Eating the Desert

“Can you make a margarita with that?”

by Todos Santos Eco Adventures

These days it seem like the world has gone just plain crazy for Baja cuisine. The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio – these are but a few from the 4th estate that have lined up to gush over chefs and restaurants that are giving Baja – heretofore best known to outsiders as a totally rad surf scene dude – a bona fide “food scene”.  So while it was the surfers who first made the terms “firing” and “shredding” famous in Baja (all surfspeak for surfing really well) it’s the chefs who are breathing new life into the terms in the culinary revolution that is sweeping the peninsula.

But what exactly is it that the chefs are firing and shredding? Of course there’s the bounty from the two seas, and all that great produce from the organic farms that populate the region. But most of Baja is desert and when you look out at it, it can seem kind of desolate, maybe a little forbidding, definitely thorny. What’s there to eat? Turns out, quite a bit (if you don’t mind getting your fingers pricked)!

Sergio preparing pitaya at home

Take the pitaya. The Baja peninsula is covered in this cactus and Chef Dany of Santo Vino/Hotel California likens the fruit of this plant to a red kiwi. He loves to cook it up with ginger and butter to make sauce for his Cabrilla (sea bass), and he’s also found that it makes a zingy vinaigrette for his salads. Our local ice cream stores in Todos Santos and La Paz report that pitaya ice cream is a perennial best-seller, notwithstanding the fact that the pitaya fruit is disgustingly healthy, packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants and Vitamin C.  In fact, Juice Generation, a chain of smoothie bars in New York City, is promoting the pitaya as “the next big superfruit”, following in the footsteps of pomegranates, mangosteens and acai.

Prickly Pear

The tuna, or prickly pear, is the fruit of the nopal cactus, another ubiquitous Baja dweller. While Chef Dany likes to use the prickly pear for his dynamite fish salsas, and others like to pair it with tequila for a zingy barbeque sauce, Chef Rick Bayless likes to make Fresh Prickly Pear Ice as a refreshing dessert, and many folks in Baja share this enthusiasm for sweets made from tunas and regularly cook up prickly pear jelly, prickly pear syrup and prickly pear candy. Like the pitaya though, the tuna is ridiculously healthy, being high in magnesium, taurine, Vitamin C, calcium, potassium and antioxidants.


The leaves or paddles of the nopal are another great staple of Baja cuisine. Sergio Jáuregui (yes, our very own Sergio of Todos Santos Eco Adventures) likes to make what he calls nopal “quesadillas”. He cleans the paddle, grills it on both sides, then melts his favorite cooking cheese onto it – usually Oaxaca or Manchego – and fries it up. Delicious! (In that deep-fat fryer / comfort food kind of way.) Chef Dany’s favorite way to eat nopal paddles is equally tasty (and far more healthy): he puts it raw in salads with cubes of onion, tomatoes, local fresh cheese (queso fresco), parsley and cilantro – magnifique!

There are many more cactus plants from the Baja desert that make great eating, including the biznaga – which many chefs include in their chiles en nogada – and yucca, whose lovely white flowers make a great stir fry in Chef Dany’s wok.

But the real test of any Baja food is: can you make a margarita with it? And for all of our featured cacti here – the prickly pear, the pitaya, the biznaga and yucca – the answer is a resounding YES! Just swing by Santo Vino or the Hotel California some evening and prepare yourself for a most delicious treat (and don’t be afraid to try it at home either!)

Brown-Garitas for Everyone!

Chef Iker Algorri of Café Brown likes to use a plant local to Todos Santos – damiana – to make his world-famous Brown-Garitas, a sure crowd pleaser:

      • 1 shot of of tequila
      • 1 shot of controy or triple sec
      • 3/5th shot of damiana
      • Splash of lime juice
      • Splash of fresh orange juice

Blend it up, serve with love and enjoy! Oh, and damiana is widely considered a potent aphrodisiac so best to enjoy your Brown-Garitas with friends!

If you’d like to learn more about cooking with Baja foods please contact us about our Cooking Adventures Week here in Todos Santos. It features fun, informative classes with both Chef Dany and Chef Iker, as well as lots of time in the glorious nature of Baja, checking out the bounty of the ocean and desert.

Thanks to Janine Wall for her help with this article.

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2012

The Saints of Todos Santos: La Casita Chef Sergio Rivera

by Todos Santos Eco Adventures

You may have noticed a certain remarkable phenomenon that occurs when you take visitors to dine at La Casita Tapas and Wine Bar in Todos Santos: Chef Sergio comes over to greet you; he politely inquires where your guests are from; then, seemingly no matter what place your guests claim as home, Chef Sergio tells them how much he enjoyed his time in their city. And in more cases then not, he’ll tell them about the time he lived in their city, describing neighborhoods, restaurants and, claro, girls he dated.  We’ve heard this happen with visitors from all points of the compass in the USA: from Phoenix, AZ to St. Paul, MN; from New York, NY to San Francisco, CA. Never fails! But how could such a thing be? How could a poor boy from Mazatlan have visited – let alone lived in – so many places on and around the American continent? Surely it must be some sort of charming restauranteur’s parlor trick? Some sort of travel magazine savant’s tomfoolery?

