By Kristine Hoang
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Photo by Gustavo ArellanoTo reach El Rincón del Oso, get on the I-5 south and drive—past San Clemente, past Camp Pendleton and San Onofre, past the transistor-radio-like sprawl of San Diego, all the way past the teeming U.S.-Mexico border itself. Then careen through Tijuana's notorious glorietas—the floral or perhaps Catholic-sounding Spanish word for traffic circles—along slippery cobblestone roads and past taxi drivers who really, truly brake for almost nothing. Pass the hospital rumored to service drug kingpins, pass the dirt soccer fields, and definitely pass the many taco carts that specialize in grilled botulism. The sign soon appears: Mercado Miguel Hidalgo Internacional. Hang a sharp right at the first entrance, making sure not to crash into the coal salesman.
Now the adventure begins.
More than 70 stores scream for attention in this open-air market, hawking products ranging from Finding Nemo piñatas to gritty Chihuahua cheese and contraband parrots from the Amazon. The chatter of customers bartering in English and Spanish provides endless amusement, and the constant turnover of automobiles inside the football-field-long Mercado reveals an equal number of yellow/green license plates from Baja California Norte and the blue/white tin rectangle of California cars.
Right outside El Rincón del Oso (the Bear's Corner), the cacophony of the Mercado multiplies exponentially. The thud-thud of a taquero's cleaver chopping succulent shreds of carne asada provides a bass beat for the restaurant's jukebox accordion shudders and the duo that strolls from table to table belting out powerful boleros. These sounds rush out of El Rincón, mixed with the banter of apoplectic soccer commentators broadcasting from the restaurant's big-screen television and a nearby chapel that blares banda beats as if it were Jesu, Joy of Mankind's Suffering.
With all this, it's easy to forget that El Rincón del Oso is a restaurant. In fact, the only indication outside the 20-year-old eatery that it serves food is the half-goat looming over El Rincón's door, a testament to both its prize dish and the preservative powers of modern taxidermy. Oh, and El Rincón's logo—a bear with a malevolent grin boiling a terrified goat inside a cauldron. Take a hint from the cub and step in.
Ordering offers no respite from the factory-strength sounds around you; no Tokyo noise band ever dreamed up this soundscape. You choose what to drink by pointing at jars filled with horchata, hibiscus and tamarind water; lunch options come by gesturing toward a fading menu painted on the wall. No translations are needed for the menu even though it's in Spanish, as it speaks a Mexican meal vernacular familiar to the American palate—among them, tostadas, chilaquiles, eggs with chorizo, and enchiladas.
These are the items to be ignored in a Mexican restaurant north of the motherland. But El Rincón del Oso is in Mexico, remember, and the mere act of cooking in a country where everything reverberates with millennia-old traditions transforms even the simplest entrées into bucolic marvels. A single enchilada becomes a feast, simmered with a sweet salsa and accompanied with beans redolent of lard. Tortillas are tinted the distinctive dull tan that ensures they were patted into shape by stout women and are as thick as a CD jewel case. Gorditas bubble with steamy, creamy cheese, contain a sliver of melted butter that squirts out after every nibble, and feature a toasted crust that would motivate three-quarters of Santa Ana to repatriate. El Rincón's gorditas are so renowned, according to one waitress, that they deliver orders of hundreds to San Diego residents daily.
But the taxidermied goat outside El Rincón attests to the restaurant's true specialty, birria, for which lines form outside the restaurant throughout the day, snaking into the hot parking lot. Goat lovers come from Rosarito, from Chula Vista, especially from Anaheim because El Rincon prepares the famous goat stew Jalisco-style, which means it's as rustic as soup gets—meat stringy with cartilage and fat, an unctuous broth hot enough to scald, and that's it. It's up to customers to balance the ruminant's bitter essence with onions and cilantro, but why would you want to? Take a look around—no one else does.
Then there's the peinecillo, the barbecued spine of a goat. The lumpy length comes complete with a thick membrane, fat, and nerves hidden within every vertebra. Ignore the spine itself if the thought of consuming backbone disgusts you; your loss. But the meat surrounding the peinecillo is veal-soft, beautiful, and will make the parking lot that awaits you upon crossing over to San Ysidro seem as smooth a cruise as jetting through the San Joaquin Toll Road.El Rincón Del Oso, located at Mercado Miguel Hidalgo Internacional No. 44, Zona Rio, Tijuana, Baja California, 011-52-664-684-24-91, Is open Mon.-Sat. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m., lunch for two $6-$14, excluding drinks, beer only, cash only.