Several scoops of corn go onto the tortilla chips. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Street food in most countries is an experience in culinary art not found in a restaurant. It can be better, more authentic.
One of my favorites in Mexico is esquites. It’s like nachos in a bag, with corn being the dominate ingredient. The name comes from the Aztec word ízquitl meaning toasted corn. It would have been served in a cup or vessel of some sort before packaged foods came along. Today it could easily be made in homes with totopos – tortilla chips — of any kind. Without the chips, it could be a salad of sorts.
A small stand selling esquites is open year-round on the south side of Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
My niece, Veronica, introduced me and my mom to this treat in Todos Santos. While most people would have this as a snack, it’s been a meal for me since then. That night the three of us shared one.
I watched as the bag of Tostitos was slit open along the side to make a pouch. Veronica adeptly communicated in Spanish what ingredients to put on. Corn kernels cooking in a large vat of water were scooped out and spread over the chips. I don’t know what all was piled on except crema, which is like sour cream, hot sauce and Cotija cheese. Lime juice, mayonnaise and chile powder are other common ingredients.
The combination is decadent, delightful and definitely not healthy.
Esquites with toppings including jicama and peanuts in Tlaquepaque. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Veronica likes to squeeze the bag so the chips break into pieces. This is easier for eating; which is done with a fork or spoon. I wish the proprietors would crunch the chips before the ingredients are poured on; it can be tricky doing so with a full bag.
I would gladly have this more often, but the little cart in Todos Santos is only open at night. I’m too lazy to drive to the other side of town. Plus, it really is something that should be shared. I was excited during the Day of the Dead festivities last fall to see esquites being sold close to the town square. I converted Sue to being a fan of this treat.
When I was on the mainland last year there was a stand in Tlaquepaque selling esquites; something Rhoda and Liz had not had. Options for toppings were much greater there, which included beans and meat. We skipped the latter. With Rhoda well versed in the language, we knew what we were getting. By the time it was loaded up two hands were practically needed to hold it because it was so heavy. The three of us had no problem devouring it. We were sufficiently stuffed; making me wonder how I ever finish one on my own.
Bodegas de Santo Tomás is the oldest winery in Baja. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
While Mexico may not be the first country one thinks of for wine, it was the first country in North America to make wine.
Bodegas de Santo Tomás is the oldest winery in Baja California and the second oldest in Mexico. Because it is outside the main tourist corridor, it doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic. We were the only ones there as we passed through in October.
The tasting room, nestled between towering eucalyptus trees, is separate from the main winery, with visitors not allowed to go to the production facility which was built in the 1980s. It didn’t matter. We were content to sip on a variety of wines in the modern tasting room. And when we wanted to taste ones beyond the menu, the employee gladly obliged. This paid off, as we purchased a few not on the regular tasting menu – a white table wine, Cab and Barbera.
Remnants of a structure at the winery from earlier days. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The tasting room employee said Barbera is a hard grape to work because of its acidity. This is just one of many Italian varietals that Baja is known for. Winemaker Laura Zamora is credited with upgrading the wines at Santo Tomás.
With a plethora of olive trees, much of that is turned into oil. Several may be sampled in the tasting room.
Santo Tomás is located in the original wine region of Baja known today as the Antigua Ruta del Vino. It consists of the Valle de Santo Tomás, Valle de la Grulla, and Valle de San Vicente. It is just south of the better known Valle de Guadalupe. Santo Tomás Valley, where the winery is located, is about 25 miles south of Ensenda and inland 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. It’s at an elevation of approximately 750 feet.
A wall from an old rock structure that appears to still be crumbling is a reminder of the humble beginnings. The winery was founded in 1888 by Francisco Adonegui of Italy and Miguel Olmart of Spain. It was named after the mission in the area, Mission Santo Tomás de Aquino.
Plenty of wine to choose from at Santo Tomás. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It has only had five owners, with the current one living in Ensenada, Mexico. It is now part of Baja United Wines, which includes Monte Xanic, Las Nubes, Relieve Vinicola, Vena Cava, and Valle Girl Vino.
Driving in, signs in Spanish and English disperse facts about the winery, such as:
Santo Tomás has 865 acres of vineyards distributed in three valleys – San Antonis de las Minas, San Vicente de Ferrer and Santo Tomás.
There are 21 varietals.
The olive grove has 45,000 trees encompassing 16 varietals.
Santo Tomas was the first winery in Mexico to have a female winemaker. With her at the helm, the winery has won more than 250 international medals.
