BIG BIG Baja – 3 restaurants with below the border bites

After many years, I’m still thinking of one of the best lunches of my life in Baja California, Mexico, just outside Todos Santos at a restaurant called Jazamango by innovative creative Chef Javier Plascencia. Seated next to a lush garden, the restaurant offers up produce from a few feet away and seafood delights from the abundant and fruitful lands of Baja while the open outdoor kitchen infuses the food with a hint of firewood.

Right across from the restaurant Valle in Oceanside, California

While we adore LA’s Baja food scene which is one of the reasons we live here, San Diego County also has a burgeoning Baja restaurant scene – more than just tacos and craft beer. Here are 3 restaurants bringing inspirational Baja cuisine to California with below-the-border bites.

Firefly Eatery and Bar at The Dana on Mission Bay

One of the most surprising and mind-blowing meals we had in San Diego was at The Firefly on Mission Bay at our hotel The Dana where brand new Chef Omar Armas (who literally arrived just a few weeks before we came) showcased a multicourse Baja-inspired fine dining tasting menu with local California produce bringing me back to the flavors of Jazamango in Todos Santos and inspired by the chef’s own travels and expertise.  

Room views from The Dana in Mission Bay, San Diego

Armas’s impressive resume includes completing culinary school in Florence, Italy, and working all over the world – from Brazil, Macau, Spain, Mexico City, and Quintana Roo. His resume includes a Michelin-starred restaurant, several S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants recipients, and experience as a private chef. Currently, he is also the owner of Caliche Taqueria and Malia Brewery, both in Ensenada.  

As Firefly’s new Executive Chef, he is ready to bring a fun, coastal California menu with a Baja influence to the table. Although his vision for the restaurant focuses on the addition of many sharable, family-style dishes, he plans to keep the element of fine-dining included. He says that while he doesn’t see this style of service in San Diego often, it’s extremely popular within Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s wine country.  

Chef Omar also plans to bring more vegetarian and vegan options to the menu as well as more locally sourced ingredients. To Chef Omar, presentation is just as significant as flavor. 

“Initially, you eat with your eyes. The first impression is the most important. It’s like love at first sight.” – Chef Omar Armas

At Firefly Eatery and Bar, we dined at a circular fire pit in view of the pool and Mission Bay. The chef wowed us all evening beginning with duck prosciutto carpaccio with Baja farmed creamy goat cheese and apricot pearls. Grilled oysters came out like art infused with garlic goat butter with sea pearls and caviar. Next, we devoured scrumptious squash blossom tacos and charcoaled white cabbage with an amazing sauce made with celery root puree and cotija cheese. 

Our leisurely meal continued with a grand whole Ensenada Sheepheads Bass braised in white wine, fermented in seafood aioli, and doused with cherry tomatoes, colorful arugula blossom and dried seaweed. A French apple folded tartine hit the spot with a dallop of homemade vanilla ice cream. The entire meal felt too good to be true – like something we had not experienced in California in years.

Although Firefly Eatery and Bar features local microbrews, inventive cocktails, and a Happy Hour from 3 – 5 PM, the wine pairing was a stellar enhancement with our meal with wines from Valle de Guadalupe. To top our night off, a massive fireworks finale in the distance from Sea World ended our meal along with our favorite Mexican after-dinner drink, Licor 43 and Mezcal.

Dogs are also appreciated at Firefly as pooches who arrive to this popular spot also receive a filet mignon dog biscuit and fresh bowl of water. 

Besides the beautiful Marina Cove views with lush grounds and two heated pools, we could just kayak right off the marina steps from our hotel room. Another ultimate perk of family-friendly The Dana at Mission Bay is the ability to take the path on the property to the Firefly Eatery and Bar in mere minutes, so it was an easy hop to retire to bed satisfied from such a memorable meal.

Valle in Oceanside

Valle brings Valle de Guadalupe cuisine to California with smoked notes and charred components. This area just 90 minutes from the border is known for its wineries and cuisine.

A prix fixe menu curated by Chef and winemaker Roberto Alcocer (who owns Malva in Valle de Guadalupe) includes charcoal oven cooking and woodfire essence with California fresh ingredients. The newly-opened restaurant is stunningly designed, features wooden fixtures and natural elements, and sits on the bottom floor of the swanky new Mission Pacific Hotel across from the ocean and 2,000-foot-long fishing pier.

“I was enticed to come to Oceanside from Valle de Guadalupe and I am excited how everything is available due to the local San Diego farms,” shared Chef Alcocer.

The four-course sensory tasting menu is enhanced with exceptional wine pairings from Valle de Guadalupe plus a few surprises from Europe like a dessert wine and a port. The menu is designed for the curious eater who likes to explore new tastes with little creative surprises along the way like a mesquite coal-fired banana leaf-wrapped squash meant to be unraveled and placed in a tortilla, marinated charred cauliflower or a decadent dessert shaped like a flower with its pistil dipped in bee pollen. Try Rabbit Confit or Wagyu Picaña with Texas rosewood ranches picaña rub of ashes mole, leek confit in bone marrow, and caviar.

Guests may wish to start with agave-based (tequila or mezcal) cocktails like Loca with tequila, coconut liqueur, lavender syrup, and lemon.

After dinner, admire the restored (and relocated) Victorian bungalow home next door. You might recognize it from the movie Top Gun, where Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis turned up the heat before riding off into the sunset on a motorcycle. Presumably, a signature dessert experience will be possible inside to take you back to 1986 or at least to get you ready for Top Gun: Maverick to take flight in theaters on Memorial Day weekend. 

Casero Taqueria in Carlsbad

For brunch and great price points, continue on with the Baja theme at cactus laden beautiful Tulum-esque Casero Taqueria where if you sit in the back of the restaurant outside near the lengthy firepit, a beautiful hillside view amps the refreshing spicy Mezcal cocktail menu. Casero offers an outstanding breakfast burrito with soft scrambled layered eggs with citrus braised pork and a filling Baja Breakfast Bowl with chorizo, beans, and potatoes topped with sunnyside up eggs. Add some carnitas or shrimp tacos for good measure. 

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