Long a place filled with high crime rates and cheesy tourism opportunities, Tijuana, Mexico is emerging as an exciting food and locally-brewed beer destination. A quick 30-minute drive south of San Diego, California, a little curiosity and navigation skill can get you to food and beer locales that rival the most popular Mexican and U.S. cities. The proximity to the ocean means exceptionally fresh seafood, and the closeness to San Diego’s pioneering craft beer scene means that TJ brewers can easily learn from and with their northern counterparts, and translate their learnings to Mexican tastes and ingredients. In short, Tijuana is no longer a place to be ignored.
Tijuana (aka TJ) is an oft-misunderstood city; pop culture portrays it as a place of underage drinking and debauchery. Crime in Tijuana, is something that has been, and still is, an issue. Since the mid 2000s, there had been a steady decline of overall crime, but 2016 and 2017 saw sharp increases in homicide rates, largely concentrated in just a few of TJ’s 850 neighborhoods¹. Despite that, the San Ysidro Port of Entry — the largest land border crossing in the world² — sees just under 100,000 crossings per day³, and both Americans and Mexicans crossing the border each way to work, eat, and conduct business. It’s also astonishingly easy to get there from San Diego. Highway 5 ends at the border, where you can park your car and walk right into Mexico. San Diego’s light rail system, which largely services downtown and the immediate areas, also goes straight to the border crossing. As The Atlantic’s CityLab says, “The city’s light-rail system can’t take you to the beach, the San Diego Zoo, or to virtually any of the urban core neighborhoods that city planners hope will accommodate future growth — but it does go to the border⁴.”
We visited Tijuana twice in 2017 and were impressed with and excited by what we ate and drank each time. The seafood is off-the-boat fresh, and the beer is interesting and cold. Tijuana’s food scene isn’t quite yet booming like San Diego’s — or even Mexico City’s — which is why it’s such an exciting time to be a chef or brewer in the city. Chef José Figueroa, chef-owner of the Tijuana-style food truck La Carmelita, has been working in kitchens for the past decade and recalls how “businesses were stuck doing the same stuff over and over again because most of Tijuana’s businesses were focused on American and European tourists.” Figueroa saw a change in the restaurant scene about six years ago noting that tourists started to ask for more interesting food experiences. Food critics started to show up, and people started taking pictures of their food, which helped spread the word about what was happening south of the border.
At La Carmelita, which operates out of the trendy-hipster food truck space, Telefónica Gastro Park, you’ll find dishes like calabacita soup and cauliflower tacos with mole, a far cry from the generic and inauthentic tacos of the past. “Being born in the world’s busiest border town, you grow accustomed to certain things,” says Figueroa, “Tijuana’s food scene used to be focused on tourists, but now it’s becoming ours. It’s slowly finding an identity.” That’s a sentiment that the teams from the up-and-coming breweries at the Teorema/Lúdica Co-Tasting Room also share. “One thing about being in one of the busiest border towns is that it makes it easier to find new trends and more original food and drinks. The food scene is moving in a chef- and culturally-driven direction because chefs are mixing ideas from the local culture with all the incoming cultures, creating their own versions of dishes.”
This mentality has also made its way into the exciting craft beer scene, which has seen dozens of small craft breweries popping up in the last decade. Tijuana brewers are able to easily learn from their cross-border contemporaries, but they heavily rely on Mexican ingredients like chocolate, chilies, and cinnamon to make their brews different and distinctly Tijuana. “TJ has always been a unique city to say the least, and not because of the seedy image that has been portrayed historically,” says Ivan Morales, co-founder of one of the city’s largest breweries, Cervecería Insurgente. “It’s always been an intersection of cultures. Baja California has developed in some degree of isolation from the rest of the country. This has allowed us to form a very distinct identity, one that didn’t have a platform to shine until things started to change a few years back,” he says, citing the lower crime rate and increased development.
So what, ultimately, is driving the changing food and drink scene in Tijuana? It’s partially the development boom and overall reduction of crime, but it’s also largely being driven by a changing, global market that is starting to take notice of Tijuana “So many people from all over the world pass through this city every day, and each leave their mark,” Chef Figueroa says, “We’re really easygoing and open-minded, and hospitality is in our blood. All of those things influence our food scene.” TJ might not be number one on your travel list (yet), but it’s a must-visit stop if you’re in Southern California. As craft brewer Morales says, “The food and drink culture is thirsty for exploration and very open to drawing inspiration from anywhere and everywhere,” — you’ll be rewarded with an adventure filled with authentic tacos and delicious beer, which is as good a reason to go as any.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade Mag. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as an Email Marketing Manager at General Assembly, and tries to travel as much as she can.