Originally being from the United States I’ve heard of Baja-style food. We even have a chain called Baja Fresh but I never knew how the food differed from the “regular” Mexican food that I’m used to.
I was recently approached by Hip Traveler and the Loreto Board of Tourism to join them in Baja California Sur to learn more about this part of Mexico and of course sample some of the best Baja food the region has to offer. You guys know me- I jumped at the chance!
First of all, before we get into the food, just where is Baja California, Mexico? Is it not in California? Is it not part of the United States?
No, it’s in Mexico, in what is actually known as “the other Mexico” but we’ll get more into that in a moment.
I know you’re thinking – “are you sure it’s not in the U.S.A.? It says California right there in the name!” Even more confusingly, Baja California is actually made up of two different states in Mexico- Baja California (oftentimes called Baja California Norte) and Baja California Sur. That’s north and south for those of you who didn’t pay attention in your high school Spanish classes!
Even more confusingly- Baja California (Norte) borders the American state of California. So, you essentially have three California states from two different countries in a row.
If you want even more confusion all of these used to be part of Mexico before the U.S. bought what is now the American state of California (and several other states) in the mid-1800s. But, this isn’t a history blog so we won’t go too much into that.
Just know that right below the American state of California there are two Mexican states with the name California in them.
Confused yet? I hope not. So, we’ve established this isn’t a history blog (and with my bad descriptions not likely a geography blog either), so let’s dive into the food of the region!
What is Baja California Food?
Baja cuisine has been made famous outside of Mexico first, with Californians long singing the praises of “Baja fish tacos” and the like.
But, Baja cuisine has recently taken off in popularity here in Mexico, giving Oaxacan cuisine and Yucatecan food a run for their money.
With access to so much stunning coastline, it’s no surprise that seafood plays heavily into the local diet. But what are some of the other factors that contribute to this unique cuisine?
The big one is the climate of the area. As mentioned before, this is the “other Mexico”. Here the Meditteranean climate (lots of sun, hot days, cool nights, and that amazing ocean breeze) makes growing tons of fresh vegetables, grapes for wine, and even olives for olive oil possible.
Other than seafood and wine look for lots of grilled meats, incredibly fresh vegetables, and read on to discover a few unique dishes that might surprise you!
Wonder where else to visit when in Mexico? Check out these 9 Amazing Things To Do In Cozumel!
6 Best Dishes When You Visit Baja California Sur, Mexico
Chocolate Clams (Almejas)
Chocolate clams are the signature dish of Loreto, where we spent much of our time in Baja Sur.
Many of you following my trip through Instagram stories were surprised to learn there was no chocolate involved when cooking the clams. They’re named chocolate clams for the shell, as it looks like it’s made of chocolate.
Maybe what was most impressive about this dish (other than the taste, of course) was that no two places seemed to make them exactly the same.
Traditionally these are prepared by being buried on the beach and covered with vines (the same sort tumbleweeds are made of) and then dug up and eaten.
Most of the ones we had were prepared indoors using a similar preparation but that’s where the similarities ended. Some were cooked simply with butter and garlic, others had white wine, ham, cheese, and butter, and still, others were wrapped up into freshly made corn tortillas, drizzled with a mustard sauce, and eaten as a clam burrito!
You can find this outside of Loreto but you’ll definitely want to make your way to Loreto during your visit to Baja Sur because it’s a well-known fact that Loreto is making the best versions of this signature dish.
You could make an entire visit to Loreto just going from place to place trying all the different recipes for chocolate clams!
Machaca (especially burritos de machaca)
Machaca is one of those dishes that you can find around different parts of Mexico (I first had it in one of the best restaurants in San Cristobal de las Casas) but until you try the real, authentically prepared dish, you’ve never really had it before.
The most traditional way to prepare machaca is to dry seasoned strips of beef in the sun to store it until it’s ready to be used. Later, it will be rehydrated and pounded to be made tender before most often being placed into tortillas to make one of the best burritos that you’ll ever have.
It is also quite popular as a breakfast dish, served with eggs and tortillas. This makes for a very hearty and filling breakfast, designed to give workers enough energy to hold them over until lunch.
I say you need to try this dish prepared traditionally because a lot of versions try to shortcut the sun drying process and just use shredded stew meat. It’s good but it’s not machaca.
I’ve shared with you guys many a time that I don’t have a sweet tooth so I expected not to love these but I was pleasantly surprised.
These empanadas, which are baked or fried (usually fried) turnovers stuffed with local fruit jams. I liked these because with the pastry not being covered in sugar it made a nice balance for the sweetened jam center.
The best that I tried was filled with guyabano (soursop) because they were perfectly balanced between sweet and bready. You can ask vendors what their empanadas are filled with. Most vendors we met had a small selection with 2-3 different fillings.
I still love my savory empanadas the most but these were good enough that I had more than one during my visit.
Jocho – bacon-wrapped hot dogs
Popular street food in Baja California is jocho’s, or bacon-wrapped hot dogs stuffed into buns and finished with your choice of toppings.
I’m not sure how often these are a sober decision but I know we went hunting for them after a night of drinking – it seems like the perfect bit of street food to soak up a belly full of tequila or mezcal.
Full disclosure: I didn’t actually get to try one of these while I was in town. The one night we found the cart selling them we had just finished dinner and I wasn’t the least bit hungry. When we went back later (after drinking) the cart had closed for the night already.
But, thanks to Jordan from The Life of Jord for sharing with me his photo from we he managed to find a jocho on the way home.
Jordan is a talented Youtuber and he has produced content from Baja Sur as well, albeit from a different part of the state. You can find his Youtube channel here if you want to check out his Baja coverage or just his work in general.
