Much like the the French poet and symbolist leader Paul Verlaine in his decadent days, Baja cuisine is misunderstood, yet the northern most state with few traditions has contributed many verses to the body of work that is Modern Mexican cuisine.
Chef Diego Hernandez is accustomed to explaining his cuisine back in the Valle de Guadalupe, at his restaurant Corazón de Tierra, where puzzled diners pick at their plates searching for traces of chiles, mole, masa or quelites (foraged greens common in southern Mexico).
Early reports on Verlaine have downplayed the Mexican-ness of Hernandez’s first U.S.-based restaurant by simply stating that it’s a contemporary restaurant that happens to have a Mexican chef, but Hernandez is not just a Mexican chef — he’s the archetype for a new generation of chefs entirely trained in Mexico.
In 2001, modern Mexican cuisine was in its infancy when a young Diego Hernandez walked through the doors of Manzanilla, the famed Ensenada restaurant by chef Benito Molina that was the first truly modern Mexican concept. Hernandez went on to work in what are today the two most respected kitchens in Mexico: chef Guillermo Gonzalez’s Pangea in Monterrey, where he learned how to run a brigade, and at Pujol under chef Enrique Olvera in Mexico City, where a transformation was underway.
Around this time, Olvera were experimenting with a sort of fusion — the chefs from the first generation of modern Mexican masters had trained abroad and learned French technique, but local Mexican ingredients were finding their way into these kitchens. But the paradigm shift came when they began to lean on Mexican technique: barbacoa, moles, recaudos (condiments for Yucatan cooking), nixtamal (pre-Hispanic method of cooking corn in an alkaline solution to make masa), and cooking over an open fire.
“While I was at Pangea and Pujol, a lot of produce and seafood was coming in from Ensenada — I didn’t learn that until I left home,” says Hernandez, who was born and raised in Ensenada. In 2008, Hernandez returned to Baja, attending Tijuana’s Culinary Art School while opening his first restaurant, Uno, which closed during the height of the violence in Baja caused by President Vicente Calderon’s war against the cartels. He later landed in the Valle de Guadalupe, opening Corazon de Tierra in 2011, a Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurant.
In Baja, street carts serve sea urchin and geoduck tostadas and taqueros dish tacos full of grilled octopus in Mexican pesto. In the Valle de Guadalupe, chefs serve roasted lamb brushed with rosemary and locally produced olive oil alongside gorgeous salads and Mexican wine. These young traditions seem at odds with most people’s conception of Mexican food, but Baja California is as Mexican as Jalisco, Pedro Infante, and Bukanas (Buchanan’s blended Scotch, a top selling spirit in Mexico).
If Hernandez’s cooking seems dissonant and marches to loose rhythms, one must look beyond the limits of ingredients and known plates, because his formative memories of taste and his education are 100% Mexican, and rooted in Baja California.
Verlaine, which opened recently in West Hollywood in the former Dominick’s space, serves a menu that reflects new traditions from Baja California. Baja oysters are served raw or grilled (pure Ensenada), while the rock cod plays tribute to the “fish of the day” specials found at Manzanilla and Laja (another pivotal modern Mexican restaurant by chef Jair Téllez).
Hernandez’s excellent ceviche is an Ensenada classic and yes, the beetroot is true Baja cuisine. Vegetables plucked from the Earth out of a garden a hundred feet away is the norm in Mexico’s wine country, while you can pretty much eat the best salads you’ll ever have in your life in the Valle de Guadalupe.
Another part of Verlaine’s menu notes some of the current Mexican chef trends like chochoyotes in a Oaxacan mole chichilo and the sorrel tamal made with yellow mole, all while leaning on California ingredients. In Art Poétiqué, Verlaine wrote, “Only the nuance draws the dream to the dream and the flute to the horn!”, as in the musicality of verse and (one should) not be imprisoned by the fetters of convention. Instead, we should consider the pedigree and soul one of Mexico’s brightest stars.
“Music first and foremost! In your verse,
Choose those meters odd of syllable,
Supple in the air, vague, flexible,
Free of pounding beat, heavy or terse.”
— Excerpt from Art Poétiqué by Paul Verlaine
Verlaine, 8715 Beverly Blvd, West Hollywood, (424) 288-4621, verlaine.la