I’ve been living in San Diego for a few years now, and I have an embarrassing confession to make: I have never been to Mexico. I have never been Tijuana. I have never been to Rosarito or Ensenada. This madness needed to end. So, last Saturday, I decided to end an awful precedent and head to Tijuana for my first time.
Of course, Mexico is a vibrant country and travelers go back and forth across the border every single day at astonishing rates, but I recognized how important it was for me to do my research before I left, as I was going with Cousin Kyle and his buddy. Out of the three of us, our Spanish was passable. Yet, if we wandered into the wrong neighborhood, just like any city, we could open ourselves up to trouble.
From this side of the border, Tijuana has always just seemed like this bustling city without an identity. In my wildest dreams, I just couldn’t picture what the city was like from this side of the border. I saw images blending New Orleans’ Bourbon Street with the crazy traffic in Guatemala City with congested spots of East Los Angeles. Once I began to research the city, however, I could see that it was filled with life, and there was an enormous appreciation for cuisine, and the neighborhoods had so much passion they would fight over the best taco shop the way Americans argue over the better burger. I saw a place where I couldn’t wait to visit. I figured I would share my research and experience, which I have broken down into two main categories: Tacos and Drinks.
As soon as we crossed the border, our mission was to head to Chapultepec, which is a neighborhood south east of downtown, to visit a series of taco shops. I was most excited about a placed called Taconazo. Just that name, Taconazo, makes it sound like a new weather pattern capable of great destruction, an almost tornado made out of tortillas and ground beef. Taconazo was recommended to me by a co-worker, and she wrote it was “A Must.” So, I had to believe her.
But Taconazo was also featured in an LA Times article and video that I found essential in my Tijuana travel planning. What I loved about the video was that Victor Delgado and Jorge Alvarez-Tostado, founders of Tacos 1986 in Los Angeles, took an LA Times reporter to their hometown. They were most passionate about a neighborhood called Chapultepec, so this is why we decided to take a Lyft about twenty minutes from the border. Delgado and Alvarez-Tostado basically paint Chapultepec as a neighborhood where rival taco shops exist within a short walk. So, we decided to try some out.
I’ve been living in San Diego for some time, and I have tasted some delicious tacos, and I really couldn’t understand how much better a taco could be in Tijuana. How could a taco be that much better across the border? But then we sat down at Taconazo, which is a loud and red building across from a sports betting bar that is attached to the casino, and the smells of spice and cilantro hit you as soon as you enter, but what attracted my eyes the most was the rotating Adobada, which means marinated. It’s really just rotating pork that resembles a shawarma, and it makes magic.
With my first bite of the Adobado taco, it was clear that we entered another flavor town. The taco comes in a wrap, and they bring salsas, but it’s perfect as it comes. The taco had some serious spice, but it was balanced. There were so many flavors that it reminded me of eating an authentic curry with so layers of sabor, and the flavor changed the further you bit into the taco. My second taco from Taconazo was carne asada, and it had a dollop of guacamole that massaged out the spice from the last Adobado.
It is honestly hard to describe how that first bite of a Tijuana taco has forever changed my expectations of what a taco should be. I’m not expert in any way, but it will never be the same for me.
After Taconazo, we stopped at a place next door that seemed to be owned by El Tio Pepe, but I couldn’t be sure either. It was an amazing taco as well, and he brought us over some meat to sample. Every single person we met there were so excited to share their cuisine and culture. Not once did I feel unwelcome or that my enthusiasm to experience the country was misplaced.
We walked a bit further down, and we found the taco shops from the LA Times video: Tacos el Jockey and Hipódromo Tacos. We didn’t eat there, but I have to go back. We did, however, go to Tortas Wash, which was just another block, and it served an amazing Torta. The bread was so fresh, and it reminded me of Cuban bread, but the torta had carne asada that was cooked to perfection, covered in a light mannoyaise, and had some spice. Toward the middle, there were pickled radishes or peppers, and the further I went to the center, the more the experience changed.
While we ate at one other taqueria before we left, which was Tacos Gordos, I really recommend taking a Lyft to Taconazo and walking Hipódromo to a stretch of tacos that are worth the entire trip. And if you’re nervous, the walk is very safe. The neighborhood is awesome and reminds me a bit of Silver Lake in Los Angeles.
Beer and Mezcal 🍷 🍺
All I kept hearing about from writers like Sarah Bennett was that Tijuana is known for their craft beer scene. Being in San Diego, craft beer is so overwhelming that it gets a bit dull, and I really wondered if I would be excited by the beer in TJ. Of course, I’ve heard of Insurgente and enjoyed their beers, but how much better could the beer be? Maybe I would just much rather drink Mezcal?
But I was so wrong again. There are two areas that we visited on our first trip, and I recommended them without reservation: Telefonica Gastro Park (Thanks for the rec Mikey) and Plaza Fiesta. Both of these place are open areas and plazas where you can walk around and try different foods and breweries. At Telefonica Gastro Park, we had a delicious margarita. From there, we walked over to the Plaza Fiesta.
Plaza Fiesta reminds me of the Latin Quarter in Paris. There is a lot of energy. It is dark yet illuminated by neon signs. There are also so many bars and breweries that it’s a bit of a roll of the dice on where to go. So, while we knew that we would head to Border Pyscho, we just started popping into places.
I stopped at one bar and had a Belgian Dubbel on Nitro. I’ve never had such a beer, and it was so light and delicious, and it was only 6.7%, which surprised me for a dubbel. While I love the taste of the dubbel, I have to be cautious about it because they are so potent. The mix of the nitro and the low ABV made this beer fantastic. I drank it over some foosball, and I lost.
We also stumbled into a mezcaleria in Plaza Fiesta, and I drank a mezcal cream, which tasted like what the Big Lebowski would drink in Tijuana, and a basil infused mescal. Both were extremely weird and delicious experiences. From there, the bartender told us to visit a place that made pulques. They were almost like smoothies, and they served me one in a tall glass with michelada spices around the rim.
Finally, we stopped at Pyscho Border, talked shit about the top ten NBA basketball players, ate one more taco, and drove back across the border
Moral of the story: Don’t be an idiot and miss out on Tijuana. The tacos, the beer, the mezcal, the people were all worth every moment. And it was so easy to get back and forth across the border, too. We Lyfted from Downtown San Diego to Pedestrian West, walked across the border, grabbed another Uber, and stayed in neighborhoods that felt incredibly safe and welcoming. I believe I have just discovered another wonderful world that was right in my backyard.