While searching for great food finds on our recent trip to Valle de Guadalupe, I stumbled onto a review at Life and Food Blog. There was a link to something called Club Tengo Hambre, a virtual door I had to go through. I clicked through the link, saw photos of people having an incredible time sharing food and laughing and knew the Best of Baja Tour was something we had to do. That day arrived on Saturday, March 29th, and our adventure got started pretty quickly. Let’s go…
Yeah, okay, technically this is Carnitas’ Snack Shack in North Park, but we weren’t sure how long it’d be before we got to the first destination, so figured a quick nugget of porky goodness ought to hold us over. Well, and one of these
Rate Beer just named Modern Times one of the Top 10 new breweries IN.THE.WORLD. This particular mildly hoppy amber is quite tasty, called Blazing World. And yes, that is a gratuitous nod to Rudy Pollorena and is Craft Beerd coolness in the background. We checked in with Chef Max, who’d hooked up some Reubens in the Pig Pen, made sure he enjoyed the housemade sausage “we” made for him (we means primarily Wife and other friends at annual, ahem, SausageFest, or sausage making party – *insert childish snicker*). He was pleased. Perfect, now let’s get our south of the border on. Wait, I forgot about their special menu item for the day, pork chili flautas. Here
Now we are really getting the south of the border ball rolling. This adventure was about food and craft beer, for sure, but it was also about getting acquainted with a new Tijuana. I heard the place had changed quite a bit even since my last trip here 10 years ago. Several friends (and national newspapers like this one) have described great fun, culture and food shared by San Diego’s southern neighbors. So we hopped in our car (in retrospect, we should have taken the trolley down) and made our way down the 5 to a crazy little mass of parking lots and mostly fun chaos in preparation for fun with Club Tengo Hambre. It turns out Tijuana is WAY more than a place for 18-year old kids to go get drunk or for the many bad stories that float around among native (mostly non-Latino like myself) native San Diegans. I plan to take another few field trips here just to take more of the city in. We are missing out on something incredible and rich…and with a SENTRI pass I hear it’s not even that big of a pain in the backside to get back. Okay, on to the fun.
This $20 parking lot (which doubles conveniently as a parking lot for a motel) was a little challenging to locate even though it wasn’t really hidden. My suggestion if you take this tour or just decide to randomly cross the border is to give yourself some time to comfortably navigate the streets near the San Ysidro International Border Crossing. It isn’t what I’d call difficult, but if you are unfamiliar or just haven’t been down in awhile it’s easy to get turned around. And on a day that is supposed to be about adventure, there was no sense in getting worked up about the parking.
So, we hand over our $20, park the car and head over to the meeting spot – in front of the Mickey D’s adjacent to the trolley stop. Works for me. I always find group dynamics fascinating. This was no exception. We met Ron and Deborah, from Coronado and Del Mar, respectively. There was Brent and Hadis (pron hah-DEESE), who had trekked back down from Los Angeles to a family home in Encinitas the night before. Chris and Dan, a couple who, it turns out, live a stone’s throw from us in North Park. And Mickey and Cynthia, also in town from L.A., rounded out our north of the border crew (along with Wife and I and our two friends). It’s always interesting to see how people interact as new people walk up to the meeting spot, as the talk turns to how they arrived and what food they’d been trying, everyone turned out to be open and friendly, which is a bonus. I mention their names because this experience was, for me, also about meeting interesting people who have a sense of adventure, and that was a benefit of experiencing Tijuana this way. Our host was Kristin…
Kristin clearly goes hard and is making this work even with the little one nearly ready to arrive. Gotta love that dedication! Plus, the child is certain to come out way more worldly than most of us. Okay, okay, back to the food.
No, seriously, food.
Okay, right before I get to the food, can I just say that they greeted us with water when we boarded the fun bus? Thank you for that. Hey, wait, that’s not water! Still, the thing about a tequila shot, even one, is that it instantly transports you into another place. Doesn’t matter if you have a high tolerance, low tolerance or somewhere in between. A shot of tequila is a nearly universal cultural experience (albeit one usually reserved for one’s early 20s) that instantly conjures up fuzzy memories of fun. Or at least nestles you into a place that your guard goes down a bit and you become open to the possibilities an afternoon with strangers and new places makes available. So, enough already, on with the food.
