Escape to Lobster City : Once an obscure fishing village travelers ignored on their way to Ensenada, Puerto Nuevo has become a weekend distination in itself, with new resort hotels and a whopping 28 lobster restaurants

The tiny village of Puerto Nuevo used to be about 1,000,175 miles from downtown Los Angeles.

Of course, the first million miles were purely conceptual--reaching Puerto Nuevo after a 175-mile trip from L.A., you only felt like you were a million miles from the United States.

Less than 20 years ago, the village was a ragtag collection of cement blockhouses and rough, pine lean-tos and the few norte americano visitors were mostly fishing sportsmen. Many of the local fishermen were natives of Jalisco, a Mexican state farther south. They brought with them their tradition of inviting their clients into their living rooms for a home-cooked meal, which often included succulent Pacific lobster caught just off the coast.

Today, Puerto Nuevo bears little resemblance to the ramshackle town that was a word-of-mouth secret just a few years ago. How it grew into a weekend getaway destination that attracts thousands of tourists every year to its--count 'em--28 lobster restaurants is a tale in itself. It is a tale of the growth of a humble fishing village into a full-blown resort area.

Just call it a lobster's tale.

Veteran Baja travelers began hearing about lobster feasts being served dirt-cheap, and a trickle of visitors started. Looking to capitalize on this new-found source of income, two of the families that first settled in Puerto Nuevo, the Plasencias and the Ortegas, each opened up a restaurant in the mid-1970s. As their popularity grew, so did the number of lobster restaurants. Now the two families have mini-empires of six restaurants each, in addition to a host of competitors.

It would be hard to pick a better location to headquarter for a tour of Baja Norte tourist spots. Puerto Nuevo is just 35 minutes south of the bustle in Tijuana, 10 minutes south of the horseback riding and shopping in Rosarito and 40 minutes north of the night life in Ensenada.

But that's the grand tour. What I and five friends had in mind last month was a lot simpler--to plant ourselves at one of the new hotels and partake of the Puerto Nuevo Party Shuffle. The idea was to eat copious amounts of lobster and have as much fun as humanly possible.

But first, l'amour. My girlfriend, Wendy, and I left Dana Point about noon one Friday, looking for a quiet, romantic evening on the Baja coast before meeting up with our friends on Saturday.

We sailed into Tijuana, easily picking out the clearlymarked signs for Highway 1 to Rosarito/Ensenada, and were out of town in about 10 minutes. Our stomachs were grumbling after the 90-minute drive to the border, so we took the quicker toll highway, marked Cuota on road signs. The scenic old road (marked Libre ) winds over the hills and past the beaches of Tijuana and adds anywhere from half an hour to an hour to the trip.

Closer to Rosarito, both roads run parallel along long expanses of brown, rolling hills and the Pacific Ocean shoreline. They pass both brand-new oceanfront villas built to attract American dollars and the rusted bones of failed developments left half-built. The free highway will put you closer to old, roadside Mexico, which is dotted by merchandise booths displaying endless rows of useless ceramic doodads and aging restaurant/bars that invite you to suck down an ice-cold Tecate beer or two.

The Tecates could wait until we hit Lobster Village, as Puerto Nuevo has dubbed itself. Before long, we found the exit marked Puerto Nuevo and were driving through the archways that mark the entrance to the town. Puerto Nuevo is no Acapulco: its dusty, cobblestone streets and rows of modest restaurants are unpretentious, more typical of rural Mexico.

The first lesson to learn about this langosto mecca is that most of the 28 restaurants, packed together on six very short blocks, serve the same lobsters, at the same prices, prepared the same way, with only minor variations. There are three choices--small, medium and large--mostly prepared "Puerto Nuevo" style: cut in half and skillet-fried in oil, garlic salt and pepper. So don't fret about searching out the best place.

About 30 minutes after crossing the border, we sat down at Puerto Nuevo 1, one of the village's original fisherman's-home-turned-restaurants. The sign outside advertised fresh lobster, but because the huge demand for lobster has created a shortage in the waters off Puerto Nuevo, much of the stuff served in Lobster Village these days is caught as far south as Tortuga Bay, some 20 hours down the Baja Coast.

Nevertheless, fall is a good time to go because Pacific lobster fishing season began the first week in October and you stand a better chance of getting it fresh. One way to assure freshness is to ask the proprietor to haul one out of the kithen, alive and kicking (this is unlikely to be successful when the Pacific lobster season is over in March, after which you'll probably be eating lobsters from Australia, New Zealand or the Caribbean!)

We chose a 1 1/4-pounder (medium) for $14 and a 2 1/4-pounder (large) for $25, enough lobster for three people. (The general consensus is that small and medium-sized lobsters are the tastiest.) Pacific lobster differs in one major way from its Maine cousin--it has no claws. The tail meat is sweeter and, oddly enough, the "Puerto Nuevo" method doesn't taste greasy. The females have larger, fleshier tails, but when I tried ordering one all I got was a funny look from the waiter, who brought me a short-tailed male.

Wendy and I first had Tecates. Then we had fresh, crunchy chips and salsa, pots of rice and beans, hot, hand-made tortillas and mounds and mounds of hot, juicy lobster with plenty of warm, drawn butter. We had a helluva time getting out of our chairs afterwards. Somehow, a siesta sounded real good right then.

Until recently, Puerto Nuevo was just a restaurant stop. The typical tourist drove in to town to gorge on crustaceans, then headed back to his hotel in Ensenada or Rosarito, or home to San Diego. Now business leaders in this fledgling resort would like tourists to know they can stay the night . . . and come back for seconds.

Two major hotels have opened near Puerto Nuevo within the last two years, the 150-room New Port Baja Hotel and the 74-room Hotel Las Rocas. And this summer, a 60-unit time-share development, the Grand Baja Resort, opened on the beach next to the New Port Baja.

Owned by a Mexican corporation, the New Port Baja Hotel is a few hundred yards south of the village. Its managers like to boast that every room has an ocean view and, while the hotel's V-shape design does sacrifice a view of a broad stretch of coastline, the sunsets are spectacular.

"You can see the sunset here 295 times a year," boasted Juvenal Arias, the New Port Baja assistant manager, "and no two are alike."

We stayed in a deluxe suite that had a large picture window overlooking the ocean and an overstuffed couch. For a relatively inexpensive hotel (we paid $95 for our suite; standard rooms are $65), the accommodations are very comfortable, with modern bathrooms, and the decor is tasteful. Most rooms are painted in soft purple, beige and corals and have white, Southwestern-style furniture and in-room safe-deposit boxes. Colorful bunches of red geraniums grow in planters outside the rooms. Bowing to the American fascination with fitness, the hotel boasts a fully equipped workout room and two immaculate tennis courts.

Both the bar and the restaurant are good spots for lingering. The bar is equipped with cushy, built-in couches and tables. Both areas have floor-to-ceiling picture windows that look out past thick, green landscaping, which gently slopes down to the pool area and the ocean. It's a nice place to nurse a margarita and watch one of those 295 sunsets.

As dusk fell, we took a walk around the village. On weekdays--even a Friday night--Puerto Nuevo is sleepy. Except for a grizzled, white-haired policeman who stood on a corner and nodded as we passed, nobody was on the street. By 9 o'clock, most of the smaller restaurants were closed, so we sipped Kahlua and cream at Ortega's Place, a two-story, stucco-and-neon version of the Red Onion, and had the place to ourselves.

On weekends, Puerto Nuevo changes from sleepyland to Disneyland. Street vendors set up jewelry stands and try to entice you with what they each claim are the cheapest prices and the best merchandise in town. Small shops display mounds of the same junk you've seen in Tijuana: ceramic cheeseburger banks, Mutant Ninja Turtle T-shirts and blackface rubber masks of Bart Simpson. Wendy bargained for a pair of pseudo-silver-and-turquoise earrings, which started out at $10 and wound up costing $4.

Crowds began filling the streets, and it was quite a mix: two bikers, one wearing tattoos of Woody Woodpecker in a Confederate uniform, a nicely dressed Yumpie (Young Urban Mexican Professional) couple, roving bands of college kids, a couple of middle-class American families and at least half a dozen mariachi bands strolling in and out of restaurants, playing traditional Mexican ballads (for $5 a pop!).

Into this south-of-the-Border melting pot entered my sister Linda, 27, who lives in Escondido, and her best friend Marjorie, from Brea. We headed off--where else?--to eat.

At Josefina's y El Negro's, the most impressive entree was the combinacion de mariscos ($14), a mixture of lobster, shrimp, yellowtail and octopus, with green peppers and onion, served sizzling in a heavy black skillet. Also set in a former fisherman's home, Josefina's is a little bit reminiscent of a dorm room, with bare wooden tables and walls that haven't seen a coat of paint in a while.

The college ambience was enhanced by a group of young men seated nearby. They roared for beer, wolfed down massive quantities of chips and salsa, then bellowed for more beer ( mas cerveza !). The only silence from their table came when five extra-large lobsters--2 1/2 pounders at least --arrived, but that quiet was soon shattered by the sound of crunching shellfish.

We had five hours before Richard and Jill, the last members of our group, were to arrive from Los Angeles. I asked Linda and Marjorie if they would rather spend the time watching hang gliders at the sand dunes near Cantamar, one mile south, or taking a look at the fishing village of Porta Popotla, about five miles north.

"Shopping, you silly brother," Linda said. "We're going to Rosarito."

It was a whirlwind tour through the dress shops, curios stores and leather outlets of Rosarito. Unfortunately, the prices weren't much better than north of the border, although Linda found makeup at about 30% less at a cosmetics store next to the Rosarito Beach Hotel. Also, a leather shop across the street from the hotel sold leather bomber jackets for about $130 and leather skirts for $39. A good deal, Wendy said.

Back in Puerto Nuevo, Richard and Jill had arrived in time for . . . lobster dinner! "Lobster again?" muttered Linda, "I don't think so." Fortunately, there is more than one way to cook a crustacean in Puerto Nuevo.

We found some choice alternatives at the Miramar, another of the original lobster houses. We tried the lobster burritos ($7), which have large chunks of lobster sauteed in lots of butter, garlic, tomato and green chiles. We also liked the lobster cooked ranchera style--simmered in tomatoes, garlic and green chiles, a Miramar specialty.

After dinner, between us we had approximately 50,000 calories to burn off. Luckily, there are plenty of nightclubs between Puerto Nuevo and Rosarito qualified to do the job. We headed for the Rock N' Roll Taco in Rosarito, just a few doors from the Rosarito Beach Hotel's entrance.

How to describe the Rock N' Roll Taco? If you took the campus radical, appointed him or her to chair the homecoming dance decorating committee, then handed over a stack of plywood, bales of camouflage netting, Day-Glo paint and black lights, eventually you'd have the inside of Rock N' Roll Taco.

Unfortunately, the best, really wacky sections of the club were closed off, so we missed out on the experience of sitting at multicolored, tie-dyed plastic booths. Richard and Jill had barely been served their beers before they were on the dance floor. The crowd was mostly American college kids dressed in Spandex and neon-colored miniskirts--the kind who's radio station of choice is probably KROQ--with a few date-night locals mixed in. My sister Linda nudged me and pointed out a small, cute blonde dancing with two girlfriends . . . and an economy-size spray can of Mace attached to her belt.

"What's she going to do with that?" Linda snickered. "Hunt lobster?"

We danced the night away to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, AC/DC and the Cure. We drank cold beer and watched the surfing classic "The Endless Summer" on several video screens. We wondered about the closed-off swimming pool in the next room with a volleyball net stretched across it. So much weirdness, so little time.

Next stop, that venerable old lady, the 65-year-old Rosarito Beach Hotel, where gambling and booze drew Americans during Prohibition.

Casinos were banned in Baja in 1935, but that apparently didn't deter the hotel's owners, who kept a back-room casino running until 1959, when about 40 Americans were busted for gambling and thrown in the Tijuana jail.

It was dark in the hotel's dance club, hampering Wendy's attempts to find Errol Flynn's or Judy Garland's initials engraved in our table. The dance floor was filled with Americans, from college kids in T-shirts to the leisure-suit crowd, all bopping to a live band. We left at midnight, probably a little too soon since the band was switching from oldie rock 'n' roll to Caribbean music.

We went back to the New Port Hotel for a nightcap, where Richard and Jill sipped cognac at the bar and suspiciously eyed the organist trying to hit the high notes to Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called To Say I Love You." After one last round of drinks, we called it a night.

The next day we realized that we had left a great place off our nightclub tour: the Calafia Ocean Resort. Just a few miles south of Rosarito, it's draped over the lush hillside above a rocky beach. Stairs wind down to little two-or-three-table clusters terraced over the hill. On the beach below, dancers move on a large wood-plank floor to tunes from George Michael and Mexican pop/rap artists. They serve grilled chicken, beef and seafood, and the drinks come with all the goofy umbrellas you could want. The resort, which rents out luxury oceanfront mobile homes, also has a small, quiet jazz club upstairs. (And during the day, the view of the Mexican coast from the hillside tables is magnificent.)

Another four or five miles south, the Hotel Las Rocas is for tourists who don't mind spending a few extra dollars for accommodations near Puerto Nuevo.

