As our group wraps up breakfast at a restaurant in Mexico, our guide, Andrew Tyree, leans back in his chair with a gratified smile. He has relished every moment of the meal and even more, this extended time of conversation after our plates have been cleared—sobremesa. A tradition most familiar to those from Spanish-speaking countries, sobremesa is the period of time after a meal lasting up to several hours in which everyone lingers around the table engaging in conversation and storytelling. Directly translated as “over-the-table,” sobremesa denotes not only the location, but the significance of this time as valued over and above the meal itself. Although possessing a deep appreciation for good food, Andrew loves sobremesa even more.
It is on a weekend trip to Baja California with Coast to Costa that I have the pleasure of getting to know founder, Andrew, and his wife Natalie. As we head south on the 5 freeway, it takes only a few moments to deduce the incredible role food plays in uniting this couple, in both marriage and business. Andrew insists that there were undeniable signs of their compatibility early on in their relationship—evidenced by their synchronous choice in food. He would scan a menu, mentally narrowing it down to two dishes, and Natalie would unwittingly mention the same two items as her picks every time. “That’s when I knew,” he chuckles playfully. “I thought, ‘Damn it, I’ve got to marry you so we can do this forever.’” Admittedly, one of their favorite activities is setting out on a food crawl through whatever city they find themselves in, devouring one shared plate after another in as many restaurants as they can manage.
While Coast to Costa is a travel company, Andrew bears no resemblance to your typical tour guide. “Experience Curator” would serve as a more accurate title, although it doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily. Andrew manages to provide a local’s experience in a foreign country—a desirable, yet daunting task for even the most well-traveled. The trips are constructed, not by furiously flipping through guide books, but through the meaningful relationships built in-country, over time, compiling recommendations from locals regarding the best restaurants and hidden gems. Whether snorkeling in Sayulita, Mexico, or rolling cigars in Viñales, Cuba, every trip is designed to highlight the unique qualities of each location. However, Andrew’s vision doesn’t stop there; he seeks to expose travelers to the culture and the people of each country as well, especially in places like Mexico and Cuba.
Coast to Costa was conceived from a desire to return to a beloved country, but has since developed as a means for pushing others outside of their comfort zones and into a world beyond their own. Andrew got his start in the restaurant world nearly 12 years ago as a busser and then server at The Culinary Institute of America in San Francisco. Yet it wasn’t until a transformative four years in Spain—where he expanded his palate and gained proficiency in the language—that he crossed over into the travel business.
During a visit home in the summer of 2009, the economic crisis simultaneously hit Spain, resulting in a denied visa for Andrew’s return. As disappointing as it was, he rolled with the punches and quickly jumped back into San Francisco’s restaurant scene, becoming the ham and cheese buyer for a high-end tapas restaurant. This position, however, only served to deepen his longing to return to Spain, as he was building relationships within the Spanish food and wine industry. These contacts eventually started inviting Andrew abroad for free tastings and tours if he brought a group along; thus the idea for a travel company was born.
Beginning with trips to Spain in 2012, and later expanding to Mexico and Cuba, it’s only been in the last year that Coast to Costa has taken off. The major change? Andrew brought his wife of one year onto his team. While Andrew is gregarious, savvy and the man on the ground for every trip, Natalie exhibits a more reserved kindness, focused attitude and most importantly, incredible organizational skill. With her background in marketing and ability to keep the logistical end of things running smoothly when her husband is out of the country, Coast to Costa has begun to flourish. “It works well because we have different strengths,” Natalie asserts, flashing a knowing smile at her husband.
As we cross the border into Mexico, the air seems to shift, and I find myself bombarding Andrew with one question after another regarding each stop on our itinerary. Today’s destination is Valle de Guadalupe—Mexican wine country. Although the region has been producing wine for centuries due to its mediterranean microclimate and historic Spanish presence, it has only recently started gaining recognition for its artisanal wineries, boutique hotels and Baja Mediterranean gastronomic concept.
Vena Cava winery is our first stop, for an eight-course tasting menu at chef Diego Hernandez’s fine dining restaurant, Corazón de Tierra. This was one of several finds that left a lasting impression on the Tyrees during their first trip to the valley on their honeymoon. The menu explores local Baja Med cuisine and changes daily to reflect what springs up in the garden each morning. Beautiful wood floors, minimalist decor, and walls of glass overlooking a wild garden in bloom, leave all 13 of us wide-eyed with awe. Glasses of sauvignon blanc are poured, and as our eyes meet one another’s with a toast, the first meaningful connection is made. Although we have spent the last couple of hours on the road together, awkwardly straining our necks in attempts to chat, this is where the conversations really begin.
