Three Days in El Valle: Laja

Before we grabbed a seat at Hacienda Guadalupe restaurant I saw this welcoming collection of signs

Before we grabbed a seat at Hacienda Guadalupe restaurant I saw this welcoming collection of signs

We arrived in the Valle and were excited to visit a place we’d heard quite a bit about.  You see, Laja had become the stuff of legend among our immediate food-loving circles in the past several years and we were determined to see what all the fuss was about.  A friend had written about it in some detail here and of course our man on the scene Colin Parent had reported back with this.  Plus, we do tend to listen when Eater gets in the game.  So, after getting settled in and changed we were off for some good fun and a date night.  And here’s how Laja went down…

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Not a bad way to see a sunset

No, that’s not actually from Laja.  It was too early for dinner but we had skipped lunch so we decided a late afternoon glass of wine and some appetizers would get the fun started right.  Our hotel happen to include a nice little restaurant with a great big patio overlooking vineyards.  Watching the sunset and discussing our thoughts about the future is really not a bad way to spend the start of a getaway weekend.  One thing we quickly realized is that the landscape and the language difference made it very easy to feel like we’d snuck away on a much longer trip to a far off place.  And all without having to spend fifteen hours on a plane, trudge through airport security or worry about finding a sufficient supply of 3-ounce bottles.  We sighed and smiled the contented smiles of people luxuriating in the peace of it all…and then they brought this

See, now, THIS is a nice way to start a trip

See, now, THIS is a nice way to start a trip

That fresh pico with the bits of onion and jalapeno in the foreground was a perfect complement to the huitlacoche quesadillas you see in the photo. Don’t be alarmed if the name is unfamiliar, I previously wrote about this charming little Mexican accent food after my trip to El Borrego – a joint on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego where one goes if one wants unpretentious food served from warm people who seem to really like what they do. But fear not, if you didn’t want to click through that last link, you can choose this one from Aqui es Texcoco (another Colin rec) and read a quick snippet about huitlacoche.  It’s not the prettiest looking stuff, but when sandwiched inside a fresh tortilla and surrounded by melted cheese and jalapeno, it adds a pretty interesting nutty quality to a quesadilla that I find a nice supplement to the standard version.  I grew up on quesadillas.  Mine were not real the ones made by people who knew what they were doing, sadly.  I had Mission tortillas, generic mild cheddar (or sometimes off-brand cheese slices), and an old used-to-be-nonstick pan unevenly heated on a bunk electric stove.  Fortunately, the American Dream is alive and well and I’ve elevated my quesadilla game (by which I mostly mean my wife has elevated my quesadilla game, but you get the point).

If you’ve never had huitlacoche, there are two reasons to try it.  First, it isn’t a flavor you get every day and a little food adventure can be a good thing.  Second, and potentially more importantly, if you are in a place that has huitlacoche on the menu there is a pretty good chance the other things are going to be tasty and interesting as well.  By the way, I use the existence of Suzie’s Farm produce on a menu in much the same way. If you take the time to find a good source of local produce for your food, there’s a decent chance you are putting some care into the rest of your menu as well.

I am very proud of this photo, usually mine aren't very good

I am very proud of this photo, usually mine aren’t very good

Okay, I got a little carried away with that quesadilla story.  This ceviche was surprisingly good, even on those little matzo-looking crackers.  I’m not sure why I was surprised, I guess I thought we’d get hotel food that was just okay, but this was actually really an enjoyable way to get our evening started.  Ceviche is a pretty common dish in areas close to the water in Latin America.  I hear it’s also common in Spain, though I’m sad to say I’m still waiting to make that trip happen.  I digress.  I’m going to skip the delightful conversation we had with traveling Australians Rebecca and Gabriel, who were driving around California and Baja, and just say that having random conversations with people while on vacation is among the most rewarding parts of getting out and experiencing the world.  We did, however, load them up with recommendations for Carnitas Snack Shack, craft beer, Balboa Park and several other gems for their end-of-trip stay in San Diego later that week.  But for us, it was on to Laja, so let’s get to it.