This got our trip started and we all crammed into the dining space to indulge in this street truck-turned storefront’s wares. First up,
They call this lovely beast ‘The Kraken.’ It is a delightful bit of grilled octopus, a nice hunk of fresh avocado and a charred tortilla to hold it all together. I spent the day watching three professional photographers take great images, so you can also hop over to the L.A. Weekly write up to catch much better photos by Colin Young-Wolff’s handiwork. I can tell you this was a very tasty start to the day. None of that overdone rubberiness that can befall many an otherwise tasty seafood morsel. And a collection of hot and pineapple salsas to shake the palate into a state of frenzy between hot and sweet sensations backing up the savory, charred octopus. Nice work, friends. Next up was the first of several off-menu items (by off-menu, I just mean they weren’t part of the official tour but we paid a la carte). This
This was a sole ceviche marinated in squid ink. I tried, but didn’t love, this one. But adventure is born of all manner of experiences, no? We’d made short work of the taco, enjoyed a local craft beer – a porter that actually paired very nicely with the taco – and I decided to ask the chef his favorite taco at the moment. This quickly led to two of these
This is a Portobello taco, which I tried in part because he said it was his favorite and in part in service to my vegetarian friends. I am committed to you people. There are three vegetarian options. I’m not a big fan of relatively normal mushrooms (I’ll put a hurting on some of the more obscure stuff, but these were just, well, okay). Overall this choice was fine, so I passed the second taco on to Cynthia and kept it moving. Which was great, because it was time to hop on the bus. First stop was generally a success off the strength of the Kraken, but let’s be real, OF COURSE I’ll be back for the rest of the massive variety of stuff on this menu.
I almost forgot to mention that we’d been joined by a couple stragglers. There was Sarah and Colin from L.A., who were so committed to the adventure that they hopped a cab from the border to meet us at the first stop. And also we met Cesar, who started out on the Mexican side of the border with our other host Antonio. Cesar was a nice guy (also with camera) who started Binomio, an online news source for all things Tijuana. Moving right along, we continued with a little fun here
I don’t even know where this is, all I know is one minute Chris (our new friend from our neighborhood in North Park) is telling me we are driving past the best taco place in the city and the next minute our bus driver is bustin’ a U, and got pulled over – an undercover cop in a dark green nova. No, of course that didn’t happen. He did, however, find a perfectly legal place to stop and we piled out of the fun bus for stop #2, Mariscos Ruben. To quote my friend Thane, in his hilariously professorial tone, this is where “s#%t got real”. We damn near ate everything they had to serve. Okay, so before I explain the food you have to picture that a fair amount of the food wasn’t being cooked in the truck. Picture yourself at a Charger game in the parking lot and there’s a dude standing next to his truck with one of those old school Weber grills that has smoke and charcoal dust so thick it looks like Ashy Larry was on the grill (Aside: Please open a new tab and google a video of Ashy Larry and Dave Chappelle, you can thank me later). Now take that image and drop it on a random sidewalk next to a mini-park, throw in a ton of hot sauce and a bunch of vulture-esque tourists. Here’s the guy on the grill
I’m kidding, the grill was solid, and what came off of it was nothing to be joked about
My taco guru friend back in North Park (also Colin, not to be confused with the dude on this trip – though he happened to be traipsing about baja this weekend as well) tried to put me on to a smoked marlin taco from some still of dubious veracity truck by El Borrego on El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego. I’m here to tell if that truck is half as good as this smoked marlin taquito I might have to just get a sleeping bag and wait for them to open up again. This.was.delicious. I could give you all that “fish was flaky and moist” and “grilling and white sauce were perfect complements” type explanation about this particular food item, but too much would be a waste of text. Go get it. Soon. Here’s another thing. For those of you slightly skeptical about making the trip south of the border I have two things to say. First, this particular street corner reminded me of a mostly residential street in Clairemont. Minus the off-brand guitar player serenading us, I mean. But still, today’s Tijuana is for everyone. Second, I don’t usually instruct people to eat stuff just because I ate it. People have different tastes so I usually just say what I thought. But in this case I’m going to go out on a limb and say if you don’t like this smoked marlin taquito go see a doctor because your taste buds might be broke. I made sure to have lots of good food to live up to the spirit of Club Tengo Hambre, but this particular thing was just one of those food items that becomes part of a core culinary memory that will stick with you in the best possible way. Heck, I might run a group down and catch up with the CTH crowd just to get back one more time. Really nice. We also had this
