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Anthony Bourdain In Baja: It's No Donkey Show

bourdainbaja.jpg
The Travel Channel
Bourdain looking over at the U.S. border from Tijuana.
We start with a Mexican street band playing a traditional folk song, " Welcome to Tijuana. You go south to shop for tequila and women and leave behind all your problems."

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.

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20 comments
R Silv
R Silv

What is very important to understand is that Tijuana was catering to tourists for cheap partying and pharmaceutical drugs, but at the same time, the city has had a growing middle class and therefore restaurants, nightlife, etc.. for the locals. So, while gringos were still partying away at crappy joints on avenida revolucion, the city was booming and undiscovered by them. Sometimes even just a five minute drive away.   

I grew up in San Diego and spent most of my weekends in Tijuana, my memories are ALL POSITIVE. Hanging out downtown with my mother, eating and buying things. Going to the movies at Cinepolis VIP where you have reclinable leather chairs, alcohol, and crepes. Hanging out at Sotano Suizo drinking craft beer and eating amazing sandwiches while watching soccer games and listening to Depeche Mode and the Smiths. Hanging out at the beach in Playas de Tijuana and eating breakfast with my family at the amazing vegetarian restaurant El Yogurt Place. Attending electronic music festivals in Sal Si Puedes. Partying until 4am at Plaza Fiesta, then later doing a taco. Getting my haircut with all of the awesome hairdressers in Tijuana. Attending cultural art festivals and movies at CECUT. Hanging out with some of the most creatively dressed musicians, artists in the world (yes, I said world. I am well traveled and have lived in other countries, tijuanenses are fashionable cool, hip people). 

After I discovered this side of Tijuana, I rarely went out in San Diego. It just didn't compare. The city is a huge hodge pode of negatives and positives. Unfortunately most Americans don't want to see Tijuana as what it is: a normal, huge city with good areas, bad areas, good people, bad people, etc...

Enrique Garcia Solis
Enrique Garcia Solis

The show was a disappointment for me. His viewpoint seems that of a bum. Tijuana is better than his conduct implies. I think San Francisco has more to offer as to what he likes.

Beast
Beast

I wonder how many armed guards protected the cast and crew on this trip. You are just a heartbeat away from taking a stray round or an abduction and beheading in these border towns.

Arturo
Arturo

By the way, Anthony Bourdain was just here yesterday, that tells you something. It's the second time in this year. I am pretty sure this city is not the shit stain in the underwear. Many americans cross the border for medical attention, groceries, gas and good food. And yes many live here and I'm pretty sure that they do because they fell in love with the city. I invite you as a Restaurant owner and chef to experience the boom in the culinary industry in Baja among other things it has to offer.

Genaro from Tijuana
Genaro from Tijuana

Laine, I guess you wrote this very quickly after you saw the show and there are a few mistakes that you could fix. First of all Tijuana is 20 minutes from Downtown San Diego which although technically less than an hour is a better description of the closeness of the two cities. When coming back across the border the wait is usually between 30 minutes and 2 hours. VERY rarely if at all does it take 6 hours to return. The "donkey show" is a legend and you state that you can watch it in several places which is a lie or misinformation on your part. The mezcal bar you mentioned is actually named La Mezcalera and it's Nortec Collective.

Feel free to visit Tijuana. I can assure you the wait is less than what you think.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

That's funny, Beast, I was down there this past weekend and I didn't see any abductions, beheadings, murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, or really anything. The only thing I saw out of the ordinary was a yellow VW Bug that needed a jump at the checkpoint in the Valle de Guadalupe.

I've been down there probably 20-30 times in the last few years and the only time I saw anything out of the ordinary was a drug bust on the toll road, which could have happened anywhere.

Scott
Scott

Beast.....shame on you.  It's comments like this that keep the tourist away.  Most of the drug violence is located in East Tijuana far away from the tourist area.

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

 Beast:  The only deterrent I would have of not going back to Tijuana immediately is the long and funky trip back across the border to the U.S.  I hear it's not so bad by airplane...but by private car, it's a nightmare.

Pancho from Tijuana
Pancho from Tijuana

 Genaro your are right about the donkey shows. Why most gringos are fixated about donkey shows when they have their own freak sex shows which makes a donkey show looks like a picnic in the park. Message to all gringos donkey shows do not exist in Tijuana it is and it was a legend made up to satisfy your twisted perverted minds.

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

 Hi Genaro:  I have been to Tijuana.  It took slightly less than an hour to get from the Old Town area of San Diego to downtown Tijuana.  It took us nearly six hours to get back.  Border and Immigration made everyone get out of their cars and buses and walk individually through immigration and customs. Each person was searched and questioned.  Then we went back into our cars and the cars were searched. The process was slow and painful. There were signs for Donkey Shows in downtown. Whether or not they were simulated tourist junk, I don't know (and I'm probably sure they were) because I didn't bother to find out.  And while the border issue wasn't the fault of the town -- it was a deterrent for me to go back since.

Genaro from Tijuana
Genaro from Tijuana

 Check out Tacos Aaron, Tacos Walter, Mariscos Don Tony that are only open on weekends from about 1 AM to 5 AM, Pizzas Al Volo at calle 6ta also for late night partiers and Carnitas Tio Pepe.

Hugo
Hugo

Sentri pass lines 1 to 5 minutes ($139.25 dllrs for 5 years). Ready Line 5 to 45 minutes (Otay border no cost). Regular lines 15 min to 2 hrs. 

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Laine, no offense, but if it took you an hour from downtown San Diego to the border crossing, you either took the trolley or you went fifteen miles an hour. Downtown SD is fifteen miles from mile 0 on the 5 freeway.

On the way back, it usually takes an hour to two hours, unless you're an idiot and are trying to cross back at 7 p.m. on Sunday, in which case it's four hours. (Part of the problem is that they are doing construction on the San Ysidro crossing, which has halved the number of available lanes and pushed cars to Otay Mesa and even to Tecate.)

When I crossed back on foot Saturday night at 9 p.m., I was fourth in line.

Scott
Scott

Laine......Get a SENTRI Pass to exit the border and quit complaining.  Regarding donkey shows.....I can personally attest they did exist in the early 1960's (63-64) for a brief time.  If my memory serves me correct, I saw the show at the Blue Fox or Green Note. 

Diego H
Diego H

Theres no such thing as donkey show ANd of course no signs of that on the streets.

David_i_perez
David_i_perez

Laine, you´re right, the donkey shows are mostly signs for tourists, not actual shows. Regarding your second paragragh, the second half of it, you mention the ¨Rio Grande¨. It´s actually the Rio Tijuana. the Rio Grande, at least where it borders, starts in El Paso-Juarez all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Good objective article, shame on your ex semi boyfirend´s opinion, I do not think any country deserves to be called ¨shit stain on the underwear¨.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

There are Ready Lanes at the San Ysidro garita now too... you have to have a passport card to use them, which costs money to get (but not as much as a SENTRI pass). You can also, if you go to the right places, get a fastpass to use the ambulance lane with the entrance on Calle Segunda.

Laine Doss
Laine Doss

 David:

I agree with you, but the "shit stain" comment actually only made me want to go there to see for myself more.  I forgot to mention the good market next to the tourist zone and the cheap prices.  I liked Tijuana....but man, was the border crossing back to the states insanely bad.

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