Adventure Chronicles: Tacos, Border Bartering, & Drive-Ins

For those of us adventure junkies, the excitement of discovering new places or exploring the uncharted is as necessary as the water we drink. Since the Find it La Jolla Visitor Center’s recent grand opening, my thirst for insider knowledge and adventure has once again increased – and what better way to explore native territory than a few road trips?

Introducing the brand-new Adventure Chronicles, your newest guide to all things awesome this side of the Mississippi! I’ll be providing you with the chance to explore California’s secrets from the comfort of your own home, or if you choose, the way to get to them; check the blog every other Travel Tuesday for tales of my expeditions to unique restaurants, abandoned ghost towns, weird sculptures, and more.

¡Viva México!

In the spirit of my first exploit, I took a trip just south of the border to experience some authentic Mexican cuisine and a little local Tijuana flavor. By the end of our group’s day trip, we’d bartered with a few locals, driven through a convenience store, and photographed some local Jack Skellington-esque wall graffiti. We also managed to successfully complete our objective: to find the best tacos in Tijuana. Our search led us to a rather inconspicuous little street dubbed “Taco Alley” by well-informed tourists and renowned chef Anthony Bourdain on his show “No Reservations.”

best tacos in tijuana

We Aren’t in Kansas Anymore

After a quick border crossing, a slightly harrowing drive through the crammed streets of downtown TJ (driving there takes more know-how and patience than it does in even the worst US cities), and a few wrong turns, we ended up on a small street called Guillermo Prieto. This is the famed home of Las Ahumaderas, a series of 6 taquerías that were established in 1960: Tacos El Paisa, Tacos Los Paisas, Tacos El Paisano, Las Quince Letras, and Las Tres Salsas. With stomachs growling in anticipation of our upcoming chorizo, adobada, and tripa, we sat down to have a quick chat with our taquero – a smiling chef who introduced himself as Hermán.

‘Al Pastor’ vs. ‘Adobada’

best tacos in tijuana

Those of us from Southern California – and who have eaten at Puesto in La Jolla – might have heard the term ‘al pastor‘ (in Spanish, it means “in the style of the shepherd”) to refer to tacos whose meat, usually pork, is cut directly from a vertical spit much like the lamb Greek restaurants use to make gyros. The pork is marinated in a combination of dried chiles, various spices, and pineapple.

We didn’t see ‘al pastor’ on the menu, so we asked our taquero, Hermán, about it. He informed us that northern Mexicans use the term ‘adobada’ instead, which essentially means the same thing. The only difference is the color – adobada is bright red in color and is flavored with onion instead of pineapple.

Las Ahumaderas

Hermán told us that his taquería, called Tacos El Paisa, was one of the first of its kind to be established in Tijuana. In the 60s, all that consisted of present-day Taco Alley was two portable taco carts and a few hardworking men with authentic taco recipes. Over the years, the carts became permanent stands, and there are now six different vendors lining the small street.

best tacos in tijuana

We sat right in front of the grill and could see everything Hermán was cooking and how he was cooking it. Our food was prepared quickly on a large cast iron Hibachi-like grill; the smell of spices and onion filled the air as we watched Hermán deftly assemble our first tacos of the afternoon.

best tacos in tijuana

Not a Gringo’s Taco

It was a very personalized experience, and within minutes, each of us had a typical street taco in front of us: two small tortillas filled with our meat of choice, house-recipe guacamole, and a generous sprinkling of fresh cilantro. They were delicious. Hermán asked if we wanted seconds – and thirds – and while we were eating, we learned that the taquería buys its meat fresh from a local butcher shop every morning. El Paisa is open from 8 AM to 4 AM every single day, which means they are preparing, cooking, or serving almost constantly. Hard work and fresh ingredients pay off, however: Hermán estimated that he serves up to a thousand tacos a day.

Tacos El Paisa’s weekend traffic consists mostly of Californians and other Americans who are looking to experience a little local flavor – unsurprisingly, the fan favorite is carne asada.  Hermán laughed as he explained this, then declared that the taco is actually his own personal favorite before placing a sizzling piece of perfectly seasoned beef on our plates.

Tourists for a Day

Graffiti on a building near Taco Alley

Of course, our Mexican experience wouldn’t be complete without a quick drive around the city for a glimpse of the famed “zonkeys” and a stop at a drive-in convenience store. Avenida Revolución is Tijuana’s well known touristy boulevard and it hasn’t changed much over the years; locals are still painting stripes on their donkeys and storeowners are still trying to bargain with visiting passersby. Despite the recent tales of violence and aggression amongst various Mexican cartels, we felt completely safe the entire time – both in and out of central downtown.

Witnessing the hustle and bustle of a large thoroughfare was definitely exciting, but we’ll take the smaller, more authentic Las Ahumaderas over crowds any day of the week.

best tacos in tijuana

The San Ysidro Border Crossing

After a brief stop, we headed back toward the border crossing. We were in for a long wait, but luckily, we were entertained by a steady stream of local merchants selling everything from soccer jerseys to Disney beach towels and larger-than-life straw baskets. After a few rounds of spirited bartering, we purchased a beautifully painted skull to commemorate the experience. We also splurged for a bag of hot churros fresh off the grill – a little crispier and a bit sweeter than the Americanized version we’ve all had at Sea World, they were definitely one of the highlights of the trip and a tasty ending to our lunch excursion.

If you ever feel like some authentic Mexican tacos, Las Ahumaderas is located at Guillermo Prieto #9770, Col. Cacho, 22040 Tijuana Baja California, Mexico. 

A Few Helpful Travel Tips:

U.S.-passport1. Know your way around – put the address into a GPS or find it on a map before you cross the border, since data roaming charges will apply!

2. Brush up on your Spanish or travel with someone who knows enough to get by. A little bit can go a long way when you’re ordering food or chatting with a storeowner.

3. Don’t be alarmed when merchants walk up to your car at the border – they won’t bother you if you politely wave them away. And don’t be afraid to barter for a MUCH lower price! They usually come back and accept your offer.

4. Be aware of your surroundings – though there is very little danger in Tijuana, it’s still good to be mindful of where you are. Don’t leave valuables out in plain sight and travel with a friend or someone you know.

5. Mexican merchants DO accept American money, so you don’t need to worry about exchanging currency.

6. Don’t forget to fill up on gas and bring your passport – and leave your guns and weapons at home, as guns are illegal in Mexico.

Where would you like to see us go next? If we choose your destination, you’ll receive a $20 gift card!

Stay tuned for the next Adventure Chronicles in 2 weeks.

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