"You should have the ojo taco," said Ricardo Zarate, a four-time James Beard Award nominee whom many consider the best Peruvian and Nikkei chef in North America. His dining empire previously included acclaimed Los Angeles restaurants like Picca, Mo-Chica and Paiche, and Rosaliné, his most ambitious project yet, opens this spring in West Hollywood.
"What is that, like ojo de bife?" I asked, referencing an Argentine cut of beef.
"No, ojo means 'eye,'" said one of the chef's friends.
"I know it means eye, but it's not a real eyeball, right?"
"It's a real eye, seriously," Zarate replied.
"Shit, now I have to try one," I proclaimed, dreading the words as soon as they left my mouth.
Zarate, who also serves as a consultant helping people open and revamp restaurants, regularly travels to Asia to expand his gastronomic knowledge. For shorter experiences, he enjoys Tijuana day trips to explore the border town's Mexican street food, and PRØHBTD joined the chef on a recent all-day eating extravaganza.
We started at Tacos El Gordo, a cram-packed casual restaurant that serves about two dozen tacos, that first opened its doors in 1972. As a SoCal native, I knew the typical tacos like asada, chorizo and pastor as well as less common options like lengua (tongue) and tripa (intestines), but El Gordo also serves paladar (roof of the mouth), cachete (cheek), buche (pork stomach), cabeza (head) and ojo. The menu even features vampiros (vampires), a frontier-style taco in which the griddled tortilla is shaped like a bat wing to hold a massive heap of filling. Most tacos cost 24 pesos (at 20 pesos to the dollar as of February 2017), but the vampiros ran 40 pesos. When the server arrived, Zarate ordered a bunch of tacos, though the kitchen had just run out of eyeballs.
"I have not had the eyeball yet, I won't lie to you," said Zarate. "I wanted to try it, but unfortunately there are only two eyes, and they apparently go fast. Maybe next time. My friends are picky eaters, and I was surprised that they love it. I personally eat everything. When I eat fish, I even eat the eye."
Within minutes, the first tacos arrived, followed shortly by more sets of tacos hot off the grill. Each person in the group had two or three tacos, and the chorizo (sausage) were arguably the best.
"If you are going to Mexico, especially Tijuana, you can eat all kinds of tacos," explained Zarate. "If I'm going to search out the best taco, I concentrate on the masa, the actual tortilla, which is kind of the secret. How do they make the tortillas? How fresh are they? Do they grill it on charcoal? What is the texture like? How does it feel in your mouth? How dry is it? That is the first thing when evaluating a taco."
Tacos El Gordo (now with locations in San Diego and Las Vegas) was the opening act, but our next stop, Mariscos Ruben, was clearly the headliner. The food truck, which was a five-minute walk from the taco shop, has served first-class Mexican seafood since the 1990s. The husband-wife combo of Ruben and Mirta Rodriguez specialize in Sonora-style seafood caught in the Sea of Cortez, the body of water between the mainland and Baja Mexico. About a dozen glass jars filled with colorful salsas (e.g., mango, guava, tamarindo, habanero) lined the food-truck counter, and a charcoal grill sat outside making what was our favorite dish: a cheese-topped mix of clam, octopus and shrimp grilled inside a large, foil-wrapped clam shell. In addition to the grilled clams, Zarate ordered an octopus cocktail, shrimp ceviche, tuna tostada and carefully crafted micheladas.
"Apart from Ruben and his wife being very nice people, I really love the food and the story," said Zarate. "You can see the food is cooked with passion, and passion is what it's all about in this industry. Chefs sometimes get trapped on the business side of things and lose the passion, but not here. [Mirta] has cooked here for 30 years, seven days a week, from the morning until six or seven at night in a truck in Tijuana. You can taste the passion. It's going to be sad when she stops cooking because it's very hard to replace what she has. That story will be over."
After loading up on seafood at Ruben's, we headed to a liquor store to load up on mezcal and tequila, after which time we made one last stop. The sun was starting to set, and a massive taco cart serving al pastor rolled out onto a street corner. Al pastor is a shawarma-style pork meat cooked on a spit, and a large wave of Lebanese immigrants who came to the country in the 1930s popularized this Mexican-Middle Eastern mash-up. No one in our group was hungry, but we all made our stomachs suffer having one more taco each.
"When you describe food, it also matters where it is and the time you go," remarked Zarate. "Good food always tells a story. That [taco cart] is in the perfect corner in the perfect place, and you are eating this food on the street surrounded by all these different types of