Twenty years later, the memory of Thanksgiving leftovers in Ensenada still nourishes the soul

Brian and Andrew Park in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico
Brian Park, left, and his brother, Andrew, visiting their father in Ensenada, Mexico, in 2000.
(Park family)

More than monosodium glutamate, the most effective flavor enhancer to commandeer my taste buds is nostalgia. It’s what moves me to shell out $6.75 for a mediocre Dodger Dog and is the main ingredient in Norms’ side salad with Thousand Island dressing. For my brother, Andrew, and me, it’s what’s kept a breakfast of Thanksgiving leftovers in Mexico such an indelible food memory for 20 years.

For four years, up until my sophomore year of high school, my father lived in Ensenada. His work had taken him from the Fashion District in downtown Los Angeles to Baja California. During the school year, he would visit when he could, usually driving up with a bag full of tortas.

When school was out, my mother, brother and I would take the train down to San Diego’s Union Station, where my father would meet us. We’d make the three-hour drive south past the border, around the northern end of Tijuana and then down the coast; our only stop was at a Rosarito, Mexico, gas station where signs touted the city as the place where “Titanic” was filmed. We knew we’d reached Ensenada when to our right we saw cruise ships and the Hotel Coral, where we once stayed.


Summer days were spent eating snack cakes and watching Latin music videos playing on a television set at the lavanderia. On clear nights, I’d tune the radio to San Diego’s XTRA Sports 690 to listen to Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton and catch up on baseball scores.

We spent holidays there too. One Thanksgiving, my mother packed a cooler with a prepared turkey wrapped in foil and all the traditional sides and fixings, from cranberry sauce to pumpkin pie, and lugged it onto a southbound Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train.

“We basically brought Thanksgiving to appa,” my brother recalled.

After almost a year of being at home and the same old, same old, reinvigorate your Thanksgiving table with a fresh outlook on the traditional holiday staples.

At the time, my father was staying at a vacation rental at Monalisa Beach. The house was surrounded by ice plant and gravel. It had fickle plumbing and no oven. My mother prepared our Thanksgiving feast in one large cast iron skillet.

A Korean American family eating a Thanksgiving meal in Mexico isn’t what Norman Rockwell would’ve painted, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary to us. Our family was together, and we were grateful. Dinner was good, and breakfast the morning after was even better.

“Mom was already up, and she was cooking. She was already heating up the turkey. I don’t think we had an option for what to eat,” my brother remembers.

Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, green beans and canned corn. Whatever was left all went into the skillet.

“We put butter at the bottom so it made everything crispy and golden. Umma put gravy on top of everything,” my brother said. “Everything mixed together. The mashed potatoes mixed with the stuffing. The stuffing with the green beans.”

Nearly a decade after that feast and breakfast of leftovers in Ensenada, I ate the worst meal of Thanksgiving leftovers in my life, alone in a hospital cafeteria in Anaheim Hills. There was turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and green beans. But my father wasn’t with us. I spent most of that Thanksgiving at his bedside in the ICU. He died on Nov. 27, 2009.

Christmas is the time, it seems, when many of us are preoccupied with what we want. Thanksgiving is the time when we’re called to reflect on what we have. That might seem impossible in a year like this, when we’ve all suffered tremendous loss — jobs, opportunities, loved ones.

But gratitude is a rock, and this year, I’m holding tight to it with my family and memories of Thanksgiving leftovers in Ensenada.