In the 1920s and ‘30s, before Las Vegas had cemented its Sin City reputation, Tijuana was the adult playground of choice for the era’s A-listers (Charlie Chaplin, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable) and Americans with means. Prohibition and strict laws forbidding or severely limiting gambling, prostitution, and horse racing sent thrill seekers south to indulge in the Mexican city’s casinos, tracks, resorts, red light district, and fine dining establishments.
Then political upheaval, corrupt cops, cartel crimes, and a whole lot of bad press—coupled with Vegas’ development and the 21st Amendment—ended that golden age of tourism until recently. Tijuana, the largest city in Baja California and the busiest land-border crossing in the world, is back: The growing food scene, craft beer revolution, and nearby wine country has hungry and thirsty visitors returning for a taste. The following restaurants should be their first stops.
There is no more influential a person in Tijuana’s quest for culinary respect than Chef Javier Plascencia, whose family has been in the biz for four generations. Often credited with kickstarting the Baja Med genre, this is his farm-and-sea-to-table flagship. Here he combines elements of street food, traditional family fare, modern techniques, ingredients found within 125 miles of the restaurant, and fine dining service. Various tasting menus including M19 classics (Bluefin tuna parfait and suckling pig roast with corn crêpes) and vegan dishes (chayote aguachiles and duxelle tamale) means there’s something to please everyone. There are plenty of seasonal à la carte options if you aren’t looking to commit to such a grand occasion.
With exposed brick, open kitchen, a strong craft cocktail program, and a menu that gussies up traditional dishes and regionally common ingredients using buzzy techniques like confit, emulsion, and dehydration, Oryx Capital is the kind of gastropub you expect to find in a cosmopolitan city. While it might irk with the assumed pretense of Clamato air or habanero ash, know that it's delicious, especially the velvety corn bisque, the octopus with celery root and pork rinds, and the chorizo mac-and-cheese. The atmosphere is welcoming, and the bespectacled chef Ruffo Ibarra endlessly charming and talented. A night here is not complete without a dessert like churros with bourbon bacon ice cream or a nightcap in Nortico, a mid-century modern speakeasy hidden at the end of the dimly lit bathroom hallway. As a dual ode to the Prohibition glory days and Tijuana’s bright future, they serve classic cocktails and updated versions. The tiny jewel box of a bar fills fast, so book in advance to avoid being left high and literally dry.
OK, this is a little bit of a cheat because technically it isn’t one restaurant, but several awesome (stationary) food trucks and stalls in one centralized open-air location full of eye candy—think neon signs, murals, and repurposed surfboards—that’s ready for its social media close-up.
We can’t be forced to single out just one vendor, although if you dig on swine, your first stop should be Humo. They smoke their made-from-scratch bacon and bork (half beef, half pork) sausages for six hours on a barrel grill, after which they envelop them in a ciabatta bun.
Not up for the inevitable meat sweats? Totally fine as there’s also fresh seafood from Otto’s, ramen, cupcakes, fancy coffee, a brewery and beer garden, plant-based tacos, and poke bowls. The outdoor seating and fire pits are pet- and group-friendly and welcome folks to linger. Some nights there’s live music and stand-up. Six years in, the set-up is so popular that they have opened a second Tijuana location, and plan to open over the border in San Diego soon.
As the legend goes, back in 1924, a group of friends unexpectedly showed up at Caesar Cardini’s popular restaurant at the end of a busy holiday weekend. Though the Italian-American chef’s cupboards were practically cleaned out, he tossed together what remained—romaine, garlic, croutons, Parmesan cheese, boiled eggs, olive oil, and Worcestershire sauce—creating the OG Caesar salad. (His brother added anchovies a few years later.) Both the salad and the restaurant, now part of the Grupo Plascencia empire, have persevered for decades, and they still put on a show with table-side service. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s also fun. With the vintage photos, woody interiors, and retro dishes like salmon meuniere and several others boosted from ‘50s hot spot Victor’s, it is the closest you can get to the Tijuana of yesteryear.
