Laja: Making It True

When I first set foot in Laja, in the spring of 2005, the Linkery had been open a couple months to a very encouraging initial reception. Our neighborhood believed in us and our goals. We were amateurs, we were passionate, we were committed to creating a local, seasonal cuisine relevant to our place.

We also served a salad with pomegranate seeds on it, in April. We didn’t know what we were doing.

Prior to opening our restaurant, we had met with numerous distributors of meats and produce. We’d review their offerings, and then I might explain how we’d like to make sausages from pigs from different farmers, and of different breeds, so our guests could experience the difference. This to someone whose years of selling pork consisted entirely of selling maybe a couple different grades of factory pork from huge conglomerates. Of course, my experience of buying pork consisted entirely of reading about heritage breed farmers like Paul Willis and Eliza MacLean, making me the far more ignorant party. Needless to say, I was redirected to the price sheet and the currently available options.

In the entrance to the Linkery, I hung a manifesto that I had written, and had typeset and framed. We make and serve San Diego cuisine, it said, going on then to champion our commitment to local and regional produce bought in season, and heritage breed meats. A month into the project, a young woman named Tara Pelletier, who was dining with us, asked me for a job. She was an experienced sausage maker and line cook at perhaps the best restaurant in San Diego. She wanted to help make us great. She took me to the manifesto on the wall and said, the first thing I want to do is, I want to make this true.

Please, I said, I can’t wait.

I don’t know whether it was a week or a month later that I ended up at Laja, but I know those words — I want to make this true — were still ringing in my ears. The thing was, nobody, as far as I could tell, had figured out how to really make it true in Southern California. I knew of a few restaurants that would buy some produce from Crows Pass or Chino Farms, but it didn’t seem like that food was driving their menu. Region restaurant had opened as the first San Diego restaurant explicitly based on the Chez Panisse model with a dedicated forager combing the farmers markets; while I was a fan of Region, the city farmers markets didn’t seem to have a ton of interesting produce, and with my unsophistication, I couldn’t easily tease out the relationship between the local growers and the Region cuisine. I certainly didn’t understand it well enough to apply it to our situation. All of the other good restaurants in town had more or less fixed menus, and bought produce from an all-seasons growing region stretching from Southern Mexico to Washington State.

Nowhere in here was an example of what we had in mind for “San Diego cuisine.”

Then, one day, a friend and I were in Ensenada for reasons I can’t remember, and I had a business card that had been given to me by another friend a few months earlier. He had told me that a guy he knew, a fan of food and restaurants, loved this place Laja, and perhaps I would too. We decided to go home via the Tecate highway, and maybe see if Laja were open for lunch. I thought maybe there were some wineries around there, too, we could check out.

The first time you go to Laja, maybe even the first few times, the journey, from wherever you start to the front door of the restaurant, is essential to the experience. In 2005, when the road was narrow and ill-paved, with hardly any amenities, this was even more true. A single sign, an unpaved road, an unmanned gate, a dirt lot, few signs of life outside a silent but beautiful farmhouse.

We parked, got out, bumbled around, maybe we noticed the garden or maybe not, I can’t remember. I wasn’t really aware of the garden until I asked where the arugula — the best, most alive, most compelling arugula I had ever tasted in my life — came from. From the garden, Andrés said. All the produce. Everything was local to the valley or to town. The olive oil. The wine. The lamb. The seafood. The meal itself was a revelation, comparable to the best I’d had at Chez Panisse, in a setting that defied my ability to process it. Everything hand made, everything cooked beautifully.

Everything about Laja was infused with a commitment to food that comes from a real place, a real place was right here, only 90 miles from my home and our restaurant. This was real San Diego cuisine, even if we weren’t technically in San Diego.

And so, I went, and went, and went some more. I brought our chefs, our sous chefs, our managers, my friends, and my girlfriends. (Not that all those categories were always clearly separated.) There was always more to learn. I got to know about the farmers, the winemakers, the cheeses and the olive oil, and in time developed friendships with the people, friendships that I treasure more than any meal. The beauty of the Laja project is in the unity of people, place, culture and food, all of which are treated with respect, love and craft.