Turns out it’s no trick at all. “The boats I worked on got progressively larger. I started off on an 87-footer, then moved to a 95-footer, a 106-footer and finally a 180-foot yacht. That thing had a $40,000 stove. When I finished the contract they gave me a week on St. Martin, a week in Panama, a week in the Dominican Republic and a week in Mexico City. Very nice people.”

And that’s just the last four years before he moved to Todos Santos. Sergio Antonio Rivera Velazquez has been cooking up one side of the Americas, down the other and at points in between for years. And like many a Todos Santeño before him, the drive to ride the waves was behind his choice of careers. “My main goal when I was in high school was to be a doctor. But then I did the entrance exam for medical school, and let’s just say that the results indicated that I was far better suited to traveling and surfing than practicing medicine.  And the only industry I had skills in that would let me do that was the restaurant business.”

So in 1990 the 20-year old left his home in Mazatlan and headed to Cabo where he landed a job at the Hotel Cabo San Lucas – the kind of place where guests arrived in their private jets. He’d surf El Tule each morning then go to work each afternoon. Nice joint, but couldn’t stick around long. He returned to Mazatlan where he met an American family from Bend, Oregon. He took them up on their invitation to come visit for a while. A year and many great memories later, they finally decided to drive him back down to Mazatlan – stopping in Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and many other points of interest along the way. Once back in Mazatlan he promptly met a girl in a restaurant and moved with her to St. Paul, Minnesota where he worked, naturally enough, in an Irish pub. A year and many great memories later, the Bend, Oregon family decided to move to Cabo so Sergio joined them. He surfed in the morning and worked in the evening at a restaurant called the Giggling Marlin. A year and many great memories later he returned to Mazatlan where he met a girl – but stayed in Mazatlan anyway.

The years in New York left Sergio a die hard   Yankees fan

Now when Sergio was a kid growing up in Mazatlan his mother ran a small restaurant on the weekends and he had always enjoyed helping around the kitchen and entertaining the customers.  So when he returned to Mazatlan in 1996 he’d literally spent a lifetime working in and around restaurants, but he’d never actually learned to cook. He decided that needed to change. He was working in a restaurant called Jungle Juice, and asked the owner/chef to teach him to cook on the job – for no pay. It was an offer the owner couldn’t refuse and Sergio was put in charge of the outdoor barbeque. His skills improved so dramatically that before long an entrepreneur visiting from New York invited him to move to the U.S. to design, build and manage a Mexican restaurant. So at the age of 27 Sergio moved to Suffern, NY and Olé! was born. He ran the kitchen for 6 years and loved the work, but he missed the spirituality of being close to the ocean. So when friends from Santa Cruz, CA invited him out, he bid good-bye to New York and moved to California, where he surfed in the morning and worked in the evening at the Paradise Beach Bar and Grill. Stints in Arizona, Iowa, Mazatlan and New York (again) followed until 2004 when a friend started introducing him to the 1%, many of whom – you won’t be surprised to learn – own remarkable yachts. A four-year career as the private chef on some incredible boats ensued, with Sergio running the kitchen on boats such as the Flying Dutchman, the Adventure More, the Illegal and the Boardwalk, all while exploring ports of call throughout Mexico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Aruba, Curacao, the Dominican Republic… a much broader education than medical school could ever have provided!

Sergio and Aury with Baby on the Way

In 2008 Sergio was vacationing in La Paz when he met a woman named Kim Gianotti-Keltto who had a dream of opening a restaurant in Todos Santos. Todos Santos – a surfer’s paradise, a food lover’s haven. In short, heaven for a surfin’ chef like Sergio.  Sergio and Kim pooled their resources and on November 23, 2010 La Casita Tapas and Wine Bar opened and began serving up the fabulous food for which it has won a truly devoted following. In fact, almost every Todos Santos Eco Adventures adventure week includes a meal at La Casita. And seemingly no matter where our guests are from, Chef Sergio has spent some time in their town…

When Sergio leased the building for La Casita everyone told him that the place was cursed and that he no doubt would be too.  If this is what being cursed looks like then Sergio is ready for more.  He bought Kim’s share of the business when she decided to return to the States, so at the age of 42 the peripatetic boy from Mazatlan finds himself the owner of a thriving business, stepfather to a beautiful 4-year old girl, and father to a son to be born in October. “I’m living such a happy life here, and can’t imagine a better place to be. The tranquility, the weather, the spirituality of Todos Santos. I am so thankful to the community of Todos Santos for showing such great support and loyalty to us. It really is heaven here.” Another little slice of magic in our pueblo magico.

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2012