For foodies still freaking out about the idea of crossing the border as an American tourist, I only have two words for you: your loss. Tijuana is at the epicenter of a mounting gastronomical revolution – one that is increasingly experimenting with the seafood and salsa-heavy traditions of Baja – not to mention a burgeoning craft beer scene that is quickly beginning to rival its nearby inspirations in Southern California.
Long gone are the days of daytime shootings on Avenida Revolución, making walking or driving trips to TJ from Los Angeles a must for anyone who craves eating world-class mariscos from a taco truck or wants to watch a cocinero with a machete slice tender meat off a spit into handmade tortillas. While solo trips are totally doable, SoCal companies such as Tourista Libre and Let's Go Clandestino now offer curated tours through the region, helping adventurous Americans discover the revolutionary food, beer and wine cultures that permeate L.A.'s closest international neighbor.
This past weekend, March 29-30, we met up with the husband-and-wife team of Club Tengo Hambre, who whisked us and a dozen or so other explorers across the border for four hours of TJ's best tacos and beer. Here's what we discovered:]
Tacos Kokopelli, Corner of Cuauhtemoc Surponiente and Rio Grijalva
The first stop was Tacos Kokopelli, the most recent example of how quickly Tijuana's culinary scene in growing. Formerly a street cart (okay, it was really just a pop-up tent covering a grill), Kokopelli today serves its famous octopus pesto tacos and squid ink sole ceviches (among other Baja Med inventions) from a location in the Playas as well as this cozy brick and mortar that opened earlier this month.
The transition from sidewalk to storefront was made possible by a concept outdoor food court called Food Garden, which last year turned an empty lot in the city's Distrito Gastronómico (culinary district) into a semi-permanent home for TJ's most popular street vendors. With the legitimacy earned and money made serving from a stand at Food Garden, Kokopelli was able to expand into actual restaurants, where its signature wood-fired grill now faces passerby and its growing menu of mariscos and salsas (try the serrano and peanut El Robo de Dante sauce or, for the masochists, the creamy roasted habanero sauce, Lagrimas de Lucifer) can be paired with beer from Tijuana beweries like Funes, whose owner also runs the local homebrew store.
Mariscos Ruben, Corner of 8th & Quintana Roo
Mariscos Ruben is a food truck parked against a barbed-wire-ensconced park where the downtown area meets Zona Rio and it's culinary district. But don't let the typical mobile-taco-stand setup or grey-haired ladies at the helm fool you – this Sonoran-style lonchera churns out high-end seafood unlike anywhere else in TJ.
A frequent Mexico stop for Bizarre Foods guru Andrew Zimmern, Ruben's typical dishes are anything but typical: cushy pink marlin fills their fire-grilled, slaw-covered taquitos; Worchester sauce adds even more zesty flavor to their fresh crab and scallop aguachiles; and clams the size of wrestlers' fists are shucked by the experienced abuela chefs, baked in a wood-fired oven and then stuffed with octopus and cheese. And if the inherent flavors in Ruben's grub aren't enough, eight salsas – from tamarindo to the “Doña Chavo” – line the makeshift wooden bartop. For our tour, the young brewers from Zesde Cerveceria brought a bucket full of ice and a Ballast Point keg that contained a light version of their IPA, a creamy, bitter pale ale made with Chinook and Anthem hops that cut through any and all lingering spice.
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Taqueria Franc, Corner of Blvd. Sanchez Taboada and 8th St.
The first thing you notice when approaching Taqueria Franc on Blvd. Sanchez Taboada is the massive trompo, or spit, on which a hunk of marinated meat the size of a bear cub effortlessly spins. As you order your crazy inexpensive adobada tacos, a man slices off bits of the red-coated pork meat and they fall into the corn tortillas in his hand. Within seconds the tacos are at your table ready for the con todo of onions and cilantro and as much salsa roja as you can handle.
Tijuana's Mamut Brewery, which owns its own bar downtown, met the tour at Franc and poured their malty English IPA into plastic cups. Tacos el Franc may specialize in the more traditional Tijuana variety of the dish (and feature meat most Angelenos associate with Mexican street food), but they prove that even as culinary advances swirl around them, there will always be room for the best carne asada, al pastor and adobada in town.
BCB Tasting Room, 3003 Calle Orizaba
The last stop of the day was BCB Tasting Room, the largest and most important of the city's handful of craft beer bars. Since brewery's tasting rooms are nonexistent and distribution never makes it over the border, Baja's beer bars are the only places where you can taste and purchase brews from the state's 80-plus microbreweries. Food wasn't served to our tour, but with 42 taps and five fridges full of bottles, there was no shortage of local beer to test out. The bar is in the planning stages of building its own on-site brewery and has already released a pilsner, a brown ale and an anniversary beer to whet customer's palates before build-out begins.
Check out Colin Young-Wolff's slideshow: Club Tengo Hambre's Best of Baja: Tijuana Tacos and Beer