Ever since the Mexican-American War (or what Mexicans call la invasión estadounidense, the U.S. invasion) split a chunk of Mexico’s west coast in 1848, Tijuana’s border existence between two major countries has made it unique. The position has made the city a hot spot for tourism, crime, drug trafficking, immigration, industrialization, art, music, and even “zonkeys.” But now there’s another reason for Tijuana’s singularity: the food.
During three days last October, I sampled some of Tijuana’s finest food from taquerías to posh restaurants. My visit coincided with the Baja California Culinary Fest — a celebration of the state’s cuisine complete with seminars, dinners, excursions, a tasting festival, and “Iron Chef Tijuana.”
I drove down from L.A. with Tijuana aficionado Jose Carvajal, owner of Santa Monica’s Café Bolivar, and Carmen Gomez Vega and Ignacio Fernandez, both artists. With Jose from Venezuela, Carmen from Colombia, and Ignacio from Cuba, some tijuanenses called us “the dream of Simón Bolívar,” that 18th century hero who hoped to unite Latin America into a single country.
Although this was not my first trip to Tijuana, the mini-vacation introduced me to new sights and experiences, especially within the exciting food scene.
The Tijuana Culinary Art School was our first stop — after a tortuous drive trying to find it! We must have asked directions from ten locals — all polite, and all, in some way or another, wrong or misleading. An absence of clear signage presented another hurdle.
We arrived hungry and achy — and the Culinary Art School seemed a mirage. This was not just another stucco building with chipped paint like many we had just passed. A sleek entrance gate of dark metal gave way to a set of concrete stairs beside a pool of water. We walked down into a rectangular courtyard, and approached a row of classrooms encased in transparent glass walls. Inside, students in white uniforms were making pastries, and brought a tray for us to sample. Other students cleaned the windows with tall squeegees. The school teaches students not only to cook, but also to run a business – window-washing included, apparently. The school enrolls 350 students. Most come from Baja California, with a few from other parts of Mexico, including the capital. The school’s striking design – minimalist and modern without a touch of stereotypical Mexican flair – indicates a forward-thinking, serious approach.
For the festival, chef Mario Espinoza had come from Mérida in the Yucatan to demonstrate his culinary style. In a presentation that ran over two hours, he explained that in his restaurant, Kuuk, he aims to “rescue” regional ingredients and use modern techniques to create new concepts. While preparing scallops with a white recado, a spice blend unique to the Yucatan, he passed around various ingredients for us to see up close. My friends and I were the only visitors among a couple of dozen apron-clad students who listened with rapt attention. It was fun to imagine abandoning my L.A. life and enrolling on the spot.
But the bite-sized scallop samples did not satiate our hunger. From the school we went on to Los Troncos on Paseo de los Héroes, a quick-serve counter that serves Sonoran-style tacos – meaning delicate flour tortillas. Not something you see often in L.A., where the taco stands stick with corn tortillas. Each taco came with a Styrofoam cup of beef soup – a surprising, perfect addition.
If one spends enough time strolling the nearby streets – perhaps, as we did, visiting the Centro Cultural and Tijuana Innovadora exhibitions – hunger creeps up again. Or at least, thirst. We went to the Misión 19 bar for Jose and Ignacio’s favorite craft beer. Misión 19, helmed by chef Javier Plascencia, is Tijuana’s most upscale, modern, and acclaimed restaurant. (Dana Goodyear’s profile of Plascencia in The New Yorker attests to this fact. I believed it, too, when I met Plascencia and sampled his food at a tasting in L.A.) It’s inside an office tower with an upper-floor bar and patio that look out over the Zona Rio. So, what a disappointment to discover that the special beer was sold out! I didn’t even catch its name before Jose rushed us out.
The next stop? Restaurante Sabina, with the charming Cafe Sabina upstairs. While we sipped Insurgente beer, made in Tijuana, the manager explained the restaurant’s philosophy. He wanted the design to be modern but comfortable, for us to feel at home, perhaps recalling our childhoods. Bookshelves lined the booths, and lamps – including some plucked straight from his living room — emitted a warm light. The menu was seafood-centric, with most of it from Baja California. Instead of seafood we tried a plate of rare beef on tostadas – the only thing available since Sabina was preparing a special menu for the Baja Culinary Festival. It hit the spot.
I was beginning to understand my friends’ strategy for eating in Tijuana — picar. To graze.
With so many options at our feet, we continued across the street to El Taller, meaning “the workshop.” It felt more rustic than Sabina, with chalkboard menus and string lights over the open kitchen. Families filled the tables. According to its website, El Taller aims to mix Mexican, Mediterranean and oriental traditions. A server brought us bread alongside four salsas, and we ordered a pizza.
To end the night, we went down the block for cake at Dolce Salato: Alta Repostería y Deli.
Wait, did I say “end the night?” It was far from over. These days, a Tijuana culinary trip isn’t complete without a few stops on la Calle Sexta – Sixth Street. La Sexta, as it’s known, intersects with Avenida Revolución, the most touristy spot in Tijuana. But in recent years it has morphed, poco a poco, into a hot scene for locals.
We popped inside two famed bars — the divey Dandy del Sur and La Mezcalera, known for its mezcal and hip decor. (For example, the lamps above the bar are really light bulbs inside suspended cheese graters.) Unlike most L.A. bars, both blasted music out of jukeboxes. So democratic, right? And so Mexican. In Dandy del Sur we sang along to “Tijuana Makes Me Happy” by Nortec Collective, a popular Tijuana group that mixes norteno with electronic music. They’ve even written a song called “Dandy del Sur” in homage to this very bar. At La Mezcalera, we heard a tune by Café Tacvba, Mexico’s most famous rock band. Group singing, fueled by liquor, ensued.
