A Tijuana Virgin On His First Visit: No Shootings, No Narcos, Amazing Food Galore

Categories: Mexi Meals
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I didn't get shot. Not once, not at all.

As silly as that sounds, after all of the travel warnings I've read and horror stories I've been told, a tiny part of me kinda thought the moment I arrived in Tijuana I would be stopped by the cartels and taken out. I admit I'm not much of a traveler, but ignorance be damned, it's the truth.

Fellow Forker Dave is a TJ veteran, crossing over more than 20 times in recent years. He introduced to a vibrant town that, while still struggling with its issues, is on the way to recovery through an emerging food scene that celebrates old traditions and new techniques.

What a shame I stayed away so long.

For less time than it takes to get to Santa Barbara, you could be blowing through your dollars (and pesos) in a place where you'll get a good return on your investment.

Orange County being the 10 variants of beige that it is, the first thing you notice when you arrive are the colors. Vibrant hues of pink, yellow and blue. Huge shopping centers and American restaurants greet you not far from the checkpoint, but as you head deeper into the city, the McDonald's and Applebees become few and far between. I hone in on the food, which is on every corner. Birria, tacos, tamales. And a lot of Chinese food, too. You can tell which stands and carts are good because people are huddled around them, some already munching on fresh tortillas and steaming carne while others wait for their turn to dig in.

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Dave dashes like a madman through the bustling streets. I'm too timid to drive in this semi-synchronized, completely chaotic manner. We charge up the steepest hill I've seen since San Francisco for seafood tacos at Mariscos El Mazateno. Before we order, we're brought shrimp consomme and the fix-ins, including pico de gallo, cabbage, limes and perfectly crisp, slightly puffy tortilla chips. I would have been happy with just this spread, but I was gobsmacked when our tacos arrived.
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Piping hot corn and flour tortillas, each cradling a different treasure from the Baja waters.

Folded in the corn tortilla was a dense mound of marlin (yes, the baseball team mascot). I'll use a comparison that's absolutely true, but will not do this fish justice--it had the consistency and texture of canned salmon. It was more savory than sweet or ocean salty, with a rich fishiness that wasn't overpowering.

Nothing against the marlin, but the shrimp taco, with its film of chili oil and gooey, overflowing Oaxaca cheese, was the one I'm still thinking about: Perfectly cooked shrimp stuffed into a fresh, chewy flour tortilla. A sprinkle of cabbage, a dash of lime and I've never had a better shrimp taco.

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Zipping back down the hill, we head across town to Mercado Hidalgo. Some streets are closed, secured by police with automatic weapons. Dave later found out a police officer was killed, but the streets were so blocked off in every direction that it was impossible to see anything at all.

When we arrive, we enter the pay lot and and join the clockwise circle winding its way through the open-air market. Voices ring from every angle, piñatas sway from the awnings and each store is piled high with things I've never seen before. It's sensory overload gone haywire.
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44 comments
maria alonso
maria alonso

you should go and try the nieves de garrafa in playas de tijuana...deliciousssssssss...in front where kids play baseball (near the firestation)

Carrion Fairy
Carrion Fairy

Where is a good, cheap place to stay in TJ over night?

Maximo Cervantes
Maximo Cervantes

Excellent article. I congratulate you on going down there and experiencing it for yourself. Four comments though:- It's "Mazatleño"- It's faster to get back if you use the "ready lane." you just need an RFID enabled document (passport card, new green card, new border crossing card or sentri card).- Have someone take you to get "Puerto Nuevo" lobster, lunch at La Querencia and, of course, Tacos Salceados (on Ermita street). - And to the haters posting here: Chicago has the highest murder rate in the us and you wouldn't consider cancelling a trip there, would you? Same here: Stay out of backrooms and dark alleys, use common sense....and don't go looking for trouble (i.e. strip clubs, prostitutes or drugs).

Krystalredmon
Krystalredmon

Yes !!! Baja is SAFE AND FUN with lots offer..Come join us on a Wine and Ride great way to try local wines and food amazing views......like nothing you can do in   the states....

