Travel to Eat: Tijuana from Highest High to Taco land

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Best Thing I've Ever Eaten (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Last week I spent 24 hours in Tijuana and Ensenada with a couple of colleagues.  The goal was to eat continuously with a break for sleeping.  The other goal was to not regret it on our trip home.  So this eating excursion was more about getting oriented to the excellence available close by in Northern Baja without getting all macho about consuming mass quantities.  It was a highly curated peak eating experience.  Seriously.  The food was so delicious and of such high quality that we were kind of stunned.  Our guide and “Dad” (are we there yet?)  for the trip was Bill Esparza aka  He’s spent years trolling the streets of both Tijuana and Ensenada to find great food and create relationships.  Everywhere we went he was greeted with a hug, like a long lost brother, uncle or son.  And we were the beneficiaries for it.

First stop, was Mision 19.  We walked across the border and grabbed a taxi to meet Bill at the restaurant which is in the Rio district of the city.  I’ve met chef-owner Javier Placencia before in LA when we worked together at charity events.  This lovely, talented native of Tijuana is using his culinary skills to encourage people to give the town another look.  The restaurant is modern and sleek.  The food is exceptional, carefully wrought, and surprisingly light.  Often tasting menus make you want to dig a hole and crawl in after you finish, but we were ready to grab our first taco after about an hour of cruising the streets.  Chef Placencia’s food is the Baja equivalent of market driven, organic, local, all expressed through a mediterranean prism with bright, sharp Mexican accents.  The wines are nearly all from the Valle de Guadaloupe.  The beers are local and artisanal.  The check?  A third of what a comparable restaurant would cost on the other side of the border.

After a full day of work, a rush hour drive down to Mexico and a leisurely dinner we could have gone straight to bed.  But we were in TJ.  We had to have a taco.  Bill took us to Tacos Franc, a sprawling, brightly lit late night spot packed with hungry diners at 11:30pm.  I had the Carne Asada, imbued with wood smoke and easily the best I’ve ever had. Tacos Franc is famous for their Adobada which is cooked on a Trompo like pastor.  As I licked the last bit of sauce off my fingers I was ready for my bed and dreams of next days taco adventure.  For a detailed look at many of the taco places we visited, check out Bill’s article. I have a list at the end of this post.

We started the day grazing at the Mercado Hidalgo.  I had fresh requeson (ricotta) with a coyota, a cookie that is the closest thing to thin layers of pie dough encasing a sweet filling. I choose piloncillo the raw dark sugar.  Then we gave our stomachs a “base” with tacos Guisados from Tacos Aaron.

Then we switched into high gear.  We headed for Ensenada along the coast road.  The day was sunny, not too hot and the Pacific was gorgeous.  We were on vacation so it didn’t register that we were driving an hour to eat at a street cart.  A street cart that was to be the best raw fish eating experience I’ve ever had.  La Guerrerense, Sabina greeted us like we were relatives she hadn’t seen in way too long.  Then the courses started, all served atop a thin crunchy tostada.  First there was bacalao, cooked chilled and mixed with raw uni.  I could have eaten the mixture with a spoon, but that was just the base.  I asked for it to be topped with Pismo clam and scallop.  Avocado slices and a spurt of hot sauce finished it off.  Well, not really because you’re encouraged to gild the lily with one of the 6-10 sauces she offers.  I quickly became addicted to the ground puya chile in oil and the “jardin” a strange genius mixture of roasted peanuts, pecans, almonds, chiles and oil.  That tostada might be the best dish I’ve ever eaten.  But it was followed with more.  There were slices of cooked sea snail that ate like ocean portabellas and chocolate clams with their thin ribbon of red and more of those scallops.  Did you know that the Mexican scallop is totally different?  When raw it’s solid, like meat not soft and flabby.  Cooked octopus then more of the bacalao-uni.  We ate until we were stuffed.  Then we walked and contemplated the genius we had just experienced.  Personally I was ready to just drive back home after that meal.  How could anything measure up after pure heaven?

Astoundingly the following tacos did.  It’s easy to give short shrift to the taco.  It’s so simple.  We eat them from trucks over here.  We were eating them in stands, carts and open air restaurants there.  The big difference in Mexico is that these are chefs with a skill level rare to find in LA.   The deftness of hand, deep knowledge of ingredients and tradition, and sheer speed born of working with such high volume brings the simple taco to another level on the other side.

The list of tacos:

La Guerrerense – Everything humanly possible to consume that was on the cart from the sea (on a tostada w/avocado and insanely good salsas).  Bacalao, uni, pismo and chocolate clams, octopus, sea snail – then I fell into a coma of happiness and can’t remember details, only sensations.

Tacos Franc- Asada and Adobado
Tacos Aaron – I had the Chile Relleno Taco
La Mazatena – La Mazatena, of course!  A shrimp taco of Camaron Enchilado
Takesos y Papas – Quesataco filled with Nopales and Jalapeno and a Quesataco filled with grilled pineapple slice, topped with strawberry sauce and pecans with mango sauce