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When Princess Cruises surveyed passengers to find out what they look for when visiting a destination, trying new foods topped the wish list, according to Tracy Diaz, product manager and domestics for the cruise line.
Because the flavors of Mexico and California make them perfect destinations for culinary adventures, Princess formed a partnership with Bill Esparza — a Latin American cuisine expert and author of “L.A. Mexicano,” which showcases Los Angeles’ Mexican-food culture. Now, the line features some of Southern California’s best Latin chefs, restaurants and recipes on all of its California Coast and Mexico itineraries.
I recently sailed a West Coast culinary itinerary onboard Ruby Princess with my 17-year-old son, an aspiring chef. We departed from Los Angeles and cruised to Santa Barbara, Calif. and Ensenada, Mexico, where we experienced new culinary tours that Esparza curated for Princess.
“This is about giving passengers great Mexican-food experiences,” Esparza said. “So the excursions focus on that cuisine.”
Santa Barbara, the first stop, has a laid-back attitude and a commitment to its Latin heritage that is reflected in its food. The Santa Barbara & Los Olivos: California's Riviera, Food and Wine excursion ($169.95) includes lunch at Corazon Cocina at the Santa Barbara Public Market.
Here, chef Ramon Velazquez calls his cooking “inventive Mexican cuisine” — and it is. We tried tempura cauliflower tacos with crema almond arbol, dates and local microgreens wrapped in a corn tortilla. The second taco, the “Norteno,” was more traditional, but equally delicious: a flour tortilla filled with grilled skirt steak, cheese, guacamole and white beans.
After lunch, we traveled 30 miles to the town of Los Olivos in Santa Barbara’s wine country, where we participated in a wine and cupcake pairing at the family-owned Saarloos + Sons winery. Owner Keith Saarloos told a personal story about each wine, which was complemented by a mini-cupcake; the result was a unique wine-tasting experience.
“Every wine is an expression of our property, and you can only taste them here,” Saarloos said.
The next stop was Ensenada, for our Bon Appetit Exclusive: Made in Mexico - Ensenada Eats excursion ($139.95). The food adventure began at Tacos Marco Antonio, a converted cannery that serves a variety of fish tacos — a dish we learned was invented in Ensenada. We then visited restaurant Boules, where we enjoyed fresh mussels and local wine on a beautiful outdoor patio, as well as eatery Manzanilla, where chefs Benito Molina and Solange Muris served tacos filled with flank steak, beans, napales (cactus paddles) and chicharron (fried pork skin), These were accompanied by the Tiger Special, a twist on a gin and tonic.
Our last stop was La Guerrerense, where chef Sabina Bandera greeted us with three of the tostadas that put her on Newsweek’s list of the “101 Best Places to Eat in the World”: tuna, sea urchin and sea snail. Each was served with a choice of spicy salsas, including Bandera’s trademark Chilitos de mi Jardin (peanuts in chili oil).
Even on the sea day, the experience continued with onboard demonstrations by Bandera and chef Carlos Salgado, owner of Taco Maria in Costa Mesa, Calif. (named one of the top five restaurants in Los Angeles by Jonathan Gold and the Los Angeles Times). Additionally, Esparza led a tequila tasting, and Jeffrey Merrihue, founder of XtremeFoodies, the world’s largest network of local food experts, led a wine tasting.
Guests also can enjoy regional dishes in the ship’s restaurants: Salgado’s Scallops in Aguachile (which he demonstrated onboard) will be available in the Crown Grill specialty restaurant menu on all California Coast and Mexico itineraries. In addition, specialty tacos at Trident Grill and an authentic Mexican buffet in Horizon Court (both featuring recipes from Esparza’s book) will be offered on all Mexico and California Coast itineraries.
On the last night of our cruise, my son had the opportunity to talk to Salgado about his cooking philosophy and his choice to honor his family’s culture by cooking Mexican-inspired Alta California cuisine.
“When you go to culinary school, they teach you to cook according to prescribed methods,” Salgado said. “But it’s more important to cook from your heart.”
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