Be it a liter of gut-wrenching booze-cophony from a TJ punk cave or a martini glass of tamarind/mezcal slush, borderland cocktails unite us, con gusto.
4110 Home Avenue, Oak Park
Chiquita’s Mexican Food
This Fairmount Park villa is the epitome of San Diego Mexican sit-downs. The prices are mostly reasonable (one may take issue with the unspoken dollar charge on a basket of chips), the ambiance is welcoming, and the bartenders are magicians. The fare is a dollop of crema above your average family-style south-of-the-border joint, but the proof is in the slurp sauce here. Tamarindo slushies go for $6.50 all day and are best served with mezcal (Alipús is the house juice) in place of the tequila. Hangover warriors be warned! Chiquita’s is closed on Sundays.
1322 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
Mr. D’s Cocktail Lounge
Mr. D’s has it all for cheap (ask about the coffee tequila special), but the standout beverage at this deep Chula dive is the Border Jumper ($7.50 or $5.25 during happy hour). A frontera-land retort to the Irish Car Bomb, the Jumper launches a shot glass of Hornitos into a pint of Flashpoint (generic energy drink) and garnishes it with a splash of cranberry juice. Slam it like you mean it, because the second sip is guaranteed to be ruder than the first. Chase it with a two-dollar Tecate on Tuesdays or get loose to live banda tunes on Fridays.
9143 Campo Road, Spring Valley
A locals’ watering hole by day and a remarkably well-booked venue by night, The Bancroft has proven that no distance is too great for true music lovers.
The Spring Valley tavern offers over 40 selections of beer in addition to a fierce Bloody Mary and their flagship beverage, the San Diego Sunrise. It’s a foofy adaptation of the Mexican counterpart, but it’s more than refreshing on a classic East County summer afternoon. Citron, Malibu, pineapple juice, Sprite, grenadine, a cherry, and a lemon. Five bones. A tropical gentleman’s delight.
721 Revolución, Zona Centro, Baja
Take a trip back in time at Tijuana’s historic Bar Nelson, where the Especial has been the house beverage for more decades than you can count on one hand. Simple, elegant, uplifting, the Especial ($2) combines an ounce and a half of white rum with fresh-squeezed lime, three fingers of 7-Up, a dash of Coke, and a rim of salt around the highball glass. Summer temperatures may call for the island-style slurpy known as La Rana (the frog): 1.5 ounces of white rum blended with ice, six ounces of pineapple juice, one ounce of sloe gin, and a hearty splash of grenadine.
Avenida Revolucion 3ra and 4ta, Centro Tijuana, (664) 638-4936
A true transborder endeavor, La Justina’s kitchen is headed by San Diego’s own chef Chad White (Común, Plancha Baja Med) while the bar combines the prowess of La Jolla–based consultants Snake Oil Cocktail Company and house intoxicologist Fernando Villalobos, formerly of Tijuana’s esteemed Bar 20 above Misión 19. The team is constantly coming up with new creations, but a consistent pleaser since the gastropub opened at the beginning of the year is La Clandestina — chili-infused Alipús, orange juice, and St. Germain garnished with a chile de arbol, which is coated in powdered maguey worm.
Calle Sexta and Madero, Centro Tijuana, (664) 685-0555
Tucked behind the bustling La Corriente Cevichería Nais lies a wonderland of taxidermied boar heads, candelabras, and a whole mounted cougar on pinstripe walls. The shadowy cave of kitsch is furnished with Edwardian wingback chairs and claw-foot tables, and the stereo is partial to Señor Coconut’s cumbia covers of Kraftwerk. Named for the mezcal that they specialize in, El Tinieblo serves smoky shots of liquor straight up (sip it, gringo) or blended with ice and flavors as mezcalitas. The Pulp Friction (chamoy & lime) and Tamarrica (tamarindo, controy, lime) go especially well with the inexpensive selection of sea treats.
10001 Paseo de los Heroes, Plaza Fiesta, Zona Rio, Baja
El Tigre Bar
10001 Paseo de los Heroes, Plaza Fiesta Tijuana (no phone)
In cool defiance of the often spendy and occasionally pompous craft-cocktail thing, this punk-rock tavern in the booming booze village of Plaza Fiesta takes a no-wave approach to adult beverages. They’ve got a few generic bottles of the usual suspects behind the bar, which they combine with all the abandon of a teenager raiding their best friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet. Several fundamentally opposed elixirs and a splash of soda come in liter cups for about four bucks. For all their flagrant irreverence toward mixology, however, the place stocks a sharp selection of regional microbrews on tap.
La Caza Club
2612 Miguel Alemán Valdez, Colonia Cacho Tijuana, (664) 686-3361
This clandestine eatery highlights the regional, organic bounty of Valle de Guadalupe wines and countryside produce in a cozy, deconstructed library ambiance. Famed for their octopus and oysters, La Caza Club is best experienced on a Jazz Jam Thursday with the fusion tunes of Vintage Dust. Their cocktail menu is updated regularly to take advantage of seasonal ingredients, but among the most titillating is the Homenaje — a Prohibition-era throwback of bourbon, habano tobacco leaf, orange, kumquat, honey, and basil.
10001 Paseo de los Heroes, Plaza Fiesta, Zona Rio, Baja
Imperial House Continental Restaurant
They’re the go-to Bankers Hill bar for New Year’s and St. Paddy’s Day, but the secret pleaser at this old-school lounge is a nod south to Mexico. Micheladas come in any number of formats. In Tijuana, they’re just a salt-rimmed glass with a fresh-squeezed lime and occasionally ice to pour your beer over. A michelada cubana (or vaso cubano) adds Worcestershire, Maggi (soy sauce), and a splash of hot sauce to the mix. The Imperial House takes the michelada to its proper zenith with the addition of Clamato and a Tajin chili rim. Salud!
La Condenada Mezcaleria
10001 Paseo de los Heroes, Plaza Fiesta Tijuana, (664) 805-8916
The newest addition to the big kid Disneyland known as Plaza Fiesta (or Plaza del Zapato), La Condenada carries over 30 varieties of mezcal from Oaxaca, Michoacán, and the other six Mexican states where the smoky liquor is produced. Snack on chapulines (toasted crickets) between straight shots (take a bite of orange slices with maguey worm salt to cleanse the palate) or concoctions such as cucumber mezcalitas and the mezcalini — a Tijuana twist on the martini. Micheladas come in tamarindo, guava, and ten other flavors. The chic nightclub lends an air of luxury without breaking the bank.