Our best meal in the Valle

I borrowed this from Malva's Facebook page because it was better than the one I took

I borrowed this from Malva’s Facebook page because it was better than the one I took

Twitter’s magic knows no bounds and our best meal of our recent trip to the Valle de Guadalupe is proof of that point.  In search of something delicious, we consulted the google (and Colin Parent) and were all set to head to Chef Javier Plascencia’s seasonal farm-to-table spot Finca Altozano.  What happened next set us on our way to the kind of experience lovers of good food everywhere can appreciate.  Let me tell you about it…

We’d gotten up super early and made the wild trip to Dona Esthela’s kitchen that I wrote about here  and then spent the day investigating other hotels and B & Bs in the area for when we came back with friends.  After a few treks up some hills and a little time in the pool we’d worked up enough of an appetite to turn our attention to lunch.  Take a look at the photos in the blog posts here and here (scroll to bottom) and you’ll see why we were quite eager to head to Finca Altozano.  Actually, being a thorough researcher, I’d even dug up this video featuring our friends and favorite purveyors of pork Sara and Hanis and their pet pig Carnitas (no, I’m not making that up) cooking up some sunshine with Chef Javier.   Whatever generally strong interest I had in getting to Javier’s restaurant was now amplified by seeing that he had collaborated with a Chef whose food I’d walk barefoot in the snow for.  My extreme excitement led to the following exchange in the Twitterverse.

Twitter to Malva

Well damn, there went that idea.  We first met Javier at Celebrate the Craft, a food and wine garden party at The Lodge at Torrey Pines, a few years earlier.  At $85 a pop I wouldn’t call that event affordable, but given the food, the wine and the generosity of the chefs with the food they prepare I can comfortably say it’s a great value.  I don’t remember what grilled meat Javier handed us that day but I remembered it being outstanding.  So Wife and I have taken several opportunities to try his creations across San Diego and this was our first chance to give one of his restaurants a go.  Finding out that his restaurant was closed until March wasn’t great, but his recommendation of Chef Roberto Alococer’s restaurant Malva set us on exactly the path we wanted.  We motored our way down Highway 3 about 15 minutes from the Hacienda to the San Antonio de las Minas section, pulled off the road at a very big sign and made our way to this.

I mean really, there aren't many better settings in which to enjoy a nice meal

I mean really, eating in a restaurant on a farm is a great place in which to enjoy a nice meal

Even though I’d just told Chef Roberto via Twitter that we were on our way, I assumed he’d be super busy and unable to drop by our table.  Well, despite being busy he took the time to walk us through our 10-course tasting and I have to tell you there is something really special about listening to a chef who is excited about what he or she has created explaining the details to you.  That’s what happened and here’s where it went from there.

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This was a nice little starter that I can’t remember because I didn’t write this closer to when we were actually there.  Hopefully the presentation conveys to you a notion we learned several times over during this meal – Chef Roberto takes great care with what he puts on the plate.  I do remember the spicy chili sauce was quite good, though.

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A quick roasted oyster from up the road that had the typical briny water replaced with something lightly seasoned and fresh that brought out the flavor of the clam.

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We aren’t organ meat people.  So I can’t say this was my favorite thing.  What I can say is that it was the closest I’ve come to liking liver and onions.

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At this point in our meal things got kicked up a notch.  We both really enjoy grilled octopus. This was no exception.  Actually, some version of grilled octopus was in every meal we had, so I’m thinking it’s a pretty frequently used ingredient.  This version had chorizo, potato and a pureed garlic that provided a nice accent flavor in the dish.

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What happens when your restaurant is in cozily situated in your own garden is that you can make stuff like this.  It looks simple enough, a fresh garden salad accented with a pickled and smoked carrot (which was delicious).  But there are a few cheeses mixed in that are worth trying if you are in the area.  Especially the little disk near the top of the photo that was actually a smoked cheese rolled in onion ash.  Fan-freakin-tastic.

