Bill Esparza is lost on a hill near the border fence separating Mexico from the U.S., driving around potholes and past transvestite hookers showing far too much leg for a cold morning. The Tijuana breakfast joint he’s hunting for is a food truck called Tacos Aaron, stationed outside a grocery store. “Urban high cuisine” is painted above the windshield and seating consists of a yellow curb.
Esparza looks thrilled. A Los Angeles blogger and professional saxophonist who has played with Bryan Adams and Slash, he has become Tijuana’s unofficial food ambassador. He immediately points out that the salsas here are fresh, and that the taqueros are lightning-fast. He orders a chicken in adobo sauce for himself and a quesabirria (steak and cheese) for me.
Seconds later, hot taco in hand, I understand why Esparza has made the two-hour drive from L.A. to Tijuana more than two dozen times in the past two years. The meat is tender, stewed with dried chiles, cumin, bay leaf, clove and oregano. The fresh tortilla, made locally to Tacos Aaron’s specifications, stretches just enough to handle the cilantro-topped load. “It’s all for the locals,” Esparza says, while chewing and trying not to spill on his black cowboy boots. “And for people in the know.”
The crowd confirms it: Locals in workaday jeans rub shoulders with a group of twentysomething Americans who are on their own Tijuana taco run. Two of the English-speaking crew are food bloggers from San Diego and, without an introduction, they recognize Esparza as the man behind the site Street Gourmet L.A. Giddily, they ask for a photo, and Esparza obliges.
Esparza only started going down to Baja recently. He grew up in Stockton, Calif., as a self-described pocho (a Mexican-American who is more American than Mexican). After his father died in 2002, he says he started reconnecting with his roots, mainly through food.
His intense boosterism has helped this border town become a destination for adventurous Los Angeles foodies, who love that Tijuana is just dangerous and confusing enough to make every great find feel like a fantastic reward. It’s a city usually defined by sleaze and transients — tourists, migrants, criminals — all crammed into a mess of concrete where sidewalks are unusual, and the iconic “park” is a greyhound racetrack owned by a former mayor fond of collecting rare exotic pets, such as white tigers. “It’s a provocative city,” Esparza says.
Recently, though, the city has been changing. Fear and endless lines at the border have scared away the drunk college kids and, as if a fog has cleared, other elements of the city are now suddenly visible — especially the food. Thanks to its farm-friendly Mediterranean climate and proximity to the Pacific, Tijuana has access to raw ingredients that are as good as those anywhere on America’s West Coast. And what it lacks in culinary tradition (Tijuana will never be Oaxaca), it makes up for with the mingling of flavors from Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Italian immigrants. And then there’s the attitude: Not quite Mexico, not quite America, Tijuana’s anything-goes vibe is evident everywhere, from the red-light district to the restaurants.
Food not found in L.A.
“It’s just two hours away from L.A., but it’s really worlds away as far as its approach to food,” says John Sedlar, chef and owner of L.A.’s Rivera and Playa restaurants. His trips to Tijuana over the past two years have influenced both the name of Playa and several of its best dishes. The monstrous Pismo clams at Mariscos Ruben, a seafood-centric food truck with 23 varieties of salsa, inspired Sedlar to create a tamale of Pismo clams that he steams and serves inside the shell. “It’s not just the carts, it’s also fine dining,” he says. “The city just goes on and on.”
Sedlar has been to Tijuana twice with Esparza, who has also brought chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of L.A.’s Animal and Son of a Gun. “The cool thing,” Shook says, “was that a lot of the stuff we ate, we can’t get here in L.A. — the large clams and all the ceviches they make with local marlin. It was really outstanding.”
My own Esparza tour is no less surprising. It includes a dozen locations in less than 48 hours, encompassing everything from $3 steak-and-avocado sandwiches on homemade ciabatta to a lamb-and-soft-goat-cheese pizza served by a hunter-chef in a camouflage chef jacket.
We start on the high end, amid the candlelight and wine racks of chef Javier Plascencia’s Misión 19. Plascencia is food royalty in Tijuana; his parents opened a pizzeria here in 1969 and now have a restaurant empire that includes Caesar’s, the Prohibition-era hot spot where the eponymous salad was invented, and a Mexican place in the San Diego suburbs.
Misión 19 is new, open for only a year, and vastly different than Plascencia’s family’s other restaurants. Everything on the menu comes from within a three-hour drive, and even European dishes like risotto always seem to include flavors unique to Mexico. It’s also the only place in Tijuana using modernist cooking techniques, from sous vide cooking to liquid spherification.
Plascencia, who went to high school and culinary school in San Diego, says Misión 19 wouldn’t have succeeded a decade ago, mainly because diners lacked a sense of adventure, and also because local farmers and fishermen used to send their best products north. Over the past few years, however, that’s changed, as the customers and suppliers have become more sophisticated. “At some point, they just got it,” Plascencia says.
My meal at Misión 19 included grilled octopus with a touch of pistachio and garlic, risotto dusted with the delicious corn fungus huitlacoche, plus a briny oyster bathed in smooth, tangy green salsa. The delicate purple flower decorating the oyster made me want to take tiny bites instead of slurping it down.
Look for the streetlights
As a sign of Plascencia’s clout, he recently convinced Tijuana’s mayor to create a zona gastronómica — essentially adding streetlights and sidewalks, a rarity here — which includes a dozen or so restaurants, including Misión 19 and another adventurous spot, La Querencia.
La Querencia is run by Miguel Angel Guerrero, a fourth-generation Baja Mexican who hunts for quail, duck and deer and decorates his restaurants with the spoils of his hunting trips. (He’s the one wearing camo.) When we arrived, Guerrero had recently shot a deer, and he served us a luscious venison tartare drenched with olive oil, chile and the Mexican specialty escamoles — ant eggs — which are little white orbs with a mild, nutty taste.
When Esparza and his chef friends start to talk, the conversation inevitably drifts away from the high-end to what’s happening on the street. “Street-food culture is just a lot more honest,” Esparza says. After dinner at Misión 19, Plascencia and Esparza trade details about their latest taco find in an obscure neighborhood. Here, innovation starts at the bottom and trickles up — not the other way around.
To demonstrate exactly what he means, Esparza takes me to one of his favorite new spots: Takesos y Papas, a taco stall inside the food court of a local mall. The chef here, Marcos Flores Luna, is from Puebla and specializes in extra-silky salsas that are emulsified with egg whites and tacos that mix savory and sweet flavors. While we watch, Flores expertly griddles cheese until it’s crisp, then stuffs it with shrimp, wraps it all in a tortilla and covers the dish with a tart-sweet, raspberry-strawberry-mango salsa. The salmon, shrimp and jalapeño taco is plated with unusual elegance, the sliced avocado fanned out on top and the salsa applied with a light hand. Esparza declares that L.A. taco stands “can’t even come close to this.”
Plascencia agrees. Although he serves food that’s highly technical and complex at his restaurant, his dream is that one day, Americans and Mexicans will line up for hours at places like Takesos y Papas, just like people now wait for the best hot dog in Chicago or the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia. “If they have a good experience, they’re going to spread the word,” Plascencia says, sounding like a civic booster. “I love adventurous people like that.”
More from Food & Wine