On our drive through Baja backcountry between La Paz and Cabo, we stopped in El Triunfo, a dusty, desolate mining town that could easily double as the setting for a Wild West gunfight, or possibly a zombie apocalypse. Instead, Northern California native Marcus Spahr treated us to a flurry of wood-fired foods featuring local ingredients, in a truly unique setting.
After villagers left El Triunfo to work in Todos Santos sugar cane fields, they left the once-thriving silver mining town in shambles. We passed time waiting for our food by wandering through remnants of smoke stacks, crumbled brick walls and rusted machinery.
Spahr’s incrementally renovated the cafe both indoors and out, laying new brickwork, adding stone slab tables and planting cacti on ledges. We sat on the patio, under a brick and wood roof, with the sound of roosters in the distance.
Spahr was born in Oakland, grew up in Ventura County, and started ranching up north near Cobb Mountain in California’s Lake County. He moved to Todos Santos to farm things like mango, avocado, grapefruit. He ran Cafe Todos Santos for 16 years, beginning on October 7, 1993, and sold to chef Angelo Dal Bon from Tre Galline. He opened Caffe El Triunfo in 2008, looking for new challenges, better food, a better setting, and room to build a wood burning oven.
We walked over to Abarrotes La Escondida, one of El Triunfo’s variety stores, and bought a wheel of queso fresco (70 pesos), which they weighed on a worn scale.
For his crisp-crusted pizzas, Spahr uses a sourdough starter that dates to 2002 and features house-made tomato sauce that Cafe Santa Fe owner Ezio Colombo taught him and fresh mozzarella sourced from a ranch in town.
It also probably would have been good to try the ravioli, since Spahr described the process for learning how to make the pasta, or possibly the wood-fired pork sandwich.
Spahr has managed to breathe new life into El Triunfo, and it’s only fitting that he’s featuring wood fire, since flames once helped to smelt local silver to its most valuable mineral essence, a short walk from the caffe’s back door.
Our visit to Caffe El Triunfo was part of a Baja California Sur tour sponsored by Baja.com.