Second only to the area downtown south of Broadway, my favorite place in the whole San Diego area is Tijuana. Go ahead and laugh. I've got my reasons. First of all, I think a walk through Tijuana is a good spiritual experience for any American. Especially a walk across the bridge over Cartolandia, the riverbed shantytown near the U.S. border. I think it's good to shake Gringo consciousness into a litlte compassion, and Carttolandia can't help but do that.
Secondly, there's the color of the town. A town that hasn't anesthetized its streets, hid its handicapped and beggars, Taco-Belled and Jack-In-The Boxed its food vendors. Somehow I revel in what most people shiver about in Tee-Jay — "Oh, but it's so dirty!" To me the dirt is the dirt of realism, the pain and tragedy of humanity, not hidden behind the smiles of Wrigley's spearmint gum. And I think an experience of that color, or "dirt" is important for human perspective.
But now, now in the inflation of the early 1970s, there's a third, less altruistic reason for San Diegans to think about Tijuana. And that's the grocery shopping.
Although the produce there isn't consistently as good as produce in San Diego markets, and one can't bring produce across the border (apples, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes and avocados with seed are prohibited by U.S. authorities), and although some of the meat tastes different from American meat (none of it seems to have the heavily marbled fat that American meat has), you can save money in the Tijuana markets.
You can reach the biggest open market by walking or driving down the main tourist drag Avenida Revolucion, until you come to 6th or 7th Street. make a left, and two blocks further you hit it — Mercado Hidalgo. much of the market is wholesale. Even in the late morning you may see trucks full of watermelons being unloaded in assembly-line fashion. Sometimes you can't buy anything except in the big lots. One vendor wouldn't sell us strawberries in little baskets — they had to be purchased in the six-kilo box. But the prisce was very nice — $2.50 (21 cents per pound!). Some of the other staggering produce bargains:
- Bananas: 15 cents per pound
- Lemons: 25 cents per pound
- Cucumbers: 10 cents per pound
- Papayas: 15 cents per pound
- Garlic: 10 cents per pound
- Pineapple (extra large): 60 cents each
- Coconuts: 30 cents each
- Romaine lettuce: 20 cents per head
Across the street from Mercado Hidalgo on Avenida Negrete tends a small butcher shop. The ground round (lomo molido) goes here for 80 cents a pound, the round steak (lomo) for $1.40 per pound pork chops (chuletas de puerco) for 90 cents per pound, and filet mignon (filet mignon) for $1.75 per pound! (Both the meat and produce prices do fluctuate somewhat from day to day, and the quality can vary tremendously from vendor to vendor, so shop with a careful eye.)
Another open market, designed more for the individual customer, is El Popo. El Popo is on the other side of Avenida Revolucion. Going north from the direction of Mercado Hidalgo make a left from Revolucion to 3rd Street and walk three blocks to C Street. The produce at El Popo seems to be a lot better. It's a little more crowded but one gets used to the push-shove routine pretty quickly. Most of El Popo is covered: inside you can buy fish and meat. The fish bargains are just about as astonishing as the meat bargain — medium-sized shrimp for $1.60 a pound, fresh fillet for $1.30 a pound, abalone for $1.80 a pound, and Pacific Ocean lobster for $2.70 a pound.
Once can find similar bargains at some of the completely undisclosed supermarkets in Tijuana. Several of the restaurant owners say they buy their food at Supermercado Limon on Avenida Constitucion near 6th Street. The butcher at Limon has a "take a number, wait 'til you're called" system and chickens are 39 cents a pound, but the produce shelves are not as carefully tended as in the open markets and things are a little too picked over. Another favorite supermarket is Cali-Max, near the corner of 5th and Constitucion.
Cali-max, a tiny place, has some produce priced higher than Limon or the open markets, but, as the CALPIRG surverys show, every market has something that is cheaper than others. Cali-max sells watermelon for 9 cents a pound and — the day we were there — had a special on ground round, 60 cents a pound.
One sour note to the whole matter of shopping in Tijuana. People at the San Diego County Health Department will tell you "do so at your own risk" and warn you about the lack of sanitation south of the border. So, even if you aren't a germ paranoid, and you are interested in the Tee-Jay shopping bargains, cook that meat well and wash that fruit.