Purgatory, wine, beer & caviar south of the border
By Max Milano
Welcome To Tijuana: San Ysidro
The border between San Diego, USA, and Tijuana Mexico may look like a straight line on a map, but in reality, it’s a twisting village of alleys, stalls, carts, and shops that’s cut in half by a river of traffic and pedestrians going in both directions. Parking lots, money exchange houses, fashion outlets, and drive-through Mexican car insurance booths on the American side, vs taco stands, hole in the wall restaurants and countless pharmacies hawking Mexican Viagra on the Mexican side.
We’re on a footbridge above the river of traffic heading southbound from San Diego into Tijuana. We stand in a sort of purgatory. Not in the USA anymore, but not quite in Mexico yet. In just a few steps we’d walked from the first world of freeways and bright plastic fast food chain restaurants, and into the third world chaos of the San Ysidro crossing
Some may say that San Ysidro is your typical Mexican border neighborhood, only that this neighborhood isn’t Mexico, it’s just a spot on the map, a purgatory on the line between two very different worlds.
As a pale orange sunset descends over the sea in the distance, we run into an excitable babble of African or Creole French. We're surrounded on the footbridge by a group of young African men with backpacks strapped to their backs. Some have climbed onto the railings and are pointing down to the river of traffic below.
Since our crossing from San Diego, I’d begun to absorb the chaos of San Ysidro through a Manu Chao song playing on my smartphone.
“Welcome to Tijuana, tequila sexo y marijuana”, Manu sings to a ska beat on my left ear while I try to figure out what the commotion was all about with my right one.
The young African men were getting more excitable by the minute but I couldn’t understand their French patois. Monica, my traveling companion, who'd studied French in an American school in Lyon, casually pointed to the traffic below us. The cars hadn’t stopped but were slowing down to avoid a middle-aged Mexican man who was sprawled on the pavement below us with a pool of blood slowly spreading like a red halo from the back of his head.
“Welcome to Tijuana”, Manu continued singing in my left ear, “Con El Coyote no hay aduana!”.
Yes indeed, with The Coyote there’s no customs. Was that a coyote lying dead below us? How did he end up in the middle of the busy southbound lane of traffic from San Diego to Mexico?
“You think he was pushed?”, Monica asked. She’d overheard one of the young African men say that Le Coyote was trying to rip them off.
A Mexican fire truck appeared below us and the Africans on the bridge took off slowly as if appearing casual was the key to avoiding trouble with the Mexican cops.
“Welcome to Tijuana, con El Coyote no hay aduana!”
No customs indeed, only that for this particular coyote, his customs avoiding days were over.
Caesar Salad, Caviar Tacos & Revolution
The next day I check the local Tijuana online news from our hotel room on Avenida Revolucion (Hotel Caesar's Tijuana). They’re calling it a suicide. According to the local news, the man was depressed. Only that, apparently, Mexican men don’t believe in depression (this according to the bartender that served us at Ceasar’s on Avenida Revolucion later that day).
“We very Catolic contree”, the bartender said with a grin as he poured our ice cold draft beers in the 1920’s air-conditioned splendor of Ceasar’s.
“We don’t killer ourself”, continued the bartender, “we don belief depresion. Da is for the Gringos. In Mejico, if you depress, you go to un congal (whorehouse/Stripclub), you do a bit of yeyo (coke) for tree day, you come back feel like superman! I hear the pinche mayates (Africans) pay cinco mill pesos each to get to Longo (Long Beach), but El Coyote want 10 mill. But I don now nothin. Ju no hear nothin from me”.
I guess that in Tijuana (more than anywhere else perhaps) there’s always two kinds of news, the official, and the ‘word on the street’. The truth may lay somewhere in between, just like the border, in purgatory.
Welcome to Tijuana, tequila sexo y marijuana.
