Touring Tijuana, taco by taco

Ever since I hit “book” for our SoCal plane tickets a few months ago, Mike has said we just have to go to Tijuana while we’re there. I wasn’t exactly opposed, but I was nervous.

There’s a pandemic, and I sure as hell don’t want to be trapped in another country where my Spanish is limited to what I learned through fifth grade. Also, on every Botched episode I’ve ever seen, all of the sad plastic surgery patients got their super shady procedures in Tijuana. And finally, if Mike spent many fuzzy nights there during his time as a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, it’s probably not the safest place to hang out. 

But once we were in San Diego, it seemed easy enough, especially when I looked up the drive – 20 minutes from our hotel. I told Mike I wanted to be back in the States by 6 p.m. and once we got to a parking lot that was very clearly marketed to people heading to Tijuana just for the day, I felt a little better. I felt even better when a bus parked in our lot agreed to drive us there and back for $20 round trip and we breezed through customs as some of the only people in the entire building. 

Driving into Tijuana, even only minutes from clean, smiley, calm San Diego, was a clear journey into another place. Tiny cars sandwiched in front of each other to make maneuvers that would make me sweat. Most storefronts were shuttered, but taco stands and carts draped with plastic still had seats full, with everyone from women in embroidered dresses to men with holed t-shirts. The bus dropped us off at a corner and told us they would pick us up a few hours later. 

We strolled down the main drag, which was a typical tourist trap. Every enclave hawked the same Tijuana magnets, hats and jewelry, and every shop owner had a clever line they would shout that would make you laugh, make you check out their items or make you mad. Sprawling bars screamed about buckets of beers and Mexican food, spelled out in English. Donkeys were painted as zebras, and chubby white women gladly put on sombreros for an overpriced photo with them. 

I had really wanted to do a taco tour in Tijuana but due to COVID-19, all of the ones I contacted were not operating. So, we asked a friendly server for his favorite taco spots and we followed his prescribed three blocks down, four blocks right. A modest walk into another land. 

Now, no one was joking around to convince us to buy a cheap trinket, and they seemed confused that two gringos were sitting at their taco stand. But they handed us a taco anyway, although I wondered why this birria taco looked more like a breaded piece of eggplant. “Cabeza y lengua mixta,” I heard halfway through. It was a tongue and head taco. 

Los Angeles: A tale of two cities

But it was delicious nonetheless. It had been unceremoniously splattered, in a no-nonsense way, with beans and red salsa. We scarfed them down before hopping off the stools, ready for the next stand. 

The options were endless. But we stopped at a stand busy even at 3 p.m. – always a good sign – and I ordered a steak taco and Mike got marlin. It was piled high with a spicy mayo and cabbage. These weren’t one of the modest packs-of-three tacos from the Mexican restaurant on our block. I was full, stuffed-full. 

But wandering through these mostly-empty, cracked streets, it was clear I didn’t belong, and I felt it. Because I could leave.

San Clemente: Why isn’t choosing paradise over Jersey easy?

At the end of this day, I would escape whatever treachery usually befell Tijuana by nighttime. I would be back strolling past the fountain of San Diego’s Little Italy, an overpriced ice cream cone in my hand and asking Mike to take a picture of me with my brand new iPhone. But these people would be here, a place that was within walking distance but yet they could not legally leave permanently. They would still be limited to the jobs they could find there, the food, the safety. All because this just happened to be where they were born.

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