Fan Bois Here
Fan Bois Here

oh my gawd, the TJ fan bois are rampant on this page.  Brown pride is so thick here I might need a pair of boots to trudge through it all.  TJ sucks, it's scary and dangerous, anyone in their right mind knows that.  People are trying to ESCAPE from that country.  Ha ha, ban away you tijuana fan bois.

Jmcguinness
Jmcguinness

Loved the article, and as someone who has spent a lot of time in Baja (and still does, 10 days this year so far with my wife and two young children) I can say that I have never even met anyone who has had first hand knowledge of violence to travelers in Baja. That being said, I was a little surprised by the cheese on a shrimp taco. Seems like it would overpower the shrimp.

Carminavm
Carminavm

If you are going to travel more often to Tijuana is recommend you get your passport card which you can use with ready lanes. Waiting time around 20 minutes at the Otay border... If you are using your passport book it will take from 2 to 3 hours to cross the border.

Carrion Fairy
Carrion Fairy

This as an excellent, exciting article, Niyaz. I hope to see more from their new food-slave and am very jealous you got a expert-guided tour through a foodie's heaven.

I'd love to see a SAFII guide on eating in TJ, Ensenada, etc etc. Some kind of "Top 5" list but expanded to include information about the culture and history and other recommendations. I've always wanted to go down there solo to actually travel (and not just party like I did in my high school days) but I really don't know where to start.

fatlamb
fatlamb

stick a fork in it should plan another day trip of eating through the streets of Tijuana...

Azael
Azael

to that guy that goes by the name "would rather eat my poo".....he should!....what an ignorant really....he doesnt know that Mexican Food is actually declared World Heritage by UNESCO!!.....Really this another great article on the new americas gastronomic corner Tijuana-Ensenada.....thanks! I am 39 years, was borned and raised in Tijuana, we are a city with strugling problems no more no less than San Diego CA. or any other city in the USA and really its just the bad rep that we have.....   Next time you drop by and go to Ensenada look for Maricos Guerrerense, they have this kick ass tostadas made from "erizo y callo de hacha" (came on 2nd place at the worlds street food festival in Las Vegas)...awesome!!..and in Tijuana you should try "El Potrero" its a mexican cuisine restaurant where you can try really authentic mexican cuisine, there plates go from "Chiles rellenos" (stuffed pepper with cheese), deer meat cuts, and one of or if not the best mole i've ever tried!!!....theres these "tacos al vapor" (steamed tacos) from La Especial, this guys are in bussines since 1958 or something like that.....This is an invitation to all the people to come down to Tijuana-Ensenada and i'll assure you you will have a friendly and really pleasant expierence......drop on by you wont regret it!!!.......my emaol is azasanes@hotmail:disqus .com  email me and well go to some other places that ill be sure would be part of youre next article....see ya! my friends!!!!

Renata
Renata

I enjoy your story very much, I am a native from Tijuana, born and race, and I have never in my 32 years living there, encounter any danger, when I was 18 and went out to Sr. Frog’s I did get the chance to see some military police, hang cuffing the guy sitting right next to me, but there was no commotion no violence, that and my 3 cars being stolen in a 4 year stretch. It makes me very happy to read stories like this, I am currently living in Minnesota, it’s a nice city, but it’s not my Tijuana, I love my city and I cant wait to go back. Thank you for taking the chance. Hope you have as good as an experience.Renata.

wallbangr
wallbangr

Sounds like a great trip.  I'm envious. I'm no TJ virgin, but I need to get the goods on where all the good eats are.  I saw that Bill Garza offers food and wine tours south of the border, but they are a little spendy for me.  Going down with someone who knows their way around seems to be the way to go.  I need to get the address for that beer store from Dave! 

I haven't been down there in the past year, but the last time I went to TJ it wasn't that bad.  It was not as innocent as I recalled it being in my youth (then again, my primary intentions at that age were to drink beer, go to a nudie bar and bring back illegal fireworks and the kind of knives that were certain to get me expelled from school).  But I'm not sure if time has a way of sharpening the edges, or it TJ has, in fact, become a little more gritty in recent years.  Whatever the case, the people were exceedingly friendly and the only difficulty I had was with the long wait to cross the border.   

