Category Archives: Mexico

Going With My Gut in Nogales, Arizona

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Great, affordable Mexican seafood at Cocina La Ley in Nogales, Arizona

Before I hit a new town or city on a road trip, I usually do considerable online research on the best places to eat. But sometimes it’s best to just wing it.

Such is the case when we approach Nogales, a city of 20,000 on the Arizona-Mexico border south of Tucson. The critters in the car are hungry, and Nogales is only five minutes away.

Just time for a quick “best restaurants in Nogales” search on TripAdvisor. Up pops Cocina La Ley, where one reviewer said he was the only gringo in the place. Perfect.

So off a main street we turn onto a little gravel road past an auto body shop to a little slope-roofed concrete building, with a bunch of cars around it. Double perfect.

Inside, we join the fast-moving lunch line and order mainly shrimp and breaded fish tacos, for about $2 apiece; the place is also noted for its shrimp-laden cocteles (cocktails) and soups. No sooner do we take our seats at a table, than the food arrives on Styrofoam plates. We adorn our little tacos with toppings such as pico de gallo and squirts from bottles, ranging from mild to searing, and dig into our excellent fare.

 

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Delicious seafood tacos

Seeing our plates quickly cleaned, our sharp-eyed server/table cleaner orders us a few more tacos, which again appear out of nowhere. We hardly have time to soak in the busy atmosphere of local families enjoying their meals.

So, thanks to TripAdvisor for leading us to a wonderful, inexpensive lunch. But don’t take every review seriously. “This isn’t a place for ambience,” one visitor commented. Au contraire. The place is dripping with it.

Cocina La Ley
226 West 3 Street, Nogales, Arizona
Daily 8 am-4 pm
520-287-4555

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Great Saturday Market in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

Ring of tostadas at Las Cazuelas del Don at the weekly market in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

Ring of tostadas at Las Cazuelas del Don at the weekly market in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico

The organic market in San Jose del Cabo is held on Saturdays, in an open field, down a rough dirt road northeast of downtown (it’s not far from the Mexican resort of Cabo san Lucas). It attracts a mix of locals and laid-back tourists, who casually peruse produce, hand-crafted jewelry, lotions and clothing. You know, something to fill the stalls between the important stuff: the fresh meals.

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Escape the Tourist Hordes in Charming Todos Santos, Mexico

Excellent seafood fare at Bahia Restaurant & Bar in Todos Santos, Mexico

Excellent seafood fare at Bahia Restaurant & Bar in Todos Santos, Mexico

Tired of the tourist hordes, traffic jams and general clamour of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico? Just head an hour north, on excellent Highway 19, up the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula. Stop first for a long, sandy stroll at Cerritos Beach, where you can watch surfers and families frolic in the waves. Then continue north a little ways to Todos Santos, a true oasis in the otherwise parched landscape.

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Cabo Taco: Great, Unpretentious Mexican Fare

Good, no-frills fare at Tacos Gardenias in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Good, no-frills fare at Tacos Gardenias in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

The problem with many restaurants in Mexican resorts is they try too hard to tart up basic street food. When all you want is good, simple food, expertly prepared, for a handful of pesos. Welcome to Tacos Gardenias, an unpretentious taqueria a couple of blocks from Cabo San Lucas’s main, Medano Beach.

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My Best Road-Trip Meals and Drinks of 2014

This simple but superb BLT at Magpie Cafe in Sacramento, California was one of the best sandwiches I ate in 2014

This simple but superb BLT at Magpie Cafe in Sacramento, California was one of the best sandwiches I ate in 2014

Two themes dominated my 2014 road-trip eating adventures in western North America. One was the preponderance of top-end chefs setting up shop in food trucks and churning out imaginative, excellent and most affordable fare (maybe the release of the fun movie Chef is an instance of art imitating life).

The other theme is how geographically diverse these winners are. Yes, the ethnic cauldron of Los Angeles produced many of my top choices. But so did unheralded southern Washington; take a bow Walla Walla and Tri-Cities. So did a lot of places not considered culinary hotbeds. I’m thinking of you Logan, Utah, Idaho Falls and Salmon (both in Idaho), and Mayne Island, a tiny place in B.C.’s Gulf Islands.

Best Breakfasts

Restaurant breakfasts are often the least healthy meal of the day. The holy pairing of grease and carbs bring together eggs cooked in butter, fat-laced bacon, oily hash browns and yet more butter smeared on a whack of toast. Alternatively, you can toss a pound of gluey, syrup-drenched pancakes down the hatch.

Waffles are pretty traditional but certainly enticing looking

Waffles are pretty traditional, but this one is certainly enticing

So it’s nice to see more eateries throwing a healthier curve at the morning equation. Heck, when well done, it can even taste better than the old comfort fare, without the post-meal need to curl up in the fetal position.

