Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sabina Bandera's La Guerrerense

I knew my recent overnight trip through Ensenada to Guadalupe Valley with carloads of friends would be charmed after reading this sweet bit of graffiti posted on a tired building as we entered the city: Besos con sabor a no te vayas (Flavored kisses, don't leave) credited to the Ensenada Poetry Society. With our first stop, our caravan enjoyed the sweetest kisses a port town can provide--its seafood--at what at first seemed like a nondescript street cart on the corner of Alvarado and Lopez Mateos called Mariscos La Guerrerense. Don't be fooled and certainly don't be put off by the fact that it's a street cart. The food served here would be equally at home in a white tablecloth establishment--but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun to eat.

Sabina Bandera and Flor Franco enjoying slices of octopus.
My friend chef Flor Franco led us to this surprisingly well-known little eatery now operated by Eduardo Obiedo and his wife, Sabina Bandera, a petite woman with what has to be the most captivating smile in Baja.

Started in 1960 by Eduardo's parents, Alberto Oviedo and Celia Carranza, La Guerrerense is now run by this second generation, despite the fact that as a young woman, Bandera, from a farm in solidly terra firma Guerrero, was a seafood novice. But over the years Bandera, also affectionately known as La Guerita, has become a seafood genius, embracing everything from sea snails and mussels to sea urchins and octopus. She's given name to a business that has chefs and food lovers from around the world clamoring for her simple, yet powerfully flavored fresh seafood dishes. Anthony Bourdain raves about her. There's a promotional photo of the beaming Bandera with Brian Malarkey in front of the cart. And there's always a swarm of customers waiting to be handed a plate of fresh fish on a fried corn tortilla, over which they'll drizzle one of Bandera's many salsas (which you can purchase jars of for about $5 apiece; stay tuned--she's trying to get them into Whole Foods).

There are some 14 types of ceviche available on the black banner menu draped above the back of the cart--made of fish, shrimp, octopus, clams, mussels, sea snails, sea cucumbers, fish pate...

This list goes on and on but no matter what you order, what you get is a perfect balance of sweet seafood, acid, and heat. You can also order more seafood to be sliced on top.

Sliced clam and scallops topped with rich avocado are about to get drenched by one of La Guerrerense's 16 sauces. 
I'm a pretty adventurous eater but I admit to having had some reservations about trying sea snail, above. But being a good sport paid off. These slices of sea snail have the texture and umami of a rich shitake mushroom. Definitely a must try.
Or, you can order anything in a shell, like this black clam ceviche below a dollop of fresh avocado.

Surrounding the cart are boxes of avocados and glowing orange habanero chiles. I can't imagine how much they go through in the course of a day. At the front of the cart is a stack of salsa jars sporting beautifully styled labels and irresistible organic sauces.

Indeed, selecting salsas can be the most time consuming part of the experience. On the day I was there, the sauce of choice by far seemed to be the Chilitos de mi Jardin, peanut halves bathed in a lively chile-infused oil. Not only does the salsa have a spicy crunch that complements the seafood, it looks dreamy on whatever you put it on. I bought a jar, along with the creamy orange Chilito Diablito, which is as fiery as it sounds--but will be perfect used sparingly on tacos or other dishes and added to other sauces to pump up the heat with habanero flavor.

This seafood mix above has everything you want from a seafood cart just blocks away from a sprawling port. Everything is fresh and clean tasting with beautiful textures and a nice bite from the salsas.

One of the staff is preparing a plate of sliced octopus for our group to taste. First, it gets a dousing of lime juice, then a drizzle of hot sauce.
As if this weren't enough, you also get serenaded during your meal by this charming guitarist.

Bandera could charge a lot more than the $5 or so per tostada, but don't come here because it's a bargain. Come if you worship creatively prepared fresh seafood. La Guerrerense is open daily from 10 or 10:30 a.m. until she runs out of food at around 4 or 5 p.m. Look for the large flag pole by the port at Av. Alvarado and then turn left and go down two blocks.

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