In spite of your title, you still did manage to encounter some of the stereotypically scrary things the general public frets about with Mexico (i.e., the killing of a police officer, drug busts, ubiquitous and well-armed security officials).  I suspect these kinds of incidents, while certainly not unheard of in Mexico, are not as commonplace as many gringos would assume.  As you point out, most people think that crossing into TJ is like stepping off a bus into Homs, Syria.  In fact, life goes on and although it is periodically interrupted by violence, the people of Mexico still go about their (mostly) regular routine.  Even in TJ where, like any major city, crime is certain to be more prevalent than in the countryside, it isn't quite the war zone most people assume it is. 

It is unfortunate that your own brief brushes with the gritty, if occasional, realities that currnetly exist in Mexico, will likley only provide fodder for those who wish to perpetuate the myth that Mexico is no safer than Afghanistan.  It is true that travel to Mexico is not without some inherent risk.  In fact, it always has been that way, hence the allure to adventurous gringos (just read a few Cormac McCarthy books to get a good feel for the moth-to-flame-like attraction).  But then again, you could get hit by a bus in Irvine, and never get to try one of those amazing shrimp tacos.  Aside from the statisctical reality that the dangers are only slightly more elevated in Mexico (unless you are involved in the drug trade), there are some common sense things you can do to further minimize your risk.  Situational awareness and not being a bonehead will go a very long way in ensuring that you don't end up a statistic in Mexico. 

Anyway, it sounds like having a grizzled veteran like Dave was a big help.  Glad you braved the trip and enjoyed the food. 

Would rather eat my poo
Would rather eat my poo

Wow, you were there for one day and only a policeman killed and a drug bust? Can't wait to make it down there to spend such a relaxing visit.

Gallesram
Gallesram

The Hotel Ticuan is really great; right off Revolucion and rates are around $60/night.  They're #1 on TripAdvisor, too; website is www.hotelticuan.com.  I have stayed there a few times and was very impressed.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Great point on #4.

Neither of us has a passport card and it was not much faster to use the Ready Lane this time, because though it's faster per car, more people were in the line.

As for the tacos, it's actually not Mazatleño—the name of the place is Mariscos El Mazateño, and the taco in question is La Super Mazateña. The gentilicio for people from Mazatlán is mazatlec@

909Jeff
909Jeff

WHOA! 

If I cant go for Hookers booze and Drugs then wtf am I going for?  I can get Mexican food in Pico Rivera thats as good as TJ... And there is a letter grade on the window to make me feel safe that I'm eating at a place with a C! 

I joke! 

Thanks for the tips I have actually been talking with the fellas about taking  a day trip down there since its been several years since I've been... The funny thing is the wife is the one that doesn't want me to go... Latina's... they don't trust their own... 

And Niyaz and Dave good field research!  

maria alonso
maria alonso

Peaple are trying to make a better place of this country

Niyaz Pirani
Niyaz Pirani

 Not about brown pride or painting a picture I didn't see. Obviously I left the bad parts in too. It's about experiencing new cultures and experiences, even if you're hesitant to do so.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

When's the last time you set foot south of San Ysidro, you blithering fool? Scary? Only in the way that Manhattan is scary—crappy drivers who treat road lane markers as mere decorations.

Other than that, no, not even slightly scary. Which you'd know if you had actually gone instead of lapping up the lies you see on TV.

Niyaz Pirani
Niyaz Pirani

 Nope. It balanced with the spicy condiment and really didn't effect the texture of the shrimp, which were pretty big, and burst with saltiness. All good in the hood. 

Niyaz Pirani
Niyaz Pirani

 Like I said, I have stuff on my list to cross off still!!

Niyaz Pirani
Niyaz Pirani

 Thank you very much for your comment. I appreciated reading this.

Niyaz Pirani
Niyaz Pirani

 Thanks for the comment, I really enjoyed reading it. I have one thing to add about the safety ... I didn't feel any less safe in TJ than I do in San Diego or LA. It truly was not anything I worried about 5 minutes after entering town. Plus, in OC, our cops beat people to death, so we all have our own problems to deal with.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

That was a great comment. And I have to say, that in the dozen trips (not QUITE 20, but stay tuned, because I can't stay away) I've taken, that's the first and only time anything like that has happened.

