I'd always known that food in Mexico was both fantastic and cheap, but I'd never really thought about it until I added up all the costs for food that my friend Weston and I ate during a week in Jalisco last year, so we could square up before heading back to our respective cities. We spent more on one glorious, absolutely worth every penny meal at Misión 19 in Tijuana the night before Volaris carried us away than we spent for the week that followed.
The secret to eating cheaply in Mexican cities is to go to the markets. Markets throughout the country feature home-cooking, mom-and-pop restaurants called fondas. They're nearly always presided over by jovial women, and there's nearly always a line of cazuelas, earthenware dishes, filled with the stews of the day. You order your main dish, which is scooped into a pan and heated to steaming, and it comes with soup, rice or noodles, and tortillas hechas a mano. It usually comes with agua fresca, dessert, or both. This type of eating, normally available only at what we would consider lunchtime, is called comida corrida.
While there are fondas sprinkled through the markets of Tijuana, particularly Mercado Hidalgo, they're not exclusive to markets. Fonda Santa Fe just opened three months ago at the corner of Avenida Revolución and 7th, along the quickly re-developing tourist drag. It's run by a group of ladies who hail from all parts of Mexico: the Yucatán, Michoacán, and Sonora, but the cooking is more central Mexican.
The interior is absolutely spotless, upscale, and somewhat cavernous; the counter along the right side holds the cazuelas, upgraded to steam trays, of the food. It felt a little bit like a corporate commissary, with the large office-type plants; in the U.S., that would have been a warning sign. Not so in Tijuana.
As is the custom, the ladies lifted the lids on the trays so I could pick what I wanted, and it was a greatest-hits list of fonda food from throughout the country: espinazo con verdolagas (pork spine with greens), chicharrón en salsa roja (fried pork skin simmered in red salsa), steak picado, beef birria, and mole poblano with chicken. Meals normally come with one stew, but they laughed when I asked and said that if I really wanted to sample two of them, I could change out one of the sides for a small portion of another.
I thought about it, but then ordered the chicharrón, one of my favorite foods for its texture. It came with lentil soup, rice and beans, tortillas, condiments, and barley horchata. The meal came with dessert, too, but the portions were huge and I didn't have room, though the flan looked terrific.
The chicharrón was among the best I've had; the lentil soup was hearty and filling; the beans had that rich flavor that Mexican-American restaurants can't seem to replicate. The tortillas were fantastic and stayed hot in their tortillera until I was done.
The best part of a fonda is the price. A meal in Mexico City can be had for as little as 30 pesos; while Tijuana is more expensive due to its proximity to the U.S., my enormous meal at Fonda Santa Fe only cost me 60 pesos–$4.75. Less than five dollars for so much of abuelita's cooking that I couldn't face more food until late that night.
And then I walked past the Carl's Jr. at Revolución and 5th and gave it the finger.
Fonda Santa Fe is located at Av. Revolución and Calle Galeana (7th), in the downtown area of Tijuana and easily walkable from the border.
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