Tijuana is a food lover's paradise, teeming with gut-busting rewards for those willing to explore its grids of unmarked streets. It's a relatively short drive (about an hour and a half south of L.A.) to get to the heart of the tangled metropolis, which is home to haute cuisine such as La Diferencia and taqueria mainstays such as Tacos el Franc.
Avenida Revolución, the only street many American tourists visit, is more known for its thumping nightclubs and tchotchke shops than its quality drinking and dining. But the city’s culinary revival now has extended to this touristy stretch. From gastropubs to breweries, there is no better time to cross the frontera. (Several tour groups will help you do it.) Here are two destination restaurants and three noteworthy bars to get you started:
Start your Avenida Revolución food education at Caesar's. The hotel between 4th and 5th streets is the birthplace of the Caesar salad. As the story goes, Caesar Cardini, an Italian Immigrant, was working there in 1924 when he threw together anchovies, garlic, egg, Worcestershire sauce and some olive oil to create the first iteration of the salad that now bears his name. Today, the tableside-crafted creation has whole romaine leaves gently placed on a plate, drizzled with dressing and topped with whole anchovies for a salty and historically significant culinary experience. Av. Revolución 1079, Tijuana; +52 664 685 1606; hotelcaesars.com.mx
Across the street from Caesar's is La Justina, Avenida Revolución’s first gastropub and perhaps the polar opposite of Caesar's old-timey, white-tablecloth vibe. Driftwood-swaddled interiors and hand-crafted cocktails are par for course in new American restaurants, but when La Justina opened in Tijuana in 2013, its living walls and elevated take on street food were downright otherworldly. San Diego chef Chad White’s seasonal menu features marlin tostadas and shrimp pizzas topped with huitlacoche, a corn fungus (think of it as the Mexican truffle). Local craft beers and Latin-inspired cocktails include a tequila-cinnamon-jamaica drink and a cold-brew coffee mixed with vanilla-flavored Licor 43. And as an homage to the decades-old taco stand that still sits just outside its entrance, La Justina’s interior is illuminated by a custom “Cafe La Especial” neon sign on the main dining room’s wall. Av. Revolución 926, Tijuana; +52 664 638 4936; facebook.com/lajustinatj
Mamut Cerveza Artesanal
If you wander the street for long enough, you’ll begin to see little alleys snaking their way off Revolución. These pasajes, or passages, used to be filled with tourists back in the day but fell into disuse for years and are now full of contemporary art galleries and little cafes populated by young locals. Down Pasaje Rodriguez, you’ll find Mamut Cerveza Artesanal, the only one of Zona Centro’s three breweries that has its own tasting room. (The others, Cervecería Mechanica and Cervecería Ki’li, brew nearby, but you’ll have to drink their beers at a local bar.) Inside and on wooden tables that spill out into the pasaje, you can drink Mamut’s amber ale, brown ale and dry stout — all brewed with ingredients brought over the border from San Diego — for the paltry price of 15 pesos (about $1) and eat from its small menu of American-style pub grub including wings, burgers and brats. Carrillo Puerto y o Tercera 8161, Tijuana; +52 664 685 0137; mamutcerveza.com
Skip the few remaining tequila factories catering to lost tourists and instead head to 6th Street, or “La Sexta,” which intersects Avenida Revolución and has become the main drag for Tijuana’s nightlife. If Ave Revu is where tourists hang out at night, then Sexta is where the locals come out to play. Every spot for a block in either direction from the main drag is a drinking establishment, and the neighborhood pulsates on weekend nights with revelers spilling out into the streets. La Mezcalera is a slender, mezcal-only bar in the middle of this chaos, where you can get shots or samples of 17 different kinds of mezcal on tap, including pechuga (filtered through a chicken breast), zarzamora (with hints of blackberry) and cajeta (a creamy mezcal with condensed milk). Instead of beer nuts and popcorn, bar snacks here include bags of chapulines, crickets with a crunchy, nutty consistency topped with lime that balances out whatever alcoholic smokiness your mezcal adventure brings. Calle Sexta 8267, Tijuana; +52 664 688 0384
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Dandy del Sur
If you can only hit up one bar while in Tijuana, it should be Dandy del Sur, the city's oldest drinking establishment and a dark and timeless hole in the wall that’s easy to crawl into but hard to leave. The subject of a Nortec Collective song and home to many a forgotten evening, Dandy sets the standard for what makes a great dive. A massive jukebox is filled with everything from banda music to Muse, the TVs are often playing obscure sports on silent and the classic aproned bartenders serve only a few fun snacks: chicharrones, peanuts and the famous carne seca, beef jerky slightly warmed in a microwave. And of course, there’s also the cheap, heavy pours of well liquor. The house drink, La Mamada (slang for “blow job”), is a double shot of white rum with a splash of coke. Flores Magón 2030, Tijuana; +52 664 688 0052; dandydelsur.com