When I told my Mom I was stopping in Tijuana on my return from the Baja, her advice was “Don’t get arrested and thrown in jail!” Now what would prompt a mother to give such advice? She went on to say she had always been curious about Tijuana….a place with quite a rowdy reputation over the years.
Last year when visiting Baja, I rushed through Tijuana as fast as a nervous kid running through a Halloween Fun House. I viewed it as a necessary evil to get where I wanted to go. Only one other Mexican city had caused me more apprehension, Cuidad Juarez, at one time considered the most dangerous city in all of Mexico, though a little research reveals the crime rate in Tijuana is actually higher. Cuidad Juarez is slipping in the competition, while both have lost out to the new leader of the pack which some might find surprising, Acapulco. Formerly concentrated at the border towns, the locations of the drug cartel stronghold shift as leaders of gangs are eliminated and others step in from other regions to fill the void. New cartel heads emerge while the battle continues for access to the lucrative drug market in the US.
Traveling back through Tijuana again this trip, I wanted to spend more time exploring beyond the requisite border crossing. Based on the opinions of trusted friends in San Miguel de Allende, my spidey senses agree, the dangers are highly distorted. This was reinforced by the news that Tijuana is experiencing a bit of a culinary resurgence. It’s home to one of the best restaurants in Mexico, Mision 19, which my “foodie” friends in San Miguel, both current and former chefs, herald as a “must visit.”
Mision 19 is a fine dining experience the likes of which I would not otherwise be able to afford were it not priced in Pesos. Chef Javier Plascencia, critically acclaimed by the New Yorker as “the missionary of Baja cuisine” specializes in what he calls “Baja Mediterranean,” with all menu ingredients coming from within a 120 mile radius. This includes wines from Baja’s fledgling and flourishing wine country in the Guadalupe Valley.
I opted for the six course tasting menu, each course paired with a different wine from Baja’s wine country. Beginning with cocktails in the upstairs Bar 20 and ending with a steamy cappuccino, everything in between was nothing short of dreamy. More than sustenance, it was an experience.
Unlike most other towns in Baja, Tijuana does not have small, quaint inns, B&Bs, or small inexpensive hotels. Most properties in the wealthier neighborhood, Zona Rio where Mision 19 is located, are business hotels. But that was okay…after two months of budget accommodations, I welcome a little splurge.
Zona Rio is a great location for a little cultural exposure also. Within walking distance is Tijuana’s Cultural Center. I saw a great IMAX film on whales for 50 Pesos, a little over $2 US. It was in Spanish, but the videography of the whale migration needed no translation.
If one needs a touch of tourism to feel like they are officially south of the border, there’s Avenida de Revolucion, the tourist area main street with storefront after storefront of tequila, tee-shirts, and trinkets for sale. And what border town is complete without a few pharmacies selling “tourist meds?”
Even though the tourist street leans more toward liquid libations, a little fine dining can be found on the Avenida as well. Inside the Hotel Caesar is in one of the most famous restaurants in Tijuana, Caesar’s, established in the 1920’s to entice US citizens across the border to relieve the frustrations of prohibition. Legend has it that restaurant owner Caesar Cardini invented the famous Caesar Salad on the night of July 4, 1924 during a busy weekend when his kitchen was short on ingredients. The salad is still prepared table-side by formal waiters wearing white shirts, ties, and black vests.
Whiffs of garlic, anchovies, and olive oil are intoxicating as the dressing is whisked up in front of my nose, prepared in a large wooden bowl, then tossed lightly over whole Romaine lettuce leaves and sprinkled with a generous topping of Parmesan cheese and garlic roasted crouton. And yes, there is raw egg….hopefully coddled long enough to ward off the scary salmonella.
Supposedly, the coddling of the eggs is one of the only changes to the recipe over the years. Also preserved is the prohibition-era ambiance….dark wooden paneling, lots of glass, black and white tiled floors, and a waiter with a linen napkin draped over his forearm. Walls are lined with pictures of glamour Hollywood stars. One could almost imagine Al Cappone in the corner booth.
The history remains, though not without a falter or two. Certainly, tales of border unrest and “narco-terrorism” have taken their toll. The restaurant closed its doors in 2009, but was bought and resurrected by none other than Juan Plascencia, the brother of chef Javier Plascencia, owner of Mision 19….the draw which brought me to Tijuana in the first place. So my Tijuana Tour has come full circle.
As I told Mom after three days and nights in Tijuana, “my only danger in being arrested was on suspicion of stealing the silverware!”