The scent of carne asada hits you first, as you head southeast on
Sánchez Taboada into the Zona Río toward the upscale glass towers that
house people titled licenciado, doctor, and ingeniero, the ancient smell
of meat being burned by wood fire.
It's a smell common to Tijuana,
where the art of grilling beef has not been lost as it has in Mexican
restaurants on this side of the border, but at Taquería Franc, it wafts
over a major thoroughfare, a road traveled by as many tourists as
locals, seducing the unwary and making even the jaded wonder whether
dinner is far enough away to get away with a few pesos' worth of tacos.
Park in the remote lot–just on the other side of a llantera, or tire shop–and a friendly employee will help you navigate the minefield of haphazardly parked cars. Walk up the street, and the scent of carne asada mixes with the unmistakable scent of sizzling pork; as you approach the huge façade, you'll see an enormous trompo of al pastor–which tijuanenses call carne adobada–in pride of place, closest to the boulevard. Behind the spit is an enormous counter with a crush of humanity, from old nuns to young college kids from San Diego who asked their taxi drivers where to eat.
It's always crowded; Taquería Franc is not some hidden hole-in-the-wall. Everyone in Tijuana has been here at least once, and some nights it will seem like everyone in Tijuana is vying for space at the same time. The city's residents are unprepossessing gastronomes; there are few food blogs and no Yelp, but somehow everyone knows where to go–and crowds only appear in Tijuana restaurants when the food is worth trying. It's a good sign; bring patience.
Three meats are offered; the third is suadero, a cut of brisket whose odor gets lost in the grilling of carne asada and carne adobada, but whose soft texture makes up for its lack of assertiveness on the grill. Adobada must be ordered at the trompo; carne asada and suadero are ordered at the main grills. You can avoid having to wait in two lines–you are going to order at least two of each–by asking for a seat at one of the tables and being waited on. You can get quesadillas filled with any of the meats, or mulitas, which here are larger, sandwich-style antojitos, but there's no point; just order more tacos.
The adobada is cut off the trompo and allowed to crisp just briefly in the cradle underneath; it's slammed into two freshly-made tortillas and dressed with guacamole, onions, cilantro, and salsa. If bacon is the gateway drug for vegetarians, carne adobada is the next step toward porcine bliss. There's no distracting sweet pineapple here; it's all pork and capsaicin cooled by avocado.
Then the carne asada arrives; impossible to describe the flavor. The taste of smoke infuses every bite of the taco and works its way into your fingers; while the beef is chopped quickly, it's done perfectly across the grain so that the last bite has just as much beef as that first blissful mouthful. Loose guacamole and blazing salsa blanket crispy onions and cilantro, and the tortilla is wet with meat drippings. Once you take a bite of the taco, you have to eat it all; if you put it back on your plate, you'll have to call for a fork.
Why can't American taquerías get this right?
Taquería Franc is located at the corner of Blvd. Sánchez Taboada and 8th Street (Miguel Hidalgo), halfway between the Zona Río Costco and Mercado Hidalgo. The parking lot is past the restaurant, closer to 9th Street. It is open Sunday through Thursday from 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., and Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m.