Tanned and handsome, with silvery-blond hair, in corduroy shorts and huaraches (braided leather sandals), John Hussong clenched a cigar in his teeth and worked happily like a pro in his kitchen. It features a classic 30-year-old Chambers gas range and an enormous antique chopping-block table acquired "from a man who owed me money."
Hussong bears the most famous name in Ensenada. Hussong's Cantina bumper stickers whiz up the highway from Ensenada and back through the Tijuana border checks to let everyone know the car owner has visited the famous Baja California tourist hangout.
This is where the young and the boisterous drink Mexican beer out of long-neck bottles, dance all day on the sawdust-covered floor and tack their names on the wall. In fact, Hussong's Cantina in Ensenada is what the Washington Monument is for tourists in Washington.
Hussong's grandfather founded the famous cantina. His cousin operates it now. His father Walter founded the Quintas Papagayo resort and is a civic leader active in the reconstruction of the Port of Ensenada. Now John operates the resort, a 1940s beachfront motel, one of the early Baja hideaways for California movie stars.
Nowadays, the movie stars fly over on their way to Cabo San Lucas, but Quintas Papagayo is still a lovely period piece of stucco-and-tile beach cottages on the Pacific in a beautifully landscaped tropical setting.
John Hussong and his wife Sharon have worked hard to replace sections damaged by El Nin o storms and plan to open a first-class restaurant that will feature the many cuisines of Baja -- an international me'lange derived from the many people who were headed someplace else, landed on Baja and never made it north -- French, Spanish, German and Japanese. "And we're going to use the wild herbs of Baja -- garlic, sage, fennel, mints, chilies," he says.
Our trip to Baja earlier this year was topped off with an invitation to John's kitchen, where his friends told us we were getting the "best margaritas in Baja." We also tried another specialty destined for the menu of the new restaurant -- grilled baby cazon, blackfin shark steaks marinated in yogurt and garam masala spices.
JOHN HUSSONG'S MARGARITAS (4 servings)
You absolutely cannot take the famous Mexican limes across the border, but we took the next best thing, the handsome, highly polished, heavy metal lime squeezer that we saw in action everywhere we traveled in Mexico. We also brought back Controy, the Mexican orange liqueur used in true margaritas. We thought everyone was mispronouncing cointreau until we saw the distinctive green, square-shouldered Controy bottle.
Herr-Adura is the status brand of tequila in Baja, but Hussong was using a white Sauzo.
6 ounces white tequila
6 ounces Controy (substitute Triple Sec liqueur)
3 ounces lime juice, freshly squeezed
4 to 5 cups crushed ice
Salt and a lime wedge for serving
In a blender, combine tequila, orange liqueur and lime juice. Add ice. Blend until mixed and smooth. Place salt on flat dish. Rub wedge of lime around rim of stemmed cocktail glass, keeping juice on outside of glass. Dip rim of glass into salt on plate. Pour margaritas into glasses and serve.
QUINTAS PAPAGAYO GRILLED SHARK (8 to 10 servings)
Baby cazon sharks, also known as black-tipped shark, are brought in frequently by Mexican fishermen. This version takes time to toast the spices but the result is sensational, and you can mix enough spices to put away for another meal.
This is hot. Really hot. It zaps you with its heat, but the fire doesn't stay with you long. It just wakes up the taste buds.
Hussong says his friends in Ensenada eat Mexican at home, but they like international cuisines when they go out to dinner.
2 cups yogurt
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
2 tablespoons dried dill
1 to 2 tablespoons garam masala (see recipe below)
1 to 2 tablespoons salt
3 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves, chopped
4 pounds shark steaks or swordfish steaks, cut 1-inch thick
Coriander leaves for garnish
Combine all the ingredients except the shark and whole coriander leaves in a large glass or nonmetallic bowl. Go easy on the garam masala until you know you can take the heat. Add shark steaks and marinate from 2 hours to overnight. Grill over charcoal about 7 minutes total. Do not overcook. If grill has a hood, use it to intensify smoky flavor. Garnish with whole coriander leaves and serve with side dish of cucumber marinated in yogurt and a touch of ground cumin.
GARAM MASALA (Makes about 2 1/2 tablespoons)
Use whole spices, not ground.
8 cardamom seeds
3-inch stick cinnamon, crushed
4 2 1/2-inch hot red dried chilies
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
Place spice mixture ingredients in a heavy skillet and dry fry until the essence is released, about 4 or 5 minutes. Do not burn. Cool and grind in a carefully cleaned coffee mill or nut grinder, or mortar and pestle. (This can be done several days in advance.) Keep in tightly covered jar. (Be sure to reclean grinder before it is used for anything else.)
CHARLOTTE HUSSONG'S SALSA CASERA (Makes about 1 quart)
Piet Van De Mark, director of Baja Frontier Tours, said he would like to claim credit for this salsa that he uses frequently, but the recipe was given to him nearly 20 years ago by the late Charlotte Hussong, John Hussong's mother. Spicier than the traditional Mexican salsas, it will spark cold shrimp, tostadas, beef, even omelets.
1 1/2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely chopped or 28-ounce can Italian tomatoes, chopped
4-ounce can green chilies, chopped (or use fresh green California chilies that have been roasted, peeled and chopped)
1 cup finely chopped scallions, green and white parts
5 or 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried leaf oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried dill
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Diced avocado for serving
Combine all ingredients in glass or nonmetallic bowl. Add avocado chunks only to amount of salsa to be used immediately. Served chilled. Remaining salsa may be covered and refrigerated 10 days or frozen.