Which I can say was better than I expected, even good. Everybody else descended on our stone crab like a pack of rabid dogs? Or is it wild dogs? Whatever, there was all kinds of lip smacking and finger licking and “oohing” and “aaaahing” so pretty much everyone was into the crab. It was good. My beef with crab is that it’s usually way too much work to get to an utterly deficient amount of meat. My friends back in Murr-land love a crab bake (or whatever they call it when they get a Kroger bag of crabs with Old Bay, newspaper and then lose their minds). Drives me nuts. Just clean mine out and form it in a nice little cake, thank you. Still, this stone crab was done right, soaked in a limey, spicy marinade of some kind and pulled apart so all I had to do was lift and eat. Now we are talking! (Note: Wife tells me this is a thing. That stone crab is actually known for this very trait of ease of consumption. Well damn, I’ve clearly been missing out).
One of the owners of Zesde brewery dropped by and gave a shout out to Ballast Point (phenomenal brewery located in San Diego) as he proved that even south of the border the proliferation of craft beer is changing the entrepreneurial landscape (not to mention the flavor profile of what constitutes actual beer). Honestly, all my evangelizing on San Diego Craft Beer (and our dozens of world renowned breweries and socially conscious brewers) aside, the point as I sipped this Zesde Pale was that this kid and his sister had started a profit-generating, life sustaining business using science, ingenuity, passion and hard work. I was too busy enjoying to photograph, but it had good color, decent hop character and was a pretty solid effort given the constraints of making a nanobrewery work in a country that doesn’t yet wildly embrace the craft. One more off-menu item from the MR set, this
Sometimes one uses too many superlatives and they lose meaning. I get it. So I’d like to say this was just ordinary just to maintain my street food cred. But here’s the thing, it wasn’t. It was actually pretty terrific. So good that, existence of multiple forks and people around whom I should act like I have home training notwithstanding, I went straight in with my fingers. I figured the acid and hot sauce would kill anything that got in the way. The photographer Colin I mentioned above has a really cute picture of the female owners here (click to slide #11). You’ll also note my not subtle shout out to Bikes & Beer – an event happening at the same time in San Diego. Anyway, dude is talented. If you live in L.A., look him up. On a side note, not to make this a social commentary about opportunity for women entrepreneurs but, well, oops, too late, that’s what I’m about to do. Listen, in my view two things are game-changers for gender equality – access to capital that isn’t tied to some B.S. patriarchal system is one of them. The other I’ll save for another day. That photo makes me really happy. I wonder about the world in which they live. If they have the access to capital needed to expand. If they had just slightly different luck would they be the best thing in restaurants? Would they even want to be? I don’t know. But they made some outstanding food and I am fortunate to have been able to share in their creations. I almost forgot, somebody in the crew ordered up some oysters! Well, yes, yes I would like to have some.
We polished off our final off-menu goodness and piled in the—oh wait, last spot was walking distance. Umm, okay, I’m down. The next spot was about a block away (maybe longer, I was relishing in the flavors hanging around my mouth and fun conversations with all the new people we met). We rounded a corner and found this dude and his captain caveman-esque club of meat. No, seriously
I realize I’ve been carrying on quite a bit, so let’s get to the food at Tacos Franc. First up were these delicious little adobada tacos
You ever wondered what adobada actually is? I mean, aside from being one of the best pork preparations since the hog maw (warning, last link involves John Witherspoon and adult language)? I did, here’s what the good folks at Wikipedia have to say. This was a simply prepared taco. Meat, tortilla. Done and done. Technically you could throw in the lime, onion, cilantro and plentiful salsas, but all were non-essential extras to some very nicely flavored hunks of meat.
