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A Surprising Taste of Tijuana

The city where tourists go for trinkets isn't known for fine dining. But it should be.

June 12, 2002|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TIJUANA--This border city is as chaotic as ever, a brash jumble of shops selling T-shirts and cheap trinkets, liquor stores, auto repair places and tacky nightclubs, dental offices, pharmacies, money changers and taco grills, all jammed together without logic.

Tune this out, and visualize Tijuana as a place to go for great food and wine. Hard to believe? Perhaps, but an amazing food scene does exist here.

It's largely unknown to visitors, because most of them never see the restaurants--they head straight for Avenida Revolucion, with its honky-tonk bars and patient burros posing for photos. But there is fine dining to be found even there, and it's increasingly appreciated by Mexicans in the know, even by some savvy tourists.

It's not an overstatement to say that the food at Tijuana's better restaurants, many of them in the Zona Rio, a few blocks from the center of town, is world-class. La Diferencia, which opened there two years ago, brings in queso de cabra (goat cheese) from Puebla, moles from Puebla and Oaxaca, cecina (salted dried beef) from Morelos and crocodile meat from Sinaloa. (The crocodile is used for machaca, a special not on the printed menu.) Only about 30% of La Diferencia's customers are American.

Tijuana even has a celebrity chef, Martin San Roman, who is inventing a Baja-French-Mexican fusion style of cooking at Rincon San Roman on the outskirts of town. "Tijuana people are more interested in food and wine," he says. "They are becoming connoisseurs."

The population has grown remarkably. Tijuana is now Mexico's seventh largest city, with an estimated 1.3 million inhabitants. That is almost three times its population in the early 1980s. Growing in size and affluence, the city can support more and better places to eat.

But don't rule out Avenida Revolucion. There is lots to discover in this area, such as a Cuban espresso bar that could be in Havana, a charming French cafe, a serious winery, shops where you can buy tortillas that are incredibly light and fragrant, and stores that specialize in fine pottery and glassware. Prices are mostly reasonable--for example, freshly baked bolillos (soft rolls) cost about 15 cents. But don't be surprised to also find a sculptured glass vase for $400.

Our walking tour covers six blocks of Revolucion, heads three blocks to the west and doubles back to the L.A. Cetto Winery. For lunch, we'll wander a little farther, to La Diferencia.

Start early enough to arrive for breakfast. You can park on the California side of the border and take the Mexicoach shuttle to the depot just off Revolucion between 6th and 7th streets. Or drive over and park at the first stop, Sanborns, which is across the street from a Tijuana landmark, the jai alai fronton.

Massage parlors may border the parking lot, but Sanborns is a classy place, a chain that started in Mexico City in 1903. Locals meet in the large, cheerful dining room for generous breakfasts. A basket of pan dulce (sweet breads) appears as soon as you sit down, and waitresses start plying you with coffee. Notice their costumes. The striped skirts represent Puebla, the lacy white blouses Oaxaca and the crisp little huipils over the shoulders Nayarit.

Try huevos divorciados--two fried eggs that are "divorced" and therefore have separate salsas, one green the other red. Spoonfuls of beans and chilaquiles keep them apart. Sweet mole sauce covers huevos sincronizados--fried eggs on tortillas stacked with ham and cheese. Another option is chilaquiles, fried tortilla strips mixed with salsa and chicken.

Breakfasts come with juice, coffee and grilled, buttered bolillos. They're inexpensive, a little more than $4 for the divorced eggs and $5 for the chilaquiles. You pay extra for special drinks such as a frothy, pale chartreuse blend of orange juice and nopal cactus.

Sanborns' large store offers a wide variety of quality merchandise--books, perfumes, jewelry, electronic products, leather goods, CDs by Latino artists, pastries, dainty chocolate candies and typical crafts. Standouts recently were blue-rimmed, handblown glasses with intricately painted ceramic stems by Quimineral, as well as Letitia Guevara's miniature ceramic reproductions of colonial buildings, including a kitchen like that of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla, where mole poblano was created. You could take that charming little kitchen home for about $118.

Farther down Revolucion, H. Arnold displays dining accessories in Puebla's famous Talavera ware. This shop also offers a large assortment of place mats and runners hand-woven in Santo Tomas Jalieza, a town in the state of Oaxaca where a women's cooperative runs the weaving business. The mats are $6 each--a lot more than in Santo Tomas, where a set of eight runs about $12, but think what you're saving on air fare. Handsome glass vases at H. Arnold can cost up to $400--that's for a jumbo, angular blue vase that is more of a work of art than a flower holder.

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