Rick Bayless Calls Tijuana ‘One of the Great Food Cities of North America’

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Chef Rick Bayless outside the Sunset headquarters on Sunday. Photo: J. Barmann/Grub Street

Our cohorts in Chicago are used to following the comings and goings of hometown chef and first crowned Top Chef Master Rick Bayless, but we don't get to see too much of him out here in California. Bayless made an appearance yesterday at Sunset's Celebration Weekend in Menlo Park, and Grub Street San Francisco grabbed a few words with him to discuss any possible expansion plans he has for the West Coast, the meal he had at Manresa on Saturday, and where in Mexico he's been loving to eat lately. (Hint: The eighth season of his PBS show just wrapped, and as Grub Street Chi has already noted, it's entirely focused on the Baja peninsula.)

Do you get to San Francisco often?
In and out, here and there. I wish I could stay longer. Every time I come people say 'Where did you eat?' and sometimes I'm just here for a one day trip and I have to say, 'Well, nowhere.' But there are such phenomenal restaurants here. And last night, it wasn't so much in San Francisco but down here [on the S.F. Peninsula] we ate at Manresa. And that was really great.

Did you have a twenty-course extravaganza?
Well, we ordered the regular five-course menu. We didn't necessarily receive just the five. We started at 6:30 and ended at 11:30. It didn't come fast and furious, and I was glad for that. I was with a friend whom I hadn't seen in a long time so I'm glad we had a chance to chat. It was really, really lovely.

What was the best thing you ate?
There were some really wonderful touches here and there, and it's hard to single things out. But one thing that definitely stood out was one of the amuses. They called it a panna cotta, and it was savory and had this sort of gelee on top of it that was made from the juice from poaching Monterey Bay abalone. And the whole thing -- it tasted vaguely Japanese -- and it was ethereal. Just gorgeous. Every bite of it just, like, stopped me dead. I didn't want it to end.

Do you have a favorite taqueria in San Francisco or L.A. that you go back to when you're out here?
Unfortunately no. I can't say that I've had the time to explore. I'm usually plunked down for such a short time and if it's not easy-access to Union Square, I don't get there.

Do have any further expansion plans for Frontera Grill out here?
[Editor's Note: There is already a fast-casual Frontera Fresco in the basement of Macy's.]
Not now, no. I'm really hands-on, and our food is so based in our work with local farms. It would take me years to develop the same kind of rapport with local sources and stuff like that. So I've decided that I want to keep what I've got. We've got three places side-by-side, and we just opened up a place at the airport [Tortas Frontera at O'Hare's Terminal 1]. And we've found that's been really successful for us bucking all the stereotypes about what airport food should be.

If there were two places in Mexico that you'd say were your favorite places to travel and eat, what would they be?
Well, that's kind of tough, because it changes. We just finished shooting the latest season of the TV show, which is season eight, oddly enough -- we only ever thought we'd make one or two seasons. We shot the entire thing in Baja, top to bottom. We concentrated a lot in the south and a whole lot in the north. I have to say, in the north, there are just amazing chefs cooking amazing food, and if people knew it was there, people would just be flocking there. I have to say, and people always laugh out loud when I say this, but Tijuana is one of the great food cities of North America. Does anyone go there? No. Nobody thinks there's anything going on there. There's a young chef there named Javier Plascencia -- in fact there was a whole New York Times food section piece on him a few months ago. This guy is doing brilliant work. he has this new restaurant called Mission 19, and it's really good. He's so talented. That's not the only place he's got -- he's got a few. This is his flagship new thing, very modern. And it's in this LEED Gold certified building -- no one thinks this happens in Tijuana. It's beautiful, and it's in an area that's so sophisticated you can't imagine. And the market that's in downtown Tijuana is just spectacular. Tijuana has people from all over Mexico who have settled there, and that means that their market is different than other places. There's a cheese stall there that is without a doubt the best cheese stall in the country, and it has cheeses from all over Mexico, and it would just open your eyes to the variety and quality that's there. I encourage people to go. We did one whole show that's just looking at the taquerias in Tijuana. I used to be in the camp that thought that there's nothing that compares with the taquerias in Mexico City, that they're really at the top of their game. But now I'm sort of reconsidering that. I think the Tijuana taquerias are just amazing and there's more variety than there is in Mexico City. Also, there's 52 boutique wineries in the surrounding valleys. It's just amazing what's going on there.

As for a second place -- I mean the cuisine in Baja is different than anywhere else in Mexico. They're forging new territory. To quote one chef, 'They're not cooking with the pyramids on their backs.' They didn't grow up with that food, they're not trying to trace their history to the Aztecs. They're just doing their own thing. And yet, I love that other kind of cuisine, too. I'd send people to where the pyramids are. Central Mexico is where it's at. Mexico City is just a great eating town. And if you want to get really rooted in the indigenous cuisine you have to go to Oaxaca. There's sort of a triangle, between Mexico City, Veracruz, and Oaxaca, and if you use that as a guide, you'll get three different cuisines, and three sets of flavors, and yet there's a shared history that ties them together. Those are the three great cuisines of Mexico. Other people could argue with me endlessly about that.

This interesting thing came up when Sunset did their recent cookbook about how fish tacos likely first came about first when Japanese fishermen on Baja introduced tempura to Mexicans in the 1800s. I assume you know all about this.
Oh yeah, sure. Most people think that's the case. It may have even come later than that, though. Because a whole lot of Japanese fled during World War II, to northern Baja. You know that ten percent of the population of northern Mexico is Asian, and a good portion of them are Chinese who settled there in the 1880s. One of the great dishes of western Mexico is called pescado zarandeado and it's a whole butterflied fish grilled over a wood fire, and the marinade has soy sauce in it. And all those chefs use soy sauce over there. Every house has got soy sauce in it and if you ask them 'Why are you using soy sauce?' they just look at you kind of crazy.

We did a whole piece in the new season of the show about fish tacos. And really they come from Ensenada. And another peculiar ingredient that everyone in Ensenada puts in their fish taco batter is yellow ballpark mustard. It's really essential! We did a lot of testing. Some people put beer in the batter, some people put water. My favorite one is with just water, and it comes out beautifully.