Tijuana is legendary, though that legend has long been for its seedier aspects and just-over-the-border antics than as a respectable travel destination.
However, a lot has changed in recent years. Safer streets, new developments, artisan food trucks, locally-brewed craft beers, gastropubs, all have made Tijuana into more of a “San Diego-South” than its rowdy alter-ego.
I spent a few days checking out this city I’d long heard of, but had never visited, and with the help of a local, found some gems you might not expect.
I had some help finding these great spots. My friend Alejandro is a guide for Turista Libre and after months of nagging me to come down and check out his home town, I finally did. Many of the spots here he includes on his tours to tijuana, plus a bunch more I didn't see (next time, I've been promised).
1) Craft Beers
Tijuana has embraced the craft brew phenomenon with enthusiasm. The Plaza del Zapato (yes, “Shoe Plaza” or "Plaza Fiesta/Party Plaza" as it's locally known) is actually a fantastic destination of small quirky bars with themes ranging from punk to hipster, and everywhere in between. Craft breweries like Border Psycho and Insurgentes have their own bars here, and the vibe throughout is chill and friendly. I enjoyed a creamy cinnamony Leche de Pantera ("Panther Milk") from La Prision, and tried the Coffee Porter at Fauna. My favorite was the pulque at Zenzontle.
2) Food Trucks
I’d make the case that LA started the food truck trend, but it has certainly spread wide from there. Mexico has tons of incredible food in general, and many of the Tijuana food trucks focus either on a few select dishes, or a modern twist on old classics. In the Telefónica Gastro Park park, for example, you can get everything from rich, flavorful steaks to perfect mole chicken.
At the Otto's Grill Mariscos truck, I had a simply amazing tuna tostada that was somewhere between ceviche and poke.
3) Caesar Salad
Did you know the Caesar Salad was created in Tijuana? I sure didn’t, but then, I’m not what you’d call a big salad eater. Most sources point to Caesar Cardini, and the Hotel Caesar continues his legacy and his recipe.
Made table-side, the delicious mix of garlic, fresh lemon juice, cheese, Worcestershire sauce, egg, and enough oil to keep a 747 aloft for a few days, all blend together to create a salad that’s deservedly famous.
I’m not sure what the green leafy things were in it, but they added some nice crunch.
Ok, this is probably the opposite of “unexpected” but for me what was unexpected was how much better the tacos are. Seriously. After years of enjoying Cal-Mex style tacos at places in Southern California, I didn’t realize how much better they could get (they were already good, I mean come on, they’re tacos. Who doesn’t like tacos?). We stopped for a late-night snack at Tacos las 3 Salsas on the so-called "Ahumaderas" street ("Smoky Street").
I had a simple carne asada taco with guacamole and cheese and I’ll tell you, one of the all-time best things I’ve ever eaten. It cost barely more than a dollar. I’d go back to TJ just to get one more of these tacos. My friends told me these weren't even the best in TJ. Mind blown.
5) Market of All The Things
Outdoor markets are awesome, no matter where you find them. Some are better than others. The Mercado Hidalgo has everything from spices to sweets, pinatas to piña, and more.
Grab pork torta ahogada ("drowned torta") at one stall, and some sweet and delicious horchata at another.
I’m not a huge fan of lobster, but if you are, it’s worth the drive a bit south, down the stunning Autopista Escenica Tijuana-Ensenada, to Puerto Nuevo.
Restaurants just off the beach cook fresh lobster while you watch the sun set over the Pacific (or mid-day, when I was there. Just painting a picture...). Eat them with a just a side of butter, or make your own burrito/taco/wrap thing with freshly made flour tortillas, guacamole, salsa, and more.
In short, Tijuana is great for countless reasons, and not one of them is what it’s famous for. A word of warning, though, plan for many, many, many hours in line crossing back over the border into the US. I stood for 2 hours. Longest it has ever taken me to cross a border, anywhere in the world.
By: Geoffrey Morrison