A Surprising Taste of Tijuana

TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA--This border city is as chaotic as ever, a brash jumble of shops selling T-shirts and cheap trinkets, liquor stores, auto repair places and tacky nightclubs, dental offices, pharmacies, money changers and taco grills, all jammed together without logic.

Tune this out, and visualize Tijuana as a place to go for great food and wine. Hard to believe? Perhaps, but an amazing food scene does exist here.

It's largely unknown to visitors, because most of them never see the restaurants--they head straight for Avenida Revolucion, with its honky-tonk bars and patient burros posing for photos. But there is fine dining to be found even there, and it's increasingly appreciated by Mexicans in the know, even by some savvy tourists.

It's not an overstatement to say that the food at Tijuana's better restaurants, many of them in the Zona Rio, a few blocks from the center of town, is world-class. La Diferencia, which opened there two years ago, brings in queso de cabra (goat cheese) from Puebla, moles from Puebla and Oaxaca, cecina (salted dried beef) from Morelos and crocodile meat from Sinaloa. (The crocodile is used for machaca, a special not on the printed menu.) Only about 30% of La Diferencia's customers are American.

Tijuana even has a celebrity chef, Martin San Roman, who is inventing a Baja-French-Mexican fusion style of cooking at Rincon San Roman on the outskirts of town. "Tijuana people are more interested in food and wine," he says. "They are becoming connoisseurs."

The population has grown remarkably. Tijuana is now Mexico's seventh largest city, with an estimated 1.3 million inhabitants. That is almost three times its population in the early 1980s. Growing in size and affluence, the city can support more and better places to eat.

But don't rule out Avenida Revolucion. There is lots to discover in this area, such as a Cuban espresso bar that could be in Havana, a charming French cafe, a serious winery, shops where you can buy tortillas that are incredibly light and fragrant, and stores that specialize in fine pottery and glassware. Prices are mostly reasonable--for example, freshly baked bolillos (soft rolls) cost about 15 cents. But don't be surprised to also find a sculptured glass vase for $400.

Our walking tour covers six blocks of Revolucion, heads three blocks to the west and doubles back to the L.A. Cetto Winery. For lunch, we'll wander a little farther, to La Diferencia.

Start early enough to arrive for breakfast. You can park on the California side of the border and take the Mexicoach shuttle to the depot just off Revolucion between 6th and 7th streets. Or drive over and park at the first stop, Sanborns, which is across the street from a Tijuana landmark, the jai alai fronton.

Massage parlors may border the parking lot, but Sanborns is a classy place, a chain that started in Mexico City in 1903. Locals meet in the large, cheerful dining room for generous breakfasts. A basket of pan dulce (sweet breads) appears as soon as you sit down, and waitresses start plying you with coffee. Notice their costumes. The striped skirts represent Puebla, the lacy white blouses Oaxaca and the crisp little huipils over the shoulders Nayarit.

Try huevos divorciados--two fried eggs that are "divorced" and therefore have separate salsas, one green the other red. Spoonfuls of beans and chilaquiles keep them apart. Sweet mole sauce covers huevos sincronizados--fried eggs on tortillas stacked with ham and cheese. Another option is chilaquiles, fried tortilla strips mixed with salsa and chicken.

Breakfasts come with juice, coffee and grilled, buttered bolillos. They're inexpensive, a little more than $4 for the divorced eggs and $5 for the chilaquiles. You pay extra for special drinks such as a frothy, pale chartreuse blend of orange juice and nopal cactus.

Sanborns' large store offers a wide variety of quality merchandise--books, perfumes, jewelry, electronic products, leather goods, CDs by Latino artists, pastries, dainty chocolate candies and typical crafts. Standouts recently were blue-rimmed, handblown glasses with intricately painted ceramic stems by Quimineral, as well as Letitia Guevara's miniature ceramic reproductions of colonial buildings, including a kitchen like that of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, where mole poblano was created. You could take that charming little kitchen home for about $118.

Farther down Revolucion, H. Arnold displays dining accessories in Puebla's famous Talavera ware. This shop also offers a large assortment of place mats and runners hand-woven in Santo Tomas Jalieza, a town in the state of Oaxaca where a women's cooperative runs the weaving business. The mats are $6 each--a lot more than in Santo Tomas, where a set of eight runs about $12, but think what you're saving on air fare. Handsome glass vases at H. Arnold can cost up to $400--that's for a jumbo, angular blue vase that is more of a work of art than a flower holder.

When you need a coffee break, sidle up to Solo Cafe, which dispenses cappuccinos, lattes and such through a window opening onto Revolucion. The courtly gray-haired proprietor is Alberto Mejia, from Zaragoza, Spain. Or drop into La Villa del Tabaco for a sip of Cuban espresso at the coffee bar. This shop imports coffee and cigars from Havana. Stacked cigar boxes form the stands for lamps on either side of the comfy leather sofa where smokers lounge. The cigars are displayed on shelves behind glass. The espressos, which you can sweeten with coarse-grained Mexican sugar, are $1.50.

