About a week and a half ago, I was invited to the press conference for Innovadora Tijuana's Batalla Culinaria. The event will feature regional chefs from both sides of the border. Mixed teams of San Diego and Tijuana chefs will battle it out using products provided by Baja California’s abundant oceans, mountains and valleys. There will be three competitions altogether: Men, Women, and Pastries, and oh yes, there WILL be secret ingredients revealed at each challenge. From the mostly polite smack talk on the stage at the press conference, I'd say the event will pan out to be quite the food fight!
Marie Tahan Daniels wrote all about the Batalla Culinaria event on her blog, Cur8eaur.
After the conference, I was invited to follow along with the uber talented Chef Chad White (Comun Kitchen & Tavern in East Village and La Justina in Tijuana) to visit some of his favorite spots in TJ. I have to admit... I was skeptical. Although he has a restaurant there, I still wondered, "Does this gringo really know TJ?" He took us to a little taco stand behind the Hipodromo that I pass by it all the time on the road to my aunt and uncle's house. It's never empty, which is always a good sign no matter what language you're speaking.
After parking in a semi-legal spot that I promised the man I blocked in that I'd move from if necessary, I sat at a stool next to Chef Chad and listened to his recommendations. He clearly knew his street tacos. I asked him how long he'd been coming down to Baja. Apparently, all his life. My skepticism began to fade.
I ordered my favorite, the Lengua (cow tongue) then moved on to the Buche (pork stomach) that Chef Chad recommended. Washed down with a bottle of Fanta, it was the perfect way to start our food tour. Not having been back to Tijuana in over a month, I could barely resist ordering uno mas, but we had a few more stops to make and I needed to pace myself.
Our next stop was Don Esteban's, where we had a mouthwatering Mulita. To make a Mulita, the taquero begins by warming a tortilla and adding cheese as he would a quesadilla warming it on the grill as well as by placing it under the grill and directly on top of hot coals (al carbon). Closing the grill top allows for the tortilla and cheese to soak in the smokiness of the fire. The taco is brought back on to the grill where a strip of New York steak is placed on top of the melted cheese. Add a scoop of frijoles and a few slices of avocado and Ai Dios Mio... you're in heaven.
As much as we were enjoying all the street fare, we were driving around on one of the hottest days of the year, so we decided to head in doors to an air conditioned place that possibly served alcohol. Chef took us to El Dandy, an old local dive bar off La Revu. If you were under 21 and lived in Southern California in the 90's, you spent some time in this part of town. We had a couple of Micheladas (and possibly some shots of tequila) before we got back on our food tour.
The next stop was El Taller (translation: The Warehouse). This restaurant is one of the new wave of Baja Med eateries popping up all over Tijuana and Ensenada. It has a cool reuse/recycle decor theme with a fresh, happy yellow accent color on the chairs and flowers. Natural light streams in from the rafters and rooftop fans keep the hot air flowing out. The open kitchen features a beautiful woodfire oven that was hand tiled by the owner's brother.
Chef Chad ordered a few aperitivos for the group to sample a bit of the offerings on the abundant menu. We had roasted beets with goat cheese, some pulpo ceviche, one of their many gourmet pizzas, and my favorite plate, the Lengua Carpaccio. I do love me some cow tongue. Mmmm, mmmm, MMMM!!!
Afterwards, we went to a cute little hole-in-the-wall cafe. It's seriously a hole built out in the corner wall of a building. That's something you'll see a lot of in TJ and Ensenada. People will create a space anywhere and literally carve out a living. It's one of the many things I love about my TJ.
The barista at this chic little cafe knew her beans and was able to offer suggestions of specialty roasts other than your typical Grande McOrder of MochaLatteChino. My delicate Machiatto capped off the delicious day for Marie and myself. The rest of the group went on to enjoy La Justina. After seeing the pictures the rest of the group posted later that day, I regretted not sticking around for more. But my belly was full and Marie and I had to get home to our families. Alas, we have promised each other to return very soon!
I have to say, I really appreciated seeing the city of my birth through the eyes of a Gringo that knows it and loves it as much as a real Tijuanero. Chad is definitely a Chilango at heart. And now that the construction at the border is finally complete, the border wait is back down to an average of twenty minutes. This means two things: A) I WILL be tasting the La Justina goodness very soon, and B) more fun tasting days back in Baja!