Anthony Bourdain In Baja: It's No Donkey Show
|The Travel Channel|
|Bourdain looking over at the U.S. border from Tijuana.|
Welcome to Tijuana...it takes less than an hour from San Diego to get there...and about six hours to get back because of border patrol and immigration. Apparently no one is worried about people crossing the border into Mexico. On a personal note - I've been to Tijuana. Before I went, my semi-boyfriend at the time, who traveled to Mexico frequently on business, told me not to bother, "it's the shit stain on the underwear of the world," I vividly recall him saying. I went anyway, had some really good tacos and beer, shopped for asthma medication and codeine, and purchased a few magic spells at the local botanica. If you've ever been to Coney Island in Brooklyn, you've basically been to Tijuana. Sad buildings, once brightly painted, have faded in the sun. Even the Rio Tijuana, a major impediment to illegal border crossing, was reduced to a little trickle. Bars, shops, and restaurants are mostly empty. There are hookers and shady characters (and yes - there are several places where you can watch a "donkey show") -- but you don't bother them, they don't bother you. It's more sad then dangerous -- and a pain in the ass to get back across the border to the United States.
Tony Bourdain tells us that after 2006, when the new President Calderon decided to do something about drug trafficking, the violence became spectacularly lurid. Tourists got scared. Business fell off. He looks out at the surf, and the border, which continues out past the waves. The same waves which are shared by San Diego.
Tijuana's economy was built on serving the darker side of us Americans, which grew up as a reaction to prohibition. Americans came south wanting booze, gambling, and hookers. Post 9/11, people stopped coming to Tijuana. "The streets are dead," Tony Tee, a lawyer-turned-nightlife promoter tells us. But what has come about is a new food movement. Restaurants are popping up, with chefs using very old recipes taking little bits and influence from street food,as Tony tucks into some beef tongue with red wine vinaigrette and morcilla -- the Mexican version of blood sausage.
When in Mexico it's time to drink tequila, so Tony goes to Dandy Del Sur an institution for those wanting alcohol for 29 years. He then moves across the street to La Mezcalera, where he has a few flights of Mezcal and some grasshoppers as bar snacks.
A drunk Tony finds a large pink limousine waiting for him. The Pepto-Bismol-colored vehicle doesn't start and as a crowd forms to watch "the big stupid gringo in the douche nozzle car", the policia come to jump start the beast. So it's off to taco alley, which is a street full of taco stands. Tony must be wasted, because he can't identify a chorizo. There's a sign for a restaurant called Tacos El Paisano. I would love to try that place.
The next morning's sun shines furiously at Tony, who tells it how much he hates it. Tony meets his local contact, Ivan and Nortec Collective member Pepe on a quiet spot on the beach, where they drink micheladas and eat seafood. The restaurant has a nautical theme...not because they're on the Pacific..but because Titanic was filmed right up the road.
More stops for food include a visit to KFB (Kentucky Fried Buches). Which is fried chicken neck, "the late night snack for cheap ass drunk people." Then it's off to get a real Ensenada fish taco.
The beach is filled with harbor seals and music. At Tacos Lily, Tony eats what he says is his first real authentic Mexican fish taco. Technically, it's a shark taco, but it's fantastic according to our host.
Popotla is a little seaside town where a small low-budget movie was once filmed. Maybe you've heard of it -- Titanic? Oysters, crabs, lobster are all mainstays of the restaurants here. Pick most any of the stands, grab a beer and wait for the catch of the day. Chop the sucker up and throw it in hot oil. Tony downs both a giant lobster and a monstrous crab while enjoying the sounds of the surf.
A visit to Mexican Wine Country feels like Tuscany. The weather and soil south of San Diego resembles the wine country in northern California. Benito Molina Manzanilla is a television show host and chef. He explains to Tony that the restaurants here use Mediterranean ingredients, Mexican recipes, with some classical French techniques thrown in.
As Tony meets with some local chefs for a little motorcycling on the beach and a barbeque of blue fin tuna, grilled oysters, and craft beer, he muses that this is like Napa, only better. "Mexico has a lot of big problems, but its our neighbor. Possibly closer to us than Canada. I Don't know if ingredients and an exciting food community will turn things around for Baja. But in a perfect world -- it should."
Now if they could only get the border crossing down to under four hours, I might take that drive south from San Diego again.
Follow Short Order on Facebook and Twitter @Short_Order.