Tijuana Grub Crawl: Where To Eat, Drink and Walk on Your Tour of TJ

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Thu, Oct 18, 2012 at 9:00 AM

See also: Anthony Bourdain Told Me to Go to Baja. So I'd Be OK There. Right?

See also: Anthony Bourdain's Baja Episode of No Reservations Will Make You Want to Cross the Border Immediately

See also: OC Weekly's Column Tijuana Sí!

You're going to Tijuana, and you want to eat. That's a very good plan, considering some of the food world's heaviest hitters (Bourdain, Zimmern and the like) consider it a gastronomic destination hotter than habaneros in a heat wave right now. But you also want to see the town, preferably beyond the touristy Avenida Revolución (though close enough that picking up the "I heart TJ" t-shirt you'll inevitably want is still an option).

Lucky for you, we prayed to the Baja gods and were blessed with Bill Esparza, L.A.'s favorite reverse coyote, who agreed to let us join up with his tour of the Tijuana Food Fest -- one of the closing events at the second annual Baja Culinary Festival that took place last Thursday through Sunday. There, we got to sample some of his top picks for Tijuana street food all in one place.

The bonus of attending an event like this with Esparza was he cut to the chase. We headed straight for the craft brews, OK, in part because it was 90 degrees and we were thirsty, but mostly because beer is burgeoning in Baja, and worth getting a feel for. He made sure we sampled two tortas, each completely different but both delicious enough to induce an eyebrow furrow and silent nod as we chewed. And because you can't hit up TJ without eating tacos, he led us to the most (deservingly) buzzworthy ones around. We've parlayed all that knowledge into a Google map so that next time you cross the border, you'll know where to find all the same good stuff we did.

Even better, all four of these spots are relatively close to each other, so you can park your car and walk to each, or employ pretty cheap cabs. Either way, we give you the the Tijuana neighborhood grub crawl.

click to enlarge The "Gringos on Vacation" and Rasta tacos from Tacos Kokopelli - J. WOJCIK
  • J. Wojcik
  • The "Gringos on Vacation" and Rasta tacos from Tacos Kokopelli

Tacos Kokopelli

Of the hundreds upon hundreds of tacos in Tijuana, the only ones that seem to matter right now are Tacos Kokopelli, which are the creations of chef Guillermo Campos Moreno, or as he's known around town, Chef Oso. He's a product of Tijuana's Culinary Art School, and a former stage at three-star Michelin spot Oud Sluis in the Netherlands, who returned to open this street cart back on Mexican turf. The result is an of-the-moment taco concept that blends complex flavors and simple comfort. We tried, and loved, the "Gringos on Vacation" taco (left) which consists of a roasted red anaheim chili (usually whole, though in this case was sliced) with melted cheese, pickled onions and avocado as well as the Rasta, which contains shrimp in a Mexican pesto sauce.

click to enlarge Torta from Tortas Washmobile - J. WOJCIK
  • J. Wojcik
  • Torta from Tortas Washmobile

Tortas Washmobile

The main thing to pay attention to here is the bread, which is house-made, and similar to ciabatta. One doesn't expect such crustiness from a torta, but Tortas Washmobile makes us wonder why it wasn't there all along. It holds up nicely to the moist ingredients it's embracing -- juicy mesquite-grilled carne asada, mayonnaise, pickled onion vinaigrette, tomato and guacamole -- staying robust until the last bite. Totally traditional? Maybe not, but you won't care.

click to enlarge A torta from Tortas El Turco - J. WOJCIK
  • J. Wojcik
  • A torta from Tortas El Turco

Tortas El Turco

Which brings us to another completely different yet equally intriguing torta with a backstory worthy of a telenovela. Tortas El Turco was a Tijuana staple, at least for current owner Luis Fitch, until about 30 years ago when it disappeared under dubious circumstances. As told to us by Fitch, original owner Daniel Perez-Perez had kept the business in his youngest son's name until eventually transferring it to his second wife. It was a move he should have thought twice about, considering she later had him murdered. (We'd ask her why but she went to jail, then passed away.)

Fitch, who ate the tortas all through his youth, became friendly with Perez-Perez' first wife who, though he swears he never asked, entrusted him with the original recipe -- an act he took as a sign to resurrect the restaurant, which opened again three months ago.

As was the case way back when, the slow roasted beef chuck on these tortas is steamed to a tender perfection, topped with mayo and guacamole and served on a traditional soft bread that melts right into everything else. Fitch can barely resist eating one every day, he says. We can't blame him.

click to enlarge Four pours of Insurgente beer, which can be found at Baja Craft Beers - J. WOJCIK
  • J. Wojcik
  • Four pours of Insurgente beer, which can be found at Baja Craft Beers

Baja Craft Beers Tasting Room

Such torta drama can be taxing, so a beer to calm one's nerves might be in order. The best place to get one is the buzzed about Baja Craft Beers, a tasting room that opened just this past August. They have more than 30 beers on tap for your sampling pleasure, as well as a handful of wines, though we'd suggest saving the wine tasting for your trip to Baja's Valle de Guadalupe. Instead we recommend giving the Insurgente brews a go. At the fest, we sampled all four, our favorite being the dark double IPA that managed to be malty and hoppy at the same time. What better way to finish (or start?) a day of binge eating.

See also: Anthony Bourdain Told Me to Go to Baja. So I'd Be OK There. Right?

See also: Anthony Bourdain's Baja Episode of No Reservations Will Make You Want to Cross the Border Immediately

See also: OC Weekly's Column Tijuana Sí!

Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife. Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page.

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