A lot of celebrities — and some of you — talked about fleeing the country if Donald Trump were elected. I actually did it.
As a post-election pall settled over Los Angeles, I called my daughter at college and asked if she wanted to go with me.
“Where?” she asked.
“Anywhere,” I said.
Trump had vilified a lot of countries, people and genders in his campaign, but first and foremost he went after Mexico and Mexicans. Tijuana, I thought, why not Tijuana? I hadn’t been there in 30 years. First, it got too seedy. Then, it got too dangerous. Then, that image stuck.
But for years, I’d heard the food, wine and craft brew scene there had exploded. And it was close; if we hurried, we could get there before The Wall went up. If I was going to sit shivah, why not do it with some good mezcal?
We left late at night, like Israelites fleeing Pharaoh. From our home to our hotel took 2 hours and 15 minutes. Crossing the border felt like an act of defiance. You hate them? #Imwiththem.
Our unspoken rule was that we would avoid the news for as long as possible. We walked into the lobby of Hotel Lucerna at 2 a.m. It was bubbling with young people in tuxedos and fancy dresses, coming from a wedding. No one paid attention to the soundless images on a large-screen TV of Trump and Mike Pence. We didn’t, either. TJ was going to be our no-cry zone.
The next day, it was time to shatter stereotypes. TJ wasn’t dangerous or depressing. Over the past two decades, it had boomed — thanks, NAFTA. The businesses that free trade had lured or spawned created an ambitious middle class that fed a bold food and art scene. The city isn’t even remotely pretty — but its sprawl reflects a relentless entrepreneurialism and energy, and a lot of that translates into great food.
Our first stop was the main market, Mercado Hidalgo. At Birrieria El Rincon del Oso, we passed on the eponymous goat stew and ordered perfect huevos rancheros and coffee scented with cinnamon. A mariachi band played. People sang and cheered for some occasion. They toasted with micheladas — cold beer and spicy tomato juice. It was 11 am.
The market was spotless and sprawling. It smelled of fresh guava. Vendors hawked hunks of fresh cheese with orange rinds, pomegranates, sugar cane. The market has an indoor section offering restaurant supplies: ladles the size of oars, soup pots that could hold enough matzo ball soup for an army division. That’s when I noticed something: the prices. In TJ, things cost half of what they do here. Those pots, that cheese, our breakfast — half. Every meal became a giddy case of reverse sticker shock.
I turned a corner and came face to face with one lone Trump piñata. Reality must have been sinking in by then — it didn’t amuse me. I don’t like the thought of anyone hitting the president of United States, and, yeah, he was my president. I needed a glass of wine.
We ate lunch at Hotel Caesar, where the original Caesar salad was invented in 1924. No, it’s not a tacky tourist trap. Think Musso & Frank with better food at 50 percent off. The waiter who made our salad tableside turned out the single best one I’ve ever tasted. Two glasses of superb L.A. Cetto Cabernet from Baja (I drank both) and things were looking up.
Dinner was even more impressive. For years, I remembered a great meal along the Baja wine route at a restaurant called Laja, from chef Jair Tellez. The Tijuana native (who, despite his first name, swears he is not Jewish) opened Verde y Crema in TJ, and it is among the city’s best. Farm-to-table ingredients cooked mainly over a wood oven. My wood oven-roasted local grouper with smoky tomatoes and lentils came closer to true California cuisine than what even the best Cal-Med restaurants in L.A. put out. There’s a curated list of artisanal local mezcals, as well. And wood oven-baked banana bread pudding with mamey gelato.
The restaurant restored us. It was packed with upscale couples and celebratory groups. If these people were worried what a President Trump would do to Mexico’s economy, they sure weren’t in mourning.
“We’ll see,” our Uber driver, Raziel, said to us that evening. Raziel, like most of the people we met in TJ, spoke perfect English and had a life on both sides of the border. He was getting his MBA in international business. Ending NAFTA could hurt the medical parts company he worked for during the day, but he didn’t see it happening.
“It benefits both sides,” he said. “Trump will see.”
“And what about the wall?” I asked.
“I don’t care. I have a green card,” Raziel said. “But we’re not paying.”
Raziel dropped us off at La Mezcalera, a smoke-free, mellow bar that serves all things mezcal. Backlit religious icons adorned the wall. With no squinting at all, you could be at a Williamsburg or Echo Park hipster hangout.
The next day, we took in a little news at a time, titrated, to ease our re-entry. Trump already had backed down from “a wall” and was now talking about “fencing.”
Things were looking up, or at least we were feeling better. We stopped for coffee at a La Stazione Café, ground zero of the artsy crowd. Inside, a mural proclaimed the store motto: “Coffee Is Hope.” We had two shots of hope.
We headed south for a half-hour, one last meal, at Puerto Nuevo. It was a stunning, warm day, the ocean a vast blue swirl beneath us. The Angel del Mar restaurant was full — at 11: 30 — with families drinking those micheladas, eating giant spiny lobsters or whole fried snapper with rice and beans. Mariachis played, and the couple next to us got up and began dancing.
We toasted them, and toasted love, and toasted life, and crossed back home.
You can follow Rob Eshman’s food adventures — including pictures and recommendations from Tijuana — on Instagram and Twitter ” target=”_blank”>jewishjournal.com/foodaism.