Lacking a colonial history or archaeological sites, Tijuana was long considered as little more than a transit point on the border. But now, as restaurants, art galleries and concert venues pop up, the city is experiencing a cultural renaissance.
"One out of four people who come to Tijuana stay for the food," said chef Miguel Angel Guerrero, a fourth-generation Tijuanense.
Antonio Díaz de Sandi, co-creator of the Life & Food blog, is one of Tijuana’s biggest champions. Born in San Diego, he lived in Tijuana for 18 years and as a child woke up every day at 5:00 a.m. to cross the border to go to school. He’s always had a foot in each country, he says.
Now he lives in San Diego with his wife and his son, but he crosses the border at least three times a week for work, grocery shopping, and to eat out.
Every weekend, he and his wife travel to Tijuana with a small group of people, mainly Americans from southern California attracted by curiosity and their appetite. Some come for wild nights of revelry on Avenida Revolución, one of the city’s most famous streets that’s home to new restaurants and private galleries.
“Our mission isn’t to give people a sightseeing tour, but to show them how we live on the border and celebrate the cultural aspect of food,” said Díaz de Sandi.
He’s also a member of Tengo Hambre Club, or the I'm Hungry Club, a supper club created to celebrate Baja California’s cultural renaissance and food scene. Díaz de Sandi created it along with bloggers Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA and Jason Thomas Fritz of Tijuanalandia. There’s no invitation or membership required; anyone who wants to eat good food is welcome.
Mexico’s Baja California state has developed a growing food scene: there’s Tijuana street food, seafood in Ensenada, giant spider crabs in Popotla and the Guadalupe Valley's wines and farm to table culture .
When the Tengo Hambre Club stops in Tijuana, the group focuses on street food, taking guests to places like Tortas “del Wash” – which started as an informal business outside a car wash and sells carne asada sandwiches with guacamole and hot sauce – and Tacos Frank, famous for its carne asada tacos.
Although some of the places in the tour have been around for decades, Díaz de Sandi has witnessed a shift in Tijuana’s food culture. "The way we Tijuanenses eat and drink has changed; now we are more curious, more informed," he said. Traditional eateries have been joined by food trucks with more contemporary options, restaurants and craft breweries, influenced by a movement in San Diego, which produces about 60,000 barrels of craft beer a year.
The cultural revival isn’t limited to food. Tijuana and border cities such as Mexicali and Ensenada seen the arrival or return of contemporary artists and the opening of private galleries, cultural centers and concert venues.
La Blástula, located in Tijuana’s city center in a space that used to be a jewelry store, is run by Julián Plascencia, brother of chef and restaurateur Javier Plascencia and organizer of the annual Tijuana Jazz and Blues festival.
Also, in the past five years, artists have flocked to Federal, one of Tijuana’s residential neighborhoods, to live and work.
In one of the buildings there, drug cartels built a tunnel that led to a parking lot on the U.S. side of the border, and for a long time it was used to smuggle drugs. In 2007, three years after the tunnel was discovered by law enforcement officers, the Border Council for Culture and Arts built La Casa del Túnel (Tunnel House).
The tunnel building isn’t a shipment point for drugs anymore. Since its opening, La Casa del Túnel has played host to literary gatherings, concerts, and art exhibitions.
"Everything flourishes at the same time," says Guerrero.