“This is an homage to Tijuana’s golden era, which was Prohibition time in the States,” says Nórtico owner and chef Ruffo Ibarra, who unveiled the West Coast–style speakeasy hidden within his restaurant Oryx Capital last October.
Portraits of Al Capone and President Hoover, among bootleggers and other figures, plaster the walls of Nórtico. A geometric wood-slat ceiling by young L.A./TJ innovators Design Opera and custom furniture by Tijuana upcyclers Built Around Me create an ambiance reminiscent of underground drinkeries in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, but Ibarra emphasizes, “It’s not about making a speakeasy because it’s hip right now. There’s a lot of history in Tijuana. It makes sense to do it here.”
Ibarra, a graduate from the first generation of Tijuana’s Culinary Art School, crafted both Nórtico and Oryx Capital to reflect the bounties of the Cali-Baja region.
“This doesn’t happen anywhere else in world, where two different cultures as part of two different countries share everything, even the same name,” the 32-year-old chef says. “We get the best produce, the best seafood, wine, beer, cocktails, everything. We get the best of both worlds, down to the weather.”
Nórtico’s bar manager Fernando Villalobos (La Justina) worked with San Diego consultants Snake Oil Cocktail Co. (who elected George’s at the Cove bar chef Stephen Kurpinsky) to mix a rotating menu of originals and classics for 160 pesos a pop. At about $8.70, the drinks are spendy for TJ, but a look around reveals a diverse demographic of cocktail enthusiasts. Businessmen talk in circles next to sharp-dressing young artists rubbing elbows with gay couples and culinary gringos and even a nosy bar columnist in shorts and a casual button-up. Everyone seems comfortable here.
Start with an Agua Caliente, named for the nearby casino that was originally built on a hot spring. The cocktail of joven mezcal, Mexican brandy, Pedro Ximenez sherry, and housemade chocolate bitters is smoked-to-order with smoldering hickory in a wine decanter. I could drink this one exclusively for just about ever. Ibarra calls the Zaragosa a “Mexican Old Fashioned,” which sounds about right for mezcal, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, gum syrup, extinct acid phosphate (a tangy and tingly fountain soda), and house bitters. On the more experimental tip, El Conquistador is a variation on milk punch made with agave spirits, and, like the aforementioned cocktails, is so strikingly on point, it should probably be outlawed.
10750 Boulevar Agua Caliente, Colonia Aviación, Tijuana
Price: 160-peso (about $8.70) craft cocktails
Food: Oryx Capital makes some of the best Cali-Baja cuisine I’ve tried, judging by the borrego tacos and molecularly foamed cherry tomato ceviche
Hours: weekdays and Saturday, 1 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Capacity: Nórtico, 35; Oryx Capital, sits 90
Reservations: call or text +52 664-611-0589