In order for a parrilla to continue to burn, there must be some fresh mesquite added to ensure its vibrancy. And it's an apt metaphor when considering the current Baja cuisine renaissance. The much-celebrated trend has been spread by just a handful of chefs from Tijuana to Cabo, and it's been the Culinary Art School in Tijuana that has provided these restaurants with a well-trained young army of chefs–but few have ventured out on their own.
There have been a handful of bland attempts by Culinary Art School grads to open their own restaurants, but they've yet to attain Baja's culinary velocity. But just when it seemed no one was really stepping up, Tacos Kokopelli appeared; not at a posh restaurant in Tijuana's Gastronomic Zone but at a street stand in downtown Tijuana, laying down inspired, badass tacos cooked on a mesquite grill.
Chef Guillermo “Oso” Campos Moreno, his brother Pablo Campos, and Orlando “Cricket” Miguel del Monte opened Tacos Kokopelli (named after the Hopi god of fertility and mischief) five months ago, and already have made a name for themselves around town. Chef Oso–the backbone of the operation–attended Tijuana's culinary arts school then went on work in restaurants throughout Mexico (including a stint as executive chef at the Parque Bicentario in Guanajuato) and the Michelin-starred (three, if you're curious) Oud Sluis in the Netherlands before returning to Tijuana. After a partnership dissolved over a restaurant in Rosarito, he did what he could on a limited savings–open a street stand.
“The street food in Tijuana is growing in a more gourmet way, let's say, but in Tijuana the street food has always been great–it just keeps getting better and better”, say Pablo. Kokopelli is a natural extension of Tijuana's street food culture.
The salsas and creams are stylized the Kokopelli way: consider the castigo azteca (Aztec punishment), with toasted dried red chiles and peanuts, red bell peppers with sage, or the extra hot XXXX, which consists of roasted habaneros in an olive oil emulsion.
Their signature taco is the gringos en vacaciones–don't get in a twist mis gabachos, all they're talking about here is how Kokopelli's Anaheim chile is as red as your Maya Riviera tanned nalgas. The tortilla is made from nixtamal at a local tortilleria, with a grilled Anaheim chile filled with melted cheese and a marlin pibil (Yucatan-style adobo marinade) topped with purple onions pickled with habaneros and creamy slices of avocado.
The Kraken taco has mesquite-grilled octopus in a Mexican pesto of poblano chile peppers, cilantro, and secret seasonings that rest atop a tortilla riding a surfboard of green Anaheim chile–you can also get them without the Anaheim if you want to try more items. If this Kraken had arrived in Argos, the people would have rejoiced.
There's also a taco Mixteco (shrimp in adobo), a portabello mushroom taco, aka huitlacoche del norte; and whatever the chef feels like. If your lucky he'll bust out the rasta taco, consisting of shrimp in Mexican pesto with roasted yellow and red bell peppers, and black olives.
From the “off the grill” menu try the Black Harder (English translation of the famous Tijuana seafood chain Negro Durazo) ceviche. Baja fresh–no, not the chain–lenguado, or sole, is flash-cooked in lime and given a murky stain from brackish squid ink. The ceviche sits on a spread of mesquite roasted tomato which gives enough tang for the dish to be devoured without further additions.
The Tacos Kokopelli team is boldly leading the next generation of Tijuana chefs with an original concept and style that stands as a shining example.This is a destination to hit every time you're in town. They just opened a restaurant in a few blocks away in the Cacho neighborhood, but the stand is where you want to be. Sitting outdoors with beer in paper cups, living high off of practically nothing–this is the Tijuana you've heard about.
Tacos Kokopelli stand is at calle Melchor Ocampo by Bl. Agua Caliente, Tijuana, B.C, Tues.-Sat., mornings until 4:30PM; Tacos Kokopelli Restaurant is at Calle Brasil, 8917, Colonia Cacho, Tijuana, B.C. Tues.-Sat., 1 p.m.-9 p.m. Follow Tacos Kokopelli on Facebook