Lotus Cafe is a treasure in touristy Jackson, Wyoming. Where it really shines is its imaginative breakfast bowls, like a sprouted buckwheat granola or a raw acai with a ton of fruit and other healthy goodies. Even the oatmeal is unique, featuring nutmeg and cardamom and a topping of pecans, dates and figs.

A beautiful stamped-tin ceiling is just one of Lotus Cafe's many charms

A beautiful stamped-tin ceiling is just one of Lotus Cafe’s many charms

Lotus Cafe
145 North Glenwood Street, Jackson, Wyoming
Daily 8 am-9 pm (reduced winter hours)
The Lotus Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ironically, there’s not a lot of bacon on the menu at Bacon & Eggs in Walla Walla, Washington. And you can get tofu or egg-white omelettes. But what catches my attention, and taste buds, is the Texas eggs, served atop brown rice and black beans, with a heavenly slice of house-made cornbread.

A delicious, healthy bowl of Texas eggs

A delicious, healthy bowl of Texas eggs

Bacon & Eggs
503 East Main Street, Walla Walla, Washington
Thursday to Tuesday 8 am-2 pm. Closed Wednesday
Bacon & Eggs on Urbanspoon

Not often does a lowly breakfast sandwich make me swoon. But it certainly does at Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread & Cafe, in Logan, Utah. It’s the excellence of all the ingredients—from an ethereal ciabatta bun to lemon aioli—plus the painstaking execution that propels it into the stratosphere.

Breakfast sandwiches don't get any better than this

Breakfast sandwiches don’t get any better than this

Crumb Brothers Artisan Bakery
291 South 300 West, Logan, Utah
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm, Saturday 8 am-3 pm. Closed Sunday
Crumb Brothers Artisan Bread on Urbanspoon

Best Coffee

Yes, the fresh-roasted coffee is great at Iconoclast Koffie Huis in Edmonton, Alberta. As is the ultra-cool coffee bar, built from repurposed wood in this old warehouse. But it’s the half-hour conversations with co-owner Ryan Arcand and assorted regulars that make this a great coffeehouse in an era of heads glued to screens.

Iconoclast's roaster is in back of the coffee bar in this refurbished warehouse

Iconoclast’s roaster is in back of the coffee bar in this refurbished warehouse

Iconoclast Koffie Huis
11807 105 Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta
Weekdays 9 am-5 pm, weekends 9 am-5 pm
Iconoclast Koffiehuis on Urbanspoon

Honourable Mentions: They both boast custom-built Slayer espresso machines and excellent coffee. Where they differ is in their decidedly unique locations: SnowDome Coffee Bar in a Jasper, Alberta Laundromat, and Strom Coffee, inside a refurbished Airstream trailer in Richland, Washington.

Best Bakery

purebread is based in the B.C. resort town of Whistler. But I encountered it at a Vancouver farmers’ market, where folks were lined up to buy its creative roster of breads—how about a sour cherry chocolate, a Disfunction Ale or an amazing fig loaf studded with hazelnut slices? The sign of a great bakery is when you can’t stop buying… or eating. Indeed, the crumbly slice of cornbread vanishes before we’ve walked a hundred feet.

Amazing fig loaf studded with hazelnut slices from pure bread

Amazing fig loaf studded with hazelnut slices from pure bread

purebread
1, 1104 Millar Creek Road (another location in Olympic Plaza), Whistler, B.C.
Daily 8:30 am-5 pm
Purebread on Urbanspoon

Best Sandwich

In a crowded list of contenders, tiny food truck The Goodwich, in downtown Las Vegas, stands out. Why? Because co-owner and high-end chef Josh Clark believes you can take almost any first-class ingredients and slap them between two slices of bread to create amazing, affordable sandwiches.

Josh ... is putting high-end ingredients into most affordable sandwiches at The Goodwich, in Las Vegas

Josh Clark is putting high-end ingredients into most affordable sandwiches at The Goodwich, in Las Vegas

The Goodwich
1516 South Las Vegas Boulevard, Suite A, Las Vegas
Tuesday to Sunday 11 am-10 pm, except 4 pm closing Sunday. Closed Monday
The Goodwich on Urbanspoon

Honourable Mentions: Magpie Cafe, in Sacramento, California elevates the generic BLT to godly status with orange heirloom tomatoes, thick slices of bacon and caper aioli on a fresh baguette. Simply excellent. Yes, the oven-roasted turkey on sourdough is outstanding at grungy Junkyard Bistro in Salmon, Idaho. But what slams it out of the park is the fabulous side of chunky potato salad.

