SDUT Ensenada’s Sabina Bandera is the Queen of the Cart, whose tostadas de mariscos have been proclaimed among the best in the world by the Sultan of Street Food himself, Anthony Bourdain. But on a recent afternoon, the seafood legend is going off menu.
Cradling a hot, freshly made corn tortilla in her hand, Bandera sprinkles on some sea salt and quickly rolls it into the shape of a cigar.
“Taste it,” she says in Spanish, handing it to a visitor of her just-opened restaurant, Sabina Restaurante. “This is what we made at home in Guerrero.”
When the steaming, salty tortilla elicits “mmmms,” Bandera’s eyes light up behind her oversize black hipster glasses. The woman known as “La Guerrerense” — a culinary legend to locals, tourists and highflying chefs from Bourdain to Chicago’s Rick Bayless and San Diego’s Brian Malarkey — knows she has hooked yet another devotee.
Plain, simple, humble and delicious have been La Guerrerense’s trademarks since she arrived at the food cart on the corner of Lopez Mateo and Alvarado in this seaside city when she was 21. On her honeymoon from the state of Guerrero, she never left. Over the decades, the diminutive 61-year-old has built a global following, in part by charisma, in part being ahead of the culinary curve by insisting on using only the freshest seafood plucked out of the Pacific that morning. Today, Bandera is Mexico’s unofficial food ambassador — and not because her cherubic smile is ubiquitous on YouTube, food blogs and jars of homemade chile sauces.
She represented her country at the World Street Food Congress in Singapore in 2013 and was one of the first signed up for Bourdain’s outsize (and long-delayed) street food market project in New York City.
Bourdain anointed Bandera’s cart one of the best in the world on his show “No Reservations” in 2012, describing her signature sea urchin, pismo clam, avocado, chile sauce and peanut tostada, “Le Bernardin-quality seafood in the street … the woman is a genius.” (Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin holds three Michelin stars.)
The ensuing fame — and line of customers — hasn’t seemed to go to Bandera’s curly-topped head. Her first restaurant, across the street from the cart, is decidedly low-key. Order at the counter and sit at one of the 80 indoor seats or on the patio. It’s only open late on Thursdays and Saturdays, when seafood pozole (hominy soup) is served. Otherwise, it closes at 6 p.m.
The open kitchen allows you to watch the action, just as you’d do on the street, and though she’s moving back and forth between locations, Bandera’s children and longtime assistants ensure there’s continuity.
The full street cart menu of more than a dozen ceviche tostadas (octopus, snail, scallop, clam, crab salad, shrimp, etc.) and seafood cocktails is available at Sabina’s. And the lineup of hot foods, a new addition, is characteristically straightforward: fish tacos, clam chowder and her sought-after pozole.
Where: López Mateos, No. 917 (at Calle 1ra and Alvarado), Ensenada, Mexico
Phone: (011) 52-646-174-0006
Outside of her tostadas de mariscos (my favorite is a mix of scallop and clam), the best of her hot dishes was the taco loaded with sweet, rounded shrimp floating in a creamy rancho sauce. And don’t pass up the moist, dreamy chocolate cake, made by a friend of Bandera, and only available at Sabina’s.
As happy as people are to be able to sit and enjoy Bandera cooking, there’s something about eating street food on the street that you can’t replicate in a restaurant. It’s navigating the crowd, and the potholes on the sidewalk, it’s elbowing your way to get a spoonful of La Guerrerense’s signature chile sauces. It’s standing right next to her as she slices an octopus or avocado with precision.
It’s having her hand you your tostada and smiling when you bite it and the shell shatters and the toppings fall out all over your plate, your hand, your shirt.
“They’re both the same,” Bandera said when asked how the experiences differed. “They are both mi cocina. They are both made with love.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Hugo D’Acosta, the biggest name in winemaking in Baja’s Valle de Guadalupe, bottled beer and wine for Sabina’s restaurant, complete with La Guerrerense’s smiling face on the label.