This sign would have been clear but for one small hiccup

This sign would have been clear but for one small hiccup

I got the sign above from this website.  I would have put my own photo of the entry to Laja except, ya know, funny story, the road sign isn’t visible from the road.  Okay, I’m not being completely honest here, the sign isn’t visible from the road at night.  You know, dinner time. When we were trying to get there.  Our hotel was ultimately less than an eighth of a mile from Laja, which makes the 25 minutes we spent traversing the highway seem ridiculous.  I know.  But, see, our well-intended friend Reuben at the hotel front desk told us there was a big sign and we couldn’t miss it.  And he said “there’s a big sign” but the words I heard were “are you people blind, it is obvious and large and you should not be having this much trouble figuring it out.”  He was pleasant about it, but I swear I could hear him scoffing on the inside.  So, when we finally did find Laja a couple things became abundantly clear.  One, there was a sign…it just wasn’t visible once the sun went down.  Two, the place was incredibly charming, both the outside garden as you approach and the simplicity of the décor inside.  And three, well let’s just get right to it, shall we?

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This little bite of citrus-y fish really did delight our mouths.  The theory behind an amuse bouche is nothing like the soup-of-the-day, it is about getting your palate sort of warmed up for the fun that comes next.  At least that’s what it seems to be for, anyway.  We had six courses and I should point out that the first thing that hit the table was this

 

That’s $67 USD according to xe.com

That’s $67 USD according to xe.com

Isn’t that pleasant?  All you can eat gourmet chef’s tasting menu?  Really?  Wow.  Truth be told, they served us the right amount of food so we didn’t have room for any extra, but it’s a nice gesture just the same. No, $67 per person is not a cheap meal, but now that you are prepared for it at least you’ll be ready.  If it makes you feel any better, it is substantially less expensive than many tasting menus we’ve come across.  I list the price mostly so you can calibrate your budget appropriately.  Now back to the food.  Our courses included: kale, clams with lemon mayer and manzano pepper, romanesco salad with toasted grains, a catch of the day in guajillo broth, quail with vegetables and a light dessert. There’s one additional course pictured below, I think.  And honestly I’m not sure what it was.  We went two weeks ago and I don’t usually carry a food journal (though maybe I should).

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I can’t really remember this dish actually.  Except that it had three very distinct flavors.  I put the picture mostly because I like the presentation.

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The broth for this dish was nice. I’m not really sure what those little sticks are.  As brothy dinner concoctions go, this one was pretty good.  Really starting to think that food journal is a good idea.

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This might seem just a bit strange at first, but the crunchy romanesco was really nice.  The dish was served with a yogurt sauce on the side which created another texture and a tangy accent to the dish.  It might look like a glob of cheese on top, so I’ll include this…

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I can’t discern the big difference between eggs produced by chickens versus these produced by quails, though I suppose size is the most obvious thing.  A chicken egg on this tiny little plate would have dwarfed everything else.

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A little spice in the broth, fresh fish, hunks of avocado, and most importantly everything tasted like what it was.  This may seem like a small thing, but it seems often restaurants put so much extra stuff into dishes that the simplicity of basic ingredients gets lost in the creativity.  Wife really enjoyed the fish, which is always a sign that it is executed well.

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Not a bad choice to work the quail egg into the salad and then keep it moving with this nice quail and fresh vegetables.  Again, the simplicity of the meal made me happy.  The quail was cooked just below medium I think, which kept it tender.  And there aren’t a million ways to talk about fresh vegetables, are there?  I mean, they were cooked but firm, not slathered in sauce or oil and they probably came out of the ground earlier that week.  What’s not to like?

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We managed to sneak in two desserts.  The top one is a butternut squash cake with yogurt ice cream.  That may not sound like the best thing ever when you read it, but the cake was delicious.  Might have been my favorite thing, certainly top three.  It was a spongy cake that reminded me a little of a pumpkin bread.  The ice cream was, well, ice cream.  I went to Pappalecco in Little Italy last night so I’m having trouble remembering any ice cream by comparison to that gelato.  The second dessert was the first of two popcorn ice cream dishes we’d have on the weekend.  I’ll save the description for the one we had the next day.  This one was pretty good, but the cake was the real winner.

I’d give Laja a very solid recommendation.  I wasn’t blown away this time, but would come back in a different season and while away a few more meals before forming my final opinion.  The preparations did make me excited to make a trip to Tijuana to try Verde y Crema, another of his restaurants.  In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ll be on the hunt for a nice place to stay in Tijuana soon, as I hear there are several restaurants that we ought to visit and quite a local arts and music scene.  Thanks for stopping by.

Return to the Valle de Guadalupe index page HERE.

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