I miss traveling. Sure, a few times a year I’m lucky enough to jump around the United States to check out a different beer spot, but that’s not the traveling I’m referring to. The traveling that I miss is the kind where you get off a plane in a country that feels completely foreign, you don’t speak the language and you are just forced to figure it out.
It becomes more and more difficult to do that kind of traveling as you get older with work and life commitments. Its expensive and requires significant time off so at this point in my life extended weekend trips around the United States give me much more bang for my buck. But back in February I took a trip south of San Diego into Baja, and realized that I can do the kind of traveling that I want, and it’s only a few hours away.
Baja isn’t a place I knew much about and in hindsight that seems ridiculous. Prior to a few months ago in my mind, Tijuana was just a location from episodes of ‘The O.C.’ where rich SoCal kids went to drink cheap tequila and make bad decisions. But I had recently read a few articles in LA Weekly written by my friend Sarah Bennett about the Baja craft beer scene, and her excitement had certainly piqued my interest. So when my wife asked me if I wanted to cross the border for my birthday weekend, I decided to take the opportunity to explore somewhere new.
Rather than make the drive all the way from Los Angeles to Tijuana in the same morning we instead drove to San Diego on the friday night, ate and drank in North Park for a few hours, slept in a local hotel and were ready to head over the border first thing in the morning. Getting into Mexico moves quick enough – there isn’t even a place to stop at the border – you just drive through winding lanes equipped with high-tech video equipment that scan the cars coming through. Within 30 minutes from San Diego we were in Mexico, and immediately the differences between the two are pretty stark. I’ve been to many border towns in Europe and its amazing how the cultural borders between Spain and France or France and Germany is almost fluid. That’s certainly not the case in Tijuana – this is definitely Mexico, and while California seems totally happy accepting Baja’s influence in food culture, there isn’t a much coming back across the border these days.
We drive a few loops around the main tourist drag in TJ, dodging the aggressive traffic that would even make New York cabs a little cautious, and find a central, secure parking lot. Parking our car on the roof, we’re treated with an astonishing birds-eye view of the city. Tijuana is a sprawling, overwhelming place, with exhaust fumes and dust hovering over rooftops in the distance, but also startlingly beautiful – beneath cracked walls and border-town cheese there’s a historical city that is ignored for paranoid fear of cartel violence.
We make our way on foot to Avenida Revolución, the main tourist strip that runs north-south through downtown Tijuana. The entire avenue is littered with restaurants and tequila bars, each with a salesman outside pitching us to choose their spot over the one next door. Costumed men ask us if we want our picture taken with their donkeys painted to look like Zebra. We try our best to ignore the tourist traps and make our way further South, passing Hotel Caesar, the supposed birthplace of the Caesar Salad. While we contemplate stopping, we decide to press on toward our core destination – Plaza Fiesta, the craft beer mecca of TJ.
We walk about a mile and a half through the streets of Tijuana, shifting between tourist areas and roads littered with auto-shops and local bodegas. On one street a tent extends out into the road where families gather for a cookout. My brother, a fairly accomplished traveler, looks over and says “there’s areas of Los Angeles that make me feel less safe than this.”
Twenty minutes later we arrive at Plaza Fiesta and its… closed. My concerns about getting across the border early mean that its barely noon and none of the bars or tasting rooms are even open yet. We have about an hour to kill, so we wander around a nearby flea market and find some shade to take a break under.
Plaza Fiesta has been written about fairly extensively at this point. Once a lively open-air mall featuring restaurants and dance clubs, the rise in cartel violence and reduction of tourism left the plaza almost empty in recent years, until a loophole in liquor laws created an opportunity for Baja’s growing craft beer scene. Tasting rooms are next to impossible to open in Tijuana due to strict licensing requirements, but the umbrella license that covers Plaza Fiesta has allowed individual breweries to open tasting rooms without having to jump through the hoops required by the Mexican government. Its like if there was a place in Los Angeles where you could barhop from the Hermosillo, to Arts District Brewing, to Monkish Brewing, all without leaving the same property. Each bar has its unique space and vibe and the whole place has been built community and culture in mind.
After a bit of waiting we do another loop through the Plaza and find that Cerveza Legion has opened their gates. Through broken English we ask a tattooed bartender if they’re open. Technically they weren’t – but he would happily serve us if we don’t mind him setting up around us. We agree and promptly order a Pale Ale and IPA.
