Six hours south of San Diego, San Quintin is an under-the-radar dining destination.
“You’re here for the food? Then you have to find the oysters,” Tony whispered in the lobby of Don Eddie’s Landing. “Come by for breakfast tomorrow and I’ll tell you the way.”
My boyfriend, Kirby, and I had driven six hours south of the border from San Diego to San Quintin on little more than a nostalgia-fueled tip from my Grandfather, who lived in Baja during the 80’s and 90s. This tip landed us in a little bayside town in a thriving agricultural (read: rural) region with a population of just over 4,000.
Weaving through the ten blocks that make up San Quintin’s main drag, I’d counted the number of places to eat on two hands. This was of the utmost importance as we’d come to Baja for the weekend with no plans other than to eat.
After crossing the San Ysidro border, we’d taken our time driving down the Mexican Federal Highway 1, stopping at every-other roadside bakery and taco shop. After passing through Ensenada, the Highway quickly became more desolate. A few hours later San Quintin appeared like a mirage along the sparkling bay of Bahia Falsa.
The area is known by many RV-campers as a place to get away from it all and do very little besides enjoy the weather and fish, but without an RV of our own, finding a place to stay turned out to be a challenge. After being turned away from two other hotels in town, our third stop found us standing below a hand-lettered sign that read Don Eddie’s Landing.
A girl, no older than twelve, sat spinning on a stool in the tiny front office giggling, her eyes glued to the phone in her hands. When I asked if there was any availability, she nodded and led us into a round room with high angled ceilings, a long wooden bar, a pool table, and a handful of humble dining tables. She disappeared through swinging doors and a few minutes later a man with salt and pepper hair came dancing out. He introduced himself as Tony and within minutes he’d handed us drinks and started regaling us with tales.
After thirty minutes of conversation, and most of his life story, Tony bounded away toward another couple who had just arrived and we scurried to our room with the bounty we’d collected along our way. Wrapping up a deliciously smelly Roquefort cheese from Los Globos market in Ensenada, a tart red-blend from a small Valle de Guadalupe winery and a fluffy baguette from Blue Galley French bakery, we headed outside to a small wooden pier for a picnic.
I was so preoccupied smearing gobs of cheese on bread and finishing off the bottle of wine, that I hardly noticed the streams of people gathering around us to dance and listen to music along the waterfront. Momentarily sated, we lingered to watch families fill the small plaza, dancing and shopping for trinkets.
Wandering the few square blocks of town, we decided we were still hungry, and made our way to the nearest restaurant. Paint peeled from the walls around a dimly lit doorway of Eucalipto, and as we ducked inside we were surprised to find the small dining room crowded with patrons sitting at long, communal tables playing board games between bites. As I followed the host to our smaller table for two, a cart rolled by carrying an enormous wheel of melty Parmesan cheese. I pointed to it and asked for whatever that was.
The waitress returned minutes later with the same cart, stacked with bowls of fresh tomatoes, onions, spinach and seafood, all grown locally in San Quintin. She poured a stream of amber Cognac into the concave pit of the cheese wheel and with a dramatic strike of a match, a flame erupted from its depths. After the fire settled, she added a serving of al dente fettuccine, which she meditatively swirled with melted Parmesan and cream, adding fat pieces of shrimp, squid, and mussels. She finished the dish with scallions, sun dried tomatoes, and even more Parmesan.
We walked the two short blocks back to the hotel very full and very satisfied with the first day of our edible adventure. Then Tony intercepted us with his mysterious oyster tip. By the time we made it into the hotel’s restaurant the next morning, the tables were nearly full and the place roared with the chatter of hotel guests, but Tony spotted us and rushed over to talk about the shifting gastronomic culture in Baja.
“I’m trying to change the menu,” he said. “We want to share more local ingredients from San Quintin with our customers. We can get so much good, fresh produce and seafood here, I hardly have to do anything to make them taste great.”
He pointed out the window at the bay. “Everything comes from right over there.”
San Quintin is a symphony of pressure systems, where the Pacific Ocean meets the oxygen-rich chaparral of the desert to create a Mediterranean-like climate and naturally protected wetland. The dry, mostly desert climate of Northern Baja is scattered with lush micro-climates. Over the last decade, local chefs like Javier Placencia, Drew Deckman, Jair Téllez, Diego Hernández and Miguel Ángel Guerrero have been pioneering a new kind of Mexican cuisine inspired by the patchwork climates producing Baja’s unique bounty.
“It’s not always easy to get there, but that’s where you’ll find the oysters,” he said, pointing across the bay. “I hope you have four-wheel drive.”
“What’s the best route?” I asked, with naively high hopes that he would share clear, concise directions and we’d quickly be on our way.
“Well first, drive slightly straight down the dirt road behind us, but make sure to take a more slight right at the intersection,” he said, jerking his hand to the right. “Once you hit the main road, that’s mostly paved,” he motioned along the edge of a fork. “Turn left onto the first dirt path—it kind of looks like a walking trail but you should be fine in a truck—then, after about one minute, you’ll get to the tree that looks like my great-grandfather.” He set down a bottle of Tapatio like a landmark and continued arranging objects into a map. “Take a right and in about two minutes more, take a left. Then follow the windy dirt road until you see signs of life. You’ll know when you get there.”
