Great food is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of the sprawling, dusty border city of 1.6 million people across from San Diego. Tijuana was once known for its souvenir shopping and cheap good times in border bars, then more recently for gruesome drug violence among cartels warring for the lucrative transport route at the busiest U.S.-Mexico border crossing.
Many of its restaurants had closed as the killings escalated, hitting 800 murders in the year 2007 and making Tijuana one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities. That all but shut down cross-border tourism and forced the closure of restaurants including the famous Caesar’s, where restaurateur and Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini invented the salad of whole romaine leaves, garlic, Worcestershire sauces, raw eggs and parmesan cheese back in the 1920s.
The violence has since subsided — some say because of a police purge, others say because one cartel managed to dominate the region. Either way, tourism is starting to return and even Caesar’s reopened in 2010.
The mix of people who live in the state also accounts for the fusion of flavors. Half of the 3.5 million there are natives of other states of Mexico, where they mix with first- and second-generation families from Asia, Europe and the U.S.
“Baja Med cuisine is a mix of the cultures that all came with the intention of crossing to the other side, but they stayed,” Plascencia said. “There were Italian and French restaurants established here because of Prohibition in the United States, and their principal clients were North Americans who came to have a good time at the border.”
That has translated into local demand for products grown in the state, said Hector Gonzalez, manager of the Ensenada-based company Max Sea, which is dedicated to Manila clam cultivation and Kumamoto oysters, since 1999. Before, most of Baja California’s products were being exported to the United States and Japan.
“What is happening in restaurants is a synthesis of all this,” Gonzalez said.
One of those producers is David Martinez, owner of the farm Rancho Martinez e Hijos, who has grown vegetables and mini-vegetables for 25 years.
He first began experimenting with small vegetables that were more colorful and had better taste and texture. Soon, he was selling baby carrots without skin and small green-and-yellow squashes to meet demand from Los Angeles County chefs.
“There was not a market for these products in the United States, much less in Mexico,” Martinez said. “We had to go to California to offer it. My idea was to take an old product and modify it and with that get the attention of the restaurants and the housewives.”
“In the United States they started calling those vegetables gourmet products,” he said. “I had no idea what they were referring to.”
Like Martinez, about 80 wine producers of the Ensenada valleys and 20 artisan cheese producers in Real de Castillo, a town southeast of Ensenada, are helping fuel the new cuisine after growing the products for years.
There’s no limit, said Plascencia, given the countless ingredients: “It all depends on the creativity of the chef.”