It's 6 a.m. We have a full tank of gas, coffees in hand, and muffins for later. Everyone told us not to go. Everyone told us the drive would be too long, that the traffic would be too nightmarish, or that we'd get robbed or kidnapped or worse.
But we're doing it. And we're doing it all for the tacos.
The first thing you need to know is that my friends and I love food. We have whole Saturdays dedicated to cooking pizzas, making picnics featuring charcuterie trays and wine, and holding day-long cookouts where we argue over the best way to cook pork.
Recently, though, (thanks in part to the Taco Tuesday deal at Tacos El Tizon) we've been on a big taco kick. So we made plans for a Labor Day weekend getaway to Tijuana.
Unsurprisingly, everyone we told about the trip responded with bleak warnings about "the cartel." We heard stories about Americans being kidnapped and killed, about cars being broken into and stripped of their tires and doors, and about being forced into sex trafficking rings. Cheery!
We chalked those tales up to extreme exaggeration. What did scare us, though, were the stories of holiday traffic through LA and San Diego, and now, on the way to the border, we're praying we won't get caught in the middle of it.
We breeze through Santa Barbara, Ventura, and LA, then hit some annoying but pretty minor stop-and-go traffic just before San Diego. We park our car at a friend's house in San Diego, hitch a ride to the border, and walk into Tijuana.
Instantly, it's like being in another world. The buildings are colorful, street vendors everywhere are selling fresh fruit and tacos, dancers perform for cars at stoplights. We hop into a taxi and go to our Airbnb, a spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment the four of us each paid about $30 to stay in for the whole weekend.
Immediately, we set out to find the food and drinks we've been waiting for.
Downtown Tijuana is bustling. Four-story clubs bump Latin dance music and advertise two for one tequila shots. Vendors and waiters and pharmacists alike shout out their prices and services—everyone wants us to buy something.
The most unusual thing I notice is the donkeys painted like zebras standing on nearly every other street corner. I learn they're called "zonkeys," the mascots of Tijuana that some tourists pay to have their photos taken with.
Tijuana's zonkey tradition started sometime in the '30s, after gambling was banned in Mexico. Workers at a defunct casino had noticed tourists taking photos with the working donkeys tied up at the building's entrance, so they decorated the donkeys' carts and started charging for photos. But the gray donkeys didn't show up well in the black and white images of the time, and eventually one cart owner decided to paint stripes on his donkey for better pictures. And so the zonkey was born.
Soon we discover that while most bars in Tijuana serve delicious margaritas, the city also has a pretty hipster craft brewery scene. And the breweries we find are cute. Like really cute. Like rooftop patios, live bands, lanterns, and twinkle lights kind of cute. The beers are also great, and better yet, they're also about $2 each.
We get so thoroughly distracted by the drinks and bars that we forget about tacos completely. The next day, we agree as we all head for bed, will be all about food.
And it is.
First, there are chilaquiles, three plates of tortilla chips and eggs each doused in a different sauce at a packed but awesome breakfast joint a few blocks away from our Airbnb. Then, there's a visit to the Telefonica Gastro Park, which is what it sounds like: a park dedicated to food. It's filled with food trucks, coffee shops, and breweries.
Next, there's a walking break (gotta burn some of this off), followed by a trip to what I think might be heaven: Carnitas Quiroga, a restaurant famed for its insanely tender and flavorful carnitas tacos. It does not disappoint.
Hours pass, and finally we're feeling hungry again. We head to Tacos El Gordo, a classic, no-frills taco shop serving all kinds of meat we can't identify. We throw one item on the menu—tacos de tripa—into Google Translate, and it comes up as "guts." Not a great sign. We put another in, and it comes up as "brains."
So, we play it safe with our orders (al pastor and asada for us, please!) and the tacos are, of course, amazing. With some newfound confidence in Tacos El Gordo, we get a little crazy and try out some tongue taco. Apparently, my tongue likes tongue. Good to know.
Then, before we know it, the trip is over. Getting back into America on foot is shockingly quick and easy, but we're sad to leave.
How to cope? Only breakfast can help us now. Δ
Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash is out of pesos and queso. Send thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.