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