Best Burrito

This deserves its own category in 2014, since I spent some time in the global burrito hotbeds of San Francisco and Los Angeles. The best of the best was longstanding, family-run La Azteca Tortilleria, in East Los Angeles. The killer ingredients include a fresh-ground, toasted corn tortilla, good steak and, the kicker, a whole chile relleno dipped in egg and then fried. I hoover down this messy puppy in the front seat of my car in under five minutes.

Siblings Chris and Cynthia Villa at Los Angeles's La Azteca Tortilleria

Siblings Chris and Cynthia Villa at Los Angeles’s La Azteca Tortilleria

La Azteca Tortilleria
4538 East Cesar East Chavez Avenue, Los Angeles
Daily 6 am-3:30 pm except closed Monday
La Azteca Tortilleria on Urbanspoon

Best Food Truck

At El Fat Cat Grill, in Kennewick Washington, chef-owner Felix Sanchez is mixing Mexican and Asian influences to come up with tasty, affordable gems like crispy tortillas smothered in pork, chipotle mole sauce and jalapeno coleslaw.

Chef Felix Sanchez mixing Mexican and Asian influences at his El Fat Cat Grill truck Asian fare

Chef Felix Sanchez mixing Mexican and Asian influences at his El Fat Cat Grill truck
Asian fare

El Fat Cat Grill
539 North Edison (behind the Edison carwash), Kennewick, Washington
Weekdays 11 am-7 pm. Closed Saturday and Sunday
El Fat Cat Grill on Urbanspoon

Best Burger

Almost as good as the fresh-ground, perfectly cooked burger at The Bird, in Jackson, Wyoming, is the full page of the menu advising you how to order your meat. Let me summarize: Don’t dare ask for well done.

The "rules" at The Bird

The “rules” at The Bird

The Bird
4125 South Pub Place (South Highway 89), Jackson, Wyoming
Monday to Saturday the bar opens at 4 pm and the kitchen at 5 pm, Sunday opening is 10 am
The Bird on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza

Una Pizza + Wine’s Twitter feed lets you know how long the wait is at this exceedingly popular little joint in Calgary, Alberta. So best arrive early to order an outstanding, thin-crust pie—like roasted crimini mushrooms with smoked mozza and truffle oil—along with a mountainous kale Caesar salad topped with a boiled egg.

Una Pizza + Wine
618 17 Avenue SW, Calgary, Alberta
Daily 11:30 am-1 am
Una Pizza and Wine on Urbanspoon

Best Exotic Cuisine

Korean food is celebrated for its barbecue, plus all those interesting little dishes that come as appetizers. But at Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo, in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, the standout is a huge bowl of Manila clam kalguksu with a boatload of engorged, hand-cut noodles.

Clams and hand-cut noodles in this lovely bowl at Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo

Clams and hand-cut noodles in this lovely bowl at Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo

Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo
3470 West 6 Street, Suite 9, Los Angeles
Daily Monday to Saturday 10 am-10:30 pm, Sunday 10 am-10:30 pm
Hangari Bajirak Kalgooksoo on Urbanspoon

Best Fusion

Guerrilla Tacos owner-chef Wes Avila is storming the Los Angeles food world with a truck that’s spinning out stunning delights like a summer squash taco with runny chile and cashews.

Wes Avila concocts a summer squash taco at his Guerrilla Tacos truck

Wes Avila concocts a summer squash taco at his Guerrilla Tacos truck

Guerilla Tacos
826 East 3 Street (other area locations), Los Angeles
Wednesday 10 am-2 pm, Thursday-Friday 9 am-2 pm, Saturday-Sunday 9 am-1 pm
Guerrilla Tacos on Urbanspoon

Best Sushi

I don’t often get sushi on a road trip: it’s expensive and, all too often, generic. But at Koi Sushi—in a food court, next to a Walmart in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico—chef-owner Angel Huerta Ramirez fashions amazingly creative plates of affordable fare, featuring local wahoo and other creatures of the sea.

This wahoo sashimi plate was to die for

This wahoo sashimi plate was to die for

Koi Sushi
Plaza San Lucas, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Daily noon-9 pm

Best Pie

I don’t eat dessert. But when I’m offered a taste of a wee blueberry-raspberry pie with a port reduction sauce, at The Street Grill truck in Richland, Washington, I ignore spiking blood-sugar levels and keep shovelling till there’s not a crumb left.

The Street Grill
300 Knight Street (John Dam Plaza), Richland, Washington
Monday to Saturday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday

Cast your eyes on this blueberry-raspberry, port-reduction pie and jump in your car.

Cast your eyes on this blueberry-raspberry, port-reduction pie and jump in your car.

