To most Americans, the chorus from a Manu Chao song pretty much sums it up, "Welcome to Tijuana, tequila, sexo, marijuana...." For decades, Tijuana has just been known, at best, as a place for tacky souvenirs, cheap tequila shots and ladies of the night.
The food? Not even an afterthought, until now.
"It's a whole new Tijuana, it's full of energy, young people, artists, and of course the cooking and the chefs," says Javier Plascencia, one of the chefs leading Baja's new culinary movement. He's part of a prominent family that owns 10 restaurants in Tijuana and San Diego. But Plascencia's newest, Mision 19, may be the most striking and ambitious spot in town.
"If you dropped it in any market in the U.S. right now, as is, it would be one of the top restaurants in the United States," says Los Angeles food writer, Bill Esparza. He says it's no surprise that Mision19 and other local hotspots are thriving and suggests that it's something in the water.
"They've got seven of the nine most expensive seafood products coming out of the waters there. All these contemporary chefs, with modern techniques, are using these ingredients," Esparza says.
Esparza points out food carts selling sea urchin cocktails and Kumamoto oysters. In the past, he says, these local delicacies were mostly exported to Asia and the U.S. He says more are staying at home now, thanks to chefs like Plascencia and Miguel Angel Guerrero, a fourth-generation Tijuana native.
"What I want to express in my cuisine is how Baja is. Express the way the people I know, the fishermen, the hunters, the people who live in the mountains, in the desert," Guerrero explains.
Guerrero calls his cooking "Baja-Med," which he describes as a combination of Mexican, Asian and Mediterranean influences.
"Baja has this climate. Ninety percent of the wine produced in Mexico is from Baja. We produce olive oil, everything you see in the Mediterranean, we have it," Guerrero says.
The other big advantage of the region, says Bill Esparza, is that chefs here have more freedom to experiment than they do in other parts of Mexico.
"The big thing is that Baja is not bound by tradition like Puebla or Oaxaca or Veracruz, where you have to do it this way or your grandmother will slap you. In Baja, they have traditions, but they're free to do it however they want," Esparza says.
On a recent Friday night at Mision 19, the dining room fills with parties of chic locals and small groups of Americans who've come down to check out the scene. Mimi Zeiger sips cocktails on the balcony with friends from Los Angeles.
"There's actually a local Tijuana, there's an 'authentic-ness' to it. Almost how Brooklyn has found its local voice, reclaiming the pickles and bagels and that history, Tijuana is finding its own histories," Zeiger says.
But in fact, that history has always included food. After all, this is the place where the world-famous Caesar Salad was created during Tijuana's Prohibition-era heyday, right here, says regular Norma Avakian, at Caesar's Restaurant on Avenida Revolucion.
"It's a beautiful experience. It brings back old memories, old times ... Tijuana how it used to be," Avakian says.
Today, the streets of Tijuana might be a bit rougher, but that isn't stopping young chefs like Oso Campos, a recent graduate of the local culinary school. At his food stand, Tacos Kokopelli, Campos is making ceviche with squid ink and Asian sauces. A steady stream of customers line up for dishes like the "gringos on vacation" taco. That's shrimp in adobo sauce -- as hot and red as a sunburned tourist.
As for those tourists, many stopped coming when the violence of Mexico's drug war gripped the city, hitting its peak around four years ago. The town is much safer now, but chef Javier Plascencia says those crowds might not be coming back.
"That tourism we had for many years, the young college guys, I think that's gone. That two-for-one beers, the Corona beers, I think that's dead," Plascencia says.
That's not necessarily the worst thing, he says. After years of living off its bad reputation, Tijuana is ready for a new type of visitor, one who appreciates the quality and freshness of Baja's regional cuisine.