Charred Chocolate Clams: The Secrets of Baja’s Signature Dish

Almejas tatemadas, or charred clams, are the classic dish of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, and a favorite of sun-seeking, seafood-loving tourists to the region.
September 14, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
Solaz Cabo Tatemada Clams
Clams get buried in gravel on a large metal table and get set on fire to cook for about 40 minutes. Courtesy of Solaz Resort
Courtesy of Solaz Resort

In a long flowing dress, barefoot in the sand, and with firepit flames reflecting off her blonde hair, Ana Gloria Benziger Davis shares her version of the history of almejas tatemadas, or charred chocolate clams, cooking beneath the fire.

The dish, a specialty of her Baja California town of Loreto and particularly of her hotel, the Oasis, involves burying the large local clams in sand. Smoky and spicy, with a hint of seawater sweetness, the prepared clams taste not unlike a deep breath of saltwater air near a bonfire cooking the clams. And it’s a flavor locals have likely been enjoying for thousands of years.

“Who knows?” says the third-generation proprietor of Loreto’s Hotel Oasis of whether the local Pericú tribe’s middens (shell stacks) really prove that they cooked the clams the same way she does now. It’s a dish many visitors to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula seek out, a famous culinary emblem of the region, and she is the guardian of the tradition, the keeper of the flame, so to speak. “Why not be romantic, though?” she asks, justifying her poetic license as she recounts what a local museum director told her about the possible long ago origins of the dish.

The exact recipe that Benziger is cooking now, though, is one that goes back to at least her great-grandparents, who opened the Hotel Oasis in 1962. The families of Loreto would head to the beach, collect the clams, and bury them in the sand, mouth-side down, very close to one another, topping them with dried romerillo, which they set on fire. “Any dry bush will cook them,” Benziger adds, but this plant, which grows in the river nearby, also imparts flavor.

Solaz Cabo Tatemada Clams Fire
Flames shoot skyward as the clams cook.
Courtesy of Solaz Resorts

When the fire died down, the clams were ready, and the picnicking families would drop them on hard rocks, enabling people to retrieve the meat inside. Because the picnickers didn’t necessarily have paper plates lying about, they would eat the clams off flour tortillas topped with mustard sauce. “The mustard sauce is what women from Loreto use to catch their husbands,” Benziger explains, and she is particularly proud of her own, made with mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeño juice, salt, and pepper.

Tonight, the clams are buried in gravel on a large metal table, covered in romerillo, and set alight. The cooking takes about 40 minutes, so as the flames shoot scarily skyward, she indulges in a few raw clams. Chocolate clams, named for the shade of their shells and not any strange seafood flavors, are big, about the size of a baseball, but opened up and released from the shell, they are just about perfectly bite-size. A squeeze of lime, a little hot sauce, a dash of Maggi sauce, and a splash of beer, and the sweet seafood brininess shines through.

Solaz Cabo Tatemada Clams Kitchen
After the clams are lit, and their shells open, they are served with a squeeze of lime, a little hot sauce, and a dash of Maggi sauce.
Courtesy of Solaz Resort

Still, it’s just a preview of the main event.

Almejas tatemadas are special to Loreto, approximately a six-hour drive north from the tourist hotspot of Los Cabos. There was even an attempt to create a protected designation of origin for the clams, similar to what Parmigiano-Reggiano and Champagne enjoy. Benziger says the dish is a special-event meal in Loreto, served at birthday parties and big celebrations and even for presidential visits.

But tonight Benziger is on the beach as the clams cook in front of the Solaz Resort in Los Cabos as part of its program bringing in local culinary experts from around the region.

When the flames die down, the clams come off the table. The chefs throw them onto a cutting board, just as families on the beach once did onto rocks. After each of the clams breaks open, the chefs top them with creamy mustard sauce and hand them out by the plateful. Slurped from the shell under a starlit sky, it’s the kind of quintessential seafood experience that connects eaters straight to the place they’re in.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—Vancouver is a haven for cheap but delicious tasting menus
Vietnamese egg coffee is taking North America by storm—but what is it?
Shake Shack’s culinary director is dreaming up new menu items around the world
—Foraging for high-end meals on Dominica, the Caribbean’s best-kept secret
—Listen to our new audio briefing, Fortune 500 Daily
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis