Let’s face it, Tijuana has always had a bad reputation. In the past, Americans would come here for “tequila, sexo, marijuana” as the song goes. I remember Avenida Revolución in the 90s full of frat boys, marines and gringas dancing on tables at Papas ‘n Beer. Yes, it was nasty. Well, the good news is that most of that scene has withered away. However, now the media is portraying Tijuana as a war zone, with bullets flying all over the place and people being kidnapped and decapitated. Yes, it’s true that the drug war is happening, but it’s also true that the media is exaggerating and using fear culture for its own self-interest.
As I watch the news, I wonder why the media hasn’t put Tijuana’s food scene in its headlines. This city has 1.5 million people, making it one of the largest in Mexico. Due to its border with the US and its many factories, Tijuana is one of the most diverse places in the country; Migrants are coming from everywhere, so you can find everything from a Poblano chile en nogada to a Sonoran steak or Sinaloan seafood. Times are changing and I really believe that Tijuana, along with its other neighboring towns in Baja California Norte, is going to be the next big thing. All you foodies out there, Welcome to Tijuana!
Now I’m not the first person to realize this. In January, the New Yorker wrote a feature about Javier Plascencia, master chef of the famous Misión 19 in Tijuana. Soon after that, Anthony Bourdain also made a trip there for his Baja Episode of No Reservations. Even at Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago in San Diego, Bourdain was heard telling people to go for dinner in Tijuana rather than on this side of the border. And last weekend at the LA Street Food Fest, Mariscos “La Guerrerense” from Ensenada won “Best in Show” for its sea snail tostada, giving Baja California the top prize for its second consecutive year (Javier Plascencia won for his oysters with chicharron and sea pickle in 2011).
With all of this in mind, a group of us Angelinos departed LA early in the morning to spend 24 hours in TJ para comer y comer y comer. Our guide for the day, Omar Foglio, from the Tijuana-based media art collective Bulbo, met us out in front of Sanborns (sort of a fancy Denny’s) on Avenida Revolución. No, we did not eat at Sanborns, as I’ve had my share of enchiladas suizas. Instead we headed towards Colonia La Cacho for 24 Horas, a restaurant that never closes. 24 Horas is actually not its real name. It’s called Restaurante Mexicano, which is the most common name a restaurant in Mexico could have. So instead, locals just call it 24 Horas.
When you walk into the restaurant, you literally enter the kitchen, full of cooks and action. This is an informal family-style place that serves authentic and traditional plates. We were the only tourists in the place…and we knew this was a good thing. We started off with sweet café de olla (coffee brewed with cinnamon and piloncillo). For breakfast we ordered huevos rancheros (3 fried eggs on an open fried tortilla covered in a spicy red sauce), red enchiladas filled with queso fresco, and cecina de res (thinly-sliced aged beef) with grilled cactus and scrambled eggs. All entrees came with chilaquiles, refried beans, fried potatoes, chorizo, chicharrón guisado, tortilla chips, several salsas and homemade corn tortillas. There is also a fruit bar that makes freshly squeezed juices and healthy salads.
In this area there are a lot of very good restaurants nearby. Just across the street is Las Ahumaderas or “taco alley”. This street of taquerias was happening in the 80s and early 90s. It was a traditional place to go for tacos, but lately this strip has been forgotten, especially with so many new taquerias popping up around town. However, Anthony Bourdain ate a campechano taco (carne asada and chorizo) on his show, so maybe the area will come back in fashion. And just around the corner is La Fonda Roberto’s that specializes in food from Puebla, Dolce Salato which does amazing pastries and El Taller, which serves “Baja Med”-style pizzas among other things. This is definitely an excellent gastronomic area to visit.
We were so full and needed to walk it off, so we ended up at Mercado Hidalgo, a block-long street market full of produce from all around Mexico. This is where the chefs come and find ingredients such as epazote (wormseed), huazontle (a prehispanic plant), squash blossoms, tomatillos, chayote, cactus leaves, miel de maguey (sweet maguey nectar), chiles of all kinds like habanero, jalapeño, guajillo, chile de arbol, chile pasilla, and much much more.
