Boules Restaurant & Bar in San Miguel, Baja California Norte
Definitely worth a day trip
If it's been a while since you've dined at any of Northern Baja's coastal destinations, you're in for a treat. As someone who's visited Ensenada and points north for more than 20 years, I have witnessed firsthand the evolution of the local cuisine from standard combination-plate Mexican fare to a level of culinary excellence that is undeniable.
And while I can't say for certain, I would hazard a guess that the availability of increasingly better-quality wines from the nearby Guadalupe Valley is in part responsible. (Where there's quality wine, quality cuisine will follow.)
Today, there are no fewer than 16 restaurants between San Miguel and Ensenada, all featuring local food. Unlike the sea of tourist joints that line the waterfront farther south in Ensenada, these locally minded restaurants—which cater more to local gastronomes, savvy ex-pats and frequent visitors like me—are doing well in the current economy. And given the relatively moderate prices for both food and local wines, it's not hard to understand why.
One of my favorites is Boules, which was opened in 2010 by veteran restaurateur Javier "Javi" Martinez. Boules—which derives its name from the steel balls, or boules, used in the French game of pétanque—is located in the sleepy coastal town of San Miguel, just 62 miles from the San Ysidro border crossing and just past the Ensenada tollbooth going south. The restaurant's atmosphere is casual and familiar, with a breathtaking view of the port of Sauzal and Ensenada Bay. It's a setting suitable for weddings and parties.
The menu at Boules is seasonal, fresh and always inspired. The cuisine is Baja-Med, with plenty of seafood and grilled meats. Appetizers are in the US $4–$6 range, and have included dishes such as Ejotes Salteados (salted Mexican string beans), Almeja Chocolate (steamed clams with chocolate sauce) and Triadito Pescado (sashimi with soy sauce and ginger). My personal favorite is Tuétano, which translates as "bone marrow" and consists of baked beef bones with homemade mini corn tortillas on which to spread the salty, tasty liquefied marrow along with various condiments.
Entrees range from about US $9 to $14 and have included dishes such as Rissoto de Portobello con Pato (risotto with Portobello mushrooms and duck—one of my favorites), Pasta de Almeja Manila (pasta with Manila clams) and Rissoto de Huitlacoche con Borrego (risotto with corn fungus and lamb shoulder—don't be afraid of the corn fungus, my husband loves this dish!
"My wife, Galia, and I had always dreamed of owning a restaurant with a unique and local style that could become a gathering place for our friends and family," says Javi, who was the former manager and part owner at world-class chef Benito Molina's Restaurante Manzanilla in Ensenada. That dream has become a reality at Boules, where children are free to mingle with many of Ensenada's up-and-coming chefs, who frequently stop by on Mondays for a game of boules (a weekly event known as I "Lunes de Pétanque").
A family tradition of fine dining and local fare
Galia Bitterlin's family has been part of the mainstream Ensenada culinary scene for more than five decades. Anyone who is familiar with downtown Ensenada will recognize El Rey Sol at the corner of Av. Lopez Mateos and Av. Blancarte as a family-owned landmark that has offered fine French cuisine and pastries since 1947.
"After several years abroad and marriage to French artist Jacques Bitterlin, my grandmother Virginia returned to her Mexican birthplace, where she earned the nickname pepita as a misinterpretation of the French petite," explains Galia. "Each day she would travel to the family farm, Rancho Las Animas, to collect fresh herbs, produce and poultry, plucking the chickens on her way back to town."
Today the Martinez-Bitterlin family influence is ever-present at Boules. Galia, Javi's partner in both business and marriage, serves as assistant manager. Galia's mother, Cecelia, an artist who lived and received her formal education at St. Patrick's School in San Diego, created the stained glass window that oversees the dining room at Boules and also the signature Boules design on restaurant plates. Javi's brother David Martinez, an accomplished pianist who is a restaurateur and owner of Muelle Tres restaurant on the embarcadero in Ensenada, can often be spotted competing in a game of pétanque at Boules.
Javi, who spent his senior year of high school as an exchange student in Cedar Falls, Iowa, explains to me in perfect English, "The restaurant business can be very demanding. But in a restaurant like Boules that's all about good local food, family and friends, it's definitely worth it."
Av Moctezuma 623, Zona Centro, Ensenada, BC, Mexico