Most of the material used to build the winery is recycled.
Las Nubes winery is a stunning facility with views to match. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
When it comes to Mexico libations the choices are usually tequila or beer, seldom is it wine. But it should be.
Mexico wine doesn’t register high on the list of international wines because most of what is bottled stays in the country. The main wine region is the Valle de Guadalupe, about 90 minutes from the U.S. border in Alta Baja. What isn’t consumed locally is often shipped to restaurants and stores in Mexico City, and other cities on the mainland. Baja produces 90 percent of the 45 million liters of wine that are produced in Mexico each year.
History of the the Valle de Guadalupe is available at the museum. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It’s a growing industry, with more than 200 wineries in Alta Baja. Some are elaborate, looking like castles that would be more appropriate in the Napa Valley. Others are more modest, more like something that would be found in El Dorado County. Most charge to taste. This is one way they make money.
The Mediterranean climate is much like that of the Wine Country of Northern California. This is why many of the varietals are Italian like Nebiollo, Spanish like Tempranillo, and French like Chenin Blanc. Those looking for Cabernets and Chardonnays will find those as well.
The cheese platter is a meal for two at Las Nubes. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Winemaking in Mexico goes back to the Spanish missionaries who first planted grapes. At the museum on the main road much of the region’s history is told, though, all in Spanish. This includes the influence of Russians who settled in the valley in the early 1900s. One lesson learned is there are five wine valleys in the area, with Valle de Guadalupe being the most famous. The museum is a stop worth making, especially with an entrance fee of 50 pesos – about $2.50.
While Bodegas de Santo Tomas is the oldest winery in Baja, having been founded in 1888 just south of Valle de Guadalupe, it is Monte Xanic that is credited with being the first in the region to produce more upscale wine. The first release was in 1989. About 60,000 cases are produced a year under the labels Gran Ricardo, Limited Editions, Monte Xanic and Monte Xanic Calixa.
Adobe Foodtruck is a must visit. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Monte Xanic is popular and requires a tasting reservation of at least 72 hours in advance. Without one, you won’t even get past the guard and through the gate.
Still, there are plenty of wineries that are more welcoming to spontaneity. With a day and half to taste, the only reservation we made was for lodging. Our two nights at Casa Mayoral were a delight. The breakfasts were delicious, the room spacious and clean, and the patio ideal for another glass of wine while looking out to the valley. A bonus – it’s pet friendly. Staff recommendations for where to taste and eat were spot on.
Paoloni has some wonderful wines to taste. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
A delightful wine experience was near our bed and breakfast – Cieli. With the owner being Italian, he opted to plant mostly varietals from his home land. An interesting one was Blanc di Grenache. Not normally one of my favorite flavors, it was unique enough that a couple bottles found their way into the Jeep. It was the first time I had tasted a white Grenache. The tastings are inside, while outside is a deck looking across the valley.
Las Nubes came recommended from our bed and breakfast, a friend and the guidebook. The setting is stunning. Appropriately las nubes means the clouds, which is the perspective we felt like we had of the valley below us. It was so enchanting we bought a bottle of red (Seleccion de Barricas) to go with their cheese plate, which was substantial enough for lunch. All of that for about $30 (U.S.)
In many ways, Valle de Guadalupe reminds me of the Napa Valley, with the highway being the main road, with another road (think Silverado Trail) being the parallel secondary route. In between this valley and the more famous one are various tiny roads (in Baja they are dirt) that lead to more wineries and eateries, as well as offering a short cut between the two to reach the main roads. A major difference, though, is there is no traffic in Baja. Another bonus is how gracious people are (workers and guests); that is harder to find in Napa and Sonoma counties these days.
Many wineries offer outstanding views of the Valle de Guadalupe. (Image: Kathryn Reed
The only winery we found with a hint of pretentiousness was El Cielo. We left without tasting. Life is too short for such attitude. We went down the road to Paoloni, where we found much to enjoy and some to buy for later.
The harvest is similar to that of Northern California, with all the grapes plucked from the vines by mid-October. Many of the vines look dry, though. Water is not in abundance anywhere on the peninsula.
“There is a fight over water. Now there are like 215 wineries,” a Las Nubes worker tells us. “We irrigate. To not water you need old vines. Most aren’t. There was not much rain this year.”