Owned by an American, all of the hotel's 34 rooms feature wet bars, sunken bathtubs and private balconies with 180-degree views of the shoreline. The deluxe suites downstairs are more expensive ($150 on weekends), with large rooms and big sunken bathtubs. The junior suites upstairs are smaller but command better views and are cheaper ($110 on weekends). A two-bedroom penthouse suite ($230) boasts a cozy little Jacuzzi on the balcony and a dome with a skylight in the living room.

The hotel's spectacular "horizon" pool is molded into an irregular, free-flowing shape and gives the illusion that it flows right off a cliff to the beach below. A palapa (thatched hut) bar stands nearby and a small, steel-drum band is on hand to entertain. In two months, hotel officials promise, a second building will be ready, with 40 additional rooms at more affordable rates ($70 weekends).

Now that Puerto Nuevo has turned itself from a Mexican village into a resort area, local businessmen are searching for an identity to project. Community leaders are grappling with zoning issues and questions such as how much development to allow. "We don't want to compete with Rosarito Beach," said Andres Osorio, general manager of the New Port Baja Hotel. "I think Puerto Nuevo should stay like a rural village and give visitors a sample of authentic Mexican culture."

The hotel plans to build a miniature bullring next to the village by May, Osorio said. No actual bullfights will be held, but the sport will be demonstrated along with many other Mexican art forms, such as folk dancing and music.

By Sunday, the crowd seemed to have almost doubled from Saturday. Cars were double-parked and long lines stretched out the doors of the more popular restaurants--Puerto Nuevo No. 1, Miramar and Ortega's Beachside Place, Sandra's, Chela's, La Casa de La Langosta.

The congestion reminded us of the inevitable wait at the border. So we packed leisurely (thanks to the New Port Baja's generous 1 p.m. checkout time) and had one more round of pina coladas at the pool. Our getaway had cost about $300 for two. The days of outrageously cheap lobster are 20 years past, but for three days and two nights of eating, shopping and partying, we thought it was a great deal. So we toasted the weekend, then went home to a life without lobster.

GUIDEBOOK

Puerto Nuevo, Baja's Lobster Village

Getting there: Take the San Diego Freeway (405) south to the border at Tijuana. Look for signs that direct you to Ensenada/Rosarito. Eventually you will have the option of taking either the Cuota (toll) or the Libre (free) highway. The toll road costs about $4 to Puerto Nuevo. Use the Puerto Nuevo exit at kilometer 44 off the toll road.

Where to stay: New Port Baja Hotel, P.O. Box 139, Plaza Patria, 22441 Tijuana, B.C., Mexico. Reservations: (800) 582-1018. Rates: $55 for a standard room, double occupancy, weekdays; $65 weekends. Suites: $75 weekdays, $95 weekends.

Hotel Las Rocas, P.O. Box 8851, Chula Vista, Calif. 91912, (800) 733-6394. Rates: junior suites, $110 weekends, $75 weekdays; deluxe suites, $150 weekends, $95 weekdays; two-bedroom penthouse suite, $230 weekends, $140 weekdays.

Grand Baja Resort Condos, Correo Federal Pacific, P.O. Box 44, San Ysidro, Calif. 92413-9011, (800) 275-3280 or fax 011-526-614-1141. Daily rentals $60-$90. Available weekly and monthly.

Rosarito Beach Hotel, P.O. Box 430145, San Ysidro, Calif. 92143-0145; (800) 343-8582, or 011-526-612-1126. Rates: double rooms $65, suites $85 on weekends; $44 and $66 weekdays.

Where to eat: For lobster Puerto Nuevo-style, try Chela's Restaurant, Ortega's Place, Puerto Nuevo No. 1, Puerto Nuevo No. 2 and the Casa de la Langosta. For other types of lobster dishes and full Mexican menus, Miramar, Ortega's Beachside Restaurant, Josefina's y El Negro's Restaurant and the Ortega Cafe are all good. All are within a couple of short blocks of each other.

Health precautions: Big hotels and the well-established restaurants claim to have water-purification systems and buy purified ice. In four visits, I have not had a problem. But it's probably best to be leery of food sold at street stands, or unbottled water. Some visitors recommend avoiding ice-cooled margaritas all together.

For more information: For hotel reservations and other Baja Norte California tourism questions, call (800) 522-1516. Or the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8191 or (800) 262-8900. Also helpful is the Rosarito Beach Chamber of Commerce, 011-526-612-0396.

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