Travelling to Tijuana, Mexico

In travelling to Tijuana, you find a city that's cleaned up its act and is suddenly, surprisingly, on the foodie map?.

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In travelling to Tijuana, you find a city that’s cleaned up its act and is suddenly, surprisingly, on the foodie map

The special tonight at La Querencia, a minimalist bistro near the banks of the Río Tijuana, is wild quail served in bittersweet chocolate sauce. Around me in the dining room, couples cluster at brushed stainless-steel tables, chatting in Spanish above a trance music soundtrack and moving steadily through bottles of wine from the nearby Guadalupe Valley. The energy and optimism in the room are a distant cry from the mood during the worst of la violencia – the drug-fuelled mayhem that two years ago had middle-class tijuanenses fleeing north of the border in droves. 

Since those dark days, Tijuana, Mexico, a city of some 1.5 million residents just across the U.S. border from San Diego, has done an abrupt – if largely unnoticed – about-face. A new, hard-nosed chief of police has worked to rein in the drug cartels, and residents have turned their energies inward, cultivating a sophisticated bar and restaurant scene and reinvigorating the arts and culture circuit. 

Not that you’d necessarily notice at first glance. The tawdry Tijuana of pop-culture legend still greets most of the visitors streaming in by foot or by car from California. On a hazy October morning, I make my way over the pedestrian bridge that spans Tijuana’s namesake river and am immediately plunged into a maze of taco stands, vendors hawking cheap handicrafts and bars advertising discount margaritas. 

For decades, this part of the city and its notorious main drag – Avenida Revolución – catered to girls and guys gone wild who would slip in from the U.S. for tequila-fuelled nights of dancing and debauchery. But in recent years the heart of Tijuana has migrated farther south to Zona Río, a thriving riverside district of boutiques and 
leafy side streets safely insulated from the border. 

I stroll down Paseo de Los Heroes, a stately boulevard flanked with art museums and new construction projects. Among the many subtle signs of Tijuana’s revival is a wave of progressive new restaurants here challenging conceptions of Mexican food as uninventive and tortilla-bound. I pass through a weathered wooden door framed with ivy and into the courtyard of La Diferencia, whose esoteric menu draws on ancient Aztec influences. Dishes are flavourful but not for the faint of heart. I start out with a plate of chapulines: deep-fried grasshoppers. “There’s a lot of protein. It’s the past food, but the future food too,” explains the owner, Juan Pablo Ussel. From there, it’s on to even more exotic culinary terrain. I tuck into a plate of huitlacoche, or corn smut – kernels covered with a blackish-blue fungus. 

When night falls, it’s back to colourful, kitschy Avenida Revolución, where I steer clear of the tourist traps and instead head for a corner of the neighbourhood recently reclaimed from the gringos: Calle Sexta, or Sixth Street. A crowd is outside of La Catrina, a tiny dive that’s wildly popular among the Tijuana university crowd. Inside, I squeeze to the bar and order the house specialty, pulque, a fermented cactus drink that traces its roots to Aztec times. Apparently, priests used pulque to sedate sacrifice victims. After a few sips, I see why. 

Much later, crowds migrate down 
the street to another local cantina, 
La Mezcalera, which serves dozens 
of varieties of artisanal mezcal, the strong, smoky liquor favoured by 
young tijuanenses over its more 
refined cousin, tequila. Around me, drinkers crack peanuts and shower 
the wood floor with the shells. A 
cheer goes up as a song starts on the jukebox. It’s Vicente Fernandez, the mustachioed crooner of traditional Mexican ranchera ballads. Amid a flourish of trumpets and accordions, people take to the cramped dance floor, circling round and round to the rhythm of the heavy, old waltz.



Tijuana is pleasantly warm and humid in the summer months (May-August), with mild and relatively dry winters (December-March).


Best Bed 

If you’re up for a drive, consider La Villa del Valle, a boutique inn and winery located 90 minutes southeast of the city in the heart of Baja wine country. Lavil


Best Meal 

Chef Miguel Angel Guerrero of La Querencia is an avid sportsman and prepares his quarry (from quail to sea bass) in a stylishly understated setting.


Can’t Miss

La Caja, an unusual art gallery built of reclaimed shipping containers, showcases the work of the city’s most prominent young artists.