Dollar carnitas tacos and hotdogs wrapped in bacon are good, don't get me wrong, but there's more to eating in Tijuana than street vendors. If you leave Avenida Revolución-I recommend jumping in a white cab, not a yellow one (the white cabs are cheaper) and telling the cabbie to take you to Zona Rio (it should cost no more than $3)-you'll find a string of classy joints, everything from sidewalk cafés and sports bars to sushi, Mandarin and Mexican restaurants.
Welcome to Tijuana's middleclass hangout-it's safe, fairly clean and arguably has more of a cosmopolitan feel than downtown San Diego.
La Cantina de los Remedios (Diego Rivera No. 19, 664-634-3087, www.lacantinadelosremediostj.com), the big, bright yellow-and-red restaurant on the edge of one of Zona Rio's many roundabouts, is a good first step to transitioning from a clueless American tourist to a tourist who's at least trying to blend in. It has that traditional Mexican feel, but menus are available in English and they do accept credit cards.
La Cantina de los Remedios is a chain, which the cheesy décor reflects-there's a cluster of sombreros hanging from the ceiling and loteria wallpaper-but the food still tastes home-cooked. At lunchtime, every meal is preceded by a small bowl of sopa de camarones (shrimp soup), chips, salsa and several generous hunks of queso fresco.
The three-page lunch and dinner menu will take awhile to peruse-there are tons of appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, tacos, enchiladas, fajitas and other, more obscure Mexican dishes to choose from. I've sampled the tortilla soup, mixed green salad and veggie torta (sandwich) with beans, panela cheese, avocado, jalepeños, tomato and a dipping sauce, all of which my taste buds enjoyed but my stomach couldn't fit-the servings are pretty huge. My companions were more adventurous, opting to try the spicier options: mole poblano (chicken in a thick sauce made from chile, spices and chocolate) and the good ol' traditional carne asada tacos. They, too, were pleased, but unable to clean their plates. Quick note: whatever you do, do not buy into the lunch special. It's $20 a person and it's an absurd amount of food and all you can drink. Unless you're ridiculously hungry or looking to get plastered, it's a waste of money. Ordering from the regular menu will get you out of there with a bill under $20 for two.
When dinnertime rolls around, the cantina livens up. Most every night of the week, both a norteño and a mariachi band strolls through. Ask to play dominos or cubilete-a dice game reminiscent of poker-and try the apple margarita, served with chunks of apples and cinnamon lining the glass. Open seven days a week from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m.
It ain't easy being a vegetarian in Mexico. Almost everything comes with meat, and the beans are usually cooked in lard. So far, I've found only one vegetarian-friendly option in Tijuana, though I'm sure there are more hiding deeper inside the city.
Yogurt Express is a clean and healthy family-friendly restaurant located at 1100 Avenida Rio Suchiate in Colonial Marron (a five-minute cab ride from the border). The breakfast menu offers French toast, fruit and granola, eggs, omelets, smoothies and chilaquilas-fried corn tortillas smothered in green chile sauce, lettuce and crema (yum!). A small glass of complimentary fresh-squeezed orange juice comes with every order.
The lunch and dinner menu boasts a vegetarian section (there are a few dishes made with a very convincing soy chorizo), plus salads, soup, pasta, burritos, seafood, hamburgers and delicious pita sandwiches stuffed with the best-looking cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce I've seen south of the border.
The most intriguing aspect of Yogurt Express isn't the fresh food, however; it's what I like to call the "kiddy cage"-a small boxed-in daycare center at the front of the restaurant. Patrons are invited to drop their kids off and enjoy their meals in peace. Open Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrées range from $5 to $8.
La Especial is an on-the-beaten-path restaurant with an off-the-beaten-path feel. The eatery sits at 718 Avenida Revolución (across from the Caliente casino). You have to walk down a flight of stairs to get to it, though, and its underground location feels safely removed from the avenida's craziness. La Especial recently expanded and added some windows that pick up outdoor light from an adjacent courtyard, significantly diminishing the eatery's cave-like feel.
While the food can be a little inconsistent, it's inexpensive and good. The tacos and chile relleno are tasty (the chicken taco is one of the best straightforward tacos-meat only-on either side of the border), and margaritas are cheap and strong-around $3.50. The waitstaff is exceedingly charming and eager to help you with your lame attempts at Spanish. On a recent visit, four entrées, a bowl of soup and seven margaritas added up to $55-bring cash, though, because they don't take plastic. And after you've saved so much money stuffing yourself silly, step out the door and into El Chepo, where you can have a good discussion about immigration policy with the shop's friendly owner. Open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.