Friday, October 30, 2009

7 things they do better in Mexico

Mariscos Ruben

Our recent return to Tijuana was as fun as the first Baja food marathon. Baja sometimes feels more Mediterranean than Californian -- even at taco trucks, entire families are fashionably dressed and luxuriating the day away over ceviche tostadas in a far more relaxed way than you see in the U.S.
And, yes, Tijuana is safe, as long as you exercise normal precautions that you would traveling anywhere. We might have been pushing it a bit traipsing around the red light district at 2 am in search of Kentucky Fried Buches (chicken necks), but at no point was there ever a hint of danger.
Here's a few of my favorite things that are different about Mexico -- even just over the border in Tijuana.

1) Beer bucket senoritas: Mexico's answer to the pitcher of beer is the beer bucket. Whether at a seafood restaurant, an evening spot with entertainment or an outdoor tequila festival, you're likely to find roving senoritas with plastic buckets filled with ice and local beers. What better way to wash down a dozen tequila samples?
2) Mexican hipster bars: If you've been to the Little Joy one too many times, thinking you're really slumming it, than the logical next step is La Mezcalera. Joy Division on the jukebox; cute 19 year old Baja chicks and guys (the drinking age is 18, of course), a couple dozen varieties of mescal snowcones (try the guayaba) served in vintagey aluminum tumblers -- can't we just transplant this place to Highland Park?
3) Octopus and olive tacos: La Cahua del Yeyo specializes in Sonoran seafood stews, soups and tacos, and their octopus tacos with tangy green olives are stewed carefully so that the octopus remains relatively tender, making for a genius combination of flavors. These complex seafood dishes are normally eaten for breakfast or brunch, so get there by 2 p.m.

4) Hibiscus tacos: As a jamaica fan, I've had jamaica margaritas, popsicles and other things based on the rosy, tangy hibiscus flower (shown above at Tijuana's central market). But I had never had it in a main course before, the way Baja-Med restaurant La Querencia does it in their tacos with homemade tortillas and goat cheese. Innovative dishes like this -- as well as the fresh venison tacos we tried -- make La Querencia one of the top two or three restaurants in Tijuana.5) Fried salted garlic as a snack food: I saw this excellent snack for sale in the Oaxacan foods booth at the Tequila Expo. No flour or potato starch, just pure crunchy garlicosity. Share some with your lover. Yes, that's a stray grasshopper at bottom, escaped from the adjacent chapulines basket.6) Most amazing seafood truck ever: I'm just going to go ahead and name Mariscos Ruben the best seafood truck anywhere. Go ahead, name a better one, I'm there. It's no ordinary truck, it's more of a full scale restaurant hidden in a truck. Inside the truck, a couple of ladies arrange meaty, just-shucked crab claws in perfect circles. Along the side of the truck is a stainless steel counter with barstool seating. The seating and ordering area is enclosed with a plastic awning -- if you're claustrophobic, take your seafood to the adjacent park and eat on the grass. In an annex opposite the truck, Ruben or his cooks (men take care of the grilling) will grill up dishes like clams au gratin with fresh clams, cheese, octopus and shrimp on a mesquite-fired grill. But my favorite dish here, and possibly my favorite of the whole trip, was the shrimp tacos enchilados or spicy shrimp tacos, dripping with a chile and butter-laden sauce. Even if you're just cruising through Tijuana, Mariscos Ruben would be easy to hit since it's on one of the main roads, across from Costco.7) Seafood restaurants that get it all right. L.A.'s Mexican seafood restaurants never seem to put all the elements together properly -- either the food is solid but the ambiance is dreary, as at Mariscos Chente, or even worse, decent atmosphere, bad food as at any number of places. In Mexico, it's snap to find a place like La Palmera, that not only puts together the requisite oilcloth-covered picnic tables, open air pavilion, cold cervezas and jukebox, but serves up massive fresh shrimp coctels, scallop ceviche, Pismo clams and meaty grilled corvina fish.

See much more detail on these places and more at the blog of our fearless leader, StreetgourmetLA.


Johanna said...

love it. looks so yum and i bet it is. i'm a foodie myself and this post makes me drool. great info!

Mlle Paradis said...

This was a great post! Thanks for that. I'm starting the car right now........and heading south of the border!

Food GPS said...

Great write-up of our recent Tijuana experience. The only time I ever felt endangered was walking on those crater-filled sidewalks. Other than that, it was a food lover's dream trip. We had a lot of great seafood in Tijuana, but there's little doubt that Mariscos Ruben was the best stop of all. Any interest in opening a casa de sarandeado?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pat,

Very nice. :) Mariscos Ruben sounds like a place we wish we all had in our neighborhood.

Food, she thought. said...

Haven't had the desire to go to Tijuana since my twenties and you just changed my mind. Between the bars and the seafood, I am now yearning for a trip.

streetgourmetla said...

I've actually thought of just starting up Marscos Ruben's truck and driving it across the border. What good is NAFTA if Mariscos Ruben can't cross?

Pat, great post, especially the Mexican hipster thing. In LA exists an off-center Mexican-AMerican aesthetic, and you nailed it.

Maybe Exilekiss can share his street crater story?

Tricerapops said...

seriously - you should get some sort of payment or medal of distinction from the mexican board of tourism.

Rick Williamson said...

you've got to try San Pedro Fish Market in San Pedro, CA. It's definitely got the ambiance and the food is served in huge portions.