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.