Right on the dawn of the new year, the New York Times released its annual list of places around the world their readers must visit. With the result of the past election, it’s no surprise number one is Canada. They didn’t even mention a specific city because, right now, it doesn’t matter; just get the hell out! A few numbers down the list, however, an unlikely Mexican city made the cut, at number eight no less: Tijuana, with the reason being its burgeoning food scene. Sure, foodies have been predicating the culinary renaissance going on there for years, but convincing people to make the trip down south has been an uphill battle due to its bad reputation of narco violence.
And while violence is still there, — as it is in every major city — back in October, a special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in San Diego told the Los Angeles Times there were “no signs of a return to the past.” So are you risking your life for seared octopus tacos and local craft beer? Probably not, unless you have very bad luck.
The truth is that from the ashes of a narco war-torn city flourished a new, thriving food scene that mostly focuses on local products. Countless dive bars, breweries, coffee houses, gastro-parks with a handful of trucks and cuisine d’auteur restaurants have erupted all over town since 2009, guaranteeing something for every palate. The NYT may have only given their Tijuana blurb two sentences and recommended two measly restaurants, but the city has so much more to offer than just “hipster food trucks” and the same tired Baja Med spots. Here are a few key establishments you can’t miss out on if you get over the mob mentality that narcos are going to murder you.
Serving as a cultural hub in Mexico City and Bogotá, Cine Tonalá opened in TJ last year and quickly became the spot to go to. Because not only does it serve delicious tuna ceviche wonton tostadas and lobster burritos in its restaurant by way of executive chef Diego Hernandez from Corazón de Tierra in Valle de Guadalupe, but it is also a bar and hosts a small theatre showing indie cinema and a performance space in its three story building in the heart of Tijuana’s iconic Avenida Revolución. After dinner, grab a mezcal cocktail and sit in the rooftop terrace to enjoy a panoramic view of the infamous street.
When Kokopelli started off as a street cart in 2012, it quickly shook the food scene in the region, especially since food trucks weren’t yet a thing. Four years later, their concept of experimental seafood tacos evolved into a full-fledged restaurant; Tras/Horizonte. While keeping the original menu, chef “Oso” Ocampo expanded the menu yet stuck to the earthy, rustic ingredients. Among the highlights, the Rockefeller oysters with chistorra, gorgonzola, and cherry tomatoes with a balsamic glaze on toasted bread; rib mole burger; and the smoked marlin taco Pibil. Moreover, it also features a brewery and mixology drinks, like the kooky mezcal, Oaxacan chocolate, poblano chile, orange bitters and brown sugar called El Rey. And while they all look refreshing and inoffensive, you better watch out, because they carry a punch.
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Let's get one thing straight. It's far easier to find good tacos than bad ones in Tijuana — especially if you're used to U.S. tacos. So if you were to ask a bunch of locals what the best taquería in town is, you would never get anyone to agree on a specific one. But what are this TJ local's favorite ones? Easy, Tacomiendo. This taqueria offers a mean chile relleno taco, serves the whole fillet instead of chopping it up, garnishes the tacos with grilled onions, and has salsas ranging from watered down pico de gallo to add some color to chile de arbol hell. Plus, they have quesatacos, which uses a cheese crust as a replacement for a tortilla. If that doesn't sound like absolute carb bliss, I don't know what does.
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Late night options in Tijuana are generally restricted to either tacos or pizza. However, if you're down for something different and it's past 8 p.m., you might fancy a torta de chilaquil — El Truck Nuestro's; specialty. Chilaquiles are a traditional Mexican breakfast food comprised of fried tortilla cut into triangles and topped with, typically, a tomato salsa, cheese and sour cream. But then someone on some point in time decided to put all of that between two bread loaves and created a decadently creamy torta. The chilaquiles salsas at Truck Nuestro range from salsa verde, salsa roja, cilantro and even a deadly habanero one. And if the bread and tortilla combo is too much for you, you can ask for only chilaquiles, which are just as good.
As aforementioned, craft breweries have been popping up in TJ with as much fervor as restaurants in the last three years or so, and are even now on par with San Diego's prominent craft beer scene. One of the most notable is Insurgente Tap Room, located in the grimy bar/restaurant enclave Plaza Fiesta, better known as La Plaza. Housing many other breweries like Mamut and Border Psycho, Insurgente stands out for its excellent craft beer and modern, clean vibe. The earthy yet fruity IPA La Lupulosa is a crowd fave, as well as the non-syrupy Witbier Tiniebla are your go-tos.
Legend has it that the Caesar salad was invented in this classic Tijuana monument in the 1920's by an Italian chef. The story is disputed, but that has not stopped Caesar's — also located in Avenida Revolucion — from proclaiming themselves as its home and serving the best caesar salad in existence. A bit on the higher-end of the culinary scope, the perfect meal starts out with roasted beef marrow and, of course, the caesar salad which is prepared fresh table-side, and follow it up with roasted lamb chops with mint chimichurri or the duck tortellini and lots of Baja wine.
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If you’re into substance more than aesthetics, Mariscos Don Luis; is the spot for you. Serving all the typical Mexican seafood dishes, Mariscos Don Luis is the average hole in the wall joint in a sketchy neighborhood that’s actually a diamond in the rough and a local favorite. What it lacks in decor it more than makes up for it with the food — everything from the cucaracha shrimp with a tangy sauce dip, to the fish ceviche tostada, to the fish skin chicharron, and the spicy aguachile appetizer — is all worth the trek here.
To finish off the list, let’s return to the bougie spots that celebrate Baja’s emerging cuisine. Stepping into Oryx Capital immediately makes you feel like you’re in the States again, and prices echo the ambience, but the food itself and its flavors bring you right back to Tijuana. The menu reflects chef Ruffo Ibarra’s roots in the Baja region, with key dishes like spicy octopus torta, lamb tacos and duck nachos. Oryx Capital has a cosmopolitan vibe that’s avant garde for TJ, making it pretty unique. Also, did I mention it has its very own speakeasy, Nórtico, hidden away behind its walls? Well, now you know.