We've all seen street vendors (or smelled those mouthwatering aromas that come from their cart!) but it can take some guts to actually stop and order something. Sometimes we're too focused on the destination ahead to appreciate what's right outside our door. Other times we wonder if it's safe, if the food will be tasty, or if the aroma oversells the flavor. The trick is to know what you're looking for and to get food where the locals do.
Baja California is one of the world's greatest road trips and stopping for great street food can make it that much more amazing.
Get your churros at the border
Whether you're just entering Baja California from San Ysidro or about to head back into San Diego with your great trip coming to an end, you shouldn't overlook the border as a place to get great eats. While you can get almost anything — from large statues of the Virgin Mary to colorful Lucha Libre masks — the best deals are the churros: these crispy, corrugated tubes of donut-like deliciousness usually come filled with your choice of custard, caramel, or chocolate. Unlike the store-bought version, yours will be filled right there as you wait, then handed to you — sometimes steaming — for you to eat in the car.
Pismo clams just south of San Quintin
Three hours or so from the California-Mexico border is a small town called San Quintin. It's easy to miss, and many people zip through it having stayed overnight in Ensenada. But those in the know will pull over just south, where about thirty small shacks line the side of the road. Each one is a little different: there's one with carnival-type drawings on its front. Another sports the bones of a whale. A few are just pushcarts. But they all share something magical inside: steamed Pismo clams. These oversize mollusks are as fresh as can be, usually caught by the cooks' husbands or brothers that very morning. They open them, squeeze in lime juice, add chopped onion, tomato, and avocado, then wrap them up in tin foil and grill them to perfection. Served steaming hot, they're a great snack or even a meal any time of day.
Baja fish tacos
Menus in restaurants worldwide advertise "Baja Fish Tacos," but there's nothing like having them in Baja, and perhaps the best spot in all of Baja is a humble pushcart in La Paz called Hermanos Gonzales (the Gonzales Brothers). Locals flock to this oversize pushcart at the end of Calle Madero on Degollado, where shrimp and fish is breaded in a delicate batter and fried to crispy. Seconds later, you choose corn or flour tortillas and get the tacos on a plastic plate covered with a disposable plastic bag. You choose from a bewildering array of salsas and condiments, nearly all of them spicy, and eat at one of the cart-side stools (if you can find an empty one). Tacos only cost a couple bucks and it's hard not to eat about fifty of them.
Tamales in Todos Santos
Some people get as fervent about their tamales as they do about religion or politics, and with good reason: a perfect tamale is close to holy. What's not up for debate is the texture: tamales need to be moist, soft, almost mushy without a hint of goo. They should not be dry, flaky, or crumble to bits the moment the corn husk (and it must be corn husk!) is removed. But inside you can find a variety of fillings, from cheese and chili to chicken to beef. The tiny tourist town of Todos Santos has two great places for tamales that are worth seeking out if you're a "believer." First, at the north end of town is a street-side market with a long row of shacks. One of them (and you'll need to ask) offers great beef tamales that sell out so quickly it's tough to believe they're even sold there at all. If you prefer chicken, ask in town for directions to the El Rey Sol II market, where a guy (the "Tamale Guy") comes with a bicycle cart and a cooler. If you're lucky, he'll be there in the late afternoon. If you're not, he'll have sold out and you'll need to go back the next day. Early bird gets the...tamale, after all.
A Little Taste of the Rainbow
One of the secret street treats in Mexico is something so simple that many people overlook it even when it's right in front of their nose: the "waters" of watermelon, cantaloupe, hibiscus, pineapple, limonada, and so on that are often sold by ladling the liquid into a plastic bag, popping in a straw, twisting it quickly and sealing it with a rubber band. The original "juice box," if you will. These drinks, called aguas (as in agua de sandia for watermelon water, etc.) are made by blending up fresh fruit, ice, and a touch of sugar if needed, then adding plenty of ice. The resulting ambrosia is so delicious that you'll feel like you're drinking one of the colors of the rainbow. Nothing is better than seeking out an agua vendor on a hot afternoon. You will find yourself finishing it all too quickly and going back for a second in no time.
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