Just behind this shop is a branch of Gigante, one of many supermarkets scattered throughout Tijuana. Here, you'll find staples such as plump, chewy long-grained Morelos rice and Aladino brand peanut butter, so renowned in Mexico that peanut butter cookies are sometimes called Aladinos. In the center of the store, warm bolillos intermittently drop down a chute onto the sales counter.

Now it's time to explore the back streets. Instead of nightclub touts and vendors with trays of fake jewelry, you may come across a woman peeling brilliant green cactus paddles, teenage schoolgirls chattering uproariously during class break or a gardener tending roses in the well-kept yard of a house that looks out of place between humdrum storefronts. You'll see that Tijuana is a city of ordinary people, not just a tourist hangout.

Stop first at the tourist information booth on Revolucion just before 3rd Street for a map and the booklet, "Tijuana at a Glance," which lists the foods that can be taken into the United States. Now cross 3rd and walk one block to Constitucion. Turn left and look for El Kiosko, a stand stacked with traditional candies such as dulce de leche, the milk fudge called jamoncillo and white coconut alfajores, as well as candied calabaza (squash) and camote (sweet potato). It's next to a pharmacy.

Buy a chunk of chilacayota, a large squash with a stringy center. Bite through the crisp, sugary surface to the succulent, moist flesh and see how the syrup-soaked shreds have become as clear as glass. Each piece costs 85 cents.

Return to 3rd and continue to two housewares shops, the Cristaleria Dresden and Venecia, which have done business in Tijuana for decades. Their stock includes clay ollas for beans, copper casseroles called cazuelas, paella pans, blue-enameled saucepans, wooden tortilla presses, lime squeezers, grinders for corn and molcajetes (the stone mortars use for making guacamole and sauces). Utensils that would be hard to find at home include an electric tortilla press, used to flatten and prebake flour tortillas, which are then finished on a comal (griddle). What looks like a heavy pasta machine is for rolling out tortillas. Both shops carry flaneras. These lightweight, covered molds, which cost less than $6, are designed for flan prepared the old way--steamed in a kettle of water.

Cross the next street, Ninos Heroes, and walk on 3rd to the Panaderia La Tapatia, a large bakery with a scrumptious assortment of pan dulce. Especially good are cocadas, which are soft, fat, pointed macaroons, and savory breads filled with cream cheese and jalapenos. You'll see these on the main counter. Other breads, with such names as picon, ciudadela, chorreada, trenza, concha, corico and sema, are stacked on shelves and carts. Pick up a tray and tongs and help yourself.

Most of the sweet breads cost 32 cents to 42 cents. The jalapeno and cheese-stuffed loaves are 85 cents. Looking down on the breads is a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, which has been lovingly garlanded with plastic flowers and white tulle.

Outside, you may encounter the irresistible aroma of fresh, hot corn tortillas. The source is the Tortilleria la Nueva Unica across 3rd Street. The tortillas are hand-packed as they drop off the conveyor belt. A 1-kilo stack of three dozen costs 70 cents.

Next door is an ice cream shop, Paletas y Nieves Lindo Michoacan, decorated in dazzling stripes of red, orange, yellow, blue and green. A freezer box is crammed with paletas--frozen ices on a stick--in exotic flavors such as guava, mango with chile, cucumber with chile, arroz con leche (rice pudding), jamaica and tart-sweet arrayan.

If you prefer flour tortillas to corn, walk back to Ninos Heroes and turn right. Between 5th and 6th streets, you will come to the Tortilleria la Adelita, which sells whole-wheat tortillas as well as those made with white flour.

At 7th Street, turn left and cross Ninos Heroes, heading back toward Revolucion. Soon a tantalizing aroma indicates the presence of another tortilla shop, the Tortilleria la Poblanita. Here the tortillas are made from ground dried corn, not masa flour. If you've never had a freshly made corn tortilla, eat one on the spot. It will melt in your mouth.

On 7th, just before Revolucion, is La Belle Claude, a pretty little French cafe that serves freshly brewed coffees from Veracruz, Chiapas and Cuba for about $1 a cup. Flavored coffees include one laced with rompope, the Mexican eggnog liqueur. Elaborately iced chocolate cakes, cheesecakes, cupcakes and cookies will stave off hunger--but save room for lunch.

The last stop before lunch is the L.A. Cetto Winery. Walk up Constitucion to 10th Street, then bear right at a diagonal to a large, wooden, L-shaped building. The central part of the L is a monumental wine cask. Inside is a wine shop and tasting room, where you can watch a winemaking video or arrange a tour of the premises. L.A. Cetto's vineyards are in the Guadalupe Valley outside Ensenada, but wines are aged and bottled here.

Tasters pay $2 to sample one of three groups of wine. The top of the line group contains just two wines, the 2000 Chardonnay and 1996 limited reserve Nebbiolo. The other groups contain more options, including sweet wines. Instead of standing at the counter, you can sit comfortably at a table, setting the glasses on a place mat-chart that describes each wine. The wines are reasonable, compared with many in California. The Nebbiolo is about $9 a bottle.

For lunch, take a taxi, or drive to the Zona Rio. This thriving area offers everything from sushi cafes to Pizza Hut. Keep going--La Diferencia is where we're headed.

A sign on a house-like structure on Boulevard Sanchez Taboada says La Diferencia, but this is a tuxedo shop, not the restaurant. Follow the driveway at one side to the large whitewashed building in back. A figure that could be Don Quixote leans over a balcony above the entrance.

Inside, you're in the patio of a colonial hacienda, covered to guard against the weather. A tiled fountain splashes in the center. Birds hop about their cages, singing merrily. Pots sprout greenery, and walls are painted with flowers. Lunch is late in Mexico, so the restaurant may be busy at 4 p.m.

The menu offers a wide selection of Baja wines, including labels such as Cetto, Domecq, Monte Xanic, Santo Tomas and Casa de Piedra. A soft, full Cabernet-Zinfandel from Chateau Camou ($5.50 a glass) shows how good Mexican wines can be.

La Diferencia makes a terrific tamarind margarita--that's what one customer got by mistake when ordering a nonalcoholic agua de tamarindo. The glass is rimmed with chile-salt. If you're adventurous, you can munch on traditional Oaxacan snacks such as chapulines (grasshoppers) or gusanos de maguey (maguey worms). Or maybe escamoles (ant eggs) from Hidalgo. The waiter suggested all of these; they're not on the menu.

The bread basket contains tiny tamales that turn out to be cheese spread for the rolls, wrapped in corn husks. Salsa, black bean dip and chips also come with the meal.

Salsa does a star turn when the waiter wheels a cart to the table and makes one to your order, starting with either jalapenos or pureed chiles de arbol. Crushing a tomatillo in a molcajete, he puts in arbol chiles, a garlic clove roasted until almost black and chicken consomme powder instead of salt, producing a very spicy salsa with roasted flavor.

The long menu is such a relief from standardized Mexican food north of the border that you may have trouble choosing. We started with budin de flor de calabaza, a pudding made with squash flowers, corn, zucchini and cheese on a bed of poblano chile salsa.

Or you could have squash flower soup, or a broth that contains fresh verdolagas, which are now in season, chunky little potatoes and large pieces of fresh cactus.

Crisply browned duck comes with a sour-sweet sauce made from dried red jamaica flowers and honey. Local seafood, in a vibrant achiote and orange juice sauce, arrives in a pale bundle. The wrapping is fibrous mixiote from the maguey plant.

Rabbit also is prepared en mixiote. Other choices include quail in peanut mole; chicken breast with a sauce of chipotle chile, bacon and white wine; shrimp in tamarind mole; shrimp enchiladas with hazelnut sauce and fresh salmon with a mango-habanero chile sauce. That should give some idea of the scope of the kitchen.

The dessert tray displays samples of tarta de elote (corn tart), gaznates (meringue-stuffed cones), chongos (milk curds in syrup), sliced ate de membrillo (quince paste) with cheese and a cake made with cajeta, which is a Mexican caramel sauce. The tarta, like cornbread in a pastry shell, seemed dry until soaked with rompope poured from a little pitcher on the side. Lunch for four runs about $100, including a first course and main dish for each, as well drinks and side dishes--salsas, breads and tortillas.

The day tour is now over, unless you decide to stay overnight. There are plenty of hotels in the Zona Rio, and lingering another day will give you the chance to try Rincon San Roman for lunch.

Otherwise, head for the border. Scary stories about long waits have no foundation, unless you're crossing at peak hours on a holiday or weekend. Traveling by car, we waited just 20 minutes at 6 on a Thursday evening. The guard did check our trunk, however. It seems that people who go to Tijuana just for the food are suspicious enough to require inspection.

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(BEGING TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A Cook's Map

1 Sanborns,

1233 Ave. Revolucion

2 Solo Cafe,

1432 Ave. Revolucion

3 H. Arnold,

1068 Ave. Revolucion

4 La Villa del Tabaco,

868 Ave. Revolucion

5 Gigante supermarket

6 El Kiosko, Constitucion

between 3rd and 4th streets

7 Cristaleria Dresden,

8073 3rd St.

8 Venecia, 8009 3rd St.

9 Panaderia la Tapatia,

1707 3rd St.

10 Tortilleria la Nueva

Unica, 1734 3rd St.

11 Paletas y Nieves Lindo

Michoacan, next door to

Tortilleria la Nueva Unica

12 Tortilleria la Adelita,

1109 Ave. Ninos Heroes

13 Tortilleria la Poblanita,

1810 7th St.

14 La Belle Claude,

8186-A 7th St.

15 L.A. Cetto Winery,

2108 Ave. Canon Johnson

Not on the map:

La Diferencia, 10611-A Blvd.

Sanchez Taboada, Zona Rio.

011-52-664- 634-3346.

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