Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Aquachiles con todos at El Paisa
A tapas crawl in San Diego is hard to come by. A taco crawl in Tijuana a much easier find and a better bet. There may be no better place to do one than on Calle Francisco Javier Mina outside Tijuana's Mercado Hidalgo in the Zona Rio.
The tapeo is the Spanish ambulatory tradition of proceeding from one tapas bar to the next, enjoying the signature dish at each. Because tapas tend to be "small plates" a diner can pack in quite a few stops. What's true of the tapa is true of the taco: Enter the " taceo ."
There are many places for a Tijuana taceo . Perhaps the most famous is "Taco Alley" where Tony Bourdain enjoyed a late night run to Tacos Las Paisas on No Reservations . But the area around any city's central market is always a good bet for good eats.
Start at Tacos Fitos across the street and just north of the Mercado Hidalgo's western exit. Tacos Fitos offers two basic dishes: tacos de birria —beef braised in a rich broth spiked with cumin, cinnamon, clove and vinegar, yielding a thick, rich and utterly exhilarating stew—and tacos of tripe a la plancha , crispy and caramelized rather than rubbery. The heady birria defines the dish's flavor profile but the crispy tripe brings it to another dimension. The show—the taquero quite literally throwing the birria juice into the tortilla waiting in his other hand—would be worth the taco's price on its own.
Next, walk half a block south to Tacos El Gordo. Known for its adobado —pork marinated in a combination of dried chiles, achiote, spices and pineapple grilled on a vertical rotisserie set-up—the tacos de buche may be even better. Pork stomach isn't likely the first protein on the mind of many but perhaps at El Gordo it should be. The slight mineral flavor of the organ meat is there, but buche are sweeter and meatier than most offal, and the braise leaves them tender as well as tasty.
Perhaps the best part of this taco crawl wasnít tacos, but rather Mariscos El Paisa just across the street from the Mercado Hidalgo. El Paisa features the mariscos of Sinaloa from which some of Mexico's best seafood (and many of Tijuana's Mexican migrant population) comes. While cocteles , campechanas and tostadas are on El Paisa's menu, try the aguachile con todos and get it as spicy as you can stand. Aguachiles are seafood (usually shrimp) doused (but not, like ceviche, "cooked") in a citrus-based sauce with cilantro, onion and chiles. El Paisa's Sinaloan take includes a brooding salsa negra that adds a deep flavor layer. The seafood includes cooked and raw shrimp, scallops, oysters, two kinds of clams and tender, meaty octopus. Fresh, deep and spicy, it was the perfect finish to a taceo .
The best part of a taco—or tapas—crawl is the way the processional element slows you down. You pay attention to what is around you and enjoy the atmosphere, your company and your food all the more.