A few months teaching English in Colombia did little to prepare me for the elaborate linguistic pozole that stews in the streets of Tijuana. When I moved south of the fence three years ago, I was generally lost. In an attempt to appear casual, I wantonly abused slang that I had picked up from bars and the internet everywhere I went. In hindsight, more than one abuela behind the counter must have been convinced that someone had played a cruel trick on me, having me believe that ¿Qué pedo, güey? was a perfectly acceptable way of addressing an elderly woman at the Calimax. In recognition of the awkward learning curve facing most well-meaning gringos in TJ, here are a handful of spots where I picked up and then tempered my local vocabulary, one dish and drink at a time. Thanks for putting up with me. A toda madre, todos.
Tacos el Paisano
Segunda and Tercero, 5 Esquinas, Tijuana
My first spot in Tijuana was a short stay in the 5 Esquinas neighborhood, named for the tricky intersection of five streets near the graveyard overlooking Centro from the west. A block away sits this classic TJ taqueria, whose asada smoke has been mingling with the exhaust of roaring Playas-Centro buses for over 25 years. The menu is a straight-ahead offering of carne asada, chorizo, tripa, and a glistening spit of adobada, all served on fresh-pressed masa tortillas with cilantro, diced onion, and a slice of lime. This is where I first learned how to order a taco in TJ, and I haven’t looked back since. Ask for a quesadilla campechana de maíz to get a combination of meats with your corn tortilla and melted cheese.
Revolución between Tercera and Cuarta, Zona Centro, Tijuana
This downtown pizzeria reeled me in with dollar drafts and cheap slices. Their New York–style pie is above average and their location makes for a convenient way-point to grab a quick bite and beer between bars. For a while, a tequila promotion at the restaurant’s entrance kept me coming back for dollar shots, and I got on friendly terms with some of the waitstaff. One of the waiters even came over for a barbecue at my apartment, where he taught me how to steal Wi-Fi from my neighbors. Le Galleria (which also has Wi-Fi) is open late, and their 25-peso (about $1.25) slices are super chingónas fuel for a long night of bar-hopping.
Mamut Brewery Co.
Tercera and Revolución, Zona Centro, Tijuana
Over the years, I’ve watched Mamut evolve from a two-man operation run out of a tiny art gallery into a craft-beer mainstay with three popular locations across town. I used to flock almost daily to their first hole-in-the-wall in Pasaje Rodríguez, where I would run into compas strumming guitars, snapping photos, or sketching out art projects while drinking Mamut’s two-dollar drafts. Their balcony bar on Third paved the way for taprooms in TJ, and now includes an extensive mezcal bar, a huge concert space, and a fantastic menu of pizza and burgers fired in their custom wooly mammoth head oven. Feeling adventurous? Try a Oaxacan pizza topped with avocado and chapulines — fried crickets.
Pasaje Rodriguez (between Third and Fourth on Revolución), Baja
Voodoo Stu’s & Black Magic Mael’s Gumbo Shack & Juke Joint
I felt an immediate kinship with this cozy Southern kitchen shortly after they opened about a year and a half ago. Part of that was because Stuart, his novia Mael (a TJ native), and his brother Wesley had moved out from Georgia, a place were the Deal clan rolls deep. Heck, even the governor’s name is Nathan Deal, and he’s probably a distant cousin. So when they created a kitschy Deep South den of classic tunes, soulful conversation, and comfort-forward home-cooking, I was awash with ancestral nostalgia for a way of life I barely knew. That, plus they’re all sharp-witted and hospitable people who have become friends. You really can’t go wrong here, but Fried Chicken Fridays are the stuff of legend.