Tijuana's dangerous, right? Drug cartels armed to the teeth raining a hellish hail of bullets at any time, police who just help themselves to whatever they want through the magic of corruption, three-for-$1 “tacos de gato” guaranteed to wreak Montezuma's revenge, ripoffs and tawdry schlock in every shop, right? Nobody in his right mind would step foot south of the safe haven of San Diego, right?
Wrong. Unbelievably, stunningly, indubitably wrong.
It's funny that the people who insist that Tijuana is some kind of filthy hellhole are the ones who haven't been in 10 or 20 years–or ever. They read the reports on the news from 2008 (a dark, dark year for Baja California) and assume that no news since then must mean bad news. I was guilty of it myself–we'd go party in Rosarito but talk in scathing tones about “ugh . . . Tijuana.”
I was wrong, and so are they. Tijuana is undergoing a renaissance. It's a huge city, officially close to the 2 million population mark, but probably much bigger than that. There's a burgeoning middle class, a huge arts scene, and–this being a food blog–some of the most incredible food, from fine dining to street food, in the world, almost none of which is available even 10 feet north of la línea. People are starting to notice–Andrew Zimmern is a convert, and so is Rick Bayless. I have Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA to thank for changing my mind and helping me to fall in love with Tijuana–and here are 10 reasons of the many to grab your passport and go.
1. Misión 19
Javier Plascencia is the most important chef in Baja California right now. The padrino of Baja Med cuisine, he fuses Mediterranean cooking styles and sensibilities with the amazing products available to him locally. Misión 19, located in the first LEED-certified green building in Baja California, is the best restaurant in Tijuana and probably the best restaurant in the San Diego metropolitan area. So says The New York Times, anyway. Plascencia's salad of mesclun, roasted beets and quail three ways haunts my dreams. Just how dedicated is the chef to the cause of local products? He serves local wines at retail prices, a practice unheard of anywhere else, and almost all the main courses on the menu ring in at less than 300 pesos ($25), a bargain to U.S. diners.
Misión de San Javier 10643, second floor, Zona Río, Tijuana, B.C. In the Via Cooperativo building between Paseo de los Héroes and Via Rápida Poniente (the western, southbound river road), just off Blvd. Salinas. Reservations suggested at 011-52-664-634-2493 or at mision19.com/reservaciones.
2. Valle de Guadalupe
Located north of Ensenada, this is Baja's answer to the San Joaquin Valley. The perfect growing conditions aren't held back by any border fence; Baja, true to the “California” in its name, grows an astounding array of produce. The Valle de Guadalupe is Mexico's premier wine-growing region, with an increasing emphasis on quality, but it also produces grappa, cheeses and excellent olive oil. Rent a car and follow the Ruta del Vino for wine tastings and more.
3. Mercado Hidalgo
Tijuana's central market is like what Los Angeles' permanent farmers' market on Third and Fairfax would look like if it were still the central market in the city. Fruits, vegetables, an array of seafood that would make any chef go cross-eyed, chiles, herbs, spices, cured meats . . . and when all the ingredients drive you to hunger, there are dozens of carts, including Tacos Fitos, home of the Tijuana-style beef birria taco, made by the fastest taqueros in the world.
Sánchez Taboada and 10ma (J. Sarabia), Zona Río, Tijuana, B.C. Just off Paseo de los Héroes and three blocks south of the Zona Río Costco.
4. Tacos Salceados
The taco isn't the most-known Mexican dish for no reason–but nobody makes tacos like these outside Tijuana. Also known as Tacos Ermita for its street address in the La Mesa section of the city, it's run by a former saucier in a fancy continental restaurant. The restaurant's speciality is the quesataco, made by toasting cheese until it gets brown and crispy on the bottom, then adding great fillings (New York steak and scallops, for instance), slapping the whole thing into a good tortilla, and then dressing it with rich, unusual sauces such as salsa de jamaica (hibiscus flowers) or homemade sour creams. The price? Less than two bucks.
