Eating Tijuana, Part One

Dave Lieberman
"You're insane."

"You're going to die, you know."

"Are you stupid?"

"Can I have your car?"

Such were the reactions I got when I mentioned that I would be taking part in a culinary tour of Tijuana given by Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA: total certainty that I would never make it back north of the border alive. Their responses are understandable when considered in a U.S.-centric vacuum: the media here have concentrated on the spurts of violence in Mexico's border towns, rental car companies have withdrawn the option of driving to Baja, and the US State Department has issued an uncharacteristically strongly worded warning that mentions Tijuana.

It drives me crazy to read all of this.

Yes, Tijuana is one of the places where drug cartels are fighting the military. Yes, there have been shootouts. Unless you hang out with Mexican guys who drive black Suburbans and call themselves "El Kilo", your chances of being mixed up in any of this are about the same as your chances of getting into trouble in any big city. Statistically, you are more likely to be killed in Washington, D.C. than in Tijuana, yet we don't warn tourists not to go to Washington. The advice for D.C. is sensible: don't be an idiot, don't invite trouble, and use your common sense to stay out of sketchy situations.

That same advice goes twice over for T.J.: don't be a pinche idiot. Don't count money on the street. Don't walk through the red-light district at night. Don't disrespect people in any language (most tijuanenses speak good English, remember).

Dave Lieberman
Most Americans' view of Tijuana is Avenida Revolución, the tacky one-time destination for millions of tourists looking for cheap drugs, doctors, liquors and Cuban cigars. The façades of the buildings on Tijuana's main downtown drag were falling to pieces. While the shop owners still try to use cunning ploys to get you to go inside and look at the cheap schlock they sell, they've toned it down. I heard a lot of, "Beautiful women inside!" and "One hundred percent off!", pitches that are downright tame in comparison with the heyday of tourist Tijuana. The most creative attempt at my attention, incidentally, was "Young man! Turn left! You're under arrest." They were desperate; I saw fewer than a dozen obviously American tourists on the street.

Tijuana is a big city: with this year's census expected to put the population very near the 2 million mark, it's approximately half the size of Los Angeles. Judging Tijuana by "la Revo" is about as fair as judging Los Angeles by Broadway, or Orange County by Harbor Boulevard in the Anaheim Resort. Americans don't think of Tijuana as a city, though; they tend to dispense with it as the poor southern suburb of San Diego and, in a spectacular example of a pars pro toto synecdoche, assume that the ten blocks from the border fence to the jai alai palace and the crumbling shacks of the Zona Norte along the Avenida Internacional are representative of the whole city.

Tijuana's restaurant scene gets written off easily, too. "Oh, yeah, you go down there, three carne asada tacos for a buck. Just don't ask what went into 'em." To hear Californians talk, one would think tijuanenses survived on nothing but cheap, gristly meat tucked into indifferent corn tortillas. Like any cosmopolitan city, there is a huge variety of restaurants. Sushi is huge in Tijuana; signs advertising comida china peek out from nearly every non-residential block. There are high-end temples of gastronomy, there are hundreds of mid-range cenadurias (diners) and there's a vibrant street food scene that puts even New York to shame.

Dave Lieberman
Since we were early, we headed for Playas de Tijuana and stopped at Mariscos Becerra, one of dozens of seafood shacks that line the beach. Becerra specializes in smoked seafood. Smoked tuna, smoked marlin and smoked clams make their way into the hands of hungry diners, and for good reason: the taste is like nothing you'll find this side of la línea.

Smoked marlin is everywhere in Tijuana, and almost unheard of just a thousand feet to the north. We ate our marlin as toritos, an idea that is long, long since overdue here in the United States: smoked marlin or shrimp stuffed into chiles güeros (the yellow chiles that look like wider, paler jalapeños). Toritos are usually wrapped in bacon and cooked; these were tucked into freshly made tortillas. There were, suddenly, no words: mouths were too busy eating every last crumb of these tacos.

Dave Lieberman
We also ordered a big bowl of shrimp posole, a light but zesty broth with hominy corn and fresh shrimp. The ultimate seafood breakfast cried out for a Tecate de barril, a lager drawn from a cold keg through an ancient tap. Drinking at 11 a.m.? Don't mind if I do. Smoked clams were next, put into a foil pouch with tomatoes, onions and chiles. The smokiness of the clams permeated the broth that built up around the seafood; I wanted to lick the foil clean. The price for this wonderfulness? Change back from a US $20.

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