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24 hours in Tijuana


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I recently had a chance to spend 24 hours in Tijuana in the middle of a biz trip. My taste runs more to street stalls than white tablecloths. My American friends seem to think TJ is dangerous. Judging by the violent crime reported in the San Diego newspaper the day we crossed the border, I think TJ might be safer than where they live. This was my first visit to Mexico, and I don’t speak a word of Spanish, but was with a local friend who did for most of the time. Also joining me was the delectable Ms. A.

Most street stalls close whenever they run out of food, usually around 3 or 4pm. The way they all work is you call your order to the cook (holding up fingers and pointing seems to work), and pay the other guy when you leave. Many stalls and restaurants are closed Sunday. Just about anyone in TJ will know all the places listed below. Everywhere takes US$, the peso was 10.8 to the US$ during this visit.

Sunday 3pm: Tijuana Oyster Bar in La Cacho (www.tijuanaoysterbar.com for location info). Mains $2-5

This place isn’t really an oyster bar, it’s a popular seafood street food stall that evolved into a basic restaurant. Order a mess of the little tasty 99 cent fish tacos (ask for some of their homemade hot sauce on the side) while you decode the menu. They have scallops, shrimp, marlin and octopus, served a variety of ways, mostly raw. If you’re as brave as Ms. A, try a ‘Coctel’, a plastic cup full of raw scallops (or whatever you want) with raw chopped tomato, cilantro, red onion, lime, tomato juice and a shot of hot sauce. This is considered the ultimate hangover cure. Our friend had a raw scallop tostada, and I had a cameron pescadilla – small intensely tasty cooked shrimp with melted cheese folded in a tortilla, which I spiked with salsa, lime and shredded cabbage. Everything was absolutely fresh and tasted fantastic. Beats sushi any day.

Sunday 8:30pm: Carnes El Potrero Restaurant, Salinas Blvd.4700, Col. Aviacion, tel (011-52664) 686-3626, near the bull ring. (www.restauranteelpotrero.com Spanish only, but there is a map). Mains $10-20

OK, so it’s shaped like a giant sombrero. And it claims to be a steak house. And it was our 4th choice for dinner (not many options late on a Sunday). But it’s been around for years, it’s not a tourist place, the Mexican food is great, and if you don’t want to deal with street food, this is a very good choice. My local friend says that this is the kind of restaurant you take your girlfriend to (i.e., not your wife). We had some small chorizo tacos to start, along with a dish of sliced nopales (cactus paddles), fresh cheese and carne asada. Then tortilla soup, then chile Nogado (an excellent version of this classic dish, I’m told), chile relleno, and a cuitiacoche (corn fungus) dish. This proved to be approximately triple the food needed to feed the 3 of us. The bill came to about $40, but we could have eaten like kings for half that.

I skipped breakfast Monday, still recovering from the huge meal at Potrero, and I knew I would need my strength for the afternoon ahead. By noon we were at:

Tortas WashMobile, the little white van with the cluster of people on the sidewalk, parked on Jalisco just off Agua Caliente since 1963. Forget about phone numbers and addresses, everyone in TJ knows this place. It’s named after a now defunct car wash that used to be here. There is one thing to order: their torta, or grilled beef sandwich, which costs about $2.50.

You will be asked something in Spanish when the guy is preparing it, just say yes (he’s asking if you want guacamole. You do.) Step back from the counter, there are other people waiting. The guy will call you when it’s ready (if you’re a gringo like me, it’ll be something like ‘Hey, Blondie!’ even if you have brown hair). Then you’ll get the bottom half of the bun with the beef and guacamole. Add your own tomatoes, onions, hot salsa, lime and salt from the counter, and then pick up the top half of your bun which will have appeared somewhere in front of you. If you want something to drink, ask for an agua de arroz – rice water – which cools you nicely if you overdid the hot sauce.

Ohmigod it’s good. The best thing I’ve eaten standing up. Probably you’ll want to order another torta right now, so it will be ready when you finish the first one. But I couldn’t, because we had to hit…

Tacos Memo’s (yes, with the gringo spelling) – you’ll have to ask someone for the location, because it’s another white-van-parked-on-a-side-street-with-a-crowd-of-people and they didn’t have any cards and I had no idea where I was, other than it was a couple minutes drive from Washmobile. The word is this is absolutely the best taco stand in TJ at the moment. I had a carne asada taco plus half a chorizo quesedilla plus some grilled chili peppers. All very good, cost $1-2 each. Then it was off to…

Tepoznieves Ice Cream, Blvd Sanchez Taboada No 10737 (in the shopping mall, the shop on the extreme right as you enter the parking lot) tel 664 634 6532, for some homemade ice cream. They have more flavours than you can count (not really – there were 119 flavours when we were there, I counted). Cactus sorbet, anyone? Cucumber and chili? Tequila and lime? Buy a token from the cashier, and hand it to the person behind the counter. Even with the smallest size cup you still get 2 choices. Before we head to the States, just enough time to go to…

Tacos El Gordo, the most famous taco stand in TJ, on Blvd Sanchez Taboada. El Gordo is open late, and is handily located one block from the produce market. But I couldn’t do it – I was just too full. Plus my friends said that actually the place across the street from El Gordo is now better, so that would mean at least 2 tacos for comparison purposes. I can’t eat like I used to ("Good thing", says Ms. A, staring pointedly at my belly). So we ducked into the produce market to pick up dried chilies and Mexican oregano and anchiote and a bunch of other things we can’t get back home in Hong Kong, and regretfully headed back across the border. We’ll be back.

Easiest way to get to TJ: local tram (Blue Line) from San Diego goes right to the border crossing at San Yisidro.

More info: check out www.hungryhiker-tj.com, I wish I had seen that site before my visit.


Hong Kong Dave

Hong Kong Dave

O que nao mata engorda.

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Excellent Report. I have been to many of the place on your list as I lived in Tecate, BC, MX for about 2 years.

Cocketeles Rock. I love that stuff.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Damn, I wish I would have gotten some tacos from El Gordo after I was at the market when I was down there last month. Stayed safe with my family and only did Sanborn's. I'll have to do some exploring if I'm able to take my little brothers down to southern California and TJ again this spring.

I did get some street churros (twice from two different spots) while I was there, though. I've posted this elsewhere, but check out this guy and his setup:


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