How did Tijuana become Mexico’s go-to foodie city?
Drug wars weren’t the only thing to take their toll on the border town of Tijuana, but next-generation entrepreneurs who left are now returning to create Mexico’s new foodie mecca.
“Seriously, where are the fish tacos?”
It’s 4pm on a Friday afternoon at the end of July, and we’re wrapping up on our tour of social businesses in Tijuana, Mexico. It’s the second annual ‘Startup Crawl’, which brings together 65 entrepreneurs, investors and other interested parties, mostly from Southern California, to the largest border city on the US-Mexico border.
The tour was meant to highlight entrepreneurship and social innovation in Tijuana, which, as everyone had been telling me during my two weeks in Baja California, is “taking off.” And today, I wanted to see it for myself.
We had visited tech start-ups, art spaces, and a call center that employs a handful of deportees. But we also visited several food and drink start-ups in a city increasingly known for its food scene. Given that tacos are (for better or worse) Mexico’s most famous culinary export to its northern neighbor—and the fish-filled variety originate in Baja—the question about fish tacos felt like a legitimate one.
“In the absence of tourists, we made this for Tijuanenses.”
Antonio Gamboa, Gastro Park
The new Tijuana, he said, was a generational thing: Talented millennial Tijuanenses, many of whom were returning to the city after time away, were making the city into one that they wanted to live in.
In between the (welcome) interruptions, Gamboa told me that the drug violence of 2007-2008 had, indirectly at least, actually helped fuel the growth of Tijuana’s food scene. In the absence of tourists, he says, “We made this”—he nodded towards his growing food empire—“for Tijuanenses.”
Lack of tourists had already been a problem. September 11th had literally shut down the border, and in the years that followed, just as tourist numbers began creeping back up, the global financial crisis and the drug violence hit Tijuana—sending those numbers plummeting again.
But during that period of crisis, a new regional cuisine developed.
A brief history of food (and drink) in Tijuana
They found it here, in the new establishments catering to their quest for booze and vice, especially on Avenida Revolución in the historic downtown area. And even after Prohibition was lifted, Tijuana’s status as a southern Las Vegas continued.
‘Baja Med’ put Tijuana onto culinary maps, and gave pride and identity to a city that had lacked both.
Today, the restaurant and the namesake salad are still open and available, in the same spot on Revolución. Now the same street is also home to Tijuana’s new breed of enterprises, such as Cine Tonalá Tijuana, a restaurant, cocktail bar, and art-house theater, a go-to hangout for the city’s culture kids.
While this was a step forward for the development of Tijuana’s food scene, if that had been now, it could have been Mexican food and Mexican craft beers. Perhaps he’d have enjoyed a beverage at popular craft brewery Insurgente Tap Room. Or, for a less hipster option, at Dandy Del Sur, a typical Mexican cantina patronized by everybody from Manu Chao to Gael Garcia Bernal (when they’re in town) to the most casually dressed punter—as long as they can survive without craft brews.
Baja Med: Creating identity through food
Miguel Ángel Guerrero was one of the founders of this new movement, which he called “Baja Med” —in fact, he trademarked the term in 2013. Drawing on the unique characteristics of Tijuana and Baja California, Baja Med is a fusion of Mexican, Mediterranean, and Asian. It put Tijuana on culinary maps, and gave pride and identity to a city that had lacked both.
His own restaurant, La Querencia which opened in 2001, is characteristic of Baja Med cooking: Unique flavors and fresh local ingredients, with everything sourced from within Baja California. Try the carpaccios (options include scallop, beet, salmon, and squash) and the octopus, especially the Pulpo Querencia, a simple, delicious octopus tostada.
And if you really just want a fish taco, La Corriente Cevicheria Naishas possibly the best fish in Tijuana. This kitschy restaurant just off of the main drag of Avenida Revolución is famous for its red snapper tostada and ‘Taco Kalifornia,’ a shrimp taco with hot Anaheim chilli peppers.
Back at Telefonica Gastro Park, a more casual inheritor of the Baja Med tradition, and the pride it brings, Antonio Gamboa summed up his city’s cuisine: “I’m a native of Tijuana, and I admit that it’s not the prettiest place—but now, people come here to eat.”