If all you ever get when you go to Tijuana is street meat and strip-club Coronas, 1) uh, we should totally be friends, and 2) you’re actually kinda sorta totally missing out on a TJ dining scene that has been in the throes of a full-on gastro-renaissance for the past few years.
Fix that by having this handy the next time you head south of the border. Yep, it’s our ultimate Tijuana dining guide.
What you’re getting: A lot of apps, including the crazy-good grilled octopus and the seared foie gras
Never mind its location inside a corporate office tower, this is the spot that put TJ fine dining on the map. Chef Javier Plascencia is the visionary in the kitchen, serving dishes like roasted bone marrow and local... goose barnacles???... alongside a wine list heavy on bottles from Baja’s nearby Guadalupe Valley.
What you’re getting: The beef tongue carpaccio and the arrachera-mole pie
Miguel Angel Guerrero is one of the OGiest chefs in Baja’s gourmet movement and has three restaurants -- including this classed-up pizza kitchen -- to prove it. Housed in a cavernous warehouse with a design that might be called machine-shop chic (think: rusted corrugated-tin wall sheeting, exposed beams), El Taller churns out wood-fired pizzas topped with everything from shrimp to octopus to escargot.
What you’re getting: The Snake Oil cocktail (cardamom-infused bourbon mixed with fernet and Mexican Coke in a Mason jar, topped with a burnt marshmallow)
Though it's also got crazy-delicious seafood pizzas and pozole tostadas from chef Chad Whilte, the reason to come to this sceney Downtown restaurant is for the drinks, designed by San Diego’s revered Snake Oil Cocktail Company.
What you’re getting: Esquites and the käsekrainer sausage (basically a gourmet cheese dog)
From the décor to the menu, this upscale-casual spot from top Mexican chef Jair Tellez is all about upcycling. Wine bottles that would’ve been trash become chic hippie curtains, and works by local street artists dominate the walls. The kitchen turns street food like esquites (grilled corn) into a sophisticated appetizer, and most everything -- from the wine to the organic chicken to the pastured beef in the sausage -- comes from within a 50-mile radius.
What you’re getting: A fig and mezcal nieve
Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t think vegetables and chiles belong in ice cream. That’s fine -- Tepoznieves has plenty of traditional flavors like strawberry, pistachio, and café con leche. But adventurous palates might try pairing a scoop of spicy pineapple with a dollop of cactus-, lettuce- or beet-flavored nieve, a slightly slushier (but no less delicious) take on ice cream.
What you’re getting: The four-taster beer flight at El Tigre
This rundown outdoor mall is now theeeee place to sample Baja craft beers, with a bunch of different tasting rooms all in one spot. Play Nintendo at El Depa, a bar designed to look like some dude’s apartment, complete with flower-print grandma couches and an epic VHS tape collection. Downstairs at El Tigre, sip a piloncillo saison and browse the food menu, which is basically just a delivery system for rooster sauce and pork (think: Sriracha popcorn, bacon pancakes, Sriracha-bacon burgers, Sriracha fries with bacon, etc.).
What you’re getting: The “Gringo on Vacation”
Named for the indigenous flute-playing fertility god, this color-splashed taco joint serves killer grilled seafood tacos (get the “Gringo on Vacation,” a taco stuffed with grilled marinated shrimp and melted cheese, and the Fin del Mundo taco, with grilled panela cheese, black beans, and crunchy fried... crickets), plus aguachiles and the pre-Hispanic drink pulque (imagine a funky, viscous lemonade).
What you’re getting: The Caesar, duh
The origin story of the Caesar salad is disputed, but this historic, checkerboard-tiled Tijuana institution holds one of the best claims. It’s named after Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who opened this spot during Prohibition; one busy Fourth of July, he was running short on food and threw some romaine in a bowl with lemon and Parm -- thus, allegedly birthing the Caesar salad. Almost a century later, bow-tied waiters still make it tableside -- now with garlic, egg yolk, Worcestershire, and other ingredients -- for about $6.
Hit a food truck park
Telefonica: Centro; Food Garden: Zona Rio
What you’re getting: The taqueso from Food Garden (taco filling wrapped in a sarape of fried cheese, then tucked into a grilled tortilla)
TJ’s vacant lots are suddenly not so vacant since an army of food trucks and food collectives have set up shop in recent years. Some of the best are Telefonica Gastro Park, with trucks serving anything from bacon sausages to ramen, and Food Garden, where you can sip a local craft beer and play a game of cornhole or super-sized Jenga while you wait for your dinner.
What you’re getting: Gobernador tacos and sea urchin tiradito (in-season)
Another Plascencia joint, Erizo (Spanish for sea urchin, a local delicacy) is a casual neighborhood fish market and eatery showcasing whatever’s just been caught off the coast. Keep it traditional with an Ensenada-style fish taco or sample something new like local chocolate clams and abalone.
Drink third-wave coffee
What you’re getting: The lavender mocha at Das Cortez
For fancy coffee, head to Colonia Cacho, which has three of the city’s best coffee shops crammed into one hip ‘hood. Get your java cold-brewed, Chemexed, or siphoned at Jacu; admire the foam art atop your fair-trade latte at La Stazione; or post up for people-watching at Das Cortez’s open-air coffee counter.
Take a tour
A handful of groups offer public and private food-and-beer tours of Tijuana, complete with English-speaking guides. Stuff your belly and make new friends with Turista Libre, Let’s Go Clandestino, and Club Tengo Hambre.
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Maya Kroth is an itinerant writer who has been eating and drinking her way through Tijuana and San Diego since 2003, and writing about it for outlets including NYLON and the Washington Post. Her last known address was in Mexico City. Follow her on Twitter at @theemaya.
1. Mision 19Misión San Javier 10643, Tijuana
2. El TallerAvenida Rio Yaqui 296, Tijuana
3. La JustinaAve Revolucion 3ra y 4ta, Tijuana
4. Verde y CremaOrizaba 3034, Tijuana
5. TeposnievesBlvd. Sánchez Taboada 10737, Tijuana
6. Caesar's Restaurant BarAv Revolución 1079, Tijuana
7. Erizo Baja Fish House and MarketAve. Sonora 3808-2, Tijuana
Wander inside a corporate office tower and find Mision 19, where Chef Javier Plascencia is creating incredible dishes with notable Mexican flavors. You're going to want to try as many things as possible and we recommend doing just that by ordering a handful of appetizers and a glass (or two) of wine.
One of three restaurants from Miguel Angel Guerrero, this spot serves wood-fired pizzas that are topped with classic Baja toppings and a bit of Mediterranean influence. The space itself can only be described as machine-shop chic, with rusted tin wall sheeting and exposed beams, but the pizzas can be described as incredible, wonderful, delicious...
The food might be good (and it really is), but the real show-stopper at this Zona Centro spot is the cocktails. The joint was designed by Snake Oil Cocktail Company, which is based in San Diego and aims to make cocktails a multi-sensory experience.
This spot comes from chef Jair Tellez, who has established an upscale casual environment in Col. Neidhart. The menu is reminiscent of classic street foods, but is made with top notch, local ingredients -- in keeping with the overall philosophy of the restaurant.
The house-made ice cream product at this spot is made with simple ingredients like milk, sugar, & honey and is more heavy and slushy than what you might be used to. But the flavors are really special, with unique varieties like spicy pineapple, lettuce, beet, and cactus.
This is the (disputed) birthplace of the now famous Caesar salad. It's named after the original owner, who was running low on food and threw ingredients together -- but now it's made tableside.