At the end of that year, the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, I went for dinner with the local alt-weekly’s restaurant critic, and our dates. It was his last review before retiring from the writing racket, and he wanted to go out with something special. It was also Laja’s last nite open for the year, before six weeks of being closed. We were there late, as was my wont, enjoying cheeses, grappa, and so on, when suddenly the dining room filled up with young Mexican women, their children, and extended families. It was the year-end celebration for the Laja team and their families.

Many of the women had cooked for the occasion, and they shared with us. Us, who had just eaten an 8-course meal plus cheeses and breads. There were tamales that we all agreed were the best we had ever eaten, filled with parts of pig I’m not sure I would recognize to this day. A kind of winter tequila punch was passed around. I don’t remember leaving, but I remember staying for quite a while. For the Laja crew and their families, it was the closing ceremonies of another year working. For me, it closed the first year of my understanding of what was possible, even in a place like my hometown, with little history of food worth eating.

Within a year or so, by late 2006 or early 2007, I was maybe the most visible Laja fan on the Internet. Or so I found out, when Gourmet magazine’s TV production crew asked me to be the “foodie” in their TV show Diary of a Foodie, when it featured the Valle de Guadalupe.

The TV production side of the experience was predictable; the theme of the episode was “Baja: The New Provence” and the essential task of the producers was to get all of us talking about how the Valle had everything in common with Provence. Unfortunately, I don’t know Jacques about Provence, and the many well-traveled Mexicans in the show who did know a lot about Provence weren’t particularly inclined to say the two regions were alike. The producers solved this problem by taking so much footage that, we joked, they could easily splice together a conversation in which we talked about how much we loved McDonald’s.

I’ve never seen the episode, and I can’t imagine watching it. I can only imagine how horrible we come off, after editing, and how much the producers and writers must have missed by looking for Provence when the real story is so much more interesting. What I do remember — and treasure — is sitting at Sylvestre after filming, with people who have since become inspirations and in many cases good friends: people like the Gregorys, the Pijoans, Benito and Solange, the d’Acostas. And, of course, Jair, owner and chef of Laja, who got me started on this whole damn road to begin with.

Jair had hooked me, by presenting real tangible answers to the question: What does farm-to-table, real farm-to-table, look like in this specific place where we live? I’ve watched him answer that question a hundred different ways, but when I try to describe it, one simple meal comes to mind.

In May 2009 the media’s fixation on the narco wars, along with its xenophobic coverage of the swine flu epidemic, had taken massive casualties: Americans were simply gone from northern Baja. Restaurants in Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe sat empty, waiters drumming their fingers through lunch, and then dinner, on days and nights when they literally might see not a single patron. Laja, being a thirty-minute drive from the tourist corridor, suffered more than most. Yet, they kept offering their eight-course meal of produce from their garden, local meats and fish, and brilliant preparations.

One spring day, we wandered in, said hi to our friends, and ordered the meal. Jair was there and we talked for a while, until after our second course or so, when he excused himself. As we enjoyed the third course and waited for the fourth — rabbit — we caught a glimpse of him and a couple cooks walking down the hill to their back lot. And, a little while later, walking back with a white trash bag.

After we devoured our meal, and Jair came back into the dining room, we asked him if they had just killed the rabbit before serving it to us. He smiled: with business like this we can’t keep a lamb in the walk-in, it would go bad before we had enough customers to eat it.

That was then. Now, the American tourists have been replaced by Mexicans from Monterrey and Mexico City visiting “the Napa of Mexico” — a description which in many ways flatters Napa. The restaurant has no trouble keeping meat in the walk-in anymore; every time we go it has many great, appreciative groups of guests. Laja is a success story, and one that couldn’t have been possible without the deepest of commitments to doing things the right way, no matter how unorthodox that might seem at the time.

But one thing, even as early as the summer of 2005, on my second or third or fifth visit, has been, and continues to be, crystal clear. If we want to make that thing true, here’s a way to do it.

And it needs to be done.