La Cocina de Dona Esthela – now THIS is how to start the day

Pre-evaborated milk cinnamon-kissed coffee. Hola indeed.

Pre-evaborated milk cinnamon-kissed cafe de la olla. Hola indeed.

I’m not entirely sure why my first meal post isn’t about our first actual meal, but I suppose it doesn’t matter.  There were so many reasons to like the cozy little place we found at the end of two bumpy dirt roads that it doesn’t really matter.  Never have I wished I paid attention to Mr. Wager in Spanish class more than our morning run for Machaca to La Cocina de Dona Esthela. Here’s how it went down…

The first thing I should show you is this

Started our trip with afrustrating hunt for place to turn dollars into pesos

Started our trip with afrustrating hunt for place to turn dollars into pesos

Why, you ask, am I showing the Mexican equivalent of a 7-11?  Because somehow I neglected to get pesos when we passed through Tecate and we weren’t wholly convinced that Dona Esthela would take our mildly shaky American dollar.  See, Esthela is hip to the effects of quantitative easing and she is not swayed by Janet Yellen.  Okay, I made all that up, but we had seen a couple delicious-looking posts and the place looked a bit, ummm, rustic.  The short version on this whole Oxxo, no peso-having saga is that we got up from our shockingly comfy bed at Hacienda Guadalupe (no, they aren’t paying me, but they should) and as we pulled out of the parking dirt area with signage lot we remembered that we had no Mexican currency.  Yep, that’s right, we did a ton of food and drink research and planning and zero for little things like preparing for commerce.  Anyway, Wife popped back in and asked our new friend Ruben at the front desk for his best suggestions.  “Go to the gas station, it’s close.”  With these words, we were off.  Down the bumpy, dusty, still quaint on the morning of day 2 dirt road, onto the Highway 3 and quickly down to the gas station.  Easy, peezy.  Wife, who obviously did pay attention in Spanish class, jumps out, spots the ATM in the window, and is convinced we are golden. Sweet.  I settle into a morning moment of Valle-induced meditative Zen and let the gentle glow of ‘nowhere to be’ wash over me.  Next thing I know, Wife is opening the door and shaking her head. Wait, I’ve seen this movie before, I think to myself as she sits down.

Me: What happened?

She: The ATM was broke, so I tried to ask her where another ATM might be and–

Me: (interrupting) wait, you asked her for ‘directions?’

She: Yeah, about that.  Well, it’s possible if we keep going down this road we might find either a store or a fork, hard to tell.  She wasn’t super into answering my questions

*insert time lapse for 10 minutes of driving*

I quickly gave up on the hope of finding a new ATM and we were off to Dona Esthela’s to get our now quite urgent grub on.  Finding Dona Esthela’s wasn’t actually all that tricky.  The presence of sunlight and several actual signs made the whole process quite tame.  Though, the very last sign we came to was at a dead end t-intersection.  One of those places where you’re only options are to turn. And what do you imagine the sign said?  If you guessed right arrow or right turn (or left arrow or left turn, for that matter) you are flat wrong.  Nothing.  That’s right.  If you forgot to consult the Google before you left your hotel, you’d be short.  Fortunately, Dona Esthela is just as happy to accept our U.S. currency as we are to spend it so all is right with the world.  We didn’t ask about whether they accept plastic, so you’re on your own for that part.  Sorry, there was food to eat and good smells to enjoy so I forgot to ask.  Bring a little cash and you’ll be good to go.

I’d like to interrupt this post to send you to two other VERY helpful write-ups of Dona Esthela’s delicious kitchen of wonder.  First there is this post. I don’t know Greg, but he is the biggest reason we went because of the timing of when I found the post.  I found this doing my pre-travel research and if you read through and click the link mid-page, you’ll see his impressions of our breakfast spot.  Then, because Wife and I are big on talking about (and researching) our meal destinations when on travel, I found this gem from the good folks at Life and Food Blog the night before we visited.  Yes, not two hours after a well-prepared tasting menu at Laja we were already getting set for the next day by talking about our breakfast.

