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Tacos y Tortas: Tijuana Day Tripping

In case you haven’t heard, Tijuana is the next big thing in food. Not only have people in the know been frequenting Baja for years, but the media finally caught on, too. Anthony Bourdain [2], Rick Bayless [3], and Andrew Zimmern [4] made recent trips with camera crews in tow, and media darling Javier Plascencia [5] was profiled by the New Yorker [6] and the New York Times [7] for innovative cuisine served in a modern glass box above the city’s rainbow-colored bungalows.

In March, Plascencia served a 5-course meal as guest chef north of the border at
El Take It Easy [8]. It blew me away; easily one of the best meals I’ve had in San Diego. And it was only $40. So, yah, I was in.

But now, logistics. Like it or not, Tijuana still has a foreboding reputation. When I told people I was going, they didn’t lick their lips; they sucked their teeth. “Are you sure it’s safe?” Despite its relative isolation from the rest of Mexico, Tijuana has not escaped the drug cartel violence and kidnappings that plague the rest of the country, and, before that, it was known as an over-the-border escape for underage drinking, gambling, and prostitution.

City officials noticed when not only the tourists disappeared, but affluent Tijuanans like Plascencia relocated across the border to secure their safety (kidnappers have targeted his family in the past). Today, there are fewer homicides per capita than in St. Louis. Entrepreneurs are returning to the city, many working to turn Tijuana into a gastronomic and cultural destination in its own right.

Dana Goodyear in her New Yorker article: “Without a tourist industry to pander to, an unself-conscious, sophisticated local culture has emerged in Tijuana—mescal bars, elegant cafés, experimental taco stands with twenty-five salsas—that is now being discovered by the food-adventurous.”

Yup, I was definitely still in. One reason not to worry: we were starting out at 9am on a Saturday. Second reason: we had top-notch guides in husband-and-wife bloggers Kristin and Antonio Díaz de Sandi [9] (Antonio is Tijuana-raised) and Turista Libre [10]’s Derrik Chinn (an Ohio transplant who fell in love with Tijuana and now runs tours).

We dropped our cars at a lot just steps from the border ($10 for the day) and walked into Tijuana like entering an amusement park through a turnstile. Taxi drivers stood at the exit offering their services, but, just past them, Antonio and Derrik were waiting with their cars.

First stop: Tortas Wash Mobile [12] for a carne asada sandwich, or torta. Starting in 1964, the tortas were served at a local car wash (hence the name), but the business has since moved on with its own storefront and food truck. Diced steak, tomatoes, pickled onions, guacamole, and mayonnaise mash delightfully between lightly toasted ciabatta-like bread. Need a fix stateside? Tortas Wash Mobile is happy to cater your next party!

We grab a coffee at Das Cortez to fortify us for the next stop at the city’s principal food market.

They’ve got you covered on all varieties of beans and chiles. Bottom right: forget the coffee, this spicy dried mango woke us right up.

Piñata stampede

I couldn’t resist a shot of the chicharrones (pork rinds) cart outside the carnicería (butcher shop); mascot included.

We had planned to walk from the market to Tacos El Franc, but it was inexplicably closed. Though I’m kind of glad it was, or I would have missed one of the best tacos I’ve ever had, taco de adobada (center). The spice-tinged marinated pork at Tacos El Güero is thinly sliced off a rotating spit and dressed with guacamole, cilantro, and a zippy onion sauce. Salsas of varying intensity, jalapeños, carrots, limes, and cucumbers are available as garnishes (I was tempted to use them all). At bottom: Marie of Meandering Eats [18], who did a great job organizing the trip for our group of San Diego food bloggers, dug into tripe and tongue tacos.

Onto dessert at Tepoznieves. There were so many flavors in this whimsically decorated ice cream shop that it took us a while to decide. I sampled fig and mezcal, but in the end went with blackberry and coconut with gin. At right: one of the many bright accents on the walls.

With some time to burn and a thirst to quench, we sampled the goods at Cerveza Tijuana, which has a brewery on-site. Our trusty guides from left: Derrik, Kristin, and Antonio.

Our final stop: Caesar’s on the infamous Avenida Revolución. Established in 1927, with its walls covered in black-and-white photographs of patrons from a bygone era (many of them famous and wealthy, fleeing Prohibition in the U.S.), the landmark was forced to shut its doors a few years ago due to the economic crisis. It was quickly snapped up by Juan José Plascencia, Javier’s father, who owns 10 eateries in the region. Caesar’s had suffered from bad management shortly before closing (Kraft Parmesan powder on its famous Caesar, gasp!) and Grupo Plascencia has since restored it to its former glory.

Food bloggers doing what they do: shooting the preparation of the original Caesar salad.

Nearly full from a day of indulging, we nibbled from the tapas menu. Top: bone marrow; left: tortilla española and fried calamari; right: shrimp in garlic sauce and fried potatoes.

We would be remiss to not enjoy some Baja wines, which are getting increasingly rave reviews. (Stay tuned for a Valle de Guadalupe wine tour from Turista Libre [10] this summer.)

I knew we had a re-entry line to endure at customs (about 45 minutes by foot on a Saturday evening—don’t forget your passport!), so I thought a little Don Julio reposado was in order.

Final verdict? We felt exceedingly safe, the food was as good as you’ve heard, and I’m officially still in, Tijuana.

Nos vemos otra vez.

(In particular, we’ll see each other again for more street tacos and a meal at Plascencia’s flagship, Misión 19 [5]. Check out these recent photos [26] from A Life Worth Eating [27].)

Great thanks to Derrik, Kristin, and Antonio, who basically didn’t make a cent off this tour and simply wanted to spread the Tijuana fever!