Best Beer

Among the many pints and 22-ounce bombers I sampled on the road, the standout was a complex, flavour-filled Widmer Brothers Brewing (Portland) ale aged in bourbon barrels.

Widmer Brothers Brewing
955 North Russell, Portland, Oregon
Sunday to Thursday 11 am-10:30 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-11 pm
Widmer Brothers Pub on Urbanspoon

Honourable Mention: The combination might seem odd, but Wild Rose Brewery’s (Calgary, Alberta) seasonal cherry porter was a knockout. I stocked up on the one-litre bottles while they lasted.

Best Experience

At Farm Gate Store, on B.C’s Mayne Island, the divine grilled sandwiches are just the exclamation point on a fabulous rural shop that features local produce, meat and killer flower arrangements.

Co-owner Shanti arranges her farm-cut flower bouquets, a bargain $11

Co-owner Shanti arranges her farm-cut flower bouquets, a bargain $11

Farm Gate Store
568 Fernhill Road, Mayne Island, B.C.
Monday to Saturday 10 am-6 pm, Sunday 10 am-5 pm

Best Meal(s) of 2015

Why would I drive 1,100 kilometres (620 miles) for a meal? When it’s the best Mexican food I’ve devoured all year and served by wonderful owners Bertha Moreno and daughter Jessica. I thus trek all the way from Calgary not once but twice in a three-month span, to Morenita’s Mexican Restaurant, in Idaho Falls of all places.

Bertha Moreno and daughter Jessica serve up fabulous fare at Morenita's Mexican Restaurant

Bertha Moreno and daughter Jessica serve up fabulous fare at Morenita’s Mexican Restaurant

Sure, I was headed on to other destinations. But nothing made me happier in 2014 than plunking myself down at a nondescript Morenita table and letting Jessica keep bringing me fantastic plates of inventive Mexican food. Like an unforgettable taco ranchero—an open, crispy corn tortilla piled with sauteed pork loin, salsa fresca and avocado, doused with house-made sauces, all for $2.50.

Traditional tacos and tostadas elevated to star status

Traditional tacos and tostadas elevated to star status

Things were going so well, I threw caution to the wind and ordered a sampler bowl of menudo, something I swore I’d never touch again after a rubber-band greasefest with my appalled sisters in some dusty Mexican village. Here, the broth is perfectly seasoned, the little hominy balls a delightful surprise and the, gulp, beef tripe sufficiently tender I might order it again. Just not for a year or two.

Morenita’s Mexican Restaurant
450 Whittier Street, Idaho Falls, Idaho
Monday to Thursday 10 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 9:30 am-9 pm, Sunday 9:30 am-8:30 pmMorenita's Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Astounding Sushi in a Walmart Mall in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Fantastic, creative, affordable fare at Koi Sushi in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Fantastic, creative, affordable fare at Koi Sushi in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

This is about as incongruous as it gets. A sushi place in a fast-food court, beside a Walmart in the Mexican tourist mecca of Cabo San Lucas.

But *Koi Sushi is by no means generic. In fact, it may be the best, most inventive sushi I’ve ever had. And a growing number of folks agree, some flying in from Los Angeles just for a feed of chef-owner Jose Angel Huerta Ramirez’s fusion take on Japanese classics.

Jose Angel Huerta is the mad genius at Koi Sushi

Jose Angel Huerta is the mad genius at Koi Sushi

There is a menu, but it’s best to let Jose come up with what the catches of the day and his imagination dictate. Just sit back and watch a succession of amazing dishes arrive. Like thin strips of wahoo (a fabulous local fish) encircling avocado slices and bits of serrano chile. Or tuna and crab wrapped in a shrimp tempura, providing a contrasting crispness to the raw goodness inside. Or a shrimp roll topped with salmon roe and floating on a cilantro-jalapeno sauce.

This wahoo sashimi plate was to die for

This wahoo sashimi plate was to die for

It’s a veritable feast of some six dishes that sets us back only $30 a person, drinks included. Actually, the only thing I’d forsake here is the sake.

An arranged masterpiece

An arranged masterpiece

You can sit inside at one of a handful of tables, close to where Jose is conjuring his magic. But there’s something wonderfully discordant about eating this fabulous fare in the mist-sprayed outdoor food court, where Chinese food is being served in styrofoam boxes and a lone, electrified musician is playing Guantanamera.

There's the sushi spot, at the back of this fast-food court next to a Walmart

There’s the sushi spot, at the back of this fast-food court next to a Walmart

Jose was apparently a chef at the upscale Nick-San sushi joint in Cabo. He left to set up his own, affordable shop, where diners unconcerned about the mall surroundings wisely give him all the freedom he desires.

Koi Sushi
Plaza San Lucas, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Daily noon-9 pm