Chef Eduardo Ríos and I will end up agreeing on many things, but our first agreement is a profound one: Tacos are our favorite food, and the pick of Baja food. We’re shooting the breeze after breakfast service at Ríos’ restaurant at the heart of Paradero Todos Santos. A new hotel built on the edge of a farming community amid the arid geological tumble of Baja California Sur.
It’s vacation enough for me to absorb the silent desert dotted with cacti, the glittering Pacific in the distance, the vault of blue sky above, and yet I’m even more captivated by the view from my stool. From the polished concrete bar that surrounds the restaurant’s open kitchen, I can see Ríos and his small team stoking wood-fired ovens, stoves. The silence is amicable, they’re sending out plates that reflect the artistry Ríos has acquired from time working in Mexico City at Enrique Olvera’s Pujol and from traveling in Hong Kong.
More than Mexican food
Under Ríos, classic Mexican dishes like burritos, tostadas, and, yes, tacos, emerge with subtle touches from China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. Consider shrimp tacos, marinated in soy and chile, cooked in the zarandeado style. This is grilled over an open flame, and served with togarashi and chile mayo. Every evening, they join hotel guests like me at the bar, where the mezcal list amplifies the siren song.
Now, though, it’s late morning, and Ríos is doing what any chef does between services—he’s tinkering. He mixes fresh clay to dab at hairline cracks in his Oaxacan comal. I’m loath to interrupt the work, but he asks me first.” What’s your favorite food?” I try to think of something sophisticated to level at the Pujol guy, but he saves me the pretense. “Mine is tacos,” he offers. “Oh my god, me too,” I say with relief. Because of course it’s tacos.
Having grown up on the Southern California coast, I’ve been eating tacos my entire life, especially the fish taco. That’s a Baja specialty that migrated north with Mexican families running restaurants and stands from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Is there any simpler masterpiece: a cut of fresh fish, battered and fried fast and hot, nestled into the embrace of a warm corn tortilla, with a mound of slaw, a pop of salsa, a counterpoint of sauces? A fish taco is a little sweet, a little salty, a little crunchy, a little creamy, and always messy.
The Taco in Baja
And while there’s some argument as to the fish taco’s exact origin story, there’s agreement that it began on this peninsula. It reaches south from California’s southern border to terminate 800 miles later at the dramatic capes of Cabo San Lucas. Whether you subscribe to the version that places the first fish taco in Ensenada on the Pacific or San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez. It doesn’t matter, because usually is agreed that Japanese fishermen in the region introduced tempura-style preparation to the Mexican form.
The idea caught on, and by the 1950s, the gospel of the Baja-style fish taco was spreading to workers and tourists alike. That means any trip to Baja California is potentially a fish taco pilgrimage, and while I could be very happy with any new iteration of taco that Ríos could dream up. I’m also instantly lured by Paradero’s taco tour, one of the hotel’s many offerings. When I mention it to Ríos, he says he’s already planning on going.
The nightlife in Baja
We begin at a landmark: Barracuda Cantina in the nearby surf enclave of Cerritos Beach. Bordered by blocks of condos, Barracuda hums under its thatch roofing. Bienvenidos—welcome—is painted on a faded blue surfboard.
At one end of the Cantina is owner Danny Sanchez’s taco truck; at the other, his tiki-esque cocktail bar, where fresh oranges, ready for juicing, are piled. Between is an open-air emporium of good vibes, dogs snoozing on the sand beneath blue-and-white-tiled tables. The taco truck sends forth lots of tacos—fish and shrimp grilled or battered and fried—along with ceviches, smoked fish quesadillas, and aguachiles. Sanchez strolls around with his infant daughter on his hip through the blend of Mexican locals, sun-bleached expats, and slack-jawed first-timers.
My final verdict
After a round of tacos and margaritas, we head up Federal Highway 19 to Todos Santos. We stop at a new joint on the edge of the town’s historic district along a dirt street, tiny Tiki Santos Bar. An open-air bamboo hut with a full bar and ceviche tostadas topped with fans of lightly oiled and spiced fresh avocado. After a round of iced Pacificos, we decamp into the buzzy heart of town for a stop at another landmark, Santo Chilote.
Here, stucco painted green and hung with small portraits surrounds the shaded patio. No mention that is along with painted, mural-style portraits of Saint Chile himself, a green pepper with a halo. The tacos are celestial, especially the coconut shrimp ones the place is known for. The shrimp set unadorned on its tortilla and brought to the table. The rest is up to the diner to build from a buffet cart of sauces, salsas, and chopped vegetables. At this rate, I realize, I can come to Santo Chilote every night and create a new taco. That notion dovetails exquisitely with this beautiful corner of a beautiful country.
Whether, I’m parked at the Paradero bar, hoping to be adopted into the kitchen family at Barracuda. Or maybe returning over and over to the taco joints of Todos Santos, Baja is a wellspring of my favorite food.
What did Ríos also say to me over the comal? That’s right: “Tacos are life.” I could not agree more.