"You're going to die, you know."
"Are you stupid?"
"Can I have your car?"
Such were the reactions I got when I mentioned that I would be taking part in a culinary tour of Tijuana given by Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA: total certainty that I would never make it back north of the border alive. Their responses are understandable when considered in a U.S.-centric vacuum: the media here have concentrated on the spurts of violence in Mexico's border towns, rental car companies have withdrawn the option of driving to Baja, and the US State Department has issued an uncharacteristically strongly worded warning that mentions Tijuana.
It drives me crazy to read all of this.
Yes, Tijuana is one of the places where drug cartels are fighting the military. Yes, there have been shootouts. Unless you hang out with Mexican guys who drive black Suburbans and call themselves "El Kilo", your chances of being mixed up in any of this are about the same as your chances of getting into trouble in any big city. Statistically, you are more likely to be killed in Washington, D.C. than in Tijuana, yet we don't warn tourists not to go to Washington. The advice for D.C. is sensible: don't be an idiot, don't invite trouble, and use your common sense to stay out of sketchy situations.
That same advice goes twice over for T.J.: don't be a pinche idiot. Don't count money on the street. Don't walk through the red-light district at night. Don't disrespect people in any language (most tijuanenses speak good English, remember).
Most Americans' view of Tijuana is Avenida Revolución, the tacky one-time destination for millions of tourists looking for cheap drugs, doctors, liquors and Cuban cigars. The façades of the buildings on Tijuana's main downtown drag were falling to pieces. While the shop owners still try to use cunning ploys to get you to go inside and look at the cheap schlock they sell, they've toned it down. I heard a lot of, "Beautiful women inside!" and "One hundred percent off!", pitches that are downright tame in comparison with the heyday of tourist Tijuana. The most creative attempt at my attention, incidentally, was "Young man! Turn left! You're under arrest." They were desperate; I saw fewer than a dozen obviously American tourists on the street.
Tijuana is a big city: with this year's census expected to put the population very near the 2 million mark, it's approximately half the size of Los Angeles. Judging Tijuana by "la Revo" is about as fair as judging Los Angeles by Broadway, or Orange County by Harbor Boulevard in the Anaheim Resort. Americans don't think of Tijuana as a city, though; they tend to dispense with it as the poor southern suburb of San Diego and, in a spectacular example of a pars pro toto synecdoche, assume that the ten blocks from the border fence to the jai alai palace and the crumbling shacks of the Zona Norte along the Avenida Internacional are representative of the whole city.
Tijuana's restaurant scene gets written off easily, too. "Oh, yeah, you go down there, three carne asada tacos for a buck. Just don't ask what went into 'em." To hear Californians talk, one would think tijuanenses survived on nothing but cheap, gristly meat tucked into indifferent corn tortillas. Like any cosmopolitan city, there is a huge variety of restaurants. Sushi is huge in Tijuana; signs advertising comida china peek out from nearly every non-residential block. There are high-end temples of gastronomy, there are hundreds of mid-range cenadurias (diners) and there's a vibrant street food scene that puts even New York to shame.
Since we were early, we headed for Playas de Tijuana and stopped at Mariscos Becerra, one of dozens of seafood shacks that line the beach. Becerra specializes in smoked seafood. Smoked tuna, smoked marlin and smoked clams make their way into the hands of hungry diners, and for good reason: the taste is like nothing you'll find this side of la línea.
Smoked marlin is everywhere in Tijuana, and almost unheard of just a thousand feet to the north. We ate our marlin as toritos, an idea that is long, long since overdue here in the United States: smoked marlin or shrimp stuffed into chiles güeros (the yellow chiles that look like wider, paler jalapeños). Toritos are usually wrapped in bacon and cooked; these were tucked into freshly made tortillas. There were, suddenly, no words: mouths were too busy eating every last crumb of these tacos.
We also ordered a big bowl of shrimp posole, a light but zesty broth with hominy corn and fresh shrimp. The ultimate seafood breakfast cried out for a Tecate de barril, a lager drawn from a cold keg through an ancient tap. Drinking at 11 a.m.? Don't mind if I do. Smoked clams were next, put into a foil pouch with tomatoes, onions and chiles. The smokiness of the clams permeated the broth that built up around the seafood; I wanted to lick the foil clean. The price for this wonderfulness? Change back from a US $20.
Just a half a block up the street, the 29th Annual Festival of Fish and Seafood was in full swing. We met with our guides from CANIRAC--the restaurant association of Tijuana and Tecate--and the Tijuana Convention and Visitors' Bureau. The bounty of the sea jumped out from tent after tent.
