The Sea of Cortez teems with ocean life, the likes of which we only see here when chefs cart the haul north of the border. Chocolata and pata de mula (ark) clams, snook, perfect sweet shrimp, all come out of the water also known as the Gulf of California, and it's with Baja California that most of the take is identified: La Paz for the clams, San Felipe for the shrimp, Cabo San Lucas (and Mazatlán, Sinaloa) for the snook. Poor Sonora, on the east side of the sea, has a reputation for grilled meat and flour tortillas.
Mariscos Ruben, though, in a gritty-looking (but perfectly safe) part of downtown Tijuana between the Mercado Hidalgo and the clubs of 6th St., aims to change that. It's a huge operation for a mobile eatery, with a permanent building, a truck, and a huge awning connecting the two, allowing you to eat in the shade, and they are proudly Sonoran. All you have to do is ask about the provenance of the seafood, and they'll talk about the arid shores that teem with underwater life waiting for lucky people like you to stop by and eat.
Sonora is also the home of the chiltepin, a small, bomb-shaped
chile that blasts your mouth with a few milliseconds of intense, explosive
capsaicin burn before fading away to a sweet finish, and Ruben's truck
has a beautiful salsa de chiltepin. While there's an array of homemade
and bottled salsas on the table against the shed, the bright red
chiltepin salsa has pride of place on the counter at the truck. Pair it
with anything that contains shrimp; the blast of spice primes the tongue
perfectly for the sweetness of Sea of Cortez shrimp.
aguachile, with clams, with shrimp, or with crab claws; you'll be given
an enormous, heavy molcajete full of brick-red sludge (even redder if you have pata de mula clams in your aguachile, like the picture above) that contains an
intensely spicy sauce (aguachile means “pepper water”, after all), ready
to slick down the seafood and set it alight with cold fire. The secret
to Ruben's perfect aguachile is the size of the seafood; they only use
pieces of seafood that are large enough to stand up to the chile sauce.
thing you should be eating, though–the thing to order even when
Tijuana is baking under the devil winds as it is this time of year–is
cahuamanta. This is Mexican gumbo: slightly spicy, dark with roux, thick
with chopped vegetables, flecked with green herbs, overflowing with
springy pieces of skate wing. It's a surprisingly substantial meal: the
portion served at Ruben's is enough to keep you full for several hours.
Mariscos Ruben at the corner of Calle Octava (8th St.) and Quintana
Roo, just a block toward downtown from Taquería Franc and two blocks from Mercado Hidalgo. Officially,
they are open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but many times the ladies are there
taking orders as early as 8 a.m., particularly on weekends.