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Titillating Tijuana: The Mexico Even Most Mexicans Don’t Know
by Andrea Lita Rademan
Photo Credit: Johanna Jacobson
Bill Esparza claims that “Tijuana, along with Ensenada and the Valle de Guadalupe wine country, offers some of the most interesting big-city dining in Mexico.” He should know. He’s spent the last decade researching Northern Baja’s amazing transformation, particularly Tijuana’s. This former backwater border town has developed into a cosmopolitan city, the fastest-growing one in Mexico. Past the Avenida Revolución’s discount pharmacies, donkeys painted like zebras and souvenir shops are the Centro Cultural Tijuana, martini lounges and Art Deco theaters. There is also a surprisingly multicultural mix of people, including talented chefs and restaurateurs, a cooking school, a gastronomic zone, and a local culinary movement.
That movement, Baja Med, is a fusion of Asian, Mediterranean and Mexican influences, which attorney Miguel Ángél Guerrero Yaguës created when he traded the courtroom for the kitchen. At La Querencia many of his innovative dishes showcase the bounty of his garden and his hunting and fishing expeditions. Carpaccio specialties include beet with blue cheese; zucchini seasoned with chile-infused olive oil; and tongue with smoked abalone. He adds sage and dried chiles to cornbread, tops sopes with manta ray or abalone chorizo, stuffs tacos with duck or venison, and uses fermented pineapple rinds in tepache, a refreshing beverage.
Javier Placensia tilted his popular upscale Italian eatery, the elegant Villa Saverios, toward his own version of Baja Med with mushrooms topped with huitlacoche; short ribs with fig mole; lamb shank or chorizo spaghettini tacos; and sweet berry tamales.
At just 21 years old, executive chef Talia Nuñes has already mastered the art of alta cocina (high-end traditional Mexican cooking) at Cien Años. Delicacies such as maguey worms and ant eggs (escamoles) are in short supply but there’s plenty of baby octopus, salmon and mango ceviche, stingray tacos, marlin salpicón, and chocolata clam shooters. Wash them down with Damiana, a liqueur made from a local herb that is served on the rocks with a splash of tequila.
The signature dish at Juan Pablo Ussel’s La Diferencia is crepas de huitlacoche, a Mexico City-style dish of corn fungus crepes bathed in poblano salsa. He also serves skewers of nopales (cactus), panela cheese, onions and tomatoes drizzled in salsa; chiles en nogada; black bean dip sprinkled with cotija cheese; and molotes, corn cakes stuffed with cheese and jalapeños.
Stateside, “head-to-tail” cooking is all the rage. But it’s nothing new to Spanish-born Margarita Prieto. One of her specialties at Restaurante Espanol Lorca is lechon, a whole suckling pig. It’s a tossup whether the most delectable parts are the crispy golden skin or the tender cheeks and delicate brains. Have it with papas a la pobre, potatoes cooked with olive oil and sweet peppers, but don’t miss her rich seafood and chicken paella.
Juan Carlos Equiluz makes his own chorizo at Cheripan, where sizzling sweetbreads, melted Argentinian provoleta cheese and empanadas vie with gaucho steak entrana gauchesca, spiked with jalapenos, garlic and parsley for first place on the menu. Icy tamarind martinis and tequilinos are refreshing but he could start a whole industry based on his intensely flavored dark chocolate gelato that you’d never guess is sugar-free.
Maribel Villareal studied at culinary school in France before returning home to open a charming patisserie, L'Abricot, which has expanded into an even more charming French bistro. Menu favorites include classic French onion soup, poached quail eggs, crème brûlée, and bottles of Emeve Grenache from the Valle de Guadalupe. On the way out, pick up a beautifully decorated cake or a stash of pastries.
Note that all of these restaurants serve wines from El Valle de Guadalupe and most serve fresh tamarind margaritas. The places listed here are the high end celebrated restaurants but Baja also has stands, fondas (small, home-based eateries), taquerias, wineries, and festivals galore guaranteed to titillate your tummy. Bricia Lopez (pictured), whose family owns Guelaguetza Mexican restaurants in Los Angeles, gave her stamp of approval to the ceviche at a recent festival. Of course, as with any travel, a certain amount of caution is in order but the people we encountered on a recent visit couldn’t wait to return.
For insider’s places that are not in any guide books, magazine articles, or internet pages, sign up for a private tour with Bill Esparza at http://streetgourmetla.blogspot.com.
More information is available at the Tijuana Convention and Visitor's Bureau http://www.tijuanaonline.org. The writer thanks the Crossborder Agency, Cotuco (Tijuana Tourism Board), and Tijuana Canirac (Tijuana Restaurant Association) for their assistance with this article.
La Querencia: Escuadron 201, No. 3110, Local 1 and 2, Colonia Aviacion, Zona Gastronomica, Tijuana. Tel: (664) 972-9935. Website: www.laquerenciatj.com
Villa Saverios: Blvd. Sanchez Taboada, corner Escuadron 201, No. 3151, Zona Rio, Tijuana. Tel: (664) 686-6442. Website: www.villasaverios.com
Cien Anos: Jose Maria Velazco 1407, Zona Rio, Tijuana. Tel: (664) 634-3039. Website: www.cien.info
La Diferencia: Blvd. Sanchez Taboada 10611-A, Zona Rio, Tijuana. Tel: (664) 634-3346. Website: www.ladiferencia.com.mx
Restaurante Espanol Lorca: Calle Brasil 8630, Colonia Cacho, Tijuana. Tel: (664) 634-0366. Website: www.lorcarestaurante.com
Cheripan: Escuadron 201, No. 3151, Colonia Aviacion, Zona Gastronimca, Tijuana. Tel (from the U.S.): (619) 308-7656. Website: www.cheripan.com
L'Abricot: Avenida Antonio Caso 1910, Zona Rio, Tijuana. Tel: (664) 634-0643. Website: www.labricot.com