The local news also said that Tijuana was now receiving large groups of French Speaking West Africans hoping to claim asylum or to somehow get stateside, perhaps with the aid of the plentiful coyotes that work the border. So that explains the French patois on the bridge. Only that the local press didn’t think these young men were from West Africa at all. The local press suspected that the young black men arriving in Tijuana as of late were from Haiti, but claimed to be from Senegal and other French-speaking African countries to avoid deportation from Mexico (due to a lack of treaties between the Mexican government and many African nations).
Welcome to Tijuana, con El Coyote no hay aduana…
With The Coyote there are no customs indeed. That’s why there’s always more Coyotes because there’s always more customers. But perhaps it’s time to stop thinking about the border and head downstairs to Caesar's Restaurant for their famous Caesar salad, because yes indeed, there’s a lot more to Tijuana than the border. Tijuana is a culinarily famous city in its own right, and one that is in the middle of a foodie revival at that, so naturally we wanted to check it out for ourselves.
Caesar's of Tijuana
Avenida Revolucion has seen better days. The donkeys painted as zebras are still there, as well as the ubiquitous pharmacies flogging Mexican Viagra in large handwritten signs. The souvenir shops are still there as well, but a number of the terrace nightclubs have suffered a severe case of 'Mexican lightning', or what the local news calls 'electrical problems' leading to fires that of course are covered by insurance because business is down. One of these burnt out hollow shells on the terrace is the legendary Aloha bar, where Carlos Santana cut his teeth in the 1960’s. But we were not here for the hippie days of the 1960’s, we were interested in another, more elegant era, back when Avenida Revolucion was the epicenter of high-class drinking and gambling, thanks to prohibition stateside.
Stepping into Caesar's of Tijuana is like stepping back into the glamour of the 1920’s. Black and white photographs of Golden Era Hollywood stars who dined there adorn its walls. Laurel and Hardy, Fatty Arbuckle, Micky Rooney and others. The place is all dark wood, polished brass, and air-conditioned bliss. A respite from the heat and overall tackiness outside. We sit at the bar and order a pair of draft beers. They carry a lager and a Mexican amber, both brewed by Cerveza Tijuana, a local micro-brewery, plus a Caesar’s lager, also by Cerveza Tijuana. We settle for the amber.
For soakage, we order their famous Caesar salad, and caviar tacos. I sip the amber and talk to the bartender about the scene we’d witnessed at the border the evening before. He's talkative and friendly, but we couldn’t figure out when the jokes ended and the truth started. It was just like on my first visit to Avenida Revolucion back in the late 1990’s. Upon seeing the Donkeys painted like zebras, I’d asked the guy manning it why he'd painted his poor donkey that way.
“He borne this way segnor”, was his reply behind a toothy grin.
The caviar tacos arrived. I’m usually not a big fan of trying to poshen up traditional street food, but this is the perfect exception.
The caviar is black and briny. Tiny pearls that pop in your mouth with every bite. It complements the crunch of the shredded cabbage and white Mexican cheese inside the tacos perfectly. They wash down with the amber beer like the Mexican haute cuisine that they are.
Now for the pièce de résistance. The waiters roll in a cart with a large bowl of lettuce. Surrounding the container is an accouchement of sauces and condiments. Anchovies, a large chunk of parmesano reggiano cheese, croutons. The waiters are all dressed impeccably in white shirts and black vests. They take the art of mixing your Caesar salad table-side at Caesar's very seriously. We're sitting at the bar and still get the full show, only that we have to turn around to face our cart.
The salad is perfectly crafted. With just the right amount of parmesan flakes and anchovies in the sauce. A couple of amber beers later and we were ready to explore what we really came to Tijuana to see: it's budding craft beer scene.
We step out of Caesar's on Avenida Revolucion, a bit worse for wear but determined to find the local bus to Plaza Fiesta. It turns out that the cool kids have abandoned Avenida Revolucion and have decamped to a labyrinthine pile of pubs behind Plaza del Zapato on Avenida Insurgentes.
