It was never supposed to be the highlight of the entire California trip; just an afternoon pootling around Tijuana trying a few of their best taco stalls and back across the border in time for dinner. The initial plan was to go over under our own steam, pick up a taxi/driver and then tick off a few of the more notable street food places. Oh and perhaps a margarita or two; when in Rome and all that.
But then a little company called Turista Libre came to our attention, and so we thought rather than go through the stress and cost of organising our own lives, we'd hand over the whole messy business to the professionals. Founded by a US journalist who now lives in Tijuana, Turista Libre run various organised tours based on different themes; there's a baseball tour, a craft beer tour, a mega monuments tour, and, enticingly, a taco tour which seemed to have our names written all over it. For $50 a head we were told we would visit a handful of taco places, drink a few beers and take a few photos. Seemed like fun. We got a small handful of names together on Facebook, paid the deposit and put it in the diary.
By the time the day came, there were fully 25 people booked in for the trip. Wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends of friends, babies, dogs (actually no dogs sadly, Keith would have loved it) - of course it's obvious now, with hindsight, that everyone would want to be a part of a taco tour of Tijuana, but the way the group snowballed came as quite a (pleasant) surprise at the time. At one point I had to call up to check how many was too many. "We should be OK," came the answer, "the bus seats 30."
Bus? Ah yes, because what better way to travel in Mexico than genuine decomissioned public transport, which in turn was once itself an American yellow school bus. That's right, exactly like the ones you see on TV. I'm convinced the day wouldn't have been half as much fun without this battered old thing ferrying us around, so much more jolly than some hermetically-sealed limoliner, although admittedly air conditioning would have been nice at some points. Anyway, safely seated (well, seated, at least, and hoping the bus couldn't go fast enough to be a danger), a shot of tequila to the good, we set off for our first stop, Machatlán mariscos chávez.
As recently as 2009 this bustling courtyard and kitchen was a car mechanics. And in fact, take away the mobile grill, drinks cabinets and picnic benches and it could very easily go back to being one - who knows, maybe they're keeping their options open in case the bottom falls out the taco market. Based on their product though, they should have no need to. Bright white, perfectly-cooked chunks of meaty tilapia, each encased in a crunchy, dark-brown batter and bound by a lovely light mayonnaise salsa, these were about as good an example of the form as you could find anywhere in North America. They were churned out to our large and hungry party at such a rate that nobody received any that were anything less than piping hot. A video I took of the chefs looks like it had been speeded up; you'll have to take my word that these guys really are that fast:
Next stop, after a short spell back on the bus and some more tequila, was the smoke-filled Las Ahumaderas Tacos El Paisa. We managed to occupy most of the seats inside this atmospheric old place, forcing hungry locals to use the bar that opened onto the street, but I'm sure nobody eating the food here dwelled much on the seating arrangements. The grilled adobada pork tacos here were just astonishing - moist, soft tortillas, freshly-pressed, contained a mixture of richly marinated pig and chunky guacamole (you've not tried guacamole until you've tried it with Californian/Baja-Californian avocadoes, they taste like avocadoes squared). They were served alongside nice fresh radishes and limes, as is usual, but also some lovely grilled spring onion/leek things, sort of like Mexican calçot. I'm sure someone out there can tell me their real name.
On a side note, while not enough to completely sour my memories of Las Ahumaderas, a tricky moment arose when someone gave me a can of Michelada to try. Michelada, in case you weren't aware (I wasn't) is sort of a Bloody Mary, but with beer instead of vodka. It sounds disgusting, because it is disgusting, but while a version made with top ingredients and nice craft beer is discombobulating but almost edible, the unholy version willed into existence by Heineken USA brand Tecate tastes like sweet, beery sick. I honestly don't know if there's a single more revolting canned product in existence, so in the interests of public awareness here's a picture of it so you can avoid it at all costs yourself:
Kids: Just Say No.
Anyway on with the tour. Actually not straight on with the tour. First a few of us raided a local liquor store for beer and aged tequila. Then it was on with the tour. It was about this point, as we lumbered back onto the bus loaded up like pack mules, one by one emptying our substantial haul into the cool box, that I started noticing the first fleeting expressions of concern cross our previously calm host's face. This could be why our next - impromptu - stop was a market, Mercado Hidalgo, a fascinating, sprawling indoor/outdoor place with more than enough going on to distract two dozen gringo from the booze for a few minutes, I'm sure was the plan. Except within about 30 seconds the majority of the party had settled inside a charming little taqueria and ordered a dozen frozen margheritas. Some time later (your guess is as good as mine) I somehow, speaking no Spanish, bought a giant block of queso fresco cheese from a market stall.
The atmosphere on the bus would now best be described as "carnival-like". Details are sketchy but somewhere in Mercado Hidalgo someone had found a stall selling bags of confetti, and was proceeding to turn the inside of the bus into a snow globe. The timing of this latest turn of events was unfortunate, as for reasons best known to Turista Libre our next stop was an unexpectedly smart fine-dining spot called Verde y Crema. Bursting into this clean, zen-like space like a confetti-strewn mobile Oktoberfest, I can still now, even through the fog of alcohol, remember the horrified expressions of the smartly-dressed couples and families who had quietly been enjoying a late lunch. I can tell you, because I have photos, our tacos here involved beetroot, queso fresco and coriander on some kind of dark tortilla and I'm sure they were absolutely as lovely as everything else we ate that day.
Events from here on are probably best left to the tequlia gods. I think there was an ice cream shop, desperately shoehorned in by the organisers in an effort to sober us up and prevent an international incident at the border. Inevitably, some of the group never made it that far, and splintered off to downtown Tijuana to carry on carrying on. I remember getting quite upset a terrified elderly Mexican woman wouldn't join me in the chorus to Let It Be. I remember very carefully putting cheese and tequila through the security x-rays but not picking it up at the other end. I'm pretty sure we brought back more babies than we left with.
I woke up with a hangover of the kind the 21st century has rarely seen, with confetti in places I didn't know I had and a distant unpleasant taste of Michelada in my throat. But despite all this, the one thing I am definitely going to do again the next time I'm in California is a Turista Libre tour of Tijuana. It is pretty much the most fun I've ever had for $50 and has not only reinforced my already all-abiding passion for Mexican cuisine but also opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of Mexico itself, somewhere that hasn't had the greatest press in the last few years but is still friendly, vibrant and easy to love. What a day, what a place.
All those amazing photos by Helen Graves, much obliged