Baja California cuisine seems to be everywhere in San Diego. From the authentic to fusion to guest-starring chefs popping up in local restaurants, we have lots of ways to experience it. Yet, do we know what it's really like? For the real thing, Club Tengo Hambre is at your service.
Translated as "I'm Hungry Club," it's a food-oriented-tourism group founded by bloggers Kristin and Antonio Díaz de Sandi, Bill Esparza and Jason Thomas Fritz. The Díaz de Sandis lead the tours, while Esparza and Fritz help develop the tour programs.
"We have become inspired with many of our own experiences that we have had in Baja California, and we want to recreate those experiences for our guests that join us on the tours," Kristin DÌaz de Sandi says.
Along with the lesser-known eateries and insider information about each stop, Club Tengo Hambre provides transportation. Participants meet the tour group at the San Ysidro crossing and walk across to a private bus. Once aboard, there's a tequila service. Mind you, it's the sipping kind of tequila, not the shooting kind. On the tours, cocktails, artisanal tequila and craft beer share the spotlight with the food.
The most recent tour focused on "street-side culinary." The first stop, Tacos Aaron, features tacos made in the casual style that mirrors those from home. It serves everything from birria tacos to egg and machaca. Participants dined on a quesabirria taco, stewed beef rich with spices served in a corn tortilla lined with cheese. The cheese is not only delicious; it also provides a protective layer to keep the crisp tortilla from becoming soggy.
The next stop was Tortas El Turco, owned by the gregarious Luis Fitch. He regaled us with the story of the iconic tortas (sandwiches), which were developed when a hot dog vendor needed a way to heat his lunch. The vendor made tortas de lomo for lunch—somewhat like a French dip sandwich without the jus—and the hot dog trays steamed the tortas, resulting in fluffy bread and tender meat. A customer asked to purchase one, which prompted El Turco, the hot dog guy, to switch his product from hot dogs to tortas de lomo.
El Turco (real name Daniel Perez-Perez) ended up building a small empire of diners. Tijuanese of a certain age fondly remember heading to Tortas El Turco for an after-school snack of a sandwich and fries. Ultimately, the empire fell, until Fitch got the torta recipe from El Turco's first wife. He tinkered with the old recipe until he could reproduce it with current resources. While no one on the tour knew what the original was like, the new version is damned good.
Club Tengo Hambre's tours include a dish or two at every stop, but there's plenty of opportunity to order extra dishes. I resisted ordering extras until the end, and I was glad I did, because the last stop was my favorite. Mariscos Rubén serves Sonoran-style seafood from a truck parked at the edge of downtown. Owner Ruben Rodriguez grilled while wife Mirta ran the kitchen in the truck. I was struck by the mesquite, where the grooves in the bark were covered with ash and glowing embers. This was going to be good.
Our menu featured a marlin taco and clam au gratin. Large Pismo clams were grilled and mixed with shrimp, octopus and cheese. The clam's juices served as a base for a tomato broth and were served on one side of the shell, while the meat mixture was served on the other. I was pondering the dozen large jars of homemade salsas when the Rodriguez's sous chef approached.
"Do you like it spicy?" she asked. She reached for the habañero salsa and placed a big spoonful in the broth-filled half of the shell. "Here, you need lime," she added, squeezing half a large lime into the shell. Mixed with the tomato-clam broth, it was nothing short of incredible. It was fiery, tangy and somehow refreshing, and I ended up sipping the leftovers after the meat was consumed. My extra dish was the scallop tostada. Fried tortillas—like big chips—were served with a scallop ceviche made spicy with crumbled peppercorns. The scallops, some the size of a small filet mignon, were fresh, flavorful and dressed simply with lime, hot sauce and peppercorns.
We ended the day with a stop at Baja Craft Beer tasting room. The modern and urbane décor was a stark contrast to the trucks and street-side stands we'd just visited. There are a few in-house brews and a large list of craft brews from Tijuana and San Diego. There's also an extensive bottle selection for sale.
Club Tengo Hambre's next tour takes Baja food exploration farther south with a trip to Valle de Guadelupe for wine tasting and a lamb roast with Javier Plascencia. Future tours will include Vendimias, a big wine festival, and more Tijuana food outings.