Tijuana’s New Foodie Scene (and Yes, I Said Tijuana)

Baja Med cuisine at Tijuana's Mision 19

In Tijuana, Mexico, the largest city in the Baja state, there’s certainly a lingering fear of drug violence and a strange tendency to paint donkeys like zebras. But amongst a vibrant backdrop of street art and mariachi music there’s also a growing focus on creative, elegant and locavore-friendly cuisine.

Tijuana’s emerging foodie scene offers both a cultural connection and, glass by bottle, a gateway to Baja’s thriving Guadalupe Valley wine country. So have a seat and tuck in, con gusto.

Neither of us had been to Tijuana since the early 1990s, on separate road trips that introduced us to the border crossing, greasy taco stands, screeching whistles, body shots and barefoot little girls hawking chiclet gum.

This time around, in April 2011, we were being squired by the chamber of commerce who aimed to show us that the city was safe in the wake of drug violence, and tourist-worthy pursuits were on the rise. But sealed in a van, cruising past a sprawl of artfully painted concrete, construction rubble and soaring green hills, I was having a hell of a time putting Tijuana in a context.

And then we arrived at Misión 19, the successful effort of chef Javier Plascencia to put Tijuana’s best foot forward. Here we were treated to one of the most delicious and creative meals of our lives in a sleek, modern setting, and the city’s new direction started to come into focus.

In contrast to the urban jungle around it, the glassy, sculptural Via Corporativo is Baja’s first building to be LEED certified. Home to Misión 19 and a variety of other food purveyors, it serves as the cultural center of the city’s business district and the flagship of the new “Baja Med” cuisine.

In a move straight out of NAFTA, every ingredient Plascencia uses is sourced within 120 miles of Tijuana, on both sides of the border. The charismatic, 40-something son of a Tijuana restaurant family who’d left for California years ago but chose to return, Plascencia’s dishes reflect Baja’s Mediterranean climate and agrarian history, as well as his own love affair with pairings of salty and sweet.

These dishes were our favorites:

– A grilled oyster served in a small wooden box of crushed ice, seasoned with serrano chili and grapefruit, and topped with a short rib chicharron

– Sea of Cortez scallops with a dusting of chilitipin chilies, a soy jelly and seabeans 

– A tender wedge of beef short rib with masa dumplings, mole negro and just-ripe Mission figs 

– Four small cones of house-made  ice creams, including (I’m not-sure-why-it-works-it-just-does) Mexican chocolate with paprika… and bacon

Scallops, wine and short rib glory at Mision 19

In the midst of our lunch, in strolled celebrity chef Rick Bayless and a camera crew, shooting a segment for Bayless’ PBS series on Mexican cuisine. Bayless was in the midst of scouring Baja for its best food stories, and it was a thrill for us/Plascencia/the entire restaurant staff/the chamber of commerce that he’d chosen to highlight Misión 19. After seeing him in action on Top Chef Masters, I feel Bayless represents the spirit of the zealous convert, an American who’s embraced Mexican food even more than most Mexicans.

Roberto Arjona (on left), GM of Baja wellness retreat Rancho La Puerta, greeting chef Rick Bayless at Mision 19

Another highlight of our meal was learning about Baja’s wines, largely from the nearby Guadalupe Valley. The cellar here is entirely stocked with local offerings, like the spicy 2008 Casa Baloyán Malbec that paired beautifully with our meatier dishes. After lunch we strolled across the Via Corporativo atrium to La Contra wine bar/shop and bought two bottles of Baja wine, all we’d be allowed to take back across the border.

I’ve since learned of a handful of other restaurants I’d love to try in Tijuana, as well as a slew of wineries and inns I’d love to visit in the Guadalupe Valley. Tijuana is only a 3 ½ hour drive from L.A. or a short hop from the San Diego Airport, so I definitely see a journey South (while wearing comfy pants with an elastic waistband) in our near future.

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Tijuana Travel Planning Resources

Tijuana border crossing info
¡Turista Libre! (unique tours of Tijuana)
Baja.com
Explore Tijuana on Discover Baja California
The new Tijuana cool in the New York Post
Tijuana Travel Guide in The New York Times
The Real Tijuana
Tijuana: Where Prince Meets Pauper on Sharing Travel Experiences
Stairs to Nowhere: Tijuana Tales

and

TWT Travel Binder: Mexico

Baja California Things To Do on raveable
Baja California Vacations

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Comments

  1. Just found your website via twitter and am totally flashed! Great design, very good written and useable advices. Will pop by from time to time!
    Keep on travelling!
    Regards from Germany, Claudia

  2. Love the vicarious tour of TJ’s food scene. Here’s another group doing gallery tours and this weekend, a craft beer tour: http://turistalibre.com/coming-soon. I hope to get down there soon.

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