Tijuana and nearby cities to the south have become famous in the past few years for their locally sourced Baja Med cuisine. The fusion fare of traditional Mexican dishes with Asian and Mediterranean influences highlights Ensenada’s bounty of fresh seafood and Real de Castillo’s fine cheeses, which are served up with regional gourmet greens and then paired with Valle de Guadalupe’s award-winning wines and Baja’s craft beers.
Any number of blogs can guide you to the concept eateries pioneered by chefs such as Javier Plascencia and Miguel Angel Guerrero, so instead, I turned to locals for advice. After many a city-wide jaunt and a fair amount of lurking on the over 11,660-member strong Facebook group Tijuana Makes Me Hungry, I arrived at ten spots ranging from a hole-in-the-wall burger joint to a European-style basement bistro to a semi-secret sushi loft. If that doesn’t get your belly grumbling, consider: the recent addition of a pedestrian Ready Lane has reduced two- or three-hour border waits to an appetizing two or three minutes for passport cardholders, making evening jaunts to Baja feasible for the first time in over a decade. Buen provecho!
Molino Cocina a la Leña & Cava
Avenida Paseo Ensenada #121, local 24, Del Mar Plaza, Playas de Tijuana, 01-664-378-0808
The first impression that hits is the aroma of pine logs cooking flatbread in the oven. An appetizer of fresh bread soon arrives at the table garnished with olive oil, rosemary, and sea salt along with ramekins of creamy jalapeno sauce, piquant habanero, and balsamic/olive oil/herbs. Order a more-than-decent bottle of house wine ($13) or sample some of the Valley’s finest vintages for up to $72. Whet your appetite with, say, a plate of champiñónes rellenos ($5) — mushroom caps stuffed with blue cheese and garnished with diced bell peppers on a sweet Catalina and parsley sauce. Then move on to a main course of wood-fired pizza ($10) topped with Baja smoked oysters, savory huitlacoche, or traditional arrachera flank steak. The combination restaurant, gourmet deli, and bottle shop is Chef Ricardo Corona’s maiden endeavor, and it’s among the best introductions to Baja Med fare that you’ll find for the price.
Hunab Ku Tacos de Mariscos a las Brasas
Avenida Paseo Ensenada #2098, Playas de Tijuana, 01-664-609-9551
Opened last November as an extension of the celebrated Tacos Kokopelli, the place changed names in January and expanded on the menu available at Kokopelli’s street cart (Zona Centro) and Food Garden (Zona Rio) locations. The open-air restaurant oozes an easy-going, eco-hip vibe via abounding shrubbery (an entire tree plays centerpiece), Mason-jar chandeliers, and a hand-drawn sign reading: “Bikes, pets, and all humans welcome.” The fresh, inventive energy is reflected in Hunab Ku’s cuisine, which combines a regional taste for seafood tacos with a stonerly appetite for sauce and garnish. Take, for example, the Garcés ($2.70) — smoked salmon on a bed of sweet potato with red wine onions and goat cream cheese. Or the Malacostra — a güerito pepper stuffed with marlin, covered in fried cheese, and topped with chipotle sauce. Seriously. Throw in an artisanal brew from Tijuana’s Insurgentes or Mexicali’s Cucapá and you’ll never want to go home.
La Choza Maya
Avenida Paseo Ensenada #1584, Playas de Tijuana, no phone number listed
Rosarito-style perrones (a la Tacos el Yaqui and El Gerente) take center stage at this beach town taco hut. Cuts of sinewy arrachera (abdominal beef steak) are grilled to medium-rare over live oak for about seven minutes and then stewed until tender. The classic Taco Perron ($2.70) sees the now-succulent bovine served on a flour tortilla with guacamole, onion, cilantro, whole beans, melted Monterrey cheese, and a splash of salsa. That’s it. More on the health-conscious tip, the Taco Integral ($2.70) gives nods to Argentinian gastronomy by presenting arrachera in a bed of organic spring mix and pan-fried panela cheese garnished with fresh chimichurri on a wheat tortilla. But the secret star of La Choza Maya is the Taco Mayo ($3.40) — infinitely juicy cubes of chicken breast and marinated Portobellos sprinkled in fine herbs, doused with habanero sauce, and smothered in grated cheese. You’ve never tasted cluck like this.
Bodega Sushi Loft
Avenida Guanajuato #2730, Colonia Cacho, Tijuana, 01-664-200-2332
Located on the ritzy but hip avenues of “La Cacho,” Bodega isn’t exactly hidden, but you have to look for it. Find their logo on a pea-green warehouse, then follow the stairs around the side. The concept is classy and considered, with an emphasis on presentation and unique flavor profiles, but the atmosphere is conversational. Rolls start at around $10, and you should expect to pay about $30 per person with drinks. The Hamachi ($14) seduces the senses with a plume of savory-scented oils poured boiling hot right at your table. The Atún Jardinera ($12.50) highlights the whole tuna delivered regularly from Ensenada. Wrapped in prosciutto and then seared, the raw fish is infused with bacon-y savor (think pork belly of the sea). Dessert? How about tempura-ed Mexican Twinkies and Ding Dongs served with ice cream — an homage, owner Gabriel Duarte says, to the fried sweets of the Del Mar Fair.
Part II of Baja Makes Me Hungry