A foodie road trip to Tijuana? On a recent foray, my husband, Paul, and I ventured beyond the tchotchke shops, discount pharmacies and street-corner "zonkeys," donkeys painted to look like zebras. We discovered terrific new restaurants serving delectable organic Baja fare, wine and craft beers, and artisanal mescals that are becoming the connoisseur's alternative to tequila. One bonus: The "road" part of the trip stopped at the border. We parked our car in a lot on the U.S. side ($20 a day) and joined the line of pedestrians walking into Mexico. We showed our passports, got them stamped, took 10 more steps, and we were in Mexico. We got around easily with using Uber and taxis in sprawling TJ. "Value" was another trip bonus: Food, lodging and transportation cost about half of what we would have paid in the States. The tab: $105 a night for a good hotel; $50 for a great meal for two with wine; and $7 max for an Uber or taxi ride.
The best hotels in Tijuana belong to American or Mexican chains, none of which approach the luxury of a Four Seasons or the hipness of a W. We stayed in a clean and spacious king-bed room at Hotel Lucerna (10902 Paseo de los Heroes; 011-52-664-633-3923, www.hoteleslucerna.com/tijuana). The recently remodeled high-rise features a palm tree-shaded courtyard with a swimming pool and friendly, helpful service.
Before hitting newer dining spots, we paid homage to Tijuana's only old claim to culinary fame: The Caesar salad was invented, so they say, at Caesar's Restaurant & Bar (Avenida Revolución between 4th and 5th streets; 011-52-664-685-1927, www.caesarstijuana.com) in 1924. The dark paneled walls of this historic eatery are decorated with photos depicting its glamorous heyday during Prohibition, when Hollywood celebrities escaped to TJ to party. One taste of the famous salad and we understood why Caesar's still serves hundreds a day, each prepared with theatrical fanfare at tableside. The buzzy, industrial-chic Verde y Crema (3034 Calle Orizaba, Colonia Neidhart; 011-52-664-681-2366, www.verdeycrema.com) proudly lists the names of its local providers for everything from the grass-fed beef to the firewood used to grill the meat. Even if you're not a vegetarian, sample the roasted beet tacos sprinkled with fresh cheese.
Vegan carne asada? Octopus tacos? Kim-chi fried rice? Telefónica Gastro Park (2036 Avenida Melchor Ocampo, 011-52-664-200-2155, www.lat.ms/gastropark) is an unexpected haven for food lovers with 12 colorful food trucks owned by top Tijuana chefs, parasol-shaded tables and a bar. The fresh seared ahi tuna from Otto's Grill epitomizes what Baja-Med flavor is all about.
The lesson learned
It took us 20 minutes to walk into Mexico at the San Ysidro pedestrian border crossing, but an hour to walk back. I learned from regulars that it is faster to return by using the new, northbound-only PedWest pedestrian crossing on the west side of the 24-lane vehicle crossing. Next time.