The next morning, I tried café de olla at La Espadaña in the Zona Rio. The coffee is made in a ceramic pot, with caramel imparting a sweet flavor. A perfect complement to machaca and chilaquiles. I noted that the restaurant, which was packed, featured a mission motif. Appropriate, since “espadaña” refers to a mission or church belfry. Interestingly, Americans in California have often glorified the history of missions in our state. Apparently this nostalgia exists in Mexico too, as La Espadaña and Misión 19 attest.
We grazed during the rest of the day, including fruit at the Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana’s major produce market with at least one hundred vendors. I enjoyed the tangy ciruela, a type of plum.
Our day ended at La Diferencia, again in the Zona Rio. We munched tortilla chips in a room designed to look like a quaint village plaza. A fountain gurgled with water, and birds in cages tweeted loudly every few minutes. A group of mariachis added their voices too. I ordered enchiladas with pipian verde, a pumpkin seed sauce, and a tamarind margarita.
“A trip to Tijuana wouldn’t be complete without a margarita!” I exclaimed with a sigh. “But you drank tequila last night!” my friends reminded me. Was it only the night before?
The adventures continued the next day, even though my companions had returned to L.A. I met up with professor Sarah Portnoy’s USC Spanish class on “The Culture of Food in Hispanic L.A.” Street Gourmet L.A. blogger and self-appointed “reverse coyote” Bill Esparza had signed on our guide. He wore a t-shirt saying, “Tijuana Makes Me Hungry” — a play on the Nortec Collective song, and a sign of things to come.
After walking through downtown streets looking for functioning ATMs, we stopped at a taquería outside Mercado Hidalgo. There, we ate true “fast food” at Tacos Fitos. Two men made 12 beef birria tacos in two minutes. They served the tacos on plates covered in plastic bags. But what to do with the bags? When I asked, one of the taqueros showed me to throw the bag in the trash after eating, leaving the plate clean for the next client. How obvious! Often, the smallest things remind you of being far from home. The woman who walked over and belted a sad ballad for many minutes offered another reminder.
After marveling at Mercado Hidalgo’s vegetables, fruits, seeds, beans, and more (including huitlacoche, a corn fungus difficult to find in L.A. markets), we took cabs to Galerías Hipódromos for the Baja Culinary Festival’s street food tasting event.
It disappointed me a bit. It featured only a few vendors with food unique to Tijuana – Tacos Kokopelli, Tortas Washmobile, Tortas El Turco and Guiseppe’s. And unlike the fairs here, they didn’t serve samples. Instead, we had to order complete plates – making it impossible to try everything!
Even so, I enjoyed the marlin pibil taco from Kokopelli, whose chef had recently made a special, one-night-only appearance at the kitchen of John Sedlar’s Playa restaurant. (You can read more about Kokopelli and the other participating vendors in an LA Weekly article by Ali Trachta.)
Apparently, there was still room in our stomachs. So we went to the sophisticated Chapultepec neighborhood, home to several upscale restaurants and cafés. (Perhaps the area’s named after the posh Lomas de Chapultepec in Mexico City?) And I discovered that Erizo Baja Fish House – another gem from Javier Plascencia — is one of my favorite restaurants in the world.
I decided before eating a single morsel. I noticed the music first – the song “A-Eme-O” from one of my favorite singers, Andrea Echeverri. My own a-m-o-rcito in that moment was the Pisco Sour, a drink made with Peruvian brandy, lemon juice, and egg whites.
A Peruvian influence permeated the whole menu. Bill told us Erizo mixes TJ street food with Peruvian cuisine. For example, some items are traditional Mexican meat dishes, but with seafood instead. The evidence soon arrived at our table: a parade of ceviches, clams, oysters, and more. Each had its own seasoning and flavor, like squid ink. Bill explained that this food would be exorbitantly expensive in L.A. If this restaurant were in L.A., he said, “it would be bigger than Mozza.” (Nancy Silverton’s Osteria Mozza is one of the most acclaimed, elegant restaurants in the whole city.) We felt obligated to try to finish everything, but didn’t succeed. Before leaving, I spied tamales in blackberry and coconut flavors on the menu. Always good to leave something for next time.
Before returning to L.A, we visited the Expo Tequila Tijuana, featuring dozens of tequila varieties. I swallowed a few shots before reaching my limit. More than the drinking, I enjoyed the chance to chat with classmates, watch folk dancing, and stand smack in the middle of Avenida Revolución, which had been closed off for the event, right in front of El Foro Antiguo Palacio de Jai Alai. As the site of some of the most stunning concerts I have ever seen, El Foro holds a special place in my heart.
I don’t want to leave the impression that the only good and interesting aspect of Tijuana is its food. Not true! With more than two million people, Tijuana is the third-biggest city in Mexico, and the second biggest on the pacific coast of North America. There are incredible music and art scenes. (Check back for a post on los pasajes of Avenida Revolución.) Innovation in design and architecture. Powerful businesses, as the Tijuana Innovadora conference proved. Writers, poets, and thinkers; bookshops and schools. And the lives of hardworking citizens who trek back and forth over the border daily.
(Read more about the city’s culture in a new book edited by USC’s Josh Kun and UC Berkeley’s Fiamma Montezemolo, Tijuana Dreaming: Life and Art at the Global Border. Buy it here.)
We saw daily life up close when we prepared to cross the border, or la línea, on foot. A line of people waiting to enter the U.S. extended for roughly half a mile — and the line of cars was even longer. We shouldn’t forget that when we visit Tijuana – even just to eat tacos and ceviche – we support the city and its people, helping to secure a future much more robust than any American invaders could have imagined. Tijuana, hasta la próxima.
Turn the page to read this post in Spanish.
Featured image: A mural in Pasaje Rodriguez off of Avenida Revolucion.