Also on this side of the valley is Adobe Guadalupe. Owner Tru Miller, who is from Holland, has a winemaker from Chile. The operation started in 1997, with the first vintage released in 2001. With the owner’s son having died, all the wines are named after angels. Roxanna, who shared stories of Adobe Guadalupe with us, said her favorite is Gabriel – which is 25 percent Merlot, 25 percent Malbec and 50 percent Cabernet.
Adobe Foodtruck is fine dining without the bells and whistles of a brick and mortar establishment. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
While the wines were good here, the Adobe Foodtruck on site was even better. It was truly one of the best meals I’ve had — and for less than $20.
Leda, who owns the truck, came out to say hi and see how things were. The sautéed mushrooms we ordered are her favorite. I have such a thing for mushrooms that I didn’t want to share with Sue. She was OK with this since she had the camarones all to herself. Those shrimp were fairly local, having come from San Felipe. Sue said they were the best she’s ever had.
“Everything on this table is just unbelievable,” Sue added. We also ordered caprese salad, which was more like an appetizer than salad, and roasted potatoes, with what tasted like cayenne seasoning. A side of French bread was perfect for the mushrooms and shrimp. It was served in plates that would be found in a high-end restaurant, with service to complement it all.
This food truck is so popular it takes reservations. It’s a must stop, as the whole of Valle de Guadalupe should be.
Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos sells most of its wines at the winery. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
These days it seems like few wineries limit the varietals of wine they bottle. Testarossa Winery is one of the exceptions. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the specialties here.
It is the fourth oldest winemaking facility in California, with ties still to the Jesuits at Santa Clara University. This Los Gatos winery was known at Novitiate Winery when it was built in 1888.
The Jesuits were able to produce wine during Prohibition because it was called “altar wine,” though it wasn’t just kept for use on Sundays. To this day Testarossa makes two dessert wines in the tradition of the Jesuits.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are what Testarossa specialize in. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It was in 1993 that Rob and Diana Jensen started the winery. Testarossa was his nickname while studying in Italy. It means red head. They moved to the current location in 1997. While it is not far from downtown Los Gatos, it is at an elevation of about 2,000 feet.
About 30,000 cases are produced each year; most going directly to the consumer. While Testarossa focuses on the two varietals, they have 46 variations, with about 15 available at any given time. Many lots only produce 200 to 400 cases. New wines are released every six weeks.
Grapes are not grown on site. Instead, the winery says it focuses on getting the best grapes from regions throughout California. It taps into 18 vineyards to source the fruit. Most are in San Lucia, with Sonoma, Monterey and the Santa Rita Hills being other locations.
While the facility has grown through the years, some of the original rock walls built for the Jesuits are still part of the structure.
Live music and other events are common throughout the year.
Testarossa was a great find. You don’t feel like you are in the Bay Area, and definitely aren’t in an overcrowded wine region. Even better, the wines are tasty.
Remnants of when the Jesuits owned the facility are still visible. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
All ages enjoy the 100-degree waters at Carson Hot Springs. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Beer, burgers and hot water all in one stop.
This is what one finds on Old Hot Springs Road in Carson City – Shoe Tree Brewing Co., Sassafras and Carson Hot Springs. One Saturday in September we enjoyed what the three distinct businesses had to offer.
With such an array of beer choices, Sue and I opted for two rounds of tasters. A flight of four is $12; each being 5 ounces. We indulged in the Muscle Powered Pale Ale, High Desert Brown, Coco Burrito, Wicked Shifty, Brunswick Blonde Ale, Atomic Ale, Shoehorn, and Ash Canyon Amber Ale. My favorite was the High Desert Brown. The brewery describes it as “notes of coffee, roasty & toasty.”
The Hammer is so popular that there is a 5-minute time limit to use it. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Brothers Paul and Jeff Young opened the brewery in March 2017. According to their website, “The brew system is a 7 barrel (217 gallons) brew house with a four fermenter farm able to produce 600 barrels (13,950 gallons) of finished beer annually.”
While food isn’t served at the brewery, plenty of choices are available next door at Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint. If they aren’t too busy, they will deliver food to the brewery. We shared a burger and roasted beet salad – perfect amount of food, and great quality.
With so many beers on the table, it was hard to know what paired best with our lunch. I’m a believer you can never go wrong with a beer and burger.
Still, the restaurant isn’t just a burger joint. There are pizzas, grinders, cold deli selections, and specials that range from Cajun Mac & Cheese to Shrimp Tacos to Salmon Sriracha. It is definitely eclectic.