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Given the name of this little thing – a gordita – I’m a little embarrassed to be writing about it, but it was rather tasty. Imagine if a cheese ravioli and a pork tamale had a baby and then you buried it in a mixture of fresh olive oil and corn chowder.  This is one of those dishes that tastes much better than I can make it sound.  It was like a slightly sweet cream of wheat but with stronger corn flavor and a really nice olive oil (pressed nearby, I understand).  I’d have had seconds if there weren’t so many courses still to come.

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They brought us a bottle of wine that from the grapes they’d grown on site.  And our sommelier David was a laid back but well-schooled young guy who moved up here from Mexico City because, well, this is where the wine in Mexico is made.  Seriously, the Valle produces something like 90% of the entire country’s wine…and it’s 90 minutes from San Diego.  Between phenomenal meals like this one and a huge variety of quality wine, I think if you live in southern California or Arizona this is a really fun way to experience wine country without a plane ride.  Both David (the sommelier I mentioned above) and our server Damian were as gracious as Chef Roberto and they really highlighted the importance of quality, responsive service.  We aren’t even particularly challenging diners, but I promise you if there is one thing that separates a really good restaurant from a great one it’s the service experience.

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This was a lightly fried quail for which meaningful detail escapes me.  I can tell you we enjoyed it, but not much more than that, sadly.

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This course was a really flavorful lemon and caper sauteed escolar accompanied by a smoked hicama puree.  I didn’t realize how escolar got to be such a tasty fish until I read that link above.  Wow.  Well, I suppose I’d say just be forewarned if you’ve never had this fish before.  Still very much worth it, but a useful tidbit of caution if you’ve got any digestive sensitivities.

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From the “great stuff you get when your restaurant is on a farm” category, the above lamb was raised on site, extremely tender on the inside and a bit like crispy lamb carnitas on the outside.  Along with the chiles that the lamb was cooked in, I really enjoyed this one.

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I wouldn’t characterize myself as a big citrus person when it comes to desserts.  So when I tell you that this citrus panna cotta was perfectly executed I hope you get the high praise I’m trying to offer here.  I should add I’m also not a huge custard/pudding fan generally, either.  Other than the butterscotch pots-de-creme at Urban Solace (which I assure you is one of the best desserts in the San Diego region), I don’t usually spend time in this family of desserts.  Cakes, pies, ice creams and, okay, almost anything sweet I suppose.  I’m getting off track a bit.  Remember that seen in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where the wallpaper tasted insanely flavorful?  Well I’ll skip the apparent urban legend out there about Dahl and just say that those little orange droplets in the photo tasted like the Chef invented a new flavor of orange.  Kind of like the concentrated version of an orange, sweetened and dropped on a plate.  Good stuff.  Color me impressed.

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I had recently learned what a big supporter of Baja craft brewing Stone Brewing Co. in San Diego is and so I was eager to see what kind of local beer I might find.  This  Ocho Pulgas (8 fleas) IPA from Cerveza Arte had great color and was more like a mild pale ale than a typical, hoppy San Diego style IPA.  Viewed through that lens it was perfect for a warm afternoon meal.  Seeing the array of regionally brewed craft beer that Roberto had available got me excited to return to Mexico.  So excited that we finally jumped on the Club Tengo Hambre train and are headed down to Tijuana for more exploration soon.

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This stuff was delicious.  It may not seem like popcorn ice cream would be a thing you’d like to eat.  I’d advise not giving in to that stereotype, as you’d be missing out.  For people who see the merit in combining sweet and savory, this is your dessert.

Ten courses and two hours later, we’d indulged our senses, made a few new friends and had a meal I’d mark as the best I’ve had in quite some time.  If you ever decide to make the short trip south of the border, this little restaurant really ought to be on your list.  Most people don’t realize that there are more engineering students as a percentage of the total college population in Mexico than the U.S. Given that we share a dynamic border – the busiest in the world – it’s pretty clear to me that the massive expansion in creative, expertly prepared food in Mexican wine country and increasingly talented young people means our region is really taking off.  Having “discovered” this gem so close to home, I really can’t wait for Congress to finish fixing the San Ysidro border crossing so we can make this trip much more frequently.  Chef Roberto was a great example of what makes the Valle de Guadalupe such a special place and we look forward to sharing Malva with many of our friends. Thanks for reading.

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