The table spread in front of me is beautiful. There isn’t any fine china, Irish linen, or crystal in the presentation–not an Art Deco plate, or piece of silver. The napkins are paper and the dishes are cheap, but the effect is mouthwatering, nonetheless: Colorful bowls of dark red salsa with bits of pico de pajaro pepper, simple dishes of creamy tan pinto beans, fragrant red rice, and a plain basket of freshly made tortillas. At the center of the table is a large platter of big, bright-orange California spiny lobster tails–the plump white meat of the tails split in two and the sweet aroma floating over our table.
“We fry our lobsters in animal lard,” says restaurateur Enrique Murillo, who is sitting with me. “That’s the way it’s done here; it’s Puerto Nuevo style.” And Puerto Nuevo style is as simple as cooking can get.
Having never partaken of any seafood prepared in bacon grease–the lard of choice here in the tiny town of Puerto Nuevo–I am surprised. My repertoire of cooking methods for lobster doesn’t go beyond the “lightly grilled” or “quickly boiled” versions. But this is a lobster recipe steeped in history. Fishermen who sold it for twenty-five cents a plate in the 1950s, and the community now claims this traditional feast as its own. People who crave Puerto Nuevo lobster come to this diminutive beach town, which boasts thirty-six lobster restaurants on its six streets.
Puerto Nuevo is a forty-five-minute drive south of the Mexican border. In the 1940s, before it had even earned a name, the outpost consisted of a cigarette billboard and a bus stop between Tijuana and Ensenada beside a beautiful stretch of bay on the Pacific Ocean.
In 1945, a man named Jose Plascencia–Murillo’s father-in-law–arrived at this obscure place and began working for a lone taco stand where the bus stopped. His future wife, Susana Diaz, arrived in 1948, and by 1956, they’d quit working at the stand, married, and built a rustic house on the beach. Plascencia scraped together a living taking Americans fishing for rock cod, red snapper, yellowtail, and white sea bass in the bay.
Plascencia and the other fishermen’s families subsisted on lobster, because of its abundance. Soon, the customers who came to fish began eating lobster in the fishermen’s homes.
“People told their friends about the lobsters they ate here,” says Murillo. “Eventually my father-in-law started selling them lobsters to take home. People didn’t buy it by the piece then, they bought whole lobsters, dozens at a time.”
Maybe it was an enthusiastic response to the way Susana Plascencia was cooking and serving it. With no electricity, running water, or refrigeration in 1956, everything the families ate had to be either fresh or easily preserved. Rice, beans, salsa, and homemade flour tortillas, along with fresh lobster, were the nightly meal for all the families. While the rice and the beans were cooked in water–the lobsters were not. In the early days, they were fried two at a time in a big pan.
“They used lard to fry the lobsters,” says Murillo, smiling. “Animal fat. And it’s the best way to do lobster. We make it that way today, and that’s what we’re famous for. We clean it first, season it with salt, pepper, and garlic, then dip it in a vat of very hot oil for about two minutes, and drain it. Lard doesn’t make it tough or burn it. We do boil it in water–but only if people ask.”
One, two, three
In the late 1950s, the Mexican government gave some land to families that had been living in the area for several years. A small parcel was divided into lots, and each lot was given a number.
By this time, Jose Plascencia’s brother and sister were also living in the yet-unnamed town with their own families. When the government asked the Plascencia siblings to each choose a lot, Jose’s sister, Rosario, chose lot No. 1, and the brothers took Nos. 2 and 3. The families wanted their lots together, assigning no importance to the order.
“They didn’t care which one was the first or second one,” says Murillo with a shrug. “The families just wanted to be side by side.” The three families built homes on their lots, and by the early 1960s, they were attracting even more customers for fishing and lobster meals. Customers would wait daily for the fishermen to come in from the bay, then choose their dinner directly from the traps. Little Rosa, Jose and Rosa Plascencia’s daughter (and now Murillo’s wife), started making homemade tortillas at age seven.
By the 1970s, the Mexican government took notice. As tourists and locals flocked to the homes on the bay, the government required the families to register their businesses and begin paying income taxes. It was time to give the place a name. Since the Newport cigarette billboard was a landmark that could be seen for miles, the newly commercialized area became “Puerto Nuevo,” which means “new port.” It’s never seemed to matter that Puerto Nuevo has no port.