After walking around in the sun, it was time for some Tijuana-brewed beer at la cerveceria. Up on a hill, the Tijuana Brewery is big and definitely makes its presence on Blvd. Fundadores. The inside is wooden, with an English pub feel to it, but better because it’s full of Tijuanenses. The best thing to do your first time there is to try the Taster, 6 beers from the light Guera to the dark brown Cerveza Bufadora. Now that we were all nice and drunk, it was time to eat some tacos.
Winding up and around the city to the barrio of Tomas Aquino, we ate at a Sinaloan taqueria Mariscos El Mazateño. Little did we know that at the same time we were there, this restaurant was winning the “Judge’s Honorable Mention” at the LA Street Food Fest for its taco de camarón enchilado (a spicy shrimp taco dressed with shredded cabbage, pico de gallo, crema and green salsa). Yes, we tried this taco as well as taco de pescado empanizado (fried fish, tempura style), taco de marlin, taco de pulpo (octopus), and my favorite, the delicious taco de chicharrón de pargo (fried fish) like no other. All tacos come with a shrimp consommé as an aperitif to prepare the palate for an incredible adventure.
At this point we were about to explode and trying to drive a car full of 6 people uphill in Otay made us realize how much heavier we had become. Everyone was too full for dessert, but one place I love in Tijuana that is perfect after lunch is Tepoznieves, an ice cream and sorbet parlour with over 100 interesting and exotic flavors: anise, fig, mezcal, guanabana, tequila, black zapote, papaya, cactus fruit, red plum, guayaba, cajeta, rose petal, mamey, piña colada… But my friends were too full, so we drove to Playas, the beach town that hosts the US/Mexican border.
Fortunately when we got there, the Festival del Pescado y el Marisco was going on, so food from all the local restaurants had booths set up with free tastings. We walked a bit on the malecon and danced some cumbia, but we couldn’t help but try some of the local delicacies and drink some more tequila. My tequila was served in a clay cup with tamarind, lemoncello, margarita mix, soda water, hot sauce, and a spicy tamarind candy that acted as an edible straw. I got warm in about 2 seconds.
After drinking and dancing alongside the border, we drove to the neighborhood of La Mesa to eat at my absolute favorite taqueria, Tacos Salceados. This taqueria makes tacos like no other- the famous quesotaco, a taco with a slice of toasted grilled cheese filled with any kind of meat or fish, pineapple and a strawberry sauce wrapped in a homemade tortilla. It’s like dinner and dessert all at the same time. We also ordered a taco with grilled jalapeño filled with carne asada and guacamole and a taco with New York steak and shrimp. My vegetarian friend had a quesotaco filled with cactus, mushrooms and melted cheese.
Now that we had hit our eating limit, it was time to go back to drinking. La Sexta (6th Street) off the Avenida Revolución has some great bars all right next to each other. We first stopped at the Tijuana classic Dandy del Sur, a nostalgic dive bar with a juke box that has been around since 1957 and became even more famous when members of Nortec Collective hung out there (We actually spotted Hiperboreal at the bar!) and then wrote a song with the same title. After some tequilas and beers, we crossed the street for a mezcal tasting at the ultra hip La Mezcalera. You can try mezcales puros (Minero, Tobala, Pechuga, Gusano, Reposado, Añejo), mezcales de sabor (mint, anise, maracuya, mango, raspberry), or cremas de mezcal (coconut, cajeta, piña colada, mocha, hazelnut, coffee). We drank our shots of mezcal with slices of orange and chapulines (grasshoppers) cut up and mixed with chile and lime… ¡que rico!
Driving back to the border I knew I would be coming back to Tijuana muy, muy pronto!
Photos by Conrad Starr and Daniel Lara