The sun was in our eyes as Greer and I headed west toward Playas de Tijuana on the border-hugging Avenida Internacional; we'd skipped lunch, knowing that gastronomic wonders awaited us past the new El Chaparral border checkpoint.
"I know a great place for a seafood lunch," I said knowingly. Then--it always happens when someone else is watching--I got lost. Made wrong turns. Drove past the same under-construction condominium three times. Passed a carnitas tent three times. It was embarrassing, but finally I managed to make the correct turns and we pulled up in front of a non-descript building featuring a thatched roof and a huge bar in front.
This is Mariscos Becerra, and the two women who run the kitchen, Enriqueta and Alicia, looked surprised to see us coming in for such a late lunch. The owner, Jaime Ochoa Becerra, was out shopping for ingredients. We sat down and ordered tall draughts of Indio and the restaurant's finest speciality, almejas ahumadas--smoked clams.
It's not a dish that photographs well, and you'd need Smell-o-vision to be able to appreciate it without tasting it; the clams are smoked and then sealed into packets with tomatoes and onions, turning into a kind of loose Manhattan clam chowder that haunts my taste buds when I go too long without it. If you didn't know the clams were smoked, you'd swear there was bacon in the dish. (There's not; I asked.)
"¿Hay de todo?" I asked Alicia when she came out of the kitchen--because, as good as Mexican seafood is, it is not delivered by magic fish fairies and occasionally restaurants run out of certain foods.
"Sí, nomás hay pocos camarones," she replied. Only a few shrimp left, a damn shame because they use Sea of Cortez shrimp, the sweet beauties that rarely find their way to our plates here in el otro lado.
Still, there were enough shrimp to pair with Oaxaca cheese in handmade tortillas for tacos gobernador, and with them we ordered chile tacos, spicy little yellow chiles güeros stuffed with rich, oily smoked marlin and stuffed into tortillas.
There were even enough shrimp to go with huge kernels of hominy corn into a big bowl of pozole de camarón, shrimp soup so bright red it could have been marinara sauce ground smooth. The taste, though was pure chile--chile guajillo with its quick burn that lasts. "I normally make it with California chile," Alicia said, referring to the mild dried peppers that are a workhouse around here, "but one time I ran out and made it with guajillo and everyone begged me to keep it this way."
I've been many times to this little would-be palapa on the beach, and had everything from the ceviche (tomatoey and too sweet) to a one-time special of pulpo a las brasas, grilled octopus, one of the most tender preparations I've ever had, smoky with charcoal and humming with garlic, swimming in a thin pond of chile sauce. This is the epitome of home cooking done in a restaurant.
As with nearly all marisquerías in Baja, you will be absolutely floored by the rock-bottom prices charged for the high quality of the food. Each packet of smoked clams, enough to be an appetizer, cost 35 pesos ($2.75); the huge bowl of pozole, with at least a dozen and a half shrimp, cost 75 pesos ($5.90). The liters of draft beer? 25 pesos ($1.95) each.
Altogether, a huge seafood lunch for two with plenty of beer cost 350 pesos--$27.50.
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Mariscos Becerra is at Avenida del Pacífico #743, Playas de Tijuana; 011-52-664-400-7759. Open 11 a.m.-midnight every day but Tuesday. Cash only (US dollars accepted at fair exchange rates).
From the border, follow signs for the Ensenada Scenic Road and follow the road along the border. Follow signs for Playas de Tijuana, pass the bullring, then exit right at the circle at Parque México. Turn right into Parque México Norte, then turn right at the end of the street; Mariscos Becerra is just a few doors up on your left.