Another inviting all-day or all-night hang, this Mexico City import combines art house movie theater, live performance stages (mostly stand-up and jazz), and a boutique and massive lobby bar on the ground floor. In addition to an extensive beer, wine, and cocktails list, their top-shelf terrace serves up hearty comfort foods like guacamole and chips, pizzas, burgers, beetroot salads, marlin burritos, and even fried chicken-n-waffles. It isn’t the most creative food, but it is tasty and reliable, and when you add in the ambience, Cine Tonalá Tijuana earns its place on the list. It’s completely open on two sides, allowing diners to look out over the palm trees and house-covered hills that surround the city, hear snippets of cumbia music pouring out of cars, catch the breeze on a hot day, or sip potent drinks while the sky changes colors at dusk.
With its mostly white palette, array of globe pendant lights hung to mimic an art installation, and Googie-inspired arches, one step into this bright contemporary space and you’ll think you’ve been transported to downtown Los Angeles. The topnotch avocado toast with tahini and pepitas, fresh green juice, and vegan chia waffle with açai found on the brunch menu certainly don’t help that “where am I?” fugue state. Dinner is meat-forward and fancy, made up of dishes that utilize classic flavors and European techniques like foie gras brúlee, smoked salmon carpacchio, chicken schnitzel, pork chops with mustard and caramelized pears and apples, and several cuts of beef.
If you don’t grab cheap, flavorful street tacos at least once during your trip, were you even really in Mexico? Easily avoid this tourist faux pas in Tijuana, where hundreds of streets carts, stalls, food trucks, and restaurants vie for your appetite’s attention. This three-truck-strong brand has been expertly filling tortillas for more than 20 years. It specializes in guisados (AKA varios), a slow-cooked spiced stew of meat, vegetables, or both. The chicharrón (fried pork skin) in tomatillo salsa topped with pickled red onions is something special, but you can’t go wrong with chicken in mole, birria, carne asada, or Spanish chorizo, either. Breakfast tacos are also on point if the craving strikes in the a.m. Two decades equals lots of regulars, so expect a line at all times of the day.
On the flip side, if you went to Mexico and only ate tacos, that would be boring and shortsighted as Tijuana, like most urban playgrounds, is a melting pot inspired by other places and cultures. This retro travel-themed brasserie—with its vintage airline posters, bronze details, patterned floor tiles, and hanging plants—is both a callback to the glory days of Tijuana tourism and a visual and edible gateway to other lands. With offerings like charcuterie boards, caviar-topped deviled eggs, roasted veggies, and perfectly crispy truffle fries, it is best as a first stop for apps or a late-night last round of nightcaps and nibbles.
Sal de Maple
At this point, brunch is practically a national pastime in the U.S., and Mexicans, especially those who live and often work in close proximity to mimosa swilling, Benedict-pounding Americans, are joining the breakfast club with fervor. The number of quality spots serving the most important meal of the day continues to grow. There’s Alma Verde, Malvet, Mantequilla, and the aforementioned Georgina to name a few. But if you can only stop at one, cozy Sal de Maple excels at the morning rush thanks in no small part to the eight kinds of waffles on offer. Go decadent with the churro or Nutella with strawberries, plain with the Vegan, or slightly oddball with the savory pizza version that contains tomato sauce and pepperoni. There are mostly staples from the neighbor to the north on the menu, but a few hearty Mexican classics like chilaquiles represent.
Pizza is a universal language of love, and this upscale Neapolitan-style pie purveyor speaks to us with its thin, fire-charred rounds of dough decorated with both the expected (fior de latte, prosciutto, Calbrian salami, and zippy tomato sauce) and unexpected—like the riff on Wolfgang Puck’s signature Spago number that features smoked salmon, labne, capers, and dill. Opened in 2018, the simple but chic black-and-white bistro’s ambience is dominated by the authentic Forni Altobelli brick oven shipped over from Naples and stuffed with oak logs. Not to worry if you don't love pizza, as they also dish up other superior noshes like bucatini carbonara, eggplant parm, and rotisserie chickens with salt and vinegar potatoes. All pair nicely with their 100 percent Baja-blended cellar.
This is another passion project by Javier Plascencia, albeit a much more casual one than M19 with its earthenware bowls and weathered wood tables. Inspired by the state and its thriving street food scene, Erizo celebrates the seafood that has long played an important role in native Baja cuisine. Dive into vibrant and zesty ceviches and their chunkier cousin, tiraditos; shrimp pozole; tostadas; and tacos filled with almost everything that swims nearby, including octopus, shrimp, tuna, and marlin. Ingredients including fish are always fresh and seasonal and the beer list capitalizes on the growing local artisanal suds scene.