Forced to choose at one tent from a menu of temptations including tacos gobernador (tortillas filled with sautéed shrimp and cheese, then griddled crisp), toritos and marlin tacos, I punted and asked for a coctél mixto. A foam cup nearly a liter in size was handed over, stuffed full of sweet shrimp and purple-tinged octopus. A viscous, slightly sweet tomato-and-onion purée flecked with chiles serranos and shot through with lemon surrounded the cocktail. I've eaten octopus on many occasions in Baja California, and the tenderness makes it the best pulpo in the world; this coctél was amazing.
We made our way up past a booth from Cheripán, an Argentine churrascaría with a huge grill filled with natural lump charcoal so hot it was pure white, topped with curls of porky, herb-flecked chorizo and long, thick slabs of beautifully marbled beef short ribs. We took plates of piping hot, fried mollejas--sweetbreads so tender they nearly melted in the mouth.
At one stand, we were given literature about the grand re-opening of Caesar's, the home of the salad now served in every two-bit café in North America. Javier Plascencia, the owner of several of Tijuana's best restaurants, rescued the crumbling building on Revolución and 4th, restored it, and will open Caesar's Restaurant to the world next week. We were treated to the original Caesar salad: whole interior leaves of romaine lettuce tossed with each of the dressing ingredients in turn: olive oil, fresh garlic, salt and pepper, vinegar or lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, an egg that has been boiled for exactly one minute, fresh Parmigiano cheese and croutons. The chef explained that it was meant to be eaten with the fingers: pick up the leaf by the stem and eat like a small piece of pizza.
Across the street, an absolutely enormous drum of paella was cooking. In a nod to Mexican preference, it was made with long-grain rice, not the medium-grain Valencian rice required in Spanish paella recipes. The chef obligingly lifted the cloth cover to expose at least twenty kilograms of seafood interspersed with the rice: shrimp, clams, mussels, octopus, squid, and Mexican chorizo, bright red with paprika. When it was finally done, we were served plates of tender seafood; a few minutes more and there would have been rice crust to go with it. We ate this greedily with L.A. Cetto wine from the Valle de Guadalupe, northeast of Ensenada. L.A. Cetto is a huge name in Mexican wine and make many kinds of wine; the best of the samples we had was the oaky Chardonnay.
Our last stop at the festival was at a stand with a huge line serving the archetypal, best-known and most-exported Baja California seafood dish, tacos de pescado. Asked what kind of fish it was, the fry cook shrugged and responded, "Pescado blanco." White fish. Whatever kind of fish it was (probably tilapia), it was dipped in batter and fried to order, topped with cabbage, crema mexicana (a thin sour cream) and a splash of salsa. With a better choice of fish, it would have been divine; as it was, it was quite good. Rubio's and Wahoo's don't provide any kind of preparation for a real Ensenada-style fish taco, but credible versions are available in L.A. and Orange Counties.
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Parched after standing around in the sun and drinking alcohol, we wandered the boardwalk down the hill, watching hawkers sell candies, tepache (a drink made by mashing pineapples and sugar and allowing it to ferment very slightly; it's always served with a refreshing scoop of lemon ice) and crispy fried wheat puffs to passersby. I stopped at a stand filled with enormous young coconuts. A woman wielding an enormous knife cleaved the top of a coconut the size of my head, made an indentation in the soft interior flesh with a clean pocket knife, and (upon my asking) tipped the water into a clear plastic bag with a straw. Fresh young coconut water is one of the most refreshing liquids on Earth, and a powerful hangover remedy to boot. Having finished the water, the woman scraped the gelatinous, sweet flesh into the bag and indicated an array of seasonings: lime, chile powder, salt and an addictive, deep red syrup called chamoy. This last is made by drying apricots with brine; the resulting salty liquid is reduced and chile powder is added to it, for a sweet, salty, sour and spicy treat.
This what eating on the beach should be like; we should have amazing seafood being fished out of the water and served from unassuming buildings and quickly set-up tents. Instead, we have overpriced restaurants that fly in imported, expensive seafood and torture it into compliance. Tijuana manages to do what we Socalis cannot: celebrate the bounty of the local catch and use it to best effect in simple recipes.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the rest of the trip: high-end ceviche and people in Prada and Ermenegildo Zegna and the finest tacos in all the world, tacos that alone are worth the two-hour drive.