One of my father's cardinal rules of life was that the police always eat
where there's good food at a good price. New to town? Look to see where
the uniforms are eating. It could be a luncheonette in New Jersey with
the best Taylor ham, egg and cheese on a hard roll, a little shack in
Iowa serving enormous fried pork tenderloin sandwiches on improbably
small buns, an unpolished country restaurant in rural France with a
trencher table groaning with appetizers à volonté, or a roadside kiosk
in Moscow where enormous burly policemen sip tea in surprisingly dainty
Dad's rule works far more often than it doesn't, and has led me to some of the best, most honest food I've eaten in my life. As I walked down Sixth Street away from the high-end bars and clubs and toward Tijuana's fish market one day, I saw two municipal policemen at a street stand called Mariscos El Cholo, with a huge banner doing double duty as an awning, hunched over plastic cups with dark red soup in them. I debated breaking my dad's rule, but Mexican police, for all their reputation, do not eat fat pasty tourists for lunch, so I asked them politely what they were eating.
“Cocteles,” said the nearest one. “Good ones. Just ask Hector. And take extra napkins or you'll stain that blond bigote.” He motioned toward the cart.
Hector–who didn't give his last name–has been running Mariscos El Cholo for more than thirty years. He started in a building, now La Corriente Cevichería Nais, just buying fish from the market and making raw dishes with them, but then got priced out and set up shop in his current location. Sometimes there's a table–which seems to be made from a boat–and sometimes just a few stools on one side of the cart. There are always people coming and going, grabbing tostadas and saltines, paying their bills–cash only, like all street stands–and generally bloviating and running their mouths off. It's a jovial, low-key atmosphere, and the seafood cocktails are top notch.
Buoyed by the policemen's endorsement, I looked around. A huge pile of the enormous, smooth-shelled clams called chocolata sat on top of the chilly cart; next to them sat the jagged, granite-like ark clams known in Mexico as pata de mula. A cooler held cooked shrimp and octopus. “¿Qué vas a comer?” asked Hector in his thick northern accent.
I ordered some of everything, and Hector set to with his ketchup bottles–none of which contain actual ketchup, putting a little more of this sauce in here, a little more of that in there, squeezing limes, and shucking seafood so fast I feared for the pads of his palms.
What came out was a great example of Mexican seafood cocktails. Sweet, spicy with the addition of a little Salsa Huichol, meaty, and so good I drained the enormous cup. Not a single speck of grit; not a single chewy piece of connective tissue.
The pata de mula clams, which are an alarming blood red color when mature, stained the entire cocktail brick red. The chocolatas, tender and brownish-grey, started to float to the top. The octopus was as tender as any thirty-dollar dish in a fancy sit-down restaurant; the shrimp had that sweetness and snap that only the Sea of Cortez can produce. There's so much seafood it sticks out the top, which makes it a steal at 90 pesos ($6.70).
Order an aguachile, and Hector will ask you how many chiles de árbol you'd like in there. Four produces a brew that will make most estadounidenses sweat; six made a brew that made even me sweat. The aguachile comes on a plate that strains to contain the food, with tomatoes and cucumbers and even more lime, and costs just 120 pesos ($8.90).
For Americans who are convinced that food should only happen in absolutely whitewashed, sit-down restaurants, it can be a real leap of faith to try raw seafood on a street corner in downtown Tijuana. The Tijuana police, though, know where to eat, Hector has been doing this since José López Portillo nationalized the banking system, and I've been back to Mariscos El Cholo every visit to Tijuana since I first found it.
Mariscos El Cholo is located at the corner of Sixth Street (Flores Magón) and Francisco I. Madero in Tijuana, one block east of Revolución.