We find our bus after walking past more pharmacies, zebra-donkeys and craft shops than can be handled in several lifetimes. The bus heading up Avenida Insurgentes waits for us on a side street. In Mexico, buses wait in street corners for customers. Drivers ask you where you’re going and point to the correct bus waiting to get half-full before it can go on its way. We hop on this almost full minibus. The passengers are all locals, and we’re the only gringos on the bus, or at least Monica is. As the bus gets going we see the downtown shops start to slip by: Santeria emporiums, Seventh-day Adventist halls, taquerias, shoe shops, craft shops, and more and more pharmacies with handwritten signs selling Mexican Viagra, Mexican Ambien, Mexican Cialis, you name it, they got it.
The driver stops to let us out on Avenida Insurgentes. Taking a local bus in Mexico is akin to taking a shared taxi stateside. Plaza del Zapato is a large Spanish colonial building with a Mexican fountain, red tiles and whitewashed walls. Inside they sell shoes presumably. We walk around the side of the whitewashed walls towards a pile of craft beer signs. It’s two in the afternoon, so most places are closed, but we find that a couple of them are open. We pick one on the second floor and sit by the bar. The place has a weird Tolkien theme, with beers named after Game of Thrones (or Lord of the Rings?) characters. The second brewery we hit is located downstairs and we're told it's actually famous (Cerveceria Mammut), but we’re the only ones there apart from the bartender and his girlfriend. She’s a young Mexican hipster girl with a nose ring, black Doc Marten's boots and a white T-shirt that reads: 'Satan is My Sugar Daddy'.
“I’m in pig heaven”, Monica says as she sips her cactus sour beer on the bar stool next to mine.
“Beers are only like $50 pesos, what’s that? A buck?”.
“And they're pretty good too.”
“Pretty good? They’re bloody excellent”.
She was right. The craft beer here was as good, if not better than what we could get stateside, and we’ve been everywhere in search of craft beer perfection: San Diego, LA, Orange County, San Francisco, Humboldt County, Sacramento, Chico, you name it.
The afternoon extended languidly before us with each sip. As the temperature started to lower and get more comfortable, we began to see more punters come in. Mostly gringos in Teva sandals and cut off shorts and hipster beards ordering pints for their Mexican 'girlfriends'. Time to move on to the bar across the alley.
The taps at Border Psycho are all glass dildos. Not sure if it was cheaper than proper tap handles, but they sure do the job. The beer is just as excellent as in the other two places we’d visited. There was a grill on the far side of the bar manned by a cook in a chef hat. We order some freshly grilled pork belly and Mexican style pulled pork to go with the beer.
“Now we’re really in pig heaven”, Monica said.
I couldn’t agree more. I can safely say that there’s nowhere else in the world where you can find so many craft beer bars in the same location. Plaza Fiesta is a veritable megamarket for a craft scene that could probably be the best in North America if the cartels and the Trumps of the world don’t get in the way. I was living in San Diego back in the early 2000’s when narco gangs had gunfights in the streets. Most local businesses suffered, but now that the narco violence has calmed down in the immediate Tijuana area, businesses are back, and the hipsters have taken over a former seedy plaza and transformed it into a place that most beer travelers must add to the top of their list.
Mexico Wine Country & Tijuana Craft Beer: The Movie
Mexican Wine Country: The Valley of Guadalupe
They say that the Guadalupe Valley is Mexico’s answer to Napa. It certainly feels like Napa before the mega-corporations took over. It's bucolic and rustic but make no mistake, the wine is world class. The grapes are picked at night to keep them cool and avoid rapid fermentation. They're making world-class reds and oaky whites. Like most of Mexico, it’s rustic on the outside, but posh inside, once you are allowed past the well guarded gates.
To get to the Guadalupe Valley we first head back to San Diego Airport to pick up a rental car. You need to stop at one of the drive-through Mexican insurance companies on the American side of the San Ysidro crossing. After that, you simply drive into Mexico. There’s no border control southbound into Baja California. You can drive south up to 100 miles from the border to the town of Ensenada without having to show your passport. If you do decide to drive further south, you need to find a local police station in Ensenada to get your passports stamped.
