TIJUANA, Mexico -- OK, I’m a complete neophyte at this Baja California food scene. Many prominent writers and bloggers and foodies have been here before me. The New York Times, for instance, Food and Wine Magazine (where they ask the question, "Does Baja Have Mexico’s Most Exciting Food?"). Even Fox News Latino says Tijuana is the next foodie destination.
Now that I’ve tipped my hat to at least a few of the adventurous food writers who have gone before me, I must still protest that it's not easy to make this pilgrimage south. It's a border crossing, after all, and that involves hassles far above and beyond getting a reservation at a trendy restaurant or finding parking in the Gaslamp District (more on those hassles to come).
Of course, drug violence has diminished the attractions of carnitas and lobster dinners, and has even dimmed the luster of underage drinking parties that used to rage in downtown Tijuana.
What’s worse, post-Sept. 11 border wait times coming back north can be horrendous. Again, more on that later.
So, San Diegans have largely abandoned their neighbor to the south. And in the meantime, Tijuana has turned in on itself and has begun, according to blogger Jason Thomas Fritz, to “focus on their own craft.” The result is that Tijuana and Baja California have become in recent years what he calls the “center of the food universe," creating a cultural renaissance featuring the maturation and expansion of the local “Baja Mediterranean” cuisine.
Fritz has lived in Tijuana for a number of years now, while he finishes up a Master’s degree at San Diego State University. The degree is coming along, but Fritz is distracted -- by the taco stands and the street food revolution and craft beer evolution and the changing reality of this “misunderstood” city. He’s had a front-row seat to the cultural and culinary transformation of Tijuana in recent years. He says people in the U.S. have a bad perception of Tijuana, but “the way you change things is not by trying to change those perceptions, but by actually changing the reality.” And that’s what the chefs of Tijuana are doing.
I joined Fritz on the final day of the 2012 Baja Culinary Fest.
Our destination was a street food festival supposedly highlighting some of the best, new gourmet street food in Tijuana. Indeed, some famous names were there – Kokopelli Tacos, a new/old shop featuring barbecued beef sandwiches by the name of Tortas El Turco, and some fabulous octopus tacos. So fabulous, we ate them before we could take a picture.
But a street food fest in a shopping mall was not my idea of a night out on the town in TJ. So we abandoned the fest and took off in a Taxi Libre to experience one of these acclaimed new restaurants. Our choice, Cebicheria Eriza, is a relatively new little bistro opened by celebrity chef Javiar Plascencia, featuring ceviche.
Oh my, so good. The tortas and tacos had already filled us up, so we could only enjoy a bare, bare minimum of the beauty on this seafood menu. With Pisco Sours (Peru’s native drink) on the side, we gobbled up Octopus Carpaccio, a Scallop Ceviche with Mango (delicately seasoned, it seemed, with a Thai basil and chile) and a Green Ceviche of tomatillos, serranos and shrimp.
But then, the journey home. Because the pedestrian line going back into the U.S. was so long when we'd crossed over earlier that Sunday afternoon, we decided to try a different border crossing, hoping the line would be shorter, quicker.
It was a three-hour-long, standing on the concrete, moving inch-by-inch closer to the border, wait.
I shouldn’t complain -- hundreds do it daily, weekly, and I experienced it just this once. But it revealed the ugly reality of this cultural and culinary renaissance in Tijuana: its just not that easy to share! Chefs and artists and a young, hip crowd may be making this misunderstood city the center of the food universe, an exciting and wonderful place to live, but as a destination they need a little better collaboration from Mexican and U.S. border officials. They need a border authority that can recognize the benefits of expedited crossings, and make them a reality for the occasional tourist and not just the experienced, pre-approved SENTRI pass holder.
The border is a beautiful place, in theory, an edge where cultures can clash and enrich and make the plain, everyday realities turn color, become more savory, more spicy. But the concrete indifference of border officialdom makes this potentially exhilarating frontier a line of frustration and madness.
Still, I have recommendations if you'd like to enjoy some of this cuisine, and miss some of the hassle. First, don't come down on a Sunday. Second, sign up for a food tour of Tijuana with Club Tengo Hambre, a mash-up of Tijuana food experts and expats who will consult on crossing times, and whisk you around the city for a sampling of the best eats. Highly recommended!