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.
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.
Things start looking less like Mexico and more like Tuscany. [
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.
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.
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.