As we prepared to run out I decided I needed one more off-menu taco (by off-menu, I mean, not included in our CTH tour, as it was actually on the menu – I think, I never actually saw the menu). So I picked up this
Some of my friends will want to brace themselves. This was a lengua taco. If you are reading this and don’t happen to know what lengua is or how to make it, click here. I’ll hurry the story along a bit. Lengua is soft and delicious meat. It doesn’t need much help when simmered in proper seasoning, which appears to have happened at Tacos Franc. It is full of flavor (who knew that grass could impart so much flavor – hehehe). I made short work of the taco, realized that I was basically holding up everyone else from getting to the craft beer bar that was last on our stop, and made a dash for the fun bus. We were whisked along to what I understand to be one of the best craft beer spots in Tijuana – BCB
Inside we were treated to a flight of 4 2-oz tasters. At least I think that’s what we got. I didn’t much care for the actual company-brewed beer but managed to find first a sour that I liked and then—in a moment of pure hoppy bliss—a Swami’s from Pizza Port. Yep, living in a town with gold medal-winning brewers doesn’t suck both because you can always find a good beer AND because when you travel you have the comfort of knowing that a tap handle from a San Diego brewer is almost certain to be very high quality. I was not disappointed and needed no more out of this experience. Even found this across the street
Verde y Crema is a restaurant I’ve read about and wanted to visit. We were this close to skipping the ride back to the border and staying for dessert. But we’d paid for some help back to the border so we figured there’d be another day. Heck, at the moment I am trying to convince Wife that we ought to scurry back across the border this weekend for dinner. We’ll see.
Speaking of the border, crossing was a bit of an adventure—and not in a good way. C’mon people, FIX.THE.BORDER. I know the President put some money in the budget, but seriously the next tax increase needs a lock box (I hate lock boxes, by the way) specifically to fix the border. You know how much money we lose in California having such a wret ched border crossing? Me neither, but this article says it was $7.2 Billion in 2012 (yes, with a “b”). The other major hiccup is only major to me – when I’m ready to go, I have zero interest in waiting in a 45-90 minute line to go 1,000 feet. Fortunately, we were directed to what I am quite sure is a rip-off, but we paid the $5/person to ride a van the length of three football fields and saved all but about 15 minutes or so. Not bad. One last photo
The one saving grace about the trip back across the border was this churro stand. At least we had perfectly hot little Mexican donuts to keep us company. Not quite Verde y Crema, but in a pinch they were fine.
All in all, I am pleased with our first Club Tengo Hambre experience. Kristin and Antonio were super friendly, showed up on time, put up with delays (mostly caused by me) and took us to places we would not have found easily without them. There is significant value in that collection of things. It was $72/person, so not a cheap excursion, but I estimated about $30 worth of food and probably $20-30 worth of transport (thinking about multiple taxis to multiple stops plus the hassle of flagging them down, etc, etc). Plus a premium of about $12/person for their trouble. I don’t know why I felt the need to do this rough math. Maybe it’s to make you, the reader, feel like it’s okay to spend this much on this particular tour. We met several cool people, tasted really good food and had an experience we shared with each other and close friends. Good food and drink were a great vehicle for some memories we’ll hang on to for quite some time. And then when my memory starts to fade I’ll re-read this or head back down for a second trip. Good times. Thanks for dropping by.
Bonus, if you happen to have scrolled down. If you don’t feel like immediately heading south of the border, you can do what we did…go have an amazing tasting menu of desserts (yes, you read that right) at Swoon in North Park on University. Pastry Chef Ian Smith is no joke. Here’s a quick survey of our desserts that can’t be aptly described, they must be tasted. So get to it…
First, Chef Ian
And now, artwork
And now, what we actually ate on this trip
And for good measure, a shout out to livable communities…