Three weeks ago, Bill gave what may be the world's first quasi-comprehensive guide to the vendors swirling around the mass fustercluck known as the northbound border crossing at San Ysidro; it's only quasi-comprehensive because the vendors change occasionally.
Today, Tijuana Sí! covers what should always, always be your last stop before heading into that U.S.-caused mess: Leyva's Liquors, the largest, best, cheapest, most honest liquor store on that tawdry tangle of painted donkeys and sort-of-aggressive shopkeepers known as Avenida Revolución.
Leyva's is located toward the south end of the famous tourist zone, on Avenida Revolución (known to tijuanenses everywhere as La Revu) between 6th and 7th Streets, on the east side of the street. It's easy to miss, tucked away as it in one subdivided section of a huge building housing a disco.
It also looks perpetually half-closed, because the lights are often kept off to conserve energy and pesos. Don't be fooled; it's only closed when the huge, obvious, steel roll-down door is down. Inside sits Gilberto Leyva Nuño, one of the most honest tequileros north of Jalisco, presiding over quite literally six hundred different bottles of tequila, several dozen mezcales, bacanora, sotol, aguardiente de agave, cremas de licor, rums, vodkas, etc., besting even the enormous Tavo's Liquors a few doors south.
Go in; ask questions. Gilberto speaks absolutely flawless English and, as they say down south, él sabe de lo suyo–he knows his stuff. There are always at least half a dozen bottles on the counter open for sampling, and he has personally tasted what he sells.
Leyva's has always been a beacon for those looking to bring something back unavailable at home. When absinthe–real Absinthe, not that fake green crap–was outlawed in the U.S., it was legal in Mexico, and you could get it at Leyva's. Native licor de damiana to put a little fuego in your pito? Of course! Cuban rum to go with the cigar from across the street (technically illegal for Americans to consume abroad, fulminate fulminate fulminate, etc.)? Sure.
It seems like letting someone you've just met take you on a 'tour' of the tequilas seems like something guidebooks would warn you against, but here you need to let it happen. If you let Gilberto guide you, he will coax you away from the mediocre, overpriced La Cofradia-made tequilas in the interestingly shaped souvenir bottles and from the mixtos that taste like 51 percent agave and 49 percent fermented cat piss. He's at home helping Japanese tourists who have never tasted tequila and people with a long love affair with the beverage. You might not ever have heard of what you're buying, but if you have a conversation with Gilberto, you'll like it.
It's not just tequila, either; if you're jaded by tequila or you want to bring something back that's just plain unavailable in the states, ask him about other agave products. Where even the best stores in the U.S. can only stock a dozen or so mezcales, he's got five times that number; he can help you with agave products just finding their markets, like sotol (from Chihuahua, made with wild plants) and bacanora (from the neighboring state of Sonora).
Then there are the prices: my house tequila, Volcán de Mi Tierra reposado, runs about $8 or $9 U.S. a fifth, a 100 percent agave tequila that costs as little as that Cuervo Gold porquería. Arette añejo, arguably my favorite tequila in the world, runs about 60 percent of its price in the fine liquors stores north of the border. Some of the bottles that are heavily hyped in the U.S., like Patrón and Don Julio, have less of a discount than others. There are so many other gems to discover, but still, if you want to bring it back, go for it.
Let the lesson be learned: never, ever cross back without your visit to Gilberto and your bottle! Just remember that if you're driving yourself, you are technically limited to one liter (of any alcohol, including beer and wine) every 31st day; in practice, the customs guardians don't keep records and you can bring one liter across every time you go.
Leyva's Liquors is located at Av. Revolución #1026, Zona Centro, Tijuana, B.C., Mexico; 011-52 (664) 688-09-80.
With the relocation of the southbound pedestrian crossing to the east side of the river, it may be worth a cab ride if you're not driving in; don't pay more than US$5-6 for it, though. You won't be able to cross the street downtown without a cabbie offering his services. If the cab has no meter, negotiate before getting in for the same price.