A Tijuana Virgin On His First Visit: No Shootings, No Narcos, Amazing Food Galore
I didn't get shot. Not once, not at all.
As silly as that sounds, after all of the travel warnings I've read and horror stories I've been told, a tiny part of me kinda thought the moment I arrived in Tijuana I would be stopped by the cartels and taken out. I admit I'm not much of a traveler, but ignorance be damned, it's the truth.
Fellow Forker Dave is a TJ veteran, crossing over more than 20 times in recent years. He introduced to a vibrant town that, while still struggling with its issues, is on the way to recovery through an emerging food scene that celebrates old traditions and new techniques.
What a shame I stayed away so long.
For less time than it takes to get to Santa Barbara, you could be blowing through your dollars (and pesos) in a place where you'll get a good return on your investment.
Orange County being the 10 variants of beige that it is, the first thing you notice when you arrive are the colors. Vibrant hues of pink, yellow and blue. Huge shopping centers and American restaurants greet you not far from the checkpoint, but as you head deeper into the city, the McDonald's and Applebees become few and far between. I hone in on the food, which is on every corner. Birria, tacos, tamales. And a lot of Chinese food, too. You can tell which stands and carts are good because people are huddled around them, some already munching on fresh tortillas and steaming carne while others wait for their turn to dig in.
Dave dashes like a madman through the bustling streets. I'm too timid to drive in this semi-synchronized, completely chaotic manner. We charge up the steepest hill I've seen since San Francisco for seafood tacos at Mariscos El Mazateno. Before we order, we're brought shrimp consomme and the fix-ins, including pico de gallo, cabbage, limes and perfectly crisp, slightly puffy tortilla chips. I would have been happy with just this spread, but I was gobsmacked when our tacos arrived.
Piping hot corn and flour tortillas, each cradling a different treasure from the Baja waters.
Folded in the corn tortilla was a dense mound of marlin (yes, the baseball team mascot). I'll use a comparison that's absolutely true, but will not do this fish justice--it had the consistency and texture of canned salmon. It was more savory than sweet or ocean salty, with a rich fishiness that wasn't overpowering.
Nothing against the marlin, but the shrimp taco, with its film of chili oil and gooey, overflowing Oaxaca cheese, was the one I'm still thinking about: Perfectly cooked shrimp stuffed into a fresh, chewy flour tortilla. A sprinkle of cabbage, a dash of lime and I've never had a better shrimp taco.
Zipping back down the hill, we head across town to Mercado Hidalgo. Some streets are closed, secured by police with automatic weapons. Dave later found out a police officer was killed, but the streets were so blocked off in every direction that it was impossible to see anything at all.
When we arrive, we enter the pay lot and and join the clockwise circle winding its way through the open-air market. Voices ring from every angle, piñatas sway from the awnings and each store is piled high with things I've never seen before. It's sensory overload gone haywire.
I grab dried hibiscus flowers while Dave goes on the hunt for fiery chiles and queso made by Mexican Mennonites.
We have lunch reservations in Mexican wine country (which I didn't know existed until now). From the city, we take the paid toll road along the coast. Travel tip: Keep your receipts for proof of insurance. Any damaged caused by the road condition is payable by CAPUFE, the Caminos y Puentas Federales. Just show your receipt at the next toll booth. Also, as a toll road user, you can use the medical clinics that occasionally appear roadside.
When we make our way through one toll plaza, a man is handcuffed as soldiers pull bundles of drugs out from under the grill of his black pickup truck and stack them on the pavement.
Twenty miles north of Ensenada, we make a left and head down the Ruta del Vino. Dave makes a joke about how we're in the Mexican version of Sideways. In my head, I can't decide if I'd rather be the less handsome, smarter writer, or the dude that gets laid more than his brainy friend.
We search for a sign on the road that says "La Villa del Valle," which turns out to be an immaculate six-room B&B on the top of a hill in the Valle de Guadalupe. It's here that Chef Diego Hernandez is quickly emerging as a new star in the Baja Med scene with his restaurant Corazon de Tierra.
Five hours later, we're back in the city. Dave makes a stop at The Beer Box, a beer bar in Zona Rio, the city's business district. He comes for the craft beers, namely Lagrimas Negra, a Mexican stout.
I'm not much of a beer drinker, but I am an ice cream eater. We leave Zona Rio and head toward the Otay Mesa border crossing on the northeast side of the city. Our final stop is at Tepoznieves, an ice cream parlor with three full cases of ice cream flavors--everything from strawberry (fresa) to jicama con chile. One flavor that threw me off was "tuna," which, though it has the deep magenta color of ahi and an unfamiliar finish, actually translates to cactus flower ice cream. I have to brush up on my Spanish.
I chose favorites that don't go together: toronja (grapefruit) and chocolate. Less creamy than Ben & Jerry's, this ice cream is a bit grainy, like ice milk. The tart grapefruit would be refreshing on a searing day, but the chocolate tastes like Abuelita and I regret not doubling down on that one flavor.
The wait at the border is two hours. Tired and too full, it's easy to become cramped and frustrated. It makes more sense to stay next time. Grab a room overnight and do it all over again the next day. I still need to discover tortas Wash Mobile, Kentucky Fried Buches and Mision 19.
Even after a full day of driving and eating, I know I'm only scratching the surface. And with Tijuana so close and affordable, there's no good reason not to come back soon.
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