There was magic coming out of this particular space

There was magic coming out of this particular space

What you can’t tell from looking at this little oven, was how good the food coming out of it was.  Come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure there was food coming out of it while we were there.  It was early, I was tired and hungry.  But in the early morning fog that was my brain, I remember food coming from somewhere.  What I can tell you with certainty is that just to the left of this photo was a woman making tortillas.  No, actually there was a woman making tortillas and bringing them to us as she made them.  And they were what I wish all corn tortillas would be.  I’m not a corn tortilla purist.  I find even some of the allegedly delicious sources of fresh corn tortillas in San Diego pretty underwhelming.  The problem for me – and the reason I almost always go with flour – is that traditional corn tortillas are dry. REAL DRY.  They make me shockingly thirsty.  So I was pleasantly surprised when the first batch of tortillas showed up and they looked like the flour variety – large, airy, light, delicious (yes, it IS possible to look delicious, I promise).  Of course, I quickly realized this was actually a magical corn tortilla as soon as I took my first bite.  It turns out there is a way to make light, delicious corn tortillas that are fully appropriate for delivering machaca and chorizo (more on that in a moment).  The first thing to hit our table was this

Wife shared my enthusiasm for the salsa

Wife shared my enthusiasm for the salsa

I know it seems like getting tortilla chips right should be an easy thing, but whenever I have a properly crisp, properly salted, not overly greasy bowl of tortilla chips I am reminded how often some places get this wrong.  Dona Esthela’s tortilla chip game was tight.  And the salsa? Ay Dios Mio! Okay, honestly that was just an opportunity to use a video clip I found funny and a phrase I don’t say but seemed real appropriate because the salsa was what salsa ought to be.  Spicy, full of flavor and just hot enough to make your tongue and cheeks tingle a little while you’re eating.  Makes me hungry just thinking about it.  That cheese you see was also pretty good.  Wife liked it more than I did, but it was a perfectly good, slightly salty way to start the meal.  And then there were these


Pictured above is my machaca, which was utterly deserving of the bumpy, dusty, early morning trek we traversed to enjoy it


Wife’s chorizo, which was good but would’ve been better had we not failed to include the very important extra eggs 

I can’t fully share the experience of the above two plates with you.  I wish I could.  As soon as the Google comes up with scented photos I promise to do a mass update.  The machaca had the right amount of grease and crisp – neither of which is an adjective so not technically proper to include in my flavor description.  But those things helped to make the breakfast delightful, so I’m sticking with ’em.  I slathered those nice, lard-laden beans you see above into Esthela’s magic corn tortillas, dropped in a couple hunks of machaca and that tongue tingling salsa and had myself quite a nice time.  It was one of those meals I could have kept eating well past the point of no return, but I shut it down to keep myself fresh for the possibility of a post-breakfast hike or swim.  The chorizo tasted good, but not having grown up on chorizo I am only accustomed to it when mixed with lots ofeggs (and ideally potatoes, salsa, a little cheese and a tortilla or two).  Given that the chorizo was made in house, I was pleasantly surprised not to have little pieces to pull out after each bite.  I know that might make me whatever the Black equivalent of a gringo is, but I’m just not a fan of the inexplicable bits that find their way into some chorizo.  No such bits in this chorizo, but I still could have used an extra egg scrambled in the mix.

All in all, this was a solid meal and a place I would encourage you to visit.  On the early side (it opens at 8:00 am) there aren’t many people there so you can get lost in the laziness of a good morning with Dona Esthela’s warm smile and those magic tortillas.  I also feel like I didn’t pay enough attention to the coffee in this post.  I like coffee.  I’m not a particular coffee snob and can’t differentiate all that well between the higher end stuff.  My coffee gauge, like my gauge for most food, is centered around how I think it tastes.  And this was delicious stuff.  For a frame of reference if you want to rate my tastes, my favorite San Diego coffee is made by Cafe Moto, Caffe Calabria and Coffee & Tea Collective, with Bird Rock Coffee Roasters getting an honorable mention (it is also good, but really too far on any day that I would make a morning trip for coffee).  Anyway, the coffee Dona Esthela served up was a great start to the morning, so go and have some and thank me later.

If you happen to still be reading, I want to encourage you to do two things.  First, go back and click on the links to Greg’s Boy’s Club post and Life & Food Blog.  They had a good range of photos and provide some additional needed information.  Second, click the link I’m about to share with you from Club Tengo Hambre.  I don’t know these people, but after getting sidetracked on their blog I swear Wife and I are going on a search to be part of that friendship circle. I mean, what’s not to love about a group that calls itself the I’m Hungry Club?  The photos make me smile. And make me want to sit down for dinner.  Ready? Click this. One last thing.  Below is a sneak photo from the best meal of our trip.  I’ll tell you about it next time I have a spare moment.  Suffice it to say, Chef Roberto Alococer gave us the type of food experience everyone should get on a lazy Saturday afternoon in a beautiful wine region with someone you love.  Thanks for stopping by.

If my preview photo is the harvest orchard salad can you imagine what the rest of the meal was like?

If my preview photo is the harvest orchard salad can you imagine what the rest of the meal was like?

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