You can say that Zetina (at top) is on his way to becoming the newest of the hot chefs in Baja California. And the first to work on the opposite coast of Baja from Tijuana's Javier Plascencia, who has been capturing most of the attention these days, and Ensenada's Benito Molina.
Dedicated to local products and indigenous cuisines, Zetina spent 10 years in Quintana Roo researching Mayan foods and culture and handling chef gigs in Cancún. Then he taught regional cuisines at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California in Ensenada.
In January, he opened El Balcón Cocina Artesanal in La Placita, an upscale shopping plaza in San Felipe on the Sea of Cortez.
The restaurant occupies a breezy space on the upper floor looking out to the street, thus the name El Balcón (The Balcony). And it has a handsome tiled outdoor kitchen where González and his team put out extraordinary food.
Take, for example, the five-course lunch he produced the day I was there.
It started with an aguachile of cazón (dogfish) marinated in green and red chile salsas (above) set off by a scattering of crisp sea asparagus, verdolaga leaves, chapulines (Oaxacan grasshoppers) and seeds from pods known as huaxes or guajes. Crisp tortilla cut-outs framed the plate.
On top, Zetina placed clams from the Sea of Cortez in a Mayan sauce, which tasted of the Yucatecan seasoning achiote. Lettuce leaves almost hid crisp crumbles made from beans and tuna.
Zetina and his sous chef, Marcelino Morales Villegas, are both from Puebla, so they were at home putting together a plate of shrimp with three moles--mole barroque, which tasted like a fruity, dark red Puebla mole, and green and red pipián sauces (above). Fried tortilla circles from the aguachile cut-outs top the cactus salad on the side.
Ask Zetina how he makes a dish and he reels off a string of ingredients and spices more quickly than you can write them down. I did manage to get some of the components of the green pipián--pepitas, sesame, cumin and coriander seeds, green chiles, tomatillos, radish leaves and hoja santa.
And then a plate of Baja cheeses to eat with two fruit compotes (above). One combined orange and banana, the other fresh strawberries and jamaica flowers, infused with such spices as star anise, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and cumin. The crumbly mixture on the side includes pumpkin seeds, nuts and toasted coconut.
Instead of relying on what's available locally, Zetina brings in hydroponic and organic produce from the Guadalupe Valley. San Felipe fish markets supply him with freshly caught fish and shellfish.
At this lunch, J.C. Bravo's Palomino, a white wine from the Guadalupe Valley, coped well with a range of spicy and sweet flavors that would not have been easy to pair with a single wine.
El Balcón Cocina Artesanal, Avenida Mar De Cortez 614-202, in La Placita, San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico.
Note: The restaurant is now on summer break. It will reopen in mid September when the weather starts to cool down.