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: Chef Iker Algorri

Would it make you feel any better about vacationing in Mexico if you had a federal agent serving you all your meals? Then come on down to Todos Santos because Café Brown has the solution for you! Owner/Chef Iker Algorri worked as a federal agent for the state of Baja California Sur for 12 years before hanging up his badge and picking up a spatula to turn out some of the best home-cooked Mexican food you can find anywhere.

It was the agent’s instinct for survival that led him to cooking in the first place. “My mother hated to cook, so at our house we had the eternal picnic. Sandwiches, tuna salad, peanut butter. So I started cooking just to have something besides picnic food. The more sandwiches she made the more I applied myself in the kitchen. Seeing how serious I was, she finally relented and hired a cook. But not just any cook. She hired a Tlaxcaltecan woman – someone with absolutely no Spanish blood in her – who really knew how to make the great traditional dishes of Mexico. I learned an incredible amount from her, then later got the confidence to modify and create and really make things my own. It’s this blend of traditional Mexico and experimentation that I love to serve our guests at Café Brown.”

Iker grew up in Mexico City and moved to Baja in 1983 to start a career that took him all over the peninsula. In addition to his 12 years as a federal agent, Iker also worked as a translator for the court (like many Mexico City kids, he was fluent in English by the time he graduated from high school), an official with the Registry of Motor Vehicles, a Mexican ATF agent, and as a Customs officer. He even got a law degree and worked as a lawyer. In short, Iker served as all those people that you love to hate, which makes it all the more amazing that Iker and Café Brown together are two of the most-loved institutions in town.

While Iker’s mother indirectly got him interested in cooking, his father directly got him invested in Café Brown. When visiting Iker in La Paz in 2000, his dad took a side trip to Todos Santos and promptly announced, “Now I know where I’m going to die.” (Todos Santos often has that effect – ask all the residents who now have extended family living here!) Iker finished up 20 years with the government, took early retirement, and opened Café Brown with his dad in 2003. It was one of the first arts-oriented cafes in town, and has always featured live music/great recorded music, works by local artists, drumming circles, Spanish-language movies, lots of dancing and of course, cooking classes and the Cooking Adventures Week with Todos Santos Eco Adventures. That there is fabulous food is a given. Iker’s motto is “Happiness is only real when it’s shared” and sharing happiness is what the Café Brown experience is all about. And of course, it’s all perfectly safe with Federal Agent/Chef Iker running the show!

Chef Iker Algorri with Portrait at Cafe Brown

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2011