The first course serves as a portal transporting us beyond the only Mexico we’ve ever known. A black bean tostada, topped with luscious bone marrow and pungent cotija, stirs up our senses with anticipation for what could possibly follow. Local Kumiai oysters adorning silver platters are met with praise and followed by garden greens graced with a floral lavender vinaigrette and guava meringue. The pièce de résistance—roasted suckling pig—is tender and juicy, with a crispy chicharrón exterior.
As each dish is presented, we travel deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, our only companions these new faces around the table. Despite our various differences, as most of us have never met before today, we find common ground in discussing the nuances and delights of each course and our amazement at the chef’s ability to make nopales (cactus) into a dessert. Andrew has made sure every course is served family style to help foster new friendships. “I think food is the connector of people in general,” he explains. “People passing and eating off the same plate—or sharing a bite—it’s like you’re sharing the same experience in one space. Everyone can be from different backgrounds, but good food is good food; and people sharing good food is this very family-like experience.”
Kicking up the dust between various wineries, we find our glasses of grenache, tempranillo, merlot and various other varietals and blends a delightful surprise. The wine’s only competition is met in the sweeping views of lush grapevines and rolling hills, which seem incongruent with the images of Mexico archived in my mind. Tastings continue and hearts become lighter as laughter grows louder and freer than before. By sundown, we head to the perfect spot for soaking up what some may consider a little too much vino—a roadside taco shop.
The Tyrees take the lead as translators and servers by taking our order, thereby relieving some of the pressure for non-Spanish speakers, and maybe even avoiding the interesting interactions that may take place by those who feel overly confident in their Spanish abilities after one too many degustaciones (tastings). Drinks are sipped and tacos devoured, the bravest among us marked by fiery salsa dripping down our faces, and all of us scrambling for more napkins.
When we finally pile back into the van, claims of never eating again echo all around, followed by the very logical question, “So, what’s for breakfast?” Andrew responds with an animated explanation of his love for utilizing food as a vehicle to display the wide spectrum of all that Baja has to offer. For this reason, he’ll be taking us to an informal homestyle restaurant called La Cocina de Doña Esthela. The owner makes every item from scratch and most of it comes from the garden in her ranch out back. Having spent so many years cooking for friends and family, Doña Estela decided to turn her home into a restaurant and has since received accolades from around the world.
We arrive the next morning, bewildered by this residence-turned-restaurant and greet Doña Esthela, who knows most of her customers by name, welcoming them with besos y abrazos. The table is set with baskets of chips, salsa, and farm-fresh queso fresco, and we hurriedly dig in as our server prepares a round of cafés de olla (spiced sweet coffees). With a warm affection for the Tyrees, the hospitable owner checks in on us often, with a gentle rub on the back that makes me feel like my own tía is cooking for me. Fresh tortillas are brought out with plates of steaming food and as we partake, pieces of corn pancakes, bites of machaca, borrego tatemado and the like are passed around the table. The food is so delicious we can’t help but share it, and I smile, fully identifying with Andrew’s words from the previous afternoon: “I feel connected to people that eat well with me.”
After a full day of craft beer tastings, exploring downtown Ensenada, and biting into ceviche tostadas at Bourdain’s favorite stand, La Guerrerense, we begin our journey home. Golden streams of light stretch from the sky across the border, drawing me into a reflective state. It’s hard to believe that I have tasted and seen so much in only two days, and that these strangers around me have so quickly become friends.
An uproar of laughter jolts me back to the present and I notice everyone around me doubled over in their seats. I must have missed the climax of one of Andrew’s spirited stories. Looking around, I can’t help but join in the laughter, and I realize that this is not the time for quiet reflection. It is a time for storytelling and enjoying the unique people around me—relishing this community of unlikely friends—this “experience within an experience,” as Natalie calls it. Every element of the trip thus far has served as another course in one extravagant meal. The plates have finally been cleared, the meal is nearly over, and so we begin Andrew’s most cherished part, a time of conversation and genuine connection—sobremesa.