The Beer Box is a chain of Mexican craft beer stores. The Tijuana branch is located at Blvd. Sánchez Taboada, 4499, in the Zona Río, right next to Pampas Restaurant. Corner of Abelardo Rodríguez.

And—for the haters—if you woke up in the Zona Río you'd never know you weren't in West LA.

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Hey, Sock Puppet: Post under your usual handle, or I not only expose you, but then ban you. You have until 5pm.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

It was really relaxing. The worst part was trying to get around the carmageddon created by the closure of Independencia, and the crossing back into the US.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

I agree (late to the game, obviously) with Gallesram. Caesar's is fine but it gets noisy because the walls are made of papier-mâché and, well, you're on la Revo. I've stayed at the Palacio Azteca, which was fine if boring, at the Pueblo Amigo right near the border (thinks its pipirisnais but is just okay and is hard to get into and out of in a car), and at the Grand Hotel Tijuana (one of the two giant towers in front of the golf course on Aguacaliente) which had niceties like water filters in the room so you could drink filtered water without buying it.

Don't pay more than $80 a night.

Gallesram
Gallesram

Dave, there is a way to get across much faster; it's called "Border FastPass".  Some businesses participate in the program which allows you access to a speedy dedicated lane if you spend money in their establishments.  This can cut down on your return considerably; go to http://www.bajabound.com/befor... and you can read about it.  We stopped going because of the long return lines, but then discovered a program called "Sentri" which also allows an even quicker crossing but is a much bigger hassle to get.  The Border FastPass is for the occasional visitor; I haven't personally used it but supposedly it cuts your wait (at San Ysidro) down to between 5 and 45 minutes.  With the Sentri pass we have never waited more than 20 minutes, even at peak times.  We found that all the fun of going down & experiencing the great things down there was really killed when it ended with a 2 hour + wait at the border to get home!  Great article, by the way; TJ is defintely re-inventing itself and there is a whole new vibe down there now. 

Jessie Cruz
Jessie Cruz

San Ysidro is scary enough, not as scary as South Central, no, but I wouldn't walk with someone I cared for late at night.  Seriously?  Do you live in a bubble?  Are you trying to cover the sun with your thumb?  Just look at crime rates, or better yet, violent crimes near the border.  The statistics don't lie, but I guess you like rolling dice to get a decent burrito because there aren't hard working Mexican/American's here in America trying to do the same thing, right?  You can ONLY get authentic Mexican food in Tijuana right?  I will tell you though, the street tacos are the bomb, but I have one thing to ask.  Why the eff do you put mayonnaise on hot dogs?

Would rather eat my poo
Would rather eat my poo

Knock yourself out. I quit going to Mexico after 20 years of vacations and thankfully you can't force me back.

909Jeff
909Jeff

Why would Sam change his name when its so easy to figure out who he is? 

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Gallesram, I've had the fastpass before but it seems impossible to get one consistently (and with a car full of people splitting the cost, it makes financial sense!)

There used to be pharmacies and a massage parlor (a real one, not some happy-ending nonsense) on Revolución that sold them, but lately it seems harder to get them. You go through the ambulance lane from 2nd Street (there are little tiny signs) and stop at a guard to give your pass up, and then you end up about 100 feet from the checkpoint. It's great.

Rsd
Rsd

I grew up on the border, in Imperial Beach and San Ysidro. I am a petite woman and rode the trolley late at night, traveled around everywhere, and even hung out in Tijuana on weekends, crossed the border walking tons of times. I never once saw anything. Actually, Imperial Beach is a pretty safe little beach town. What violence are you talking about? If anything San Ysidro has improved drastically. And sorry to burst your bubble, but you will not find tacos as good as the ones in Tijuana. No way.

Siege
Siege

Gustavo!! He said street tacos!!

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

¡Adiós, pendejo! Que te vaya menos chingado que lo mereces.

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Who knew you were such a moron?

Folks: This idiot also goes by Sam, CMDucke, and Obama 2012. I'm booting his ass because, although we encourage all sides in a story, sock puppetry is NOT allowed—it is the hallmark of a coward. Worst of all? He's a Javier's fan—go enjoy your overpriced margaritas, pendejo!

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

You ask him! We have NO tolerance for this--if you can't post under your real name, then slag off.

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