Destigmatizing Tijuana: A day of food, culture and Umberto
“Promise me you won’t go to Tijuana.”
I’d been in San Diego all of three days, when my new boss — who recruited me from the Midwest — made it clear I was NOT to go wandering south of the border. It took him more than a year to fill my position, and he said he wasn’t going to risk having to start the process all over again due to my drunken kidnapping.
Two years (and one job change) later, I decided to brave the insidious dangers on the other side of the San Ysidro outlet mall. And BREAKING NEWS, Y’ALL: I made it back alive.
I don’t mean to be glib. As with traveling to any foreign country, or any large city, for that matter, there are some very real safety concerns. But as I learned during my impromptu day trip with Nicole of Funthusiast and Jolee of Wabisabi Green, there is a “right” way to do Tijuana, well inside the comfort zone of even the most neurotic of travelers.
Our goals for the trip: check out the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Tijuana Cultural Center, and eat lunch at Misión 19, created by celebrated Chef Javier Plascencia.
We started our trip by meeting at the Santa Fe Train Depot in downtown San Diego. From there, we took a Lyft down to the Mexicoach station in San Ysidro. (Next time, I’ll save some money and just drive down there myself, as there was parking available.) Mexicoach is ABSOLUTELY the way to go. For only $10 each roundtrip, we were able to bypass the lines on both sides of the border. The bus was comfortable and air conditioned. But the best part — the driver hooked us up with the incomparable Umberto.
Umberto, Umberto, Umberto. He was this tourist’s dream: an honest cab driver who spoke impeccable English, and knew every site in the city. He met us off the bus, and took us straight to the Cultural Center for only $3 (with a running commentary of everything we passed along the way). We made arrangements for him to pick us up in 90 minutes and take us to Misión 19.
The Cultural Center is a gorgeous, round building that reminded me in a strange way of M.C. Escher’s Drawing Hands. Inside, it was open, light and airy. The Frida exhibit was fantastic, full of photos from her private life. I’m by no means an art expert, but I enjoyed learning more about her fascinating story. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, so you’ll have to go see it yourself!
On the third floor was an…um…*interesting* exhibit called TJ in China. It was like a slightly more disturbing version of April’s performance art piece on Parks and Recreation.
But at least we were able to take pictures?
Like many Americans, I have a low tolerance for that which I don’t understand, so I amused myself by taking selfies. I was ready to leave when our 90 minutes were up. Umberto was outside waiting to whisk us away to one of the best meals I’ve had since moving to the West Coast.
Misión 19 is an absolutely gorgeous restaurant, on the second floor of the VIA Corporativo building. It was only a $2 cab ride from the Cultural Center.
We were quickly seated and served three delicate and delicious tuna tartare appetizers. Then came the holy grail: a platter of bread you could pick and choose from. That platter ended up coming back three times throughout the meal.
Then came our drink orders. Jolee ordered the Pepino Misionero (cucumber infused vodka sake with fresh mint and lemon), and Nicole ordered the Charro (jalapeño infused tequila with agave syrup and lime). Jolee said the Pepino Misionero was light and refreshing, without being too sweet. Nicole loved her spicy tequila drink, as well.
We decided to split an order of the grilled oysters appetizer. They were incredible. Juicy, flavorful and the right amount of crunch to balance out the texture of the meat.
Now for the entrees. I went with the twice-cooked pork belly with ribs and a plantain puree; Nicole ordered the beef tongue; and Jolee went with the pasta of the day — their take on spaghetti.
They came out about 10 to 15 minutes later. The service here is prompt and absolutely impeccable. We shared bites of our dishes — and they were all delicious. But I thought mine was the best. The pork belly and ribs melted in my mouth, and were rich without being overly fatty. And I couldn’t get enough of the sweet plantain puree.
Finally, I was the bad influence who cajoled us into ordering a dessert. My feeling is, if you’re treating yourself to such an exquisite dining experience, you might as well go all-out!
We ordered the goat cheese mousse with mango sorbet. It was visually stunning, but was the only component of the meal that fell a bit flat for me. While I wouldn’t throw it out of my gastronomical bed anytime soon, it just didn’t hit the same high notes as did the rest of the incredible food we ate.
With a generous tip, we each ended up paying $40 — a steal for the quality of the meal.
All in all, it was a fun little sojourn across the border, and a truly fantastic food experience. I was glad I went out of my comfort zone (if only for a few hours), and I’ll definitely be back!