Muelle Tres y Cocina de Doña Esthela

House ceviche (ceviche de la casa) at Muelle3.
House ceviche (ceviche de la casa) at Muelle3.

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The 1920s saw an influx of Japanese immigrants to Ensenada, and their influence is something to savor at the little dockside restaurant Muelle3 Cocina del Mar. Here, seafood preparations pay homage to flavors that you’ll associate with stateside sushi, the kicker being Ensenada’s plethora of fresh seafood and the restaurant’s prime location right at the port. Suffice to say, this is a sensible place to start exploring the hybrid cuisine in dishes like sashimi and the house special ceviche.

Besides the sunshine, friendly people and second-to-none fresh fish, low prices keep reeling me back to this city. A prime example is the plate of yellowtail sashimi that arrived at our table, roughly three times the size of an order in the states, costing around $12. It came dressed in a sweet soy sauce concoction with grated ginger and black sesame seeds.

My boyfriend and I struggled to finish the ceviche, whose contents — a mélange of tender octopus, two kinds of sashimi, sliced pismo clams and whole, cooked shrimp — came piled high in a bowl with diced onion, cucumber and silky slices of avocado. This version isn’t citrusy sour, rather, it’s savory umami factor comes from a light, soy-based dressing.

With two beers, our seafood feast cost $28. Open 1 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Teniente Azueta 187, Ignacio Altamirano, Ensenada.

Getting there: As you enter the city from Highway 1, follow the signs for Ensenada that hug the coast; hang a right when you see the visitor information center. There’s a narrow parking lot directly behind it (free for two hours). Walk toward the water and you can’t miss the blue building just to the right. If in doubt, use the visitor information center. There are English-speaking employees, free wifi, maps and clean bathrooms.

Baja wine country has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years for its world-class cuisine. But where do the chefs like to eat when they’re not hard at work in the kitchen? None other than a tucked away countryside home, known as La Cocina de Doña Esthela.

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Chilaquiles from La Cocina de Doña Esthela.

On a recent trip to the Valle de Guadalupe, I received the tip — or rather, the order, to eat breakfast there — from chef Ryan Steyn of the nearby El Jardin de Adobe. A quick Internet search revealed that chef Javier Plascencia is a fan of the Sinaloan fare, and has been known to tweet food porn from Esthela’s dining room. Steyn promised the best chiliquiles and machaca that I’d ever try, which wound up being the case, and then some.

We arrived to an overflowing house on Esthela’s farm, where we sat outside and waited about an hour, overlooking cows from which she makes the fresh cheese that tops each table as a complimentary starter.

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Machaca from La Cocina de Doña Esthela.

On the weekend, live music played in the dining room to the crowd of families, surrounding the adobe oven and stove where sublime tortillas — both corn and flour — are constantly being made. The scene is something straight out of “No Reservations.”

For around $25, we had machaca, chilaquiles, enchiladas, quesadillas and incredible, moist corn pancakes topped with butter, served with syrup on the side. We sipped on steaming hot cups of coffee spiced with cinnamon, already fantasizing about the day we’d return to try more.

Words and photos don’t do Esthela’s kitchen justice, it’s something true fans of Mexican cuisine must go and experience for themselves.

Getting there: What many articles about the valle fail to mention is that roads are often unnamed and unpaved. It’s not as sketchy as it sounds though, and proved quite easy once we began our journey. From Ensenada, head east on Highway 3 until you reach the KM 14 marker. Flip a U-turn and then turn right at KM marker 12. At the end of this road, turn right on El Porvenir and follow the signs on the right, up a dirt road about a half mile, and Esthela’s will be on your left.

See Ensenada Interactive Map, as La Cocina de Doña Esthela is close to Vinos Pijoan.

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