Ave. Ermita Norte 30-A, La Mesa, Tijuana, B.C. Two and a half blocks northeast of Diaz Ordaz, east of the Hippodrome. Taxi drivers know it as “Tacos La Ermita.”
When most Americans think of Tijuana, they think of tawdry Avenida Revolución, where touts use unusual tactics (“For you, cheaper than free!”) to lure you into stores full of cheap crap. The schlock shops are still there, and so are the painted donkeys and the people trying to get you to sit on them for an overpriced picture, but La Revo is a much friendlier place these days. Caesar salad was invented here, in the eponymous hotel on the corner of Fifth, and the restaurant has been remodeled to bring it back to its heyday. The rest of the food is now up to the standard of the famous salad that's made tableside, and it's a civilized respite from the craziness outside.
Ave. Revolución 1059, Centro, Tijuana, B.C. Near the corner of Fifth.
6. Leyva's Liquor
Americans coming to Tijuana all want to come back with a great bottle of tequila, one that's a good price and something they can't get back home. While there's no shortage of liquor stores on La Revo–or anywhere in Tijuana, really–shopping at the Soriana supermarket will limit you to “gringo-friendly” brands. Leyva's, a few blocks down, is a better idea–you can sample tequila and other Mexican liquors, and there are thousands upon thousands of bottles. The owners are knowledgeable and fair, the prices are excellent, and you can buy with confidence.
Ave. Revolución 1026, Centro, Tijuana, B.C. Between Sixth and Seventh streets.
7. Cebichería Erizo
The seafood pulled from the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez is stunning, both in its quality and in that it is simply unavailable in San Diego, let alone in Los Angeles. Chocolata and pata de mula clams, spiny lobsters, fresh fish of all kinds, and the sea urchin that gives this ceviche specialist its name all grace the menu during their respective seasons, and the ceviche is absolutely without par. The prices are extremely low for the quality of the product, and the room is full of savvy Tijuanenses dressed for the occasion.
Ave. Sonora 3808, Chapultepec, Tijuana, B.C.; one block south of Agua Caliente.
8. Street Food
Street food is absolutely everywhere in Tijuana. Every corner in the center of town has at least one, possibly five or six, carts, selling everything from hot dogs to tacos varios (tortillas filled with various stews) to huge bowls of menudo. It would be a reasonable, but not scientific, guess to say that fully a third of the food consumed in the city of Tijuana is bought on the street. Churros, pozole, carne asada, even seafood is bought and consumed right there, usually at rock-bottom prices and usually of excellent quality. How can you tell where to go? Follow the people–Tijuana is a city of people who know their food; where there's a line, there's great food to be had.
9. Dandy Del Sur
What would a trip to Tijuana be without a stop in at a dive bar? Calle Sexta–Sixth Street to us–is chock-full of places to have a drink, but El Dandy Del Sur is the dive bar par excellence. Order a paloma or a beer, listen to music, or have a bilingual chat with other patrons. When you get hungry, ask for an order of carne seca; a bag of dry-as-dust beef jerky will be dumped into a molcajete, thrown into a microwave for 44 seconds (it's faster than typing 45), and then doused with lime juice, hot sauce and a dash or two of salsa inglesa (Worcestershire sauce). Salty, spicy, sour and addictive–the perfect excuse to say otra cerveza, por favor.
Flores Magón 2030, Centro, Tijuana, B.C. On Sixth Street between Revolución and Madero.
10. Las Ahumaderas
Spanish for “the smokehouses,” this is a set of several stands serving everything from Tijuana-style chopped-beef tortas (at Tortas Washmobile) to tacos vampiros (tortillas griddled crunchy, topped with melty cheese and your choice of topping) to al pastor (called carne adobada in Tijuana) carved straight from the trompo. Nothing costs very much, and none of the places has more than about a dozen seats, but this is the place to come for a snack.
Avenida Guillermo Prieto 2640, Colonia América, Tijuana, B.C.; half a block south of Agua Caliente and one block east of the MEX-1 free road to Ensenada.
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