Sassafras has its own beer menu and has a full bar. With plenty of seating, it is a destination in its own right.
Shoe Tree Brewing Co. has a range of beer to choose from. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Next door are the hot springs. The Washoe Indians were using these waters in the 1800s as an undeveloped site. It was in 1880 that Thomas Swift bought the area and added amenities like a clubhouse. It has been known as Carson Hot Springs since 1910. New owners in 1999 added two Jacuzzi tubs, though they were not operational when we were there.
“Natural mineral water flows out of the ground at 121 degrees. Air spray and evaporative cooling are used to lower this water temperature when pools are drained and refilled during each day. No chemical or city water is added,” according to the hot springs’ website.
The main soaking area looks like a normal, rectangular pool. The difference is there is no chlorine and two overhead spigots are regularly delivering hot water. One is so powerful it is aptly named The Hammer. It’s an intense massage of sorts.
An added convenience is the springs provide noodles as flotation devices, which is nice since the depth goes to 6½ feet. The shallow area is where most people were hanging out.
While we enjoyed all three businesses at this location, each is worth a visit without the others.
A tortilla with fish. There had to be more. This couldn’t be all there was to a fish Taco in Mexico.
The waiter saw the puzzlement on our faces and smiled. I’m sure he said something in Spanish that none of us understood. He pointed to the center of the restaurant. Ah, that was the answer we needed.
Al pastor tacos are being made in Guadalajara. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
This is how they do it in Mexico. Most often the “extras” are self-serve either at a communal assembly area or toppings are brought to the table.
This first encounter was when Penny, Tim and Laura came to visit me in Todos Santos last October. None of us knew this is how things are done in Mexico. We were in La Paz after a day at Balandra Beach. Once we figured out what to do, Tim and Penny had some special looking tacos.
Fish tacos reportedly were first created in Ensenada, Mexico. Ralph Rubio is credited with bringing fish tacos from Baja to the United States in the 1980s through his San Diego restaurant Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill.
While Mexico is the birthplace of the Taco, the dates, whereabouts and specific circumstances are debated.
This food item is so popular that Oct. 4 is National Taco Day in the United States. The event has its own website. Figures from the site say that people in the U.S. ate more 4.5 billion tacos in 2018. (For comparison, 50 billion hamburgers are consumed in the U.S. each year.)
The website goes on to say, “The word taco is the Mexican equivalent of the English word sandwich. The tortilla, which is made of corn or wheat, is wrapped or folded around a filling that is generally made of spiced proteins – beef, pork or fish.”
Potato tacos are a vegetarian option at Chill N’ Grill in Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
I’ve never seen a hard taco shell in Mexico; that seems to be a U.S. creation. Taco shells in Mexico are always soft, with diners usually having the choice between corn or flour. A variety of meats are often on the menu, but never have I seen hamburger meat like what one would find in the United States. White onions, cilantro, lime and salsa are staples for toppings in Mexico.
Another popular tradition is al pastor tacos, which is pork cooked on a spit. It reminds me of when I was in Greece and gyros would be available on the street corners; only there the spits were lamb.
On occasion I have been able to find a vegetarian taco in Mexico. At Chill N’ Grill in Todos Santos they make a potato taco which is really good. All the fixings came on it; which considering it’s a gringo restaurant makes sense. The restaurant even has Taco Tuesdays.
Dain keeps patrons entertained as he mixes fun cocktails at the Bently Public House. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
While produce is the norm for the farm-to-table concept, the Bently Heritage Estate Distillery is using a similar philosophy with its liquor.
“Estate” is a key word in the name of this Minden, Nevada, business. It means all the grain – wheat, corn, oats, winter rye and barley – is grown on the surrounding land owned by the Bently family. The family has 50,000 acres in the Carson Valley, with 16,000 devoted to this project.
Water, another key component to spirits, comes from a well on the property. That is fed from snowmelt.
Three of the spirits available during a recent tour. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Chris and Camille Bently are proprietors of the distillery. While they had been working on the facility for five years, the tasting room has only been open since February 2019. Gin, vodka and sherry are available now, with whiskey being about another nine years out. The first batch was laid down last fall with the plan for it being 10-years-old before the public tastes it.
The Bentlys don’t want to make ordinary spirits. They spent time in Scotland researching methods, with the desire to bring old world philosophies to the new world. This includes ingredients, machinery and how the spirits are distilled.
