Mike Royko had the Billy Goat. Herb Caen had the Gold Dust Lounge. Anthony Bourdain had the Siberia Bar. I have El Dandy del Sur, my favorite bar in the world, and where I have to go every time I'm in Tijuana.
I'm certainly not alone in my love of the place. Of all the cantinas in Tijuana, a notoriously cantina-ridden city, El Dandy del Sur is the most famous, the most storied, the most celebrated. It's even got a namesake song by Hiperboreal, one of the members of the great Tijuana musicians' association, the Nortec Collective. He's a regular at El Dandy, but you'll meet plenty of other people too: Americans in the know, fresas from the ritzy Chapultepec neighborhood, workers in for a liquid meal, couples on dates.
El Dandy del Sur is located at the edge of Nightclub Row in downtown Tijuana, just past where all the noisy clubs that have turned the old Revolución perpendicular start to peter out and run into restaurants. It's usually an oasis of peace, with no super-loud, high-bass music causing the bottles to jump, and no sports blaring loudly from the television. (In point of fact, the last time I watched the television at El Dandy del Sur, they were showing women's archery on ESPN2.) Walk in, smile at the security guard, and make sure to greet Laura, the manager, who's usually at the end of the bar closest to the door.
Sit down. Order a drink from the outgoing waitresses or from the bartender. Order a normal drink. This is not a cocktail bar; you will not get a fancy stirred martini here. This is not a craft beer bar; they don't serve Insurgente or Stone. This is not one of the awful frozen-margarita-machine bars around the corner, where drinks ooze forth into plastic cups. No, this is a dive bar par excellence, the archetypal place to have a shot and a regular beer--Buchanan's (pronounced bucanas in Mexico) and an Indio, if you're at a loss for what that means.
With your drink, they'll offer you "chicharrones"--fried wheat chips that look like beige tire treads and are doused with hot sauce. Take them if you want them, but order a serving of carne seca, too, the best bar snack in the world. The bartender will grab a bag of wood chip-looking beef jerky from the rack, dump it in a plastic molcajete, and throw it in the microwave for 44 seconds. Not 45--44, because it's faster to type. When it comes out, she'll hit it with the squeeze bottles: equal parts salsa inglesa (Worcestershire sauce), salsa picante (you know, Tapatío), and lime juice. You can order peanuts for a whopping 80 cents a basket, and you used to be able to get olives too. That's it for food; there's no kitchen in this bar.
The jukebox takes up the entire center of the wall opposite the bar, takes American cash--ask at the bar if you've only got pesos--and you never know what's going to be playing. It could be the aforementioned Nortec Collective, or it could be Muse. It could be Def Leppard, or it could be Juan Gabriel. It's a glitzy nod to the modern age in a place that looks like it hasn't changed since it opened its doors (the original Dandy del Sur opened in a different location in 1957). Get your music selections in early; by midnight, you'll be fifteenth or twentieth in line to hear your song, if you're lucky.
There's a popular, but untrue, rumor that El Dandy del Sur never closes; even in Tijuana, bars must close, but the fact remains that you can have Jameson for breakfast, "Jager Master" for lunch, and tequila for dinner if you so choose.
El Dandy del Sur is a tiny microcosm of Tijuana; in the words of the Nortec Collective, Tijuana makes me happy.
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El Dandy del Sur is located on Calle Sexta (Flores Magón) between Revolución and Madero in central Tijuana; 01152-664-688-00-52.