We weren't going as far south as Ensenada. After a beautiful coastal drive above the maritime layer of fog snaking in from the Pacific, we turn inland towards Tecate and the Valley of Guadalupe.
Most Americans think of Tijuana as a place for teenagers and desperados, but Baja occupies a prime position in the pantheon of Mexican Regional cuisine. With fresh seafood and wines, it resembles California cuisine or even Spanish. Several well-respected Mexico City-based chefs hail from Baja California. Another aspect of Baja in the eyes of most Mexicans living further south is that the Ensenada and Tijuana area are considered very 'cold' when compared to the deserts and beaches further south the Baja Peninsula. Hence the feeling that the cuisine and wines of the region are exceptional. Somewhat more akin to the cuisine of Northern Spain, highlighting the fresh seafoodbut with solid Mexican roots and flavors.
The more we drive inland, the more picturesque it gets. We see goats and horses ruminating along the side of the narrow country road that cuts thought the valley. It’s dusty country, with rustic mountains to the north and east but the spring wildflowers are out in full glory, painting everything in bright yellow splashes.
The GPS tells us we have arrived. It’s a small town in the middle of nowhere. A mission style bell tower with wine barrels embedded inside an adobe wall greets us. We get off the main road and drive down a dirt track, scaring the chickens and hens roaming free all around. There’s a stone wall and a guarded gate ahead. We’re buzzed in and all of a sudden, we could be in a winery in Napa or in Spain. Row upon row of vines spread before our eyes. Ahead of us looms a modern building made of glass and stones. The single-story building is very long and clearly designed to blend in with the land as it spreads for several hundred meters among vineyards. We later learn that the building houses hundreds of oak barrels where grape juice becomes wine. It's where the magic happens.
We’re greeted by winery staff and told to park and join them in the outdoor tasting room.
“Welcome to Monte Xanic” the girl behind the tasting room bar greets us as we settle to enjoy the view. The tasting room is a simple bar under a large tarp at the edge of the vineyard. She sets glasses in front of us and proceeds to take us on a journey of their winery, from how they pick the grapes only at night to how they produce oaky whites and world-class reds. There’s only one other couple there, they've come up from Mexico City to check out the Ensenada wine region. They're from Italy we soon learn.
We continue our journey along the Guadalupe Valley. There are about 150 wineries there now, all lined along rural dirt roads that snake off from the main tar road. We pull on to a dirt track at random and head towards a white mission style building ahead. Welcome to Adobe Guadalupe winery the sign says. A film crew has taken over the winery (the Walking Dead they say), but it's siesta time, and everyone's sleeping and out of sight. We see many trailers, cranes and other film crew equipment. We head into the main tasting room to get out of the Spring heat.
As we sip oaky white wine, chilled to perfection, we’re happy that Mexico is becoming not only a craft beer destination but a veritable contender in the wine world that’s giving Napa and Sonoma a run for their money. Salud!
How To Get There
Fly to San Diego and rent a car to get to Tijuana and to the Guadalupe Valley (San Diego Airport car rentals allow rentals as far south as Ensenada. Ask first as not all rental companies allow it.) Get mandatory Mexican car insurance near the border (on the US side). Several drive-trough Mexican car insurance shops can be found near the San Ysidro border crossing. There's no passport control by car southbound into Mexico (apart from 'random checks' until you drive south of Ensenada, approx. 100 miles south of the border). Take the toll road along the coast from Tijuana to Ensenada until you see the Tecate exit towards the Guadalupe Valley wine region.
Tijuana only: Cross the border on foot and take a local bus to Avenida Revolucion. Then take another bus to Plaza Fiesta and back from Plaza Fiesta to the border. You can get Mexican pesos right at the border before Mexican immigration (you do Mexican immigration at the border when you cross on foot).
Images & Music by Max Milano. Sample of "Welcome To Tijuana" by Manu Chao.
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