“Craft gin is all the rage,” guide Wes Paterson said. He said it is the fastest growing spirit in the United States. The Bentlys are tapping into this craze with three types of gin for sale.
Two of the distillery buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Brick buildings that were once used by the Dangberg ranching family are now part of the Bently estate. They are filled with copper and silver contraptions. The old creamery building that was part of the Minden Butter Manufacturing Company has been renovated and is the main distillery. The whiskey is made in a separate building on the property.
“All the spirits are designed to stand on their own, but they are also great in cocktails,” Paterson said of the Bently products.
The distillery offers tours four days a week. While I’m more of a wine and beer gal, Bently’s spirits has my taste buds evolving. At the end of the tour is the opportunity to sample some of the products they have for sale. On this particular day we indulged in Source One Single Estate Vodka; Source One Single Estate Vodka, Rested in Sherry Oak Casks; and American Dry Gin.
The old creamery is now the main distillery. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
So much information is given on the tour that it would be easy to go more than once. I learned that gin is technically naturally flavored vodka and that by law it needs a minimum of 30 percent juniper berries.
The vodka that was stored in the sherry oak casks is caramel color and tastes more like sherry than vodka. Stopping in the public house after the tour I ordered a Maple Old Fashioned. While an Old Fashioned usually has whiskey, this one was with the Source One Single Estate Vodka, Rested in Sherry Oak Casks. Wow – hard to tell it wasn’t whiskey.
Not surprisingly, all the cocktails are made with Bently boozes. No food is served – at least not yet.
The production line runs Monday-Friday, with the potential of creating 400,000 cases a year.
Bottling occurs in a side room at the old creamery. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The combo plate — steak sandwich, pesto, garlic bread, calamari — is popular at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Garlic. I think it’s a food group. It definitely belongs in more dishes than it doesn’t.
With the average person consuming about 2 pounds of garlic a year, according to Reference.com, this may be one category where I’m above average. I use it more like a spice, though technically it isn’t one.
Sautéing a little garlic and onion is a great start to so many dishes. I could eat pesto every night. Roasted garlic spread on sourdough bread – yum. Whole or chopped garlic must be part of a roasted veggie ensemble. Garlic in salsa, of course. Then there are garlic fries – wow – two of my favorite food groups in one dish.
Garlic can enhance sweet corn on the cob. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Plus, there are tons of health benefits to garlic. Alejandro Junger in the book “Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself” wrote, “Garlic will help not only to eliminate bad bacteria, yeast, and parasites, but also to regulate blood sugar levels, enhance fat burning, reduce hunger sensations, lower cholesterol, relieve arthritic pain, and reduce bowel gas.”
While April 19 is national garlic day, Gilroy celebrates this pungent food for three days in late July each year. Those in California consider this town south of the San Francisco Bay Area to be the capital of garlic. Truth is that China grows the most garlic in the world; producing about two-thirds of the world’s garlic, according to Agricultural Resource Marketing Center.
Thousands of people attend the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
This summer was the fourth time I went to the festival. It’s amazing how such a tiny bulb can be the focus of so much fun, so much delicious food. Cooking demonstrations, celebrity chefs, artisans and more are part of the festivities. This was the first year for a night concert. Colbie Caillat with band Gone West entertained a throng of people. The music was included in the price of admission of the festival. (The festival in 2019 was $20 or $30 for a three-day pass; food is extra.)
The chefs in Gourmet Alley and in the outlaying food booths hovering over the open flames when it was near triple digits made me thankful I was eating and not cooking.
Colbie Caillat, center, entertains the crowd July 27 in Gilroy. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The Gilroy Garlic Festival is perfect for meat and non-meat eaters. There are so many choices – from pesto to corn on the cob to ice cream to steak sandwiches. When the garlic gets to be too much, there are other choices.
Garlic ice cream is much better than it sounds. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the tragedy that occurred on the third and final day this year. I was there the day before the fatal shooting. It’s surreal to think about that fact. Still, I’m not going to let nut cases stop me from continuing to lead my life, to go to events – big and small, to shop where I want, to frequent places that are full of people. It’s easy to say that. I haven’t had to run for my life, to duck and cover, to attend a funeral for someone who died in a mass shooting. This is as close as I ever want to be to such a tragedy.
Part of me wants to buy my tickets now for the 2020 Gilroy Garlic Festival. It would be more about showing support for this small town than for the garlic. Whatever your reason for going – go. It’s a unique event that any garlic lover should experience at least once.
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