Fame required that, in addition to the town, names be chosen for each eating establishment. The families simply used their lot numbers. Rosario’s house became Puerto Nuevo No. 1, Jose’s Puerto Nuevo No. 2, and his brother Miramar’s, Puerto Nuevo No. 3. (Not knowing the origin of the numbers, some people make the mistake of thinking the numbers depict quality.)
Prior to the commercialization, customers had brought their own drinks- -beer, wine, and tequila–to have with meals. Now, remodeling of the Plascencia homes began, and living quarters were moved upstairs to accommodate dining rooms downstairs. With licenses to serve beer and wine, the brothers added bars to their restaurants. With a second generation coming of age, many descendants of Puerto Nuevo’s original families opened restaurants–some humble, some less so. Today, Jose’s daughter Rosa and her husband, Enrique Murillo, operate Puerto Nuevo No. 2, while Rosa’s aunt Rosario still owns and works in Puerto Nuevo No.1. Puerto Nuevo No. 3, known as Miramar, is named for Rosa’s deceased uncle. Thirty-three other lobster restaurants compete for business in Puerto Nuevo. A destination of choice for Californians, the town draws thousands of visitors from across the border.
A culinary mecca
“People come here from all over the world,” says Murillo. “We’ve been in business almost fifty years. A lot of tourists may not understand that. But we have customers all year round from many parts of the United States and Japan, because many people visit California. And when they do, their friends say, ‘Let’s go to Mexico,’ and they come here.”
Although business often booms in the summer, the actual season for California spiny lobster is September 15 (a month earlier than in the United States) through March 15. The very best lobster dinners–at $15 to $18 a plate–are available in the dead of winter. Lobster for customers in the off-season is either frozen or trapped illegally.
“We’re against that practice,” Murillo says seriously. “Our restaurants all adhere to serving fresh lobster only in season. Like a lot of things, if they catch too much, it will be no more. We try to keep the season alive, or there’ll be a day when there isn’t lobster anymore.”
A lobster meal in Puerto Nuevo is more than a meal. It’s a day or evening spent in a scenic Mexican town where curio shops offer hours’ worth of browsing for pottery and trinkets. A liter of Cuervo Gold tequila sells for $5.20 a bottle at the minuscule liquor store. And the Pacific Ocean thunders against the beach in the background.
Strolling down one of the six streets, one encounters barkers in each doorway with little signs touting the best price and superiority of their lobster meals. Typically charging $8 to $10 for a small tail, $10 to $15 for medium, and $15 to $19 for a large, many places throw in free margaritas or guacamole and chips to get business. Sometimes a complete lobster meal with drinks can cost as little as $8 for three small tail pieces per person. But one thing is consistent. The lobster is fried in lard, and people love it that way.
“We recently were asked to visit La Hacienda de los Morales restaurant in Mexico City,” says Murillo. “It is one of the oldest restaurants in Mexico, and they serve thousands of people a week, including many dignitaries. They have a lot of international cuisine, but they were grilling their lobster. They wanted the exact recipe for Puerto Nuevo lobster, and they wanted one of the pioneers to teach them how to make it. So Rosa and I went there and stayed for five days. We took everything with us: the lobster, the rice, beans, flour for tortillas, salsa. We worked with them from nine in the morning to eleven at night.”
It’s no surprise the town is packed every weekend. People line up thirty deep at the doorway to Puerto Nuevo No. 1, where Rosario still makes the fresh flour tortillas served hot to each table.
Vats of pinto beans boil furiously, lobster tails are dipped several at a time, and cold, frothy Corona beer is poured by the gallon. Parking is an exercise in patience and generous tipping. Expensive SUVs and BMWs line the streets and crawl through town, bumper to bumper.
“Word of mouth brings European customers,” grins Murillo. “I have a friend who went to France and was in a small town that had lobster Puerto Nuevo style on the menu. He said, ‘Hey, I came here all the way from Mexico and you’re serving this the way my relatives do?’ They gave him the meal for free.”
With so much demand and no seasonal lull in dinner customers, will the lobster supply last? And if it does, will people eventually tire of the delicacy?
“The lobsters aren’t as big as they used to be,” says Murillo. “But a ‘burro’ lobster is one that’s five pounds or over, and they’re still around. We often find them up to four pounds. That’s not unusual. And I admit, while I only eat lobster about once a month, Rosa eats it four times a week! That’s her lineage. She never gets tired of it.” Considering the people lined up at the door ready to grab my table, the rest of the world won’t, either.n
Laura Byrd is a contributing editor for The World & I. She regularly pens travel and “making a difference” features for this magazine.