BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico - January was not the kindest month on this rocky strip, within commuting distance of San Diego but a world apart - and another flavor entirely.

A drug war in Tijuana, just across the border, spawned headlines about heavy-arms firefights, one next to a kindergarten.

New U.S. border-crossing rules were coming down like a wet blanket.

And it was rainy.

And raw.

For visitors making a side trip from Los Angeles, it was not, on the facts at hand, the most sensible or auspicious choice.

But there would be the food, wouldn't there? - a chance to sample the Baja specialty

tacos de pescado

(fish tacos), and curbside seviches, and the local lobster, which is clawless and of the spiny variety, typically called "rock lobster" or "langostino."

And reliably, as is often the case in such matters, the scary scenario was overdrawn: Crossing the border (heading

into

Mexico) was as complicated as crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge (

into

Camden) before rush hour.

No bullets flew. No cops shook down. No pockets got picked.

And the sun, as February loomed, came out.

Which was a good thing: Nearly every meal taken indoors was, at best, mundane. Nearly every one procured at a colorful roadside joint, or street cart, on a breezy roof or a backyard patio, was a simple joy.

The open-air eateries make for a funky cacophony - steamy stew beef chopped on blocks; tortillas, their edges dipped in chile oil, sizzling on griddles; churros bubbling in their baths of licking fat.

Your meal is made - hacked, grilled, sliced - in front of you, not dispensed from a McDonald's back laboratory. You sit elbow to elbow with a truck driver, a mechanic, a fisherman, inhaling the wood smoke, the exhaust fumes, the bracing spritz of lime.

Everywhere the blessed avocado adds a grace note.

About 16 miles southwest of Ensenada the only paved road through the mountains is lined with family-run taco shacks on the way to a natural attraction called the Bufadora (The Snorter), an underwater cavern that pinches the surf, sending plumes of spray 80 feet high.

A stop at a tidy, blue-painted stand called Lupita's yields an exemplar of the fish taco genre - hot, moist fingers of fresh fish dipped in light batter, deep-fried in a black kettle, and served in a double tortilla with shredded cabbage, bright pickled onion, salsa, chile sauces, lime, and a runny white sauce not unlike ranch-style dressing.

Closer to the Wildwoodesque city of Rosarito is Puerto Nuevo, which is to say, Newport, where on a rooftop overlooking an entire dusty town of copy-cat seafood establishments, one can lunch on a prawnlike spiny lobster, split and grilled with garlic butter, and an icy bottle of El Sol.

So it goes - churros, snaky, crunchy extruded Mexican doughnuts proffered with milky, cinnamon-spiked hot chocolate from sidewalk windows; tamales hawked from towel-draped baskets at gas stations; tacos of chopped marinated steak at the counter of surf shops; gorgeous tortas - sandwiches (with sliced avocado) on grilled rolls.

But in the end, it was Mariscos el Guero, a seviche stand the size of a hot-dog cart in Ensenada, across from the cruise-ship port (but rarely patronized by gringos), that beckoned most insistently: Locals surrounded it at all hours, folded on chairs on the sidewalk, eating standing up, gabbing into the evening.

It was heaped high with clams and oysters, shrimp and scallops, bottled hot sauces and fruit juices.

The specialty was a crisp tostada slathered with minced seafood paste, layered with avocado, and piled with seven varieties of tart, lime-marinated shellfish and seafood - sweet, fresh-shucked diced clam, and creamy scallop, oyster and shrimp, and yellowtail and, maybe, a pinch of lobster.

For 28 years it has held down the same corner.

And yes, it was a leap of faith - and, finally, a simple joy.

In a month that Mexican corn farmers protested cheap U.S. feed-corn imports, on the peninsula where the Caesar salad was created (by an Italian chef for the Hollywood crowd in 1924), and the margarita as well (in Jack Dempsey's casino-bar in Ensenada), it was the reward for throwing caution to the wind.

Crossing the border (

out

of Mexico) would take more than an hour in traffic as jammed as it gets (coming across the bridge

from

Camden) on a Shore weekend in August.

But so what? We'd beaten the odds.

Eating well, in fact, had been the best revenge.

.