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Cali-Baja Dishes for the Brave

Cali-Baja chefs always seem to be trying new things and combining flavors— by definition, the cuisine merges Baja-Med with California freshness. Cali-Baja veterans, like all-star chef Trey Foshee, have seen it all. Trey has tried plenty of unusual seafood choices, like raw clams, uni and geoduck. He’s even seen stomach used in a few different ways. Trey also mentioned the occasional appearance of pulque, a central Mexican alcoholic drink made from fermented maguey sap, on a Cali-Baja menu. Some of these combinations jump off the menu more than others, but all are part of what makes Cali-Baja so exciting. Here are some of the most creative flavor mash-ups (grilled octopus tostada, anyone?) that are sure to be delicious…if you dare to try them.

Troy Johnson's Faves

The food critic and TV host dishes on some of the most unusual and unexpectedly tasty Cali-Baja plates.

Grilled Octopus Tostada — Galaxy Taco

Octopus is quite an alien-looking protein, and a delicious one. Octopi thrive in rocky coastlines, like those found in Portugal or, you guessed it, Baja. The otherworldly-looking tentacle is part of the allure for the adventurous. Most chefs will take the tentacles, massage them for up to 20 minutes (literally, as if giving it a spa treatment) to tenderize the meat. Then they’ll boil them and finally throw them on the grill to get that deep grill aroma and a slight char texture. The flavor? It’s relatively mild, and not fishy or ‘aquatic’ at all. It’s closer to chicken than, say, crab.

Lamb Barbacoa — Aqui Es Texcoco

Lamb usually scares people off because it has such a distinct, ‘gamey’ flavor. But for the adventurous who are tired of chicken-breast America, that gamey flavor is exactly the point. And few places do lamb better than Aqui es Texcoco in Chula Vista. Texcoco is a region of Mexico with a distinct, historical way of doing barbecue in underground fire pits that are covered with maguey plants (the same family of plants that are used to make tequila and mezcal). At Aqui es Texcoco, they slow roast their lamb in these underground pits for seven hours, resulting in incredibly tender, smoky and delicious meat.

Lengua Taco — Tacos El Paisa

Lengua is cow tongue. Whereas Americans tend to eat only the ‘sexy’ cuts of meat (tenderloin, etc.) almost every other country in the world uses the whole animal. (Ironically, the American progressive and ethical food movement is focused on getting Americans to eat the whole animal now, just like we used to long ago.) Lengua tacos are a mainstay of Baja cuisine. Chefs boil and braise the tongue for hours until it’s completely tender, then—and this is the key—cut it down and brown the meat to develop beautifully rich flavor.

El Mezcalito — Puesto

At this Cali-Baja standout at The Headquarters near downtown, bartender Lucien Conner is one of the best when it comes to Mexican spirits and craft cocktails. His most out-there creation has to be the El Mezcalito, a mix of mezcal (tequila’s smokier cousin, fire roasted for flavor), guanabana (a wild honey from the Yucatan), tamarind (a sour Mexican pod fruit), lime leaf and charred orange (the smokiness dances well with the mezcal).

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