The Baja California episode of No Reservations begins with a soundtrack of gunshots and sirens peppering news reports of violence in Tijuana. But against this noise we see Anthony Bourdain strolling into town looking unafraid. He knows what you're thinking: "Wait, isn't Tijuana dangerous?"
The short answer, we learn, is there is no short answer. Yes, it's been a hotbed for drug-related violence in recent years, which has caused Americans largely to stop going. So what does one find just over the border these days? A city that's stopped caring, apparently, about catering to our vices and is now in the midst of a renaissance, especially when it comes to the culinary scene.
Bourdain also reminds us in this episode that Tijuana is merely stop one on your Baja excursion, if you're wise, and that a journey further south will land you in wine country that "feels like Tuscany."
In other words, our SoCal backyard is blooming again, and watching this show will make you want to frolic in it.
Tijuana tourism boomed, Bourdain explains, during Prohibition, when hoards of thirsty Californians began traveling there to get alcohol, sometimes with a side of sex and drugs. This continued through about 2006, until Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a crackdown, spurring violence across the city. This made Tijuana essentially unvisitable. The restaurants and hotels laid vacant. The city couldn't survive off the old model.
So what did it do? "Tijuana is in the beginning phases of reinventing itself," Bourdain's guide, also named Tony, says to him. It's now about the locals, he explains, not the tourists.
Chef Javier Plascencia, whom Bourdain meets on his first stop at Misión 19, concurs. "We're trying to create a food town -- a gastronomic destination," he says.
After sampling Plascencia's beef tongue sous-vide, Bourdain moves onto a mezcal tasting with guide Tony, then hops into a pink limousine for a quick trip to "taco alley."
Despite the car's breakdown ("You gotta sit in this thing," he complains, "with passersby hooting at you and taking pictures of the big, stupid gringo in the douchnozzle prom-mobile that needs a fucking jumpstart,") Bourdain eventually gets ahold of the alley's best campechano taco -- a mix of carne asada and chorizo.
The next day, after a local favorite hangover cure of plum juice, tomato juice, lemon juice and beer and a meal of fresh grilled seafood, Bourdain finds himself awash in a sea of cervezas. Boozy afternoon turns to night, and he turns to Kentucky Fried Buches, or chicken necks, for sustenance.
And just before tapping out on Tijuana, he meets a pal at a little beach stand to eat what's apparently the first real fish taco he's ever encountered. From there Bourdain heads to Ensenada, where the seafood theme continues, though we learn that there, it's all about carts over stands. He's led to what is widely considered the best street cart in the world and has what he calls "Le Bernardin-quality seafood in the street."
In the nearby fishing village of Popotla, Bourdain encounters lobster "Puerto Nuevo-style" at a plastic table and chairs on the beach. "I don't even know what Puerto Nuevo-style is, but I want it," he says. Turns out it means chopped in half and thrown in hot oil. So says Bourdain, this is a good thing.
Finally he makes his way to Ensenada's wine country in El Valle de Guadalupe, where he discovers Baja Med cuisine. He learns quickly, though, that chef Benito Molina of restaurant Manzanilla finds this a bit of a misnomer. "It's more Mexican than Mediterranean," he clarifies. "It's Mediterranean ingredients, but done in a Mexican way."
Molina introduces Bourdain to protégé Diego Hernandez of restaurant Corazon de Tierra, who seems the poster child for Baja's culinary movement. He's apprenticed only with Mexican chefs, saying he'd "never" go to France or New York to train. "I think that it's very important for us as young chefs to get to know our own cuisine," Hernandez says.
Molina observes the astuteness of his former student. "It tells you a lot about how the technique and the food scene in Baja has evolved," he says. "It's like we have a clean slate."
Which is really what makes a trip there so intriguing. Through Bourdain's lens we see that Baja is uncharted territory again, yet with all the buzz it's been receiving lately, it's likely headed for a new kind of boom. Best get your passport.
The Baja episode of No Reservations airs May 28 on Travel Channel.
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See also: Stick a Fork In It column Tijuana Sí!.
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