbs that I've never tasted before all on this plate. Like, what is green beet flowers or dicot? WTF.

Oyster flowers with Geoduck, avo, red seaweed, alfalfa, and a taquito. The taquito was okay. but the geoduck was refreshing and it went wonderfully with all these herbs. The oyster flowers tasted like oysters but we were sort of tipsy by then so we would have believed anything.
(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

If I could eat like this all the time, it would be a no brainer going low-carb! Minus the taquito, which I could live without.

  (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

The soup course was really interesting. It was Asian flavors all the way...well, almost.

   (photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

They poured a dashi soup over the other soup ingredients which included shiitake mushrooms, wakame seaweed, and CHICHARRON, beans, cilantro, mint, and coriander flower. Yes, chicharron with all these Asian flavors = AMAZING.

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

The Seabass, the catch of the day, was decorated with celeriac puree, winter purslane, green beans, and rapini flowers.

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Yup, I had to look up a few ingredients. So cool that there are things I've never eaten before right there in their garden!

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Next up we had the braised oxtail dish with swiss chard and beet plant. It reminded me of a really hearty meat stew shaped like a meatloaf. I can't say I was a fan of the texture but the flavors were powerful and deep. Like poetry.

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

By this time we were just being wild and erratic. We didn't finish our 2nd bottle but dinner was drawing to a close.

The palate cleanser (mint gelée, lemon and water) came at an opportune time to rinse out the fat from the oxtail dish so we could coat our mouths with even more creaminess.

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

Chocolate sorbet, pink beet cake and sauce with orange cream, flowers, apples, and some nuts. By this time we were a bit sloshed so not really taking too many notes.

(photo courtesy of Dawn Kim)

But it was obviously good. The entire meal was amazing. Even the oxtail that wasn't what I expected, was still actually really tasty. Chef Diego Hernandez is a genius and locavore's dream. He seems to rotate dishes frequently, based on the fact that I couldn't find the dishes we ate online anywhere (yet).

Next time I have to try a bit harder to pay attention or film all the dishes, not just some. Thanks to Annabelle Oh for taking extensive notes on the food and sharing it with me and Thanks to Dawn Kim for taking good photos as I ran out of batteries on my camera and my camera phone worked only when I was sober enough to take pictures. As I'm writing about this restaurant, I am just dreaming about the next time I can go back.

If you wanna go check out Baja California (esp Tijuana and Valle de Guadalupe), and you don't want to drive there like we did, Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA is hosting some tours with Club Tengo Hambre in conjunction with Jason Thomas Fritz (Tijuanalandia), and Antonio and Kristin Díaz de Sandi (Life and Food).

Another great resource is Dave Lieberman from the OC Weekly.

Corazon de Tierra 

Valle de Guadalupe, Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico

646 1568030

Endemico, Tacos, and a Police Chase

No one ever told me how distractingly beautiful the drive would be. I've asked around and people told me to take the "scenic" toll road or the Tecate HWY to get to Valle de Guadalupe, Baja California. Little did we know that once past the sketchy border rife with hitchhikers, the road would spread out before us and take us up and down these beautiful Big Sur-like cliffs.

The weather was perfect - one of those top down, driving along the coast kind of days. Too bad we were in a hard-top Honda Fit. The drive was sort of like driving down Pacific Coast Highway, but BETTER.

The roads cut across mountains like a knife through a piece of amazing Mexican cheese.

After some girl talk and catching up, we were on the 3 HWY and started seeing these tiny pods along the cliff. We knew we arrived at the Endemico Eco Lodge!

We drove up the sandy pavement, were let in by the friendly guard, and parked along the dirt path on the level of the lobby. This was no hotel. This was a retreat. This was camping with style. This was GLAMPING.

The art here was interesting. This black twisty thing that reminded me I should go to the bathroom was worth $30,000. I got yelled at for sitting on it and taking lewd pictures. Randomly, there would be these art pieces all over the premises. It was interesting to see something so iconic blending into the sandy, mountainous landscape.

We checked in and were driven to our pods. The first night, we had to separate since they didn't have a 4 ppl unit. Dawn and I got the honeymoon suite and Annabelle got one all to herself. It is possible to walk to the pods, which we did on our final night there, but it's definitely a trek/hike and not for the unfit.

The bar and restaurant at the lobby.
At the restaurant on the lobby level.

Each room is its own pod and they only have a few units that can hold 4 people (2 queen beds). Most are 1 king bed units and they dot the mountain in an almost camouflaged way. If it wasn't for the sparkle from the window you wouldn't be able to make it out so fast.


