The capital of the ‘other’ California is a sensory delight for Neil Sowerby

BEWARE generalisations. “All border towns bring out the worst in people.” The words of Mexican detective Vargas, hero of Orson Welles’ classic film noir, A Touch of Evil, which is set (though not filmed there) in a widescreen approximation of Tijuana.

Nórtico speakeasy cocktails that hark back to that Prohibition era when Tijuana had its last golden age

Shadowy, seedy, violent, borderline – movie stereotypes stick. Chuck in the country’s more recent reputation for drug cartels and organised crime along with Trump’s fixation on That Wall, 30ft prototypes of which are in place near Tijuana, and there’s a bad press to overcome.

We overcame it instantly on a glorious day trip to this capital of Baja (Lower) California state, which has so much in common with its richer Northern namesake. Not least the food. Which brings us to Caesar Salad.

Back in the 1920s Tijuana was called Satan’s Playground by American preachers aghast at their fellow countrymen fleeing Prohibition to have a Las Vegas style wild time just across the border. 

180520 Cesar 180520 Caesar Prep 180520 Salad 180520 Caesars 180520 Hotel Caesars

Caesar Cardini ran restaurants here and in San Diego, USA, 20 miles up the the road. On the Fourth of July 2014 a rush of customers depleted kitchen supplies in Tijuana, so Italian-born Caesar tossed together at table all the salad ingredients left. It was a hit, word spread and even Hollywood stars flew down regularly to order a ‘Caesar Salad’.

Whether today’s recipe was there from the start I’m not sure, but a major pleasure of our visit to the historic Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolucion was to watch our waiter stirring together lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, egg, Worcester Sauce, anchovies, Dijon mustard, Parmesan and black pepper to enhance a simple green salad with croutons.

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This might be reason enough to take the 45 minute light railway ride from downtown San Diego (recommended, the traffic is often gridlocked) then stroll through passport control. But there is lots more to lure a foodie, much of it less heritage and more of a street/craft persuasion. A good way to explore is by booking a specialist tour as we did. 

Tijuana with a million and a half population, is Mexico’s fifth largest city with many poor districts that might be less than charming. Avoid all that by boarding Turista Libre’s private bus.  

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Journalist Derrik Chin relocated from the Mid-West a decade ago. He loves Tijuana. The goal of his ‘Liberated Tourist’ itineraries is to help you experience Mexico more like an insider. Take your pick of food and drink, culture, street art, architecture, wine routes, wrestling, even a politically angled ‘Border Proximity Pilgrimage, where you visit three iconic spots along the existing San Diego-Tijuana border fence, the end of which trails 100 yards into the Pacific.

180520 Norte Brewing 180520 Norte 180520 Beef Telefonica

Lunch on that jaunt is at one of Tijuana’s gastro parks, possibly the one we visited our food-centric tour –Telefonica. With its street food counters (order double helping of rabbit tacos) and craft ale pours it could easily be in one of San Diego hipper quarters; ditto, the Norte Brew Co, situated surprisingly in an old strip club on the fifth floor of a parking garage. Sip a Penthouse IPA and enjoy the stunning views across the city.

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Our next port of call was a different beast. Tijuana and San Diego seem blood brothers here. Oryx Capital is a sophisticated, very West Coast bar/small plate restaurant, where chef-owner Ruffo Ibarra specialises in the wines of the Guadalupe Valley (known as Mexico’s Napa) and in his Nórtico speakeasy cocktails that hark back to that Prohibition era when Tijuana had its last golden age. Pictures of Al Capone and vintage bootleggers emphasise the theme. 

I’d recommend the Agua Caliente, named for the mob’s favourite casino nearby that was originally built on a hot spring. This blend of joven mezcal, Mexican brandy, Pedro Ximenez sherry, and house chocolate bitters is smoked to order with smouldering hickory in a wine decanter.

180520 Coco 180520 Cactus 180520 Chillies 180520 Cheeses 180520 Spices 180520 Marketunicorns

It’s hard to believe the produce in the traditional markets has changed since the old days. The bustling Mercado Miguel Hidalgo is a showcase for every kind of dried chilli, spice, the ripest of fruit… and for those who loved (count me in) Coco, Pixar’s radiant Oscar-winning homage to the Mexican Day of the Dead all the souvenirs you could ever wish for.

Great fun but from a visit to the Tijuana Cultural Center in the Zona Rio I carried away a different ghostly image of Mexico, created by an artist born in Clayton-le-Woods near Preston. 

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Futuristic Tijuana Cultural Center

Inside this great adobe globe of a pile celebrating all the arts there’s a picture  gallery, where I stumbled upon the eerie print below, unmistakably the work of surrealist Leonora Carrington, whose centenary it was last year. She lived most of her adult life in Mexico City. 

180520 Carrington Tijuana

My own fleeting taste of Tijuana created a craving to see more of the country she was so fascinated by. Next time, amigos, it will be south to the Guadalupe wine country and beyond.

Fact file

Neil Sowerby stayed at the Kimpton Hotel Palomar, 1047 5th Avenue, San Diego CA 92101. This downtown boutique hotel is on the doorstep of the city’s fun hub, the Gaslamp Quarter, and close to the rail line that will whisk you down to the border. Sharpen your Tijuana tastebuds at the hotel’s own authentic Mexican restaurant, the Curadero, with its late night taco window. Guest rooms and suites offer spectacular views of downtown San Diego, with several boasting floor-to-ceiling windows. Prices start from £150.

British Airways offers flights from £651 return and operate a daily year-round flight to San Diego from London Heathrow Airport. 

Check out what Turista Libre has to offer here.  

Neil was a guest of San Diego Tourism Authority.  Read his lowdown on the top things to do in California’s beach city – 15 Fabulous ‘Good To Go’s in San Diego.