Fish Tacos (tacos de pescado)
San Diego may have put Baja-style fish tacos on the culinary map but the origination is here in Baja California. When you see menus touting “Baja fish tacos” this is the Baja they’re talking about!
The original fish tacos were actually made with shark meat but today they’re made with whatever fish was caught fresh the day of. The fish is then either battered and deep-fried or grilled (fried is most traditional) and placed inside fresh tortillas, topped with shredded cabbage and then covered in your choice of sauces.
Most people top their fish tacos with a mayonnaise-based sauce but I prefer pico de gallo and a habanero salsa for some heat. And don’t forget to finish the taco with a generous squeeze of lime before you take that perfect first bite.
This was a new one for me and I’m going to be honest with you guys- it wasn’t my favorite. But, it is super local and you should give it a try when you’re in the area.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with ceviche- seafood (usually fish or shrimp) cooked (cured) in citrus juice- usually lime but also lemon.
Here, you can find a version using the chocolate clams in place of fish or shrimp:
It’s definitely worth a try but I still prefer my chocolate clams grilled rather than made into a ceviche but several of my friends on the trip loved this dish.
For something very local use your ceviche to make a tostada with mayonnaise. I’ve had lots of seafood tostadas as I’ve eaten my way around Mexico but putting mayo on it was a new twist. I have to admit, I didn’t hate it.
Ok, so these are a couple of bonus food items you must try while you’re in Baja that I thought would be cheating if I included them in your list of 6 Must-Try Baja Foods.
Because really, if I told you to come to Mexico and have tortillas and bottled water you’d think I had really failed as a food blogger. But- hear me out.
This is one of the few places in Mexico I’ve come where you could even find flour tortillas, other than in some one-off dishes like gringa tacos and enchiladas Suiza. Also, please note in both of these dishes how the name of the dish implies they’re not super local- white girl tacos and Swiss enchiladas!
In almost everywhere that I’ve been in Mexico, corn tortillas are the default. Even then the corn varieties vary from region to region with some being yellow, others being white, and even blue corn like you find in traditional Oaxacan dishes– blue being my very favorite. If you’ve never had blue corn tortilla chips you should seek them out immediately, if not sooner.
But I digress- we’re talking about tortillas. In this part of Mexico, flour tortillas are not only easily found but they’re the most popular. This is the other Mexico, remember?
Our tourism board rep told us why you find flour tortillas here rather than corn. The first reason- this climate is better for growing grain (flour) than corn. The second reason is that grain stores longer than corn in this climate so the grain can be harvested and processed to be stored to make tortillas year-round.
And how do these taste compared to the flour tortillas back home? As good if not better than the ones my sweet Mexican grandmother used to make by hand every time I came to visit.
So what’s the secret ingredient? Manteca, or pork fat. Flour, lard, salt, and a little water and you have the no-fail recipe for some of the best tortillas I’ve ever had. Sorry, grandma!
To the vegetarians and vegans that come here thinking they can live off of beans, rice, and tortillas during their entire visit, sorry to tell you but the majority of what you’ll find here is swimming in pork fat. Be sure to ask if the dish has manteca if you’re a strict vegetarian or vegan.
Topo Chico Mineral Water
I’m a mineral water addict. It’s even in my bio on Facebook.
(Also, if you’re interested in reading more about the dual citizen part of that bio click here to read about how I obtained my Mexican citizenship)
I drink an obscene amount of mineral water- it was a running joke on the trip with people counting how many bottles per day I would order.
And, there’s one brand that I’ve dubbed the king of mineral waters and that’s Topo Chico.
It’s literally perfect. Every time I take a drink I marvel at how perfectly bubbly it is.
Topo Chico isn’t even a Baja product- it’s made in Monterrey, Mexico. So then why am I recommending it on a post about Baja food? Because it’s everywhere here and in other parts of Mexico it’s scarce if you can even find it at all.
All over Baja California Sur every bar, restaurant, and even gas station had TONS of Topo Chico and at the prices, you’d expect to pay (about 25 – 40 pesos or $1.20 USD – $1.90 USD) per bottle.
In Merida, Mexico, where I’m currently based, we have one place that sells it at a huge markup and only in limited supplies. I have to preorder it and wait for the shipment.
In other parts of Mexico, you can’t find it all. Even though it’s made in Mexico it’s mostly exported to the United States. I can more easily find this Mexican product back home in the U.S. than I can in most parts of Mexico, go figure.
So did I just end my food post telling you to go to Baja California, Mexico to try water and tortillas? Yes, kind of but be sure to try them along with all of the more unique dishes mentioned above.
And be sure to add a generous squeeze of lime to your Topo Chico, it really sets it off. You’ll thank me later!
Which of these Baja California dishes do you most want to try? Let me know in the comments section below!
Travel writer and owner of the blog. My work has been featured on Fodors, Eater.com, International Living, and Great Escape Publishing, among many others. My story? Nearly six years ago, I left my job at an Oklahoma City law firm and embarked on a journey around the world. At the time, I thought I would only be gone for 6 months, but the more I traveled, the longer my bucket list became. Flashpacker describes how I travel. Rather than traveling as the normal world wise backpacker and staying in hostel dorms, I prefer a more comfortable experience, and typically stay in private rooms, take Ubers instead of taxis, and now use a suitcase instead of a backpack. Foodie, on the other hand, describes one of the key reasons why I travel. I love to pick a central “base camp” and then explore the surrounding area, really immersing myself in the culture and interacting with the people, and enjoying and exploring the food of an area is an essential part of this experience.