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Tastebud invasion by a Tijuana torta

Chomp of a lifetime

Baja BBQ Pit's torta
  • Baja BBQ Pit's torta

Baja BBQ Pit: A sidewalk cafe for TJ

Baja BBQ Pit: A sidewalk cafe for TJ

Who says TJ isn’t changing for the better? Here I am, on the Golden Mile of Revolución, sitting in the most sophisticated café I’ve seen on this street, Praga. Named after Prague, the Czech capital, judging from the wall-size photos inside.

Entrance to Baja BBQ Pit

Entrance to Baja BBQ Pit

’Course that’s inside. But the real glory of this place is its sidewalk terrace, right on Rev. It’s like a French café, where everybody sits looking out at the passing parade. And across the avenue to the mighty Hotel Caesar.

No coincidence, turns out. Like the Caesar restaurant (where the salad was created, in case you’ve spent your entire life in a cave in Alaska), this place is owned and run by one of the Plascencia family. They deserve a lot of credit for bringing the street back to life.

Actually, though, I’m just sipping an espresso ($1.88), watching the world go by, while I decide where to get me a torta. Truth: tortas are starting to take over burgers as my go-to belly-fillers. Especially down here. Been thinking of that place Tortas WashMobile on Agua Caliente and Jalisco. They’re famous for their carne asada torta, the only thing they make. They’ve been at it for 50 years.

The espresso

The espresso

So I gulp the espresso, wash it down with water, and start humping my way up Revolución, past the Jai Alai palace, Sanborns department store, Tortas La Vuelta (also makers of great tortas, and also inside a car wash, right where Rev. curves), and finally head toward Agua Caliente boulevard.

But now, dang! I’m starting to realize this probably ain’t gonna work. Because it’s getting near four in the afternoon, and I remember those Tortas WashMobile guys are a morning operation. Close up after lunch.

View of Baja BBQ Pit from across Madero Avenue

View of Baja BBQ Pit from across Madero Avenue

And then, guess what? Where Madero Avenue crosses Calle Plutarco Elias Calles (11th), my nostrils are starting to twitch.

Oh, boy. Can’t miss it. BBQ.

And there on the corner, under a crazy maze of overhead wires and lights, a li’l ol’ cottage painted in black and white checkers sits beside a tow-truck business, under a big sign.

“BBQ Ribs & Wings.”

“Yes, we do tortas,” the gal, Denise tells me when I come in and ask if they do anything besides ribs and wings. “Look.” She points to a menu.

This menu has really good deals. Food starts at 40 pesos, about $2, for egg-and-chorizo ciabatta, goes up to 60 (about $3) for a “totorta” of beef skirt steak (arrachera), chicken breast, or carne asada. Or the same for a “Baja,” marinated pork torta with lettuce, tomato, onions, and avo.

That big shiny chunk is the pork

That big shiny chunk is the pork

Their main thing — “Nuestra specialidad!” — is the BBQ ribs. Pork ribs cost 130 pesos (say, $7), and that’s with fries. Beef is about 140 ($7.50) for a half rack, 250 (about $14) for a full rack. They do burgers, too. The 50-50 burger has bacon, Angus beef, cheese, all the fixin’s, plus fries for 100 pesos (about $5.50). They also have exotic meat burgers, including ostrich, wild boar, venison, buffalo. Cost: $6.50, or for crocodile, $9.

The basic torta is the Texas BBQ. You get beef, pork, or chicken for about $4. Or a “Champions” (“Campeones”) torta with 250 grams (8-plus ounces) of BBQ pork for 80 pesos ($4.50).

That last one sounds a deal. I ask for it and a glass of water, and head off to sit in the little dining area. Cream walls, half dozen tables, red-and-white checked plastic tablecloths, folding chairs, a TV. That’s kind of it.

“We’ve been here four years,” Denise says.

Five minutes later she arrives with my steaming torta. All wrapped in its own papoose. The torta buns are dusted and squarish.

And then, on this dusty corner of car-repair shops, tire shops, one-room insurance offices, I take the chomp of a lifetime. Okay, maybe over the top here, but its meaty, sweetish, oniony, avoey, tomatoey, slightly vinegary, porky flavors invade my tastebuds. The light crispness of the bun, the zing of the sweet BBQ sauce, squelch of tomatoes, squish of avocado and onions, and that one heckuva chunk of pork — half inch thick, way more than half a pound, I swear — just do it for me. Okay, had no breakfast and walked a mile from the border to here, so hunger’s hyped up, but dang, it’s delish. And filling? I’m going to have to leave with half in a box.

Scene change: to the pedestrian line waiting to cross back into the U.S. Ten at night. Three hours we’ve been here, inching forward. I’m still nibbling on the remains of my BBQ pork torta. But now I need something sweet. That’s when this candy lady comes by through the lines. “Ojo de venado, pata de gallo, chaca-chaca!”

Juanita Palafox

Juanita Palafox

Wow. “Stag’s eye, rooster’s foot…” Sounds like a recipe from Macbeth. Her name’s Juanita Palafox. She stops beside me. “Something for you?” I end up buying some peanutty marzipan mix from her, when she suddenly gives me this shiny candy that looks like an eye.

“Ojo de venado,” she says.

“Ojo de…?”

“Eye of the stag,” she says. “Protects you from the evil eye.”

And then she’s gone.

Wow. I open it up. It’s sweet, but the eye’s “pupil” is salty. Very Mexican combo, I’m thinking.

Man, need to talk more to her. Maybe she’s a curandera. I’m interested in that stuff.

Maybe next time. Because, hey, still need to check out Tortas WashMobile.

’Course, they’ll have to be good to beat that chunk of pork I’ve just taken down at the Pit tonight. So-o good.

Almost worth waiting these three hours for.

Baja BBQ Pit, Calle Madero

  • Hours: 10 a.m.–10 p.m. daily
  • Prices: Egg and chorizo ciabatta, 40 pesos (about $2. All prices approximate due to exchange-rate fluctuations); “totorta” of beef skirt steak, chicken breast, or carne asada, $3; “Baja,” marinated pork torta, $3; BBQ pork ribs, fries, $7; beef ribs, $7.50 for half rack, $14 full rack; 50-50 burger (bacon, Angus beef, cheese, fries), $5.50; ostrich, wild boar, venison, buffalo burgers, $6.50; crocodile burger, $9; Texas BBQ torta (beef, pork, or chicken in a torta), $4; Campeones torta, 8 ounces rib eye BBQ pork torta, $4.50
  • Taxi from border: $6

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