Dear Tostada, I'm Sorry
A journey through Baja to find tostada enlightenment
An octopus tostada on the beach at Popotla.
A year and a half ago, I insulted hundreds, possibly thousands of years of Mexican food heritage when I suggested the tostada was a sub-par invention. I needed an umbrella for all of the hate mail that rained down upon me.
First off, let’s say this. I love Mexican food and have a long history with it. I started traveling to Baja when I was 14. As a San Diego native, we’re weaned directly from the breast to the bottle of hot sauce. I love birria and menudo and Cotija cheese.
My derision of the tostada is pretty simple. It is one of the toughest foods in the world to eat. Attempt to bite it like a pizza, and tostada shrapnel cascades all over your person. Congratulations on your new tostada pants.
Try to eat it with a fork? Ever tried to eat a corn chip with a fork? Tostadas mock your silly utensil.
Plus, being flat as a CD (those were thin, flat discs that once played music), all of the awesome juices from the toppings would run off onto the plate. All that lovingly stewed meat juice, just wallowing and alone on a plate. And since the tostada shell is hard, it's not like you can dredge it through the orphan sauce, like you would Indian flatbread.
And so tostadas make me sad.
And unlike other hard-to-eat foods (crab legs come to mind), the tostada shell was intentionally left in this useless shape. Why wouldn’t you just fold the fried corn disc into an easier shape? Like the glorious side-vee of the taco, which is much easier to eat? Or at least fold the edges of the tostada so that it can contain the goodness of the toppings and not freely donate its juices of gold to the plate?
Leaving it flat was like doing laundry and deciding not to fold it. I called it the “half-ass laundry taco." Chef Chad White was gracious about the peculiar missive, painting "#HALFASSLAUNDRYTACO" on the wall of his restaurant's bathroom.
Two weeks ago, chef Flor Franco decided she needed to educate me. So she organized a trip as part of her food/drink/travel company, Indulge. With myself, a handful of chefs, food people and Baja lovers, we headed south in search of tostada enlightenment. They dubbed the journey “The Half-Ass Laundry Taco Tour.”
I felt honored. And ashamed. And skeptical. Read below for the gold we found.
FIRST STOP: LA OAXAQUEÑA @ MERCADO HIDALGO
Mercado Hidalgo is Tijuana’s permanent farmers market. There are chiles and moles and dried fruit of every kind. There’s what looks to be a plastic bottle of water, filled with mezcal. Here you can buy raw huitlacoche—the Mexican truffle, which looks like corn has a disease but tastes like Jesus. Our first tostada is from La Oaxaquena, the shell slathered with black bean in a sort of delicious glue, topped with shredded lettuce and sturdy chunks of chorizo. They make their tortillas with organic corn from Oaxaca. It’s got the thin, crispy texture of a flatbread like lavash or papadum. When plied with salsa, it’s excellent. Still, hard to eat. Hurumph.
SECOND STOP: POPOTLA FISHING VILLAGE
Just past the movie studio where they filmed The Titanic, we make a right on a dirt road down to Rosarito’s famed fishing village. While many tourists eat lobsters up the road at Puerto Nuevo (lobsters, most locals tell me, that are often flown in frozen from China), Popotla is where locals eat fresh seafood. Cars pull right onto the beach. An old VW Bug splashes through the shallow water. There are tables piled high with the day’s fresh catch—yellowtail, oysters, chocolate clams, lobsters, you name it. Literally boat-to-throat. One table is piled so high with vibrant, red sculpin that it looks like an apple cart.
Our liaison is Patty Villareal, who, along with her husband, operate Think Blu, which promotes sustainable seafood for Baja’s immense supply. Stands—plastic lawn chairs, tables, and outdoor kitchens covered by tarps and tents—feed the locals who come to play in the waves. We sit down at La Reina de la Playa for tostadas, literally on the edge of the water, gazing out at the wet horizon. Both are piled high with fresh ceviche. Looking at the mound of incredibly fresh, raw seafood—including excellent Baja octopus—I have a tostada epiphany. There is no way a taco could take this load. The taco’s thin middle severely limits abundance. A-ha! Tostadas are how you put an entire meal on a fried tortilla. Still, it’s hard to eat and the juice from the excellent ceviche escapes onto the plate and makes me sad.
THIRD STOP: MANZANILLA
When I wrote San Diego Magazine’s story on the Baja food and drink scene (and how incredibly, incredibly hot it is among food lovers these days), I was just learning about the culture. I was trying to not miss any of the major chefs and/or food and wine people. But inevitably, every story has its holes or every story would be as long as Ulysses. I nearly missed interviewing chefs Benito Molina and Solange Muris—the husband-and-wife chef team behind Manzanilla in Ensenada. It would’ve been a grave mistake, since these two are one of the first to create high-end food using the world-class seafood and produce found in Baja. Their restaurant is right next to the Ensenada port, and it's awesomely kitschy with art and sustainable building materials. It’s lovely and hip, masculine and feminine, arty and not pretentious. A place easily loved.
And Solange’s tostada—the corn round oven-baked so that it has crispy, charred edges and a softly crunchy interior—is the best thing we eat all day. Unsurprisingly. She’s quickly seared local abalone, and covered it with chipotle crema and spiked it with cilantro. It’s divine. There is a reason why this has been named by multiple sources as one of the best restaurants on the planet. I look at their menu. An eight-course tasting dinner, with wine pairings from nearby Valle de Guadalupe, is less than $100. I’ll be back.
FOURTH STOP: HUSSONG'S
There are no tostadas here. It is where the margarita was invented. Though culinary tourists, we're still tourists. There is a mariachi band. We dance, some of us badly.
FOURTH STOP: CERVECERIA WENDLANDT
This is where Ensenada does craft beer. And it is righteous.
I have seen the tostada light. It is a crispy Mexican pizza of sorts—an edible Frisbee of glee. Its flatness, while a real pain in the ass to eat, serves its utility. And that is to accommodate a heaping of delicious food. It is essentially a taco of plenty. Do I still maintain that a mere curling of the edges of the corn crisp would better serve humanity and keep all those juices contained for the full ride? You bet. But I’ll gladly get it all over my person when it’s this good.