November 15, 2012 | 3:00pm
Things have been picking up lately in Baja. Mexican-Americans, or pochos, from San Diego are getting their drink on at the ever popular La Sexta(La Revu for Tijuanans)--even touristy Puerto Nuevo is reporting visitors coming from all over the US to experience lard-fried lobster with giant flour tortillas, and refried beans. Every where I go I run into blond-haired, blue-eyed San Diegans in the Valle de Guadalupe tasting wine, lining up for a sea urchin tostada from Dona Sabina in Ensenada, or at one of our regular stops in Tijuana--last time I was at El Mazateno, Ryan Seacrest's doppelganger walked up to me and said he was coming down for their famous shrimp taco because he read about it in our articles, and had to have it. Down in Ensenada, Hussong's and Papas and Beer are once again packed full of conga-lining, zarape wearing crazies swimming in tequila and beer.
Having been going down to Baja on a monthly basis since just after the Millennium, and visiting with even more frequency during Tijuana's darkest period(around 2009-2010)through today--I've witnessed it's return to calm. What still remains a complete drain on many people's trip across the border is the oppressive wait to drive back across--usually more than 2 hours. To watch a drop in visitors after the sensationalized tales of drug war violence, the new passport requirement placed on travelers by the WHTI, and then the H1N1 panic of 2009(far more died in the US), you'd think the line would move faster, but no! When it comes to service and efficiency, the US Customs and Border Protection agency makes the US Postal Service look like Chipotle. But there's good news--food and shopping while driving through the San Ysidro gate crossing has never been better--here's a few pointers to pass the time while border agents yawn and dawdle their way through your inspection process.
Clamato cart at the border crossing
Some of us regulars look forward to having a last last of Tijuana before heading home, especially when you don't have time to stop for a meal when heading back after delicious weekends full of memorable eats. As soon as you exit 2nd street onto the bridge to San Diego 5, the fruit vendors appear, those cute little carts stocked with sliced pineapple mango, watermelon, jicama, papaya and coconut dressed in lime, chile powder, and perhaps a squirt of chamoy sauce.
If you have some money left over after you buy a silk-screened last supper featuring famous mob figures, or a giant Christ on the cross, there are Clamato carts to give one last authentic taste of Baja. Giant chile-salt rimmed cups of Clamato juice(originated in Mexicali) are packed with shrimp and clams, and given an umami punch of Maggi sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and seasonings to assuage your slow crawl back across the border. It's the seafood cocktail for nacos.
Tejuino from a clay jug
Burritos nortenos pa' llevar
The food choices used to be elotes and more elotes, but now there are many choices. Traditional northern style burritos are all the rage these days. El Nieto has a border chain consisting of a commissary and several carts set up in between lanes of cars, but their competitors--all with Donkey from Shrek as a logo--are just as good. These are thin burritos made with real flour tortillas filled with different guisados: chorizo with potatoes, chicharron in green salsa, refried beans with eggs, steak and potatoes in a ranchera sauce, deshebrada(shredded beef), picadillo, machaca, or just refried beans and cheese. Most vendors I've tried are solid, and the guisado option keep improving like my recent favorite, a stewed machaca de pollo that has that sabor de abuelita.
Tacos al vapor, Rumorosa style
Tacos Lalo's legendary tacos al vapor are served at one cart--they're not as good as the originals found in La Rumorosa, but they are good. These are pot-steamed tacos filled with carne deshebrada, lettuce, and salsa roja.
Camaron enchilado and fish taco from Machatlan
Mariscos Machitlan is a newcomer to the vehicle crossing that's accessed from the tourist zone, hustling Tijuana style tacos de camaron enchilado(spicy shrimp), fish tacos, and other seafood tacos. By Tijuana standards they're average, which means they are pretty damn good. For all these vendors, just wave 'em over, they'll take your order, and then catch up to you with your food. Don't have change?--don't worry, they won't stiff you even if they have to run a football field away to catch you.
There are many vendors selling homemade flour tortillas, coricos(ring cookies from Sinaloa), excellent course textured tostadas, and there are tamale carts. I'd say the quality of the burritos is much higher than the tamales. The tamales are okay, but aren't anything special.
And yes, there are tostilocos, heaping cups of cueritos(pickled pork skin) preparados, and nieves of tropical fruits. There are vasitos de elote, too, if you're feeling nostalgic.
To keep yourself occupied on one of the world's greatest drive-thru restaurant crawls you can have your wiper blades changed while you drive--I did--shop for trinkets, and have a guy wipe your car down with a cloth--this comes in handy after a day on the dusty side roads of the Valle de Guadalupe. Hire a kid to get you some coffee, and a couple of scoops of Thrifty strawberry ice cream on a sugar cone--Thrifty still still going strong in Baja! Buy some cell phone accessories and pick up a new car charger for your phone(did this, too).
Will the U.S. Customs and Border Protection ever get their act together? There is no incentive for these civil servants to deliver a fast and courteous service for U.S citizens returning home. The CBP has posted a list of pledges to the traveler(which have disappeared since the remodeling of the inspection area), the first two of which never seem to have existed: 1) We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States 2) We pledge to treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect. In over a decade of border crossings I haven't even been greeted and welcomed to the U.S. once. I always give an unrequited greeting to the dismissive, and surly CBP agents, and there's certainly no courteous behavior.
Only when the construction ends will there be some form of relief from the delay caused by the project and the lack of professionalism by the CBP. At least we have some good food to look forward to at one of the greatest drive-thru food crawls in the world. Grab some savory burritos nortenos and light up that Cohiba--it's still legal, until you get up to the inspection area.
San Ysidro Gate drive-thru food court, take the 2nd St. entrance to the border from the tourist zone, enter the Tijuana River bridge crossing, and snack away until you get to the inspection area.24 hours a day, 365 days a year.