Many of the breweries in TJ are barely larger than homebrew setups. I knew this going in and tried to set my expectations accordingly – expecting good, but not necessarily world-class beer. I took a sip of my Pale – crackery malt, slight caramel sweetness, citrus zest and a firm bitter pine finish. This isn’t just an acceptable pale, this is excellent. My brother looks up from his IPA – “Wow, this is delicious”. He offers me a sip – again, not boring, not average – but good. A beer I would come back for. If this is what we’re in for this afternoon, I’m not going to want to leave.
While we’re sitting there a young man, not much older than twenty runs in and drops off a box full of glassware for the bartender in exchange for another box of goods. It seems that the there’s a barter economy in the Plaza, with all the breweries working together to help each other out.
Our next stop isn’t as successful. Lúdica Artesanal is the ‘house brewery of El Tigre, a punk bar that was the first to bring cerveza artesanal to the Plaza. Half of their listed beers are unavailable, and both beers we order are quite green – under-conditioned and the flavors not quite dialed in. Its inoffensive and not drowning in off-flavors, but its a definite step down from our first stop. In the months since I’ve been told it must have been an off-day for the well-respected Lúdica so I look forward to returning.
To our left at the bar a man approaches wearing a Noble Aleworks hat. He hands the bartenders a 6-pack of the newly released Pineapple Sculpin and in exchange they give him one bottle of Firestone’s Parabola from the fridge. Certainly an uneven trade from my perspective, but the bottles are quickly opened and shared among the regulars.
To my right, that young barterer from earlier stops into the takeout window at El Tigre, asking the bartenders for smaller change for a stack of larger bills. They make a trade and he runs off again in a hurry.
My wife stands up at the bar, her hunger is making her antsy. There’s a taco stand around the corner in front of the flea market and she takes our orders as we stop into Cerveza Ramuri for their Diablo Blanco (Mexican lager) and Vienna lager. These are exactly what they claim to be – light and drinkable – and exactly what we need as we set up on the patio. My wife returns with a plate full of tacos, “I don’t think they understood my order, instead of 3 chorizo and 3 adobada they just gave me 6 tacos with both meats mixed together”
We shrug and eat our first taco in Mexico and its probably the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in months. Fresh tortilla, juicy meat with a simple mix of crunchy raw onion and cilantro to top it off. Yes, these are the same style as available on every other corner in Los Angeles, but something about the Plaza makes it taste better.
My wife looks at her watch – we’ve got dinner reservations down the coast at our hotel in La Fonda – and she wants to be there before it gets dark. We’ve got time for one more brewery before heading back to the car (with a few food stops on the way). We wander the Plaza for a bit before we find an odd staircase leading up to a 2nd floor unit. We step into a very barebones 2nd story apartment – the home of Cerveza Fauna. The space is very open concept with a few booths in the back areas. Every wall has murals painted on them showcasing a bizarre cast of werewolves, gnomes and other fantasy creatures. A section of the roof it cut out as a skylight, filling the area with sunlight.
Behind the bar we find a familiar face – that young man who was bartering all over the plaza – finally looking a bit more relaxed as he finishes setting up the bar. My brother orders a Lycan Lupus IPA and I order a Penelope Coffee Porter. Both are delicious but I am floored by the coffee porter. Rich roasted malts and a huge coffee aroma and flavor. Comparable in every way to coffee beers from the LA area. The bartender tells me they have bottles of it for sale and I immediately buy two.
Something stands out to me about Fauna. The sparse, playful nature of the tasting room combined with truly excellent beers makes it the spot I would return to first. Unfortunately for this trip, time is running out and we need to get back to our car.
The walk back through Tijuana is drastically different from earlier. While the morning was quiet on Avenida Revolución, the afternoon has brought out more locals and we get a small glimpse of that the night would look like and immediately I’m hooked. TJ has more in common with cities like Barcelona than it does with that image from The O.C. that had prevented me from crossing the border from so long. Without a doubt there’s a seedy underbelly that you should be cautious of, but a smart traveler should have no problem navigating a place like this.
But most of you won’t make the trip to Tijuana. In the months since my trip I’ve realized that no amount of praise I can give to TJ will make it “safe” in my minds of many Californians. But that’s their loss. From now on, I won’t be making a trip to San Diego without jumping across the border, and in all likelihood I might just skip San Diego entirely.