Cutting through the rolling hills of San Quintin, we wound down roads lined with thriving tomato vines and strawberries until we spotted a handful of tents dotting the horizon. Inching down a gravel road, the scene began to resemble a tailgating party in the middle of nowhere.
A dozen local families were parked haphazardly along a patch of dirt overlooking the bay. The trunks of their cars were propped open, speakers pounding with popular reggaeton and mariachi songs. Adults crowded around charcoal grills. Beach chairs and blankets were spread out next to coolers of beer and snacks. Squealing children wove through the maze of people chasing each other toward the bay’s shore.
A squat woman walked out of a wooden structure built with just enough room for a small kitchen, a cash register, and one person to stand. She carried a bucket of jagged oysters. The group swarmed her, pulling out their own shucking knives and piling as many of the grey mollusks as they could onto plates before retreating back to their grills. A few were popped open and slurped down before the woman was able to clamor her way out of the throng with her now-empty bucket.
Kirby and I followed her toward the kitchen and she mercifully passed us off to the purveyor of the farm stand. He waved us over to one of three worn tables and introduced himself as Mario. Disappearing into the shack, he returned with a pair of Tecates we hadn’t asked for.
“Raw, grilled, or Rockafeller?” he asked.
I looked nervously over his shoulder at massive black mounds of garbage behind him. Then I ordered a dozen of each.
When he left, I went to inspect the heaps, which I soon realized were made of thousands of empty oyster shells. They were piled so high they reached my chin and extended inland 20 feet from the shore.
To my right, a man emerged from the bay dragging a bag behind him. I watched as he let it fall on a worn table with a loud thump. It was so hot, I could see the salt crusting on his pants and rubber boots as the water evaporated. He counted out twelve oysters and began cleaning them.
Mario appeared next to him and brought the oysters straight to our table.
“My family has been growing oysters here for over 40 years,” he said as he shucked them for us.
If you’ve ever eaten an oyster from Baja anywhere in the US, it’s likely it came from one of the handful of farms surrounding the Bahia Falsa (False Bay) of San Quintin. Though the oysters are not native to Baja, these transplants have made quite a name for themselves among foodies and chefs all over the world.
Scientists from the University of Baja introduced Japanese Kumamoto oysters to the region in the 1970s as an experiment and uncovered the potential for a global industry.
Ostioneros — or oyster farmers — began cultivating the salty mollusks by attaching the Crassostrea gigas Kumamoto larva to an empty clam or mussel shell and letting them grow in buckets.
“We would feed them for a few weeks in buckets,” Mario explained. “Then we would have to move them to rocks on the marshy shores of the bay where they would fatten for 12 to 14 months. They eat the microalgae in the water, unique to this part of the Pacific Ocean. That’s where their flavor comes from.”
Characteristically small, Kumamoto oysters pack huge flavor, full of fresh hints of cucumber, sweet melon, and a lip-smackingly salty brine. Thanks to the ideal growing conditions of San Quintin, Baja Kumamoto oysters have umami flavor from start to finish, in contrast to the more metallic flavors of their U.S. or Japanese grown counterparts.
“In the beginning, the flavor was good, but sales weren’t always so good because of the texture,” Mario continued. “You see oysters, just like us, need exercise. If not, they become too fatty and without enough muscle it’s like eating a stick of butter. The shells too, they would be brittle, break and leave a mist of sharp bits across the meat that was like eating sand. It wasn’t good.”
Recently Mario changed his techniques to keep up with the evolving methods and quickly increasing demand for Pacific Baja oysters. “Instead of starting them in buckets,” Mario explained. “Now we let them reproduce naturally in the bay. We gather 100 of the babies, put them in these mesh bags and attach them to the rig floating out there in the water. The currents do more for us now, the oysters eat and exercise at the same time. Less work for us and the texture is perfect.” Mario disappeared to grab another dozen for us.
I picked up a freshly shucked oyster and slid it into my mouth. The delicate belly was soft and pillowy, with the perfect amount of resistance in the bite. A robust pool of briny liquor slid across my tongue, cutting through the honeydew sweetness of the oyster meat.
The changes in oyster cultivation were initiated by Mario’s neighbor and fellow ostionero, Vicente Guerrero Herrera, who is credited with transforming the reputation of Baja oysters and setting the standard for oyster consistency and quality. Herrera’s main business is exporting his oysters to high-end chefs across California and the surrounding region, though his passion is promoting an artisan, sustainable style of farming in his community. His farm, Nautilus, named after the French style of cultivating oysters, is more of a research facility where he experiments with cultivation techniques that he then shares with other oyster farmers in the region.
Mario returned, dragging a grill behind him. He took a seat and shucked 24 oysters at lightning speed, tossing them on the barbecue. “When the oysters are young, their calcified shells are thin,” he continued. “The strong current breaks their shells, exposing their insides to the elements, where they can develop some muscles. As the current slows, they have time to regrow their shells, making their exterior tougher and less brittle. That repeats for months until they’re ready for harvest.”
At only $4 a dozen, it was easy to inhale considerable amounts of oysters. We ate, and ate, enjoying the salty air and sounds of happy families feasting nearby. In San Quintin, local and sustainable aren’t buzz-words, but ways of life. I wondered if my grandfather had enjoyed meals like this. I wondered if they were one of the reasons he always returned. They were certainly reason enough for me.