Nacho Mama’s Tijuana

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.IMG_4222

I love the term for round-abouts in Mexico, "Glorietta." However, crossing them on foot can be quite terrifying.

I love the term for round-abouts in Mexico, “Glorieta.” However, crossing them on foot can be quite terrifying.

Along Tijuana's "Paseo de los Heros," one might be surprised to see a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Note the broken chains in his fists. Lincoln is honored by Mexico for his support against European occupation forces in the 1860s. He is honored with a statue as a friend to Mexico. What a concept!

Along Tijuana’s “Paseo de los Heros,” one might be surprised to see a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Note the broken chains in his fists. Lincoln is honored by Mexico for his support against European occupation forces in the 1860s. He is honored with a statue as a friend to Mexico. What a concept!

Check out this modern recycling station.

Check out this modern recycling station.

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.”

I did not expect a restaurant with a name like "Mision 19" to be in a high rise office building.

I did not expect a restaurant with a name like “Mision 19” to be in a high rise office building.

Bar 20 is just upstairs from the restaurant, Mision 19.

Bar 20 is just upstairs from the restaurant, Mision 19.

Bar 20 is known for its "contemporary mixology." The "Mezcalero" is a tropical fruit puree with chile de arbol and white mezcal.

Bar 20 is known for its “contemporary mixology.” The “Mezcalero” is a tropical fruit puree with chile de arbol and white mezcal.

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.

The taster menu includes a different wine paring with each course, all from Baja's Guadalupe Valley.

The taster menu includes a different wine paring with each course, all from Baja’s Guadalupe Valley.

Grilled octopus is the second course. Small, but not when there are six courses!

Grilled octopus is the second course. Small, but not when there are six courses!

Third course is "roasted suckling pig, masa crepe, with street salsas."

Third course is “roasted suckling pig, masa crepe, with street salsas.”

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.

The bread tray is passed a little TOO frequently...

The bread tray is passed a little TOO frequently…

Jack Black scotch and water mixed tableside.

Jack Black scotch and waters mixed table-side.

The cocktail cart

The cocktail cart

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.

This was my "big splurge" for my two month trip through Mexico....about $60 US per night.

This was my “big splurge” for my two month trip through Mexico….about $60 US per night.

Being so close to San Diego, the lines blur a bit.

Being so close to San Diego, the lines blur a bit.

A Zona Rio outdoor food court.

A Zona Rio outdoor food court.

IMG_4166

A trendy bar made from shipping containers.

A trendy bar made from shipping containers.

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.

Tijuana's Cultural Center

Tijuana’s Cultural Center, highlighting the history of the Baja Peninsula.

The Cultural Center includes some outdoor cactus gardens and a museum housing artifacts from Baja's history.

The Cultural Center includes some outdoor cactus gardens and a museum housing artifacts from Baja’s history.

In the museum is a prohibition-era slot machine left over from one of Tijuana's casinos.

In the museum is a prohibition-era slot machine left over from one of Tijuana’s casinos.

IMAX Theater will cost you 50 pesos, or about $2.50.

IMAX Theater cost 50 pesos, or about $2.50.

IMG_4186

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?”

Pharmacies are big business in Tijuana...this one open 24 hours with delivery by motorbike.

Pharmacies are big business in Tijuana…this one open 24 hours with delivery by motorbike.

Many US citizens cross the border for more affordable cosmetic surgery. Apparently the mannequins do as well.

Many US citizens cross the border for more affordable cosmetic surgery. Apparently the mannequins do as well.

Keep it up, Tijuana!

Keep it up, Tijuana!

Avenida Revolucion

Avenida Revolucion

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.

Caesar salad being prepared table-side at the namesake restaurant, "Caesar's."

Caesar salad being prepared table-side at the namesake restaurant, “Caesar’s.”

The restaurant has been around since the early 1920's, when crossing the border was an escape from prohibition.

The restaurant has been around since the early 1920’s, when crossing the border was an escape from prohibition.

The salad was quite tasty, though a bit "over dressed" for my taste.

The salad was quite tasty, though a bit “over dressed” for my taste.

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.

As with all cities in Mexico, music plays a big part of their lives.

As with all cities in Mexico, music plays a big part of their lives.

Pantalones de Mariachi

Pantalones de Mariachi

IMG_4229

IMG_4245

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!”

16 thoughts on “Nacho Mama’s Tijuana

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful post! Going up in Los Angeles, and even living in San Diego as a adult, I’ve never seen much more of Tijuana than the Avenida de Revolucion. Maybe next trip we’ll tarry a bit.

  2. TJ — Great show of its transformation. I have been going there lately for dentistry (Smile Tijuana – across from the Cultural Center). Walk ! I have a Global Entry but walking is so much more exciting — crossing the Gloriettas or any 4 lane boulevard is better than Kung Fu. Great to see Ceasars is not changed at all! The Long Bar nearby with a long history kept getting shorter. I can hear the Ranchera waltzing music. Viva TJ.

  3. Fran’s last dental visit is in a couple weeks, it’s a short walk to Caesar’s for our celebratory lunch. Thanks for showing off TJ, it offers lots more than bars and dance clubs.

  4. Boy, the last time I visited Tijuana the “Keep Tijuana Tasty” read “keep Tijuana Nasty”…but that was in the early 70’s when the border town had a huge party reputation. Many beautiful locales now…very refreshing and inviting. As we have aged, we are a lot “tamer” now…so they say. Wonderful photos!

  5. Well, who knew Tijuana was so interesting once you get beyond the border trash area!! Looks like you certainly had some amazing fine dining while there. You had me hooked with the bread cart photo:) So glad you didn’t end up in jail:) I’m sure your mother was relieved, as well:)

  6. We stopped RVing in Acapulco for all those reasons including the severed head on our beach and have happily been spending the last eight winters in the Mazatlan area on Isla de la Piedra.

    Great post on Tijuana, it really has changed a lot, for the better over the past several years. I think that you have material here for a travel magazine.

  7. Your travel report on T certainly flies in the face of popular opinion and the rumor mill, and helps to balance some of the negativity. And such fine dining, too. Then again, you seem to love going into “hostile territories” (I’m thinking back to your book). I’m not sure I would make it through the “border trash.”
    Thanks for probing (risking?) controversial places…and living to tell about it :).
    Box Canyon

  8. This is a side of Tijuana I have never seen before, thanks for taking me! I have heard a lot about the Guadalupe Valley and its explosion as a food and wine destination though, maybe some day…

  9. Tijuana looks inviting. We know someone who went there for cosmetic surgery and was very happy with the medical care.
    I think we could live on that bread alone!

Leave a Reply to Deborah S. Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *