Tell your friends you are heading to Tijuana for a short trip, and they may wonder why that destination.
Tell your car insurance company you are crossing the border, and they will ask where, why and for how long.
Tell your significant other, and he or she will remind you this isn’t an excuse to ignore them, that your phone plan sprawls across North America, and to drop a location pin.
But whatever you do, you may want to think twice about telling your mother, given a recent Los Angeles Times report about Tijuana’s climbing homicide rate.
On the road to Tijuana
I recruited a travel companion; we never encountered any trouble but we did find some amazing and healthful cuisine.
“Don’t worry, I packed snacks,” my travel companion told me. Snacks, a road-trip staple, were not top-of-mind — though appreciated — for a trip of less than 200 miles each way.
It took me a moment to comprehend why this would make my list of “worries” when going to Tijuana, until it hit me: He is vegan (cool), he doesn’t drink alcohol (all right), and we had our sights set on a city known as “Vegas before Vegas was Vegas.” Ah, excellent choice of travel companion, I thought.
Many who maintain a vegan diet for ethical reasons find it seeps into aspects of their lives outside of what they eat. The idea: Exist in a space that does the least harm to animals, humans and the environment.
I pulled a piece of vegan jerky from a reusable bag and wondered: Can we really find enough cruelty-free cuisine for my companion?
At that point, the only death I feared was that of boredom.
But the more my thoughts came together, along with insight into his life choices, the more I realized the sober, vegan side of Tijuana is what I needed to experience right now.
It’s easy being green
I am a terrible planner and an even worse traveling partner. I don’t have a driver’s license. I am inherently lazy and cheap. But I am also the kind of traveler who looks to fully submerge myself in culture, shop at mom-and-pop stores and eat in hole-in-the-wall restaurants that would have made Anthony Bourdain cringe.
To be vegan is to understand the lay of the land ahead of time, if you, unlike me, are a good planner. You should commit the basics to memory: Mole (made from chiles, tomatillos, dried fruits, sugar, spices, nuts and tortillas) should be safe. Pozole (Mexican stew) can be vegan if made with vegetable broth.
Luckily, my traveling companion is responsible and resourceful and also figured out his car insurance covered up to 30 miles into Mexico without purchasing an additional plan.
We arrived at the border after sunset on a Saturday evening, which made for a stunning introduction to a city of dazzling lights scattered across hills as far as I could see. By the time I caught my breath, we were past security — waved through by guards without papers checked — and on our way to the hotel.
Our chic beachside Airbnb had to cancel because of flooding, so we ended up at the Holiday Inn Tijuana Zona Río. Sometimes, you resort to using points instead of pivoting.
I used the complimentary Wi-Fi to look up restaurants and activities —sin carne, queso y cervezas — to fill our itinerary. We called it a night despite the allure of the clubs. I had already had my fill of Tijuana’s flashing lights.
Everything but the beach
Tijuana, like much of Mexico, predominantly subscribes to Catholicism. On that recent Sunday morning, the city certainly wasn’t sleepy. Cars whipped around roundabouts and there was no shortage of open retail options, but a finger on the pulse felt as though a lot of people were in church.
We took this as an opportunity to slide into the Mercado Hidalgo — parking within the U-shaped market can be impossible — to get a sense of the local specialties, such as jamaica (dried hibiscus flowers), moringa (a popular superfood powder), maiz morado y azul (purple and blue corn) and more than 10 varieties of chiles. Bustling markets such as this one tend to have an abundance of pungent raw meat and fish, but Mercado Hidalgo was mild.
On the way to Playas de Tijuana, we stopped at Cocina del Sr. Conejo for battered-and-fried seaweed-wrapped tofu “fish” tacos, pozole and ceviche de coco. I walked off the extra bites I took (the all-vegan restaurant doesn’t use single-use containers) by admiring artists’ graffiti and hand-painted signs along the boardwalk.
I also stopped for a coco solo from Mariscos Colima’s takeout window, where a man with a machete scooped out the flesh (later finished with a squeeze of lime and dash of spice) and handed me the drained juice in a bag with a straw.
I perused Huerto Urbano Organico’s vegan hotcakes with queso mascarpone and marzipan latte and debated stockpiling harina sin gluten (gluten-free flour), agave honey, mantequilla de cacao (cacao butter) and other affordable pantry staples that would break my bank in L.A.
Sin carne y cervezas
Avenida Revolución is not as anarchist as it sounds. It’s Tijuana’s tourist center — formed, in part, during Prohibition, when the city’s popularity took off, thanks to trouble seekers from the United States — but somewhat stuck in time.
The walkable downtown hosts the plant-based deli Gardeno (I’ll be back for the vegan lox bagel zanmón and raw cheesecake), historic Hotel Caesar’s (where the namesake salad was invented) and brew bar Container Coffee Roaster, which prepares coffee five ways: V0, AeroPress, Chemex, siphon and French press.
Next to the hipster coffee shop sits Doratto, a new and vintage clothing store stocked with local designers’ works. Across the street, I spotted Cine Tonalá, a movie theater, eatery and comedy venue that offers a rooftop view. Nearby Casa Cacao is where you’ll want to get your mole fix atop a tamal acelga (chard tamale smothered with mole) and ask the owner for a gordita vegano.
Also on your list in the area should be Telefónica Gastro Park, which features food trucks such as Taqueria Veggie (check out the “pork rind” tostadas de cueritos and queso de coco, although the cebollitas, or spring onions, steal the show), a craft brewery with three kombuchas on tap, and the Tijuana Cultural Center, which was almost too kid-friendly and accommodating of English speakers.
If Cuban cigars are your thing (some don’t believe tobacco is vegan), La Casa del Habano is your spot.
As we headed back, I checked border traffic online and patiently awaited our U.S. arrival; it took about two hours on a Monday evening to get through Customs. My travel companion gave the last of his pesos to two kids bartering quick magic tricks for cash.
If you come to Tijuana, whatever you do, please tell your mom — and invite her along. Tell her hipsterdom is the more visible crisis in this welcoming border town. Tell her I sent you.
If you go
The best way to Tijuana
Interstate 805 south to the San Ysidro Port of Entry or the Cross Border Xpress pedestrian bridge at Tijuana airport (both open 24 hours). Check live wait times online.
Where to stay
Holiday Inn Tijuana Zona Río, 18818 Paseo de los Héroes, Tijuana. Doubles from $95 a night. On-site well-lighted complimentary self-parking. Clean suite included a safe.
Where to eat
Casa Cacao, 8172 Calle Benito Juárez Segunda, Tijuana. Vegan-friendly Oaxacan restaurant with a retail space in front. Two dishes (tamale and gorditas) for $7.
Telefónica Gastro Park, 8860 Boulevard Agua Caliente, Tijuana. Indoor/outdoor gastro park with food trucks and a craft kombucha brewery. Dinner for two $13.
Gardeno, 1501 Avenida C Niños Héroes, Tijuana. Stylish plant-based deli and cafe serving sandwiches, bagels and toasts with a small selection of groceries and home goods. Lunch for two $12.
Where to drink
Container Coffee Roaster, 1348 Avenida Revolución, Tijuana. Artisanal offerings and beans available for purchase. $2-$4 per cup.
Mariscos Colima, 487 Avenida del Pacífico,Tijuana.
Restaurant on the westside beach with a takeout window for purchasing whole coconuts. $2-$3 per coconut.
Casa del Habano, 1115 Avenida Revolución, Tijuana.
Cuban cigar shop with an espresso bar inside the smoking lounge.