Each pod has its own balcony and a furnace and sitting area. Since Dawn and I were staying in the  honeymoon suite, it was further away from the other pods that are all connected with a walkway. Our suite had an amazing view of the vineyards. 


The modern industrial decor inside fell in line with their minimalist theme. Adorable. I never saw lightbulbs like this but when I instagrammed this pic, The Minty introduced me to The Drunken Crane. I'm going to buy myself one of these when I move into a bigger space.

View from our window inside the honeymoon suite.

We settled into our pods, had a drink, and went for a quick tour of the grounds and used our free drink tickets at the pool for some micheladas.

When we got restless and hungry, we asked our driver, Danny, where he usually eats. We wanted something simple, cheap, and didn't want to drive all the way to Ensenada for tacos. He told us there are a few taco stands on Franco Zarto hwy sort of where the hwy splits, except, just stay on Franco Zarto. 

We didn't have high expectations since we were saving up our money and expectations for our blow out meal at Corazon de Tierra but our hearts and minds were definitely open for adventure.

As we drove, we saw a really crowded taco stand and a few well-lit taco kiosks that dotted the hwy. We kept driving into the darkness until we saw one that had a small crowd but the crowd was definitely local, family-oriented, and the stand had some great veggie decorations. I spotted a woman making handmade tortillas so I pulled over. My friends and I sheepishly walked in, hungry but also trying not to startle/offend anyone since it looked like a small mom/pop taco shop that didn't necessarily cater to the tourist crowd.

We ordered the adobado and the carnitas and asked to sit next to a family since there was only one table. The only distinguishing sign that they had at their taco stand was their sign, "El Pariente" jumbled into their menu, which we saw after we had finished eating and telling the owners how awesome their tacos were. We wanted to eat more but we were on a mission to go taco hopping so we didn't want to overkill at the first spot. My friend Annabelle wanted some homemade tortillas to go so they threw that in for free. For $48 pesos which is around $4, we had 4 tacos and 3 handmade tortillas. The quality at "El Pariente" is noticeable. All their ingredients seem local and the salsas have a great kick to them. The handmade tortillas were one of the best I've had. Jin approved.

We were excited to see what else Baja had to offer so we drove back down to the first taco stand where we noticed a lot of people hanging about. This one may have had a sign but we didn't notice it. It's the taco stand across from the PEMEX gas station and diagonally across from the liquor store that is named... "Tecate" an actual branded beer. There are a lot of stores like that and it reminds me of Bolivia where stores just call themselves whatever they want, usually a well-known brand name. It's probably not sanctioned by the brand but I'm sure they could care less.

Anyway, we walk into this taco shop and it's filled with Californians. At first we thought it was going to be great but soon after talking to a few people waiting in line, we realized they were missionary kids and this taco shop is probably the closest to their stationed church.


We got a torta and an adobado and carnitas to compare it to El Pariente and quickly noticed that their ingredients were not legit. No handmade tortillas here and the bread was way too thick to be any good for a torta. I compare all tortas to Wash Mobile's torta in Tijuana and I'm probably ruined now forever because of it but anyway, all in all this place was not impressive and we were full by this point so we decided to go across the street to get some beer at "Tecate" and wash it all down since this taco stand nor the one before sold any beers.

After we got the beers and we walked out from the liquor store (we couldn't go in since the owner barred it up and just sold goods through the hole), a white truck parked right next to us and the drivers looked super freaked out. When we got into our cars, we saw a police car drive behind us to lock us both into our parking spots. They must have noticed three Asian girls who had nothing to do with anything since they sort of moved so we had room to back out and get out of the way. After we moved, the white truck backed out too, swung around, and sped along the highway. The police car and two other police cars came out of nowhere and a police chase ensued. The three of us were suddenly freaked out thinking that we could have been in the middle of a police chase. Annabelle mentioned that there was another car involved that highbeamed the car next to us to signal something or other and got away. I wonder if they got away because of us.

Back at the hotel, we were telling everyone about our car chase debacle but no one really seemed that shocked about it. One guy even joked and said that usually happens on a Saturday, not a Sunday. The next day, someone at the wineries reassured that it was probably a drunk driver or something like that since it's a really safe area. All we knew was that both parties moved out of the way for us to get out of that situation before they started chasing each other so the best thing I can say is that they tried not to involve us in something when clearly, we were just trying to get some beers.

Taco stands should sell beers.

Ctra. Tecate-Ensenada, km 75
Valle de Guadalupe
Ensenada, Baja California