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Life After Terror: Tijuana, Baja Med, and the Gastronomic Renaissance


Alexis Hodoyan-Gastelum

            PREHEAT the fryer: the execution is underway. The cook mixes the ingredients that will drown the oyster’s body, the flour, cornstarch, soda water, a bit of salt and a whisked egg, in a slick metal bowl until they unite. The tempura batter must sit for 10 minutes while the oyster, clamping its shell inside a refrigerator, anticipates the vicious process ahead.  

            It all ends with a quick snap. The executioner, a knife with a stout blade, invades the oyster between the two halves, twisting until the mouth pops. The blade slides upward, cutting the adductor muscle, which held the shell closed. Snap. Dead.

Three seconds, that’s all it took; the worst is over.

            The cook takes the corpse and plasters it with spices. The seasoning, a secret recipe from Erizo Cebicheria in Tijuana, a lunch time spot known for its ceviche, its tuna chicharrónwith a miso garlic glaze, and many other delicacies. The cook dips the oyster, dredged in flour, into the tempura batter. The creamy, yellowish excess batter drips from the oyster as it hovers above the mixing bowl just before the cook plunges it into ardent oil. Yet the process is short lived; a mere two minutes will fry the oyster to a glowing, slightly golden shade. The coffin, a soft corn tortilla, lies a top a clean and round white plate, awaiting the tempura oyster. With the oyster’s excess oil patted off, the tortilla gently embraces the body. Chopped cabbage falls on top of the oyster followed by fresh pico de gallo. A spicy kimchi with a tad of ginger and liquefied sour cream tops the vegetables. Once a degraded corpse, the oyster now stands colorfully decorated on the plate as a high-end oyster tempura taco –a representative dish of the emerging cuisine, BajaMed.    

Ding. The order is ready. 


            In the 1980s and 90s, Tijuana used to be known as America’s destination of choice for cheap booze, prostitutes and prescription drugs. This view, as bad as it was, changed when all hell broke loose back in 2008. Teodoro Garcia Simental became the cartel lieutenant and started a violent rampage throughout the city. The new drug lord was pompous, flaunting narco-statements by kidnapping, torturing and killing people. Decapitations and hanging dead bodies from bridges were his signature. He made his fortune by collecting ransom money from his victims’ families, not through the drug trade. Reports from national and international papers, news stations and websites about the events directly or indirectly promoted the same message to tourists and locals alike: Stay out of Tijuana. Garcia Simental’s three-year reign of terror ravaged Tijuana’s tourism industry. Americans stopped heading south, no matter how cheap the booze, prostitutes or prescription drugs. Merchants from Avenida Revolución speculate that tourism declined 90 percent compared to 2005, when around four million people visited. Furthermore, the few locals who could afford it moved to Chula Vista and populated their own Little Tijuana. Hell, even the mayor moved to Coronado Island.
           The locals left behind lived with the threat of being unluckily caught in a cross fire, because that was what it was about -- luck. Cartels didn’t go on killing sprees and people didn’t live barricaded in their homes like the rest of the world imagined. Out of the 843 deaths in 2008 in Tijuana, 90 percent were related to the cartels. Things finally got better in January 2010, when authorities caught Garcia Simental. The violence began to diminish and Tijuana started to heal. The public went out to restaurants again. Young people stayed out late at bars and clubs. Police patrols no longer roamed the city in convoys of four. The beheadings and constant shootings stopped. Even the expatriates came back. But not the tourists, even though Tijuana hasn’t been among the top 10 most dangerous cities in the world since 2011.  
           Avenida Revolución, once a popular strip of clubs and bric-a-brac stores, remained deserted. Only rarely did a few European or Chinese tourists ride the double-decker sight-seeing bu ses along the famous street and other historic and commercial sites. Rosarito used to be an American retiree heaven, but after the real estate market along the Pacific Ocean dropped by 65 percent, the retirees opted for safer places like San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato and Huatulco in Oaxaca. The once most-crossed border in the world became the most feared.
           Eventually, the unexpected happened. The locals got tired of waiting around for the tourists to return. Instead of looking outward, the people of Tijuana started looking inward – especially people in the hospitality industry. Around eight years ago, chefs from Tijuana started noticing all the materia prima that Baja California had to offer. Lobster, tuna, oyster and abalone are abundant in the state, though most seafood gets exported to Asia, where a bigger market for the products exists. The chefs began paying attention to the local wine country composed of the valleys of Guadalupe, Calafia and San Antonio de las Minas, source of 90 percent of Mexico’s wine. Blessed with a Mediterranean climate ideal for grape growing, “the Wine Route” yields Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Chardonnay, among many others. Ensenada, meanwhile, gave birth to fish tacos, invented by Japanese immigrants using their tempura techniques. It also became home to several produce supply companies, such as Comercializadora El Sargazo, which farm raises organic oysters, clams and mussels. Mexicali became known for its Chinese food; Tijuana grew famous for its street food, especially tacos of all kinds.
           As it turned out, every city in Baja California had something to contribute as a culinary destination –something previously ignored by the state’s culinary circles. By looking inward , chefs throughout Tijuana and Ensenada noticed what their own state offered. Considering the rustic and organic product and the Mediterranean climate, they came up with a new concept that differs from traditional Mexican cuisine: BajaMed. The cuisine takes the fresh materia prima from Baja California and the flavors that flourish in each city and combines them with certain aspects of traditional Mexican food, such as using molcajetes (the stone mortars and pestles) or cooking with tortillas and chili. The three pillars that make up Mexican cuisine are food from Puebla, Oaxaca and Yucatan – food like cochinita pibil (slow roasted pork) and chiles en nogada (poblano chiles filled with picadillo, topped with nogada, a walnut-based cream sauce, and pomegranate seeds). BajaMed, with its sea urchin tostadas and seafood pizzas, serves something iconic from Baja California that can’t be labeled as “Mexican.” The central feature of BajaMed is using local products, meaning goods from Tecate, Rosarito, Ensenada and even certain parts of San Diego. The “Baja” in BajaMed alludes to the fact that it’s something from and about the state. It tells Baja California’s story.
           Miguel Angel Guerrero, of La Querencia in Tijuana, gave BajaMed its name. Chefs in Tijuana and Ensenada spearheading the cuisine include Jair Tellez at Laja, Martin San Román of Rincón San Román and Javier Plascencia from Misión 19 and Erizo Cebicheria. Plascencia serves as the face of the BajaMed movement in the media. Everyone from the New Yorker to the Los Angeles Times has written about him, his restaurants and his cuisine. And even though each chef does his own thing, drawing from the same basics, they all share a common dream: that Tijuana becomes a culinary destination on par with San Francisco. They want to nourish a Tijuana rich in wine, artisanal beer and an overall gastronomic culture. The chefs also want to attract a savvier tourist, not the 20-year-old frat boy looking for hookers and Coronas, but the culinary explorer who travels to their restaurants looking for an experience; looking for high quality, regional, fresh product that didn’t come from Canada or Alaska; looking to be served food that they’ll find nowhere else.


           Six feet under the cold waters of Bahia de Todos Santos, just nine miles off the coast of Ensenada, a cluster of kumiai oysters floats inside a net. Only a tightened rope attached to a peg on the surface and a couple of anchors prevent the vessel from drifting away in the strong California current. The oyster clusters hang like socks on a laundry rack in a suspension method called long-line. Cramped together, one oyster piled over the other’s rough, sharp shells inside the net container, surrounded by plankton and other algae and bacteria, they wait for eight months in order to get fat and reproduce. Twenty feet to the right and left, similar vessels float off of other pegs, the oysters growing and reproducing. Given their high fertility index, the farmers only worry about keeping them parasite- free. The oysters take care of business themselves. Back on the mainland, looking out from the scenic road, the view is of hundreds of tiny royal blue dots floating in the ocean blue.      
           In the distance, a broooom sound approaches. A small boat with a crew of five workers wearing plastic aprons and rubber boots sets up the machinery used to farm the oysters. In the old days, divers plunged into the ocean to get the vessels themselves, but not anymore. Technology now allows them to work from the boat. With the push of a button, the nets containing the oysters spiral upward onto a container. Once the workers recover the oysters from the underwater farms, they put them into ponds of drinking water to kill bacteria. After visiting each peg and pulling out all of the vessels, the crew has a whole stock of oysters ready to be distributed to packaging companies and then sold to restaurants from Tijuana and Ensenada and even overseas.


           You can’t talk about Tijuana’s history without bringing the United States and the love-hate relationship they share into the conversation. The opening of a customs office on the border between Mexico and the U.S. in 1874 gave way to Tijuana’s founding in 1889. It rapidly became the go-to destination for gringos. Once the Temperance movement took control of San Francisco and Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th century, American gaming and alcohol promoters set their sights on the young town south of the border. Sure, investment stability wasn’t great, given Mexico had been fighting a revolutionary war since 1910, but Baja California was unique. Isolated from the rest of the country and close to the U.S., it was legal illicit activity heaven. Cantinas, liquor stores and cabarets quickly invaded three blocks of “A” avenue in Tijuana, now Revolución.
           But like most products in the market, Tijuana needed publicity. Tourists flooded San Diego between 1915 and 1916 for the San Diego Panama California Exposition in Balboa Park to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. Capitalizing on the proximity, Tijuana organized the Feria Típica Mexicana, a Mexican fair, promoting activities banned in the U.S., such as boxing, cockfighting, bullfighting and gambling. The exhibit hoped to foster a Monte Carlo-like atmosphere.  
           In 1915, James “Sunny Jim” Wood Coffroth, one of the best boxing promoters in the world, went to Tijuana. Not coincidently, the Lower California Jockey Club, a horse race company building a race track in Tijuana, elected Coffroth as its president that year. Together with Secretary H. A. Houser and other members, Coffroth opened the race track on January 1 , 1916. Despite heavy rains the night before, more than 10,000 people attended the grand inauguration, including the guests of honor, comedian Eddie Foy, Hollywood director Mack Sennet and baseball player Frank Chace. But the party ended sooner than expected. On January 14th, the rain ruined the race track, turning dirt into mud. Subsequently, heavy rainfall from January 16 through January 18 almost overflowed the nearby river and destroyed the wooden bridge serving as the international border. The flooding severely damaged the race track facilities, which created tensions among the Lower California Jockey Club partners. Coffroth had to take precautions given that Jerome Bassity, a San Francisco mafia boss and partner, threatened him. But the reconstruction only took three months. The new race track opened on April 15th with great success. During that horse race season, Hollywood celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin, Olive Thomas, Jack Pickford, among others, visited the Hippodrome.
           While all was fun and games in Tijuana, on the other side of the border, the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. Given that Mexico had declared itself neutral throughout WWI, the U.S. closed down the border temporarily and started requiring passports for re-entry. But then the Roaring Twenties emerged, and along with them the Volstead Act. The prohibition of the production and sale of alcohol did wonders for the Mexican border towns. Cantinas and service centers immediately proliferated across Tijuana – even the famous 557- foot- long bar called la ballena ( the whale), was proudly promoted as the largest in the world. Wine factories in Tijuana benefited especially from this situation, such as Bodegas de San Valentín, which grew a capacity from 2,641 gallons in 1912 to 177,711 gallons of red, white, Muscat and port wine and vermouth. Other factories such as Bodegas Cetto and Casa Blanca blossomed around the same time. Tijuana was so popular that even the U.S.’s efforts to block the influx of Americans by closing the border at 9 p.m. encouraged the development of the hospitality industry. On July 4, 1920, 65,000 people and 12,654 cars crossed the international border. During the 1920 season, prizes at the Hippodrome went up to $100,000, which weren’t matched in other race tracks until much later.
           In 1926, the general and eventual president of Mexico, Abelardo L. Rodriguez bought a fraction of the Tia Juana ranch that included the springs of Agua Caliente. He associated himself with Baron Long, Wirt G. Bowman and James N. Crofton and formed the Mexican Company of Agua Caliente. They got a permit to operate a spa and built a tourist complex. The California mission meets Moorish meets Byzantine meets Italian Renaissance meets Louis XV- style complex was inaugurated on June 23, 1928. The hotel had 50 rooms, a casino, the restaurant Patio Andaluz, and a greyhound track. Sometime later, the Jockey Club built a race track also opened on December 28, 1929. The complex added a golf course and an airfield where tri-motor Ford planes landed and took off every 30 minutes on Sundays for San Diego and Los Angeles. Furthermore, many Hollywood starlets began their careers at the Patio Andaluz such as Rita Cansino, later known as Rita Hayworth. Patio Andaluz featured international haute cuisine and fine liquors. The greyhound track was located near the 33 bungalows, which some still stand. There was even a school from grades 1 to 4 for the guests’ children and Agua Caliente’s staff. The casino had poker, b accarat, blackjack, grand roulette and other roulette tables. Among the famous Hollywood gamblers who played in Agua Caliente were Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and Bing Crosby. Even the infamous Al Capone paid a visit to the casino.
           Despite Agua Caliente’s renowned image of elegance and flair, prices were typically low. Dinner cost a dollar, the daily rent for a bungalow three dollars. Not to mention the pay was great; while an average carpenter earned six dollars a day, an employee at Agua Caliente wouldn’t sacrifice his day for less than 100 or 200 dollars. Foreigners, though, made up 90 percent of the staff and most establishments were American- owned. The millions of dollars spent in Tijuana went right back to San Diego. As for the locals, they typically just visited the Patio Andaluz, where young men took their girlfriends on dates.
           During the 1920s, Americans weren’t the only ones going to Tijuana to get around Prohibition. Italian chef Caesar Cardini, for one, emigrated to the U.S. after WWI and opened a restaurant in Tijuana called Caesar’s. Though possibly apocryphal, it is believed that the chef himself invented the world- famous Caesar salad on a busy weekend at Caesar’s. The legend says that Cardini had little supplies but didn’t want to disappoint his customers so he winged a salad on the spot with the leftovers: romaine lettuce, garlic, olive oil, raw egg, Worcestershire sauce and parmesan cheese. And voila! An instant classic.
           The outside world generally perceived Tijuana as an American city, not Mexican. In order to get to the city by train, a person had to ask the American immigration officers’ permission to travel through the U.S., given that the railroad crossed both Mexican and American soil. This was the easiest way to get to Tijuana, as highways through Mexico didn’t exist. Tourists were all mostly American and not from the interior of Mexico. The majority of the locals were either from Baja California Sur or expatriate Mexicans who had lived in the States but were attracted by the tourist boom during Prohibition.  
           Every golden era has an end and the 1930’s marked Tijuana’s as it was known up until then. In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt legalized the sale of beer and wine with alcohol content of 3.2 percent or less, which brought the repeal of the Volstead Act. The legalization of alcohol hugely affected Tijuana’s economy as t he sale of liquor constituted the main source of revenue for the city. Many stores closed down and unemployment grew in alarming numbers. Then, Lazaro Cardenas was elected President of the Republic of Mexico in 1934. Among many other endeavors, he is famous for closing down all gambling establishments in the nation, including Agua Caliente.


            Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana writer, describes a “borderland” as “wherever two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where the under, lower, middle and upper classes touch ” in the preface of her book Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera. Tijuana is a geographical, psychological and cultural borderland; a place where two worlds blend and a third one is born. It’s a 339.5- square mile cultural menagerie of hills and plateaus, home to people from all parts of Mexico, Central and South America and even South Korea and China. Most go to the city with dreams of crossing the border into the United States. With countless failed attempts and deportations, the mojados, illegals, settle for jobs at the maquiladoras, industrial plants. Some South Korean and Chinese companies bring migrants from their respective countries and allocate them management positions. Once a small city, it now has a population of 1.5 million people, making Tijuana the third largest city in Mexico.
            For six million years, the Sea of Cortés and the Pacific Ocean isolated the Baja California Peninsula from the rest of Mexico. It’s too far away from mainland Mexico to be considered “Mexican,” and yet, the proximity to San Diego has not white-washed the city either. Tijuana is Tijuana, period. It has its own culture and people and customs. Locals speak Spanglish or switch back from English to Spanish with ease. Children put up altars on El Día de los Muertos at school two days after going trick-or-treating. After church on Sunday, people go out to eat Chinese food or street tacos. Tijuana is more than just a borderland separating the U.S. from the rest of Mexico; it is its own contained universe.
           Anzaldúa writes that the borderland is a “place of contradictions,” and that “hatred, anger and exploitation are the prominent features of this landscape.” But hatred, anger and exploitation can turn into drive after years of terror at the hands of mercenaries. Moreover, the borderlands are “in a constant state of transition,” meaning evolution; a fresh start. From the scattered ashes, locals began to rebuild Tijuana, refusing to be victimized any further in their own home. The new and avant-garde BajaMed cuisine serves as a standard-bearer in the city’s renaissance and so far, it is succeeding.  
           According to Baja California’s Secretary of Tourism, Juan Tintos Funcke, tourist influx in Tijuana increased by five percent during the first two months of 2012. The hotel industry in the city went from 41- to 46 percent occupancy compared to the same time last year, despite the travel alerts issued by the United States government. In order to make the trip to Baja California worthwhile, the state plans to invest in tourism infrastructure by increasing the number of destinations .
           History often repeats itself. The decrease in Tijuana’s tourism is merely a low point in a rollercoaster ride. The threats to Tijuana change, but the protagonists –the city itself and its people –don’t. They remain soldiers.


             The oyster tempura taco reaches the table. It stands on the plate – anticipating, motionless. The squeeze of a lemon drips juice over the body and vegetables. After a long journey from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, the oyster finally meets its destiny. Like an Egyptian mummification ritual, the cook prepped the oyster for an afterlife. The body preserved and adorned for burial with complementary relics that will aid it in the afterlife; forever resting in a coffin designed to provide comfort and protection. All in all, a dignified tomb worthy of a pharaoh or, in this case, a martyr. A sturdy hand lifts the taco from the plate and teeth dive into the oyster’s body and coffin and relics, crushing everything.
             Its taste – unique. Not like shrimp or fish or any other shellfish. The Baja Californian sea lives on despite the tempura and the Asian flavors – it transcends the oyster’s death, exciting the palate with an exotic taste. A plain and simple taco and yet nothing is plain and simple about it. Not the oyster and where it came from or its tomb or its death or its flavors. A few more bites and the taco disappears. But the oyster’s death was not in vain. The memory of it –-its taste and texture -–will be its legacy. The oyster, indeed, died for the greater good.  Or at least the greater good of filling an empty stomach.k letter