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Ensenada - for a taste of Baja, close to the border.

Head down for tacos at the fish market, new shops around town, and good old Hussong's Cantina

ONE OF ENSENADA'S gustatory attractions--the Mercado de Mariscos, or fish market--has a new neighbor: Plaza Marina, a huge tangerine shopping center. The project has several restaurants in operation, with most serving rather typical American fast food--not wholly surprising when you consider that Baja California's Pacific port city is only a 2-hour drive south of San Diego.

For more authentic Mexican fare, visit the nearby taco stands where you can sop up tacos de pescado made from sweet, delicate cabezon or whatever other fish is fresh that day.

The easiest way to find Ensenada's fish market is to look for the new Plaza Marina on Boulevard Costero, the main drag around the harbor area. The fish market and some 24 different taco stalls are located directly behind it.

Pull up a stool and you'll soon be asked how many tacos you want (they cost about 75 cents each). Almost everyone speaks some English, and dollars are gladly accepted. You can spice up your fried-fish taco from the large selection of condiments on the counter, including salsas and lemon wedges.

Afterward, walk around the fish market; we saw baskets of big clams from Bahia de San Quintin, slabs of tuna, and bins of shrimp. Prices are a bargain. When we visited, tuna was selling for $1.50 a pound and medium-size shrimp for $4.50 a pound. If you're driving back that day, most vendors are happy to include a chunk of ice to keep your seafood fresh in a cooler.

For more upscale dining, try the Casamar (Boulevard Costero 987), where the seafood combination plate (under $15) includes octopus taco, chile relleno with tuna, scallop tostada, and tuna enchilada. Another option is El Charro (Avenida Lopez Mateos 475), which serves up the best roast chicken in town, with three kinds of mole.

Old and new rub shoulders at another Ensenada landmark--Hussong's Cantina. The venerable bar with sawdust on the floor celebrated its 100th birthday last year. Next door to the cantina, on the corner of Lopez Mateos and Avenida Ruiz, is the new Plaza Hussong, where you'll find art galleries, designer beachwear, and Hussong's Cafe. Sip a margarita or a soda on the cafe's patio upstairs and watch the street action below.

Also in Plaza Hussong is Galeria de Perez Meillon, where you'll find delicate willow baskets, eye-catching pottery, and other Mexican folk art.

If you just can't resist haggling for more generic curios such as blankets, ponchos, serapes, T-shirts, and leather goods, head to one of the many shops along Lopez Mateos, Ensenada's main shopping avenue.

If you'd like to spend the night, Ensenada has a number of good, moderately priced hotels. Hotel Mision Santa Isabel, at Boulevard Lazaro Cardenas and Avenida Castillo, is in Spanish colonial style, with whitewashed walls. It's within walking distance of the shopping area and the harbor; it's also a little noisy at night. Rooms cost $55 per night, double; call 011 52 (617) 83616 for reservations.

Villa Fontana, at Lopez Mateos 1050, is a modern hotel with courtyard parking. Rooms cost $43 to $53 a night, double; call (800) 422-5204.

Ensenada is 71 miles south of the U.S. border at San Ysidro, California. Don't forget to purchase Mexican auto insurance before you cross the border (short-term policies are sold by several firms in San Ysidro). The toll highway from Tijuana to Ensenada is faster than the busy, winding free road, but you'll pay a total of nearly $7 at three tollbooths.
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Title Annotation:Mexico
Author:Lansing, David
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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