Being both Mexican and American did nothing to prepare me for the bizarre life at the border. Mastery of Spanish did little to help understand the complexities of Tijuana. In this city, cultures clash, streets criss-cross, there are no signs to guide you, and the few signs that do exist have horrible spelling mistakes that confuse as often as they help. It is nothing like my quaint home city of Querétaro (near México City). Chaotic in nature, Tijuana has the urban planning of a five-year-old playing Sim City. Luckily, there are places that have never failed me, and I’ve gone so many times in my few years here that they treat me like family. These places comforted me in the time of my discomfort here. They’re still favorites now that I’ve come to know and love Tijuana.
9770 Avenida Guillermo Prieto, La Cacho
My first apartment in Tijuana was directly behind a street that had five taco joints next to each other. The smoke of a lot of meat grilling would penetrate my kitchen window at all hours. All the taco joints are all basically the same, serve the same food (small tacos reminiscent of central Mexico), have a similar name (a variant of El Paisano), and have the same price and discount (dollar tacos, two-for-one on specific tacos on Mondays). All together they are known as Las Ahumaderas (the smokey spot). I made it my ritual to go every Monday night to the third taquería to take advantage of the discount.
Tacos El Rey
Calle Segunda corner with Cinco de Mayo Avenue, Zona Centro, Tijuana
I was lucky enough that my second apartment was near the best tacos I have ever eaten. No matter how many times I go there for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, I’ll never get tired of the king of tacos. This extremely modest hole in the wall has been slinging tacos and quesadillas for 44 years. Hand-made tortillas, slathered in butter, filled with your choice of asada, chorizo, pollo and tripa. “Mateo! ¿A donde? ¡Vas si es aquí!” Tio, the oldest taquero in the shop always entices me whenever I walk by.
10001 Calle Paseo de Los Heroes, Zona Rio, Tijuana
The only constant in Tijuana is change, and this couldn’t be more true than in Plaza Fiesta. Vacancy dwindles, there’s virtually a new place opening every week. The ever-changing mall is living a golden era of beer and pub-like food. It is very easy to explain why I am in love with this place. With only $20 (340 pesos on the current exchange) you can get four craft beers (60 pesos each) and get a big meal (pizza, ribs, hamburgers, hot dogs, tacos, and many other options hover around the 100 pesos mark). Quality is not always the best, some places can be disappointing, but many others offer outstanding surprises. With $20 you can get lost in the maze of beer and food.
La Cocina de Palermo
1360 Aquiles Serdán, Colonia Libertad
This place is the reason I live in Tijuana. My brother fell in love with a tijuanense who happened to be the daughter of Juan Carlos Arreguín, chef and owner of this Italian joint. La Cocina de Palermo was founded in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tijuana in 1987. My sister-in-law was only three years old. At the height of their popularity in the late ’90s, Juan Carlos opened two other pizzerias, projects that ended up being short-lived. Instead, Juan Carlos shifted his focus from Italian to develop skills in different cuisines. A family restaurant by nature, they serve traditional Mexican and American breakfasts; lunch and dinner remain mostly Italian with a few of the chef’s own creations. Sundays there’s a $10 buffet, and at family gatherings, we get treated to Juan Carlos’s very best.