Tijuana's Revival Transcends Its Tawdry Reputation

Part One: Xolos and Tacos

Things are changing in Tijuana, and people on both sides of the border are noticing. Shorn of its traditional clientele after the  triple blows of worldwide recession, narcoviolence and swine flu in 2008/09 scared people away, San Diego's southern neighbour is reinventing itself as a culinary and cultural destination, and may finally shed its unenviable reputation as the city with the worst reputation in the world (CNN June 2012).

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So where did this reputation come from? Like other border cities, TJ thrived during the years of prohibition in the USA, a period which also saw the growth of gambling in the city, but when prohibition came to an end and Mexico outlawed gambling in the mid 30s the golden era came to an abrupt end. The expansion of San Diego as a military port provided a new less wealthy clientele to fill the vacuum. Naval personnel on shore leave and people old enough to drink in Mexico but under the minimum drinking age for the US (i.e. aged 18-20) formed the backbone of the city's tourist market until just a few years ago.

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The period when the tourist market collapsed coincided with my arrival in Baja California, and despite being just a couple of hours east in the desert capital Mexicali, "TJ" was out of bounds. My sister-in-law, Aurora, who's lived there nearly twenty years, would come to Mexicali weekends with stories of deserted cinemas on Saturday nights, and Mexico's third largest city was more like a ghost town. Then the violence stopped, but the frat boys and sailors never returned, and so the process of reinvention began.

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The most documented aspect of this reinvention has been in the restaurant industry, where a new fusion of Mexican, Asian and European cuisine nicknamed "Baja Med" can be found, attracting the interest of such notables as Anthony Bourdain and Rick Bayless, who called Tijuana ‘One of the Great Food Cities of North America’ in 2011. Chefs such as Javier Plascencia in TJ, all the way down the coast to Benito Molina and Solange Muris in Ensenada are at the forefront of this revolution.

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For a Brit in Baja such as myself however, another new development in the area has been of equal interest - the rise of the Xoloitzcuitles! "The what?" I can almost hear you say! The "Xolos" (pronounced "Shollows") are the football (that's soccer if you're reading in the USA) team that are rapidly establishing themselves as the new force in the Liga MX. Owned by the flamboyant Hank Rhon family, the Xolos are named after a hairless dog considered sacred by the Aztecs. Founded as recently as 2007, they were already in the top division by 2011, but match tickets in their first season were as rare as hen's teeth in their 21,000 capacity stadium.

My wife, Norma, managed to secure tickets for the visit of Mexico City side Cruz Azul on October 22nd, and so we decided to make a weekend of it and check out the city and the surrounding area, in the expert company of Aurora, a charming woman whose driving reminds me of Annie Hall for some reason. The driving skills of a local would've proven valuable during the first part of our trip...

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After the late arrival of our bus to take us to the game and then a 45 minute wait at a security checkpoint in between Mexicali and the epic mountain climb near La Rumorosa, imagine our frustration when the vehicle broke down! Frustration turned to relief when Norma's friend Roxana offered us a lift, albeit in a two door car which was already full when they reached us! We made excellent time to the outskirts of the city, but then we encountered our second travel nightmare of the day - how to get to the stadium in the Friday evening rush hour with a basic map and no road signs indicating the stadium's exact location!

After a fantastic effort by Carlos, Roxana's cousin, behind the wheel we managed to get to the stadium with 20 minutes gone of the first half, and legged it from the car to our seats. It was already 1-1 when we got there, and an entertaining top of the table clash ended even at 2-2. We had an excellent view of Duvier Riascos' successful penalty which put the home team 2-1 up, and also of the free kick with which Cruz Azul equalised a few minutes later. Match tickets cost 400 pesos and a single of bottled Tecate was 30 pesos a go. I did my best to make up for lost time in the second half - this Brit will never get over the novelty of being able to drink and watch football at the same time!

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Aurora came and met us after the game, and whisked us off to one of the city's more traditional eateries. With all the transport headaches we'd not eaten since breakfast, and I'd been drinking, so the quesadillas from "Tacos Alicia" went down particularly well, and cheap at the price too!

After a good night's sleep we decided to head off down the coast, to  Popotla and Puerto Nuevo to sample some freshly-landed seafood and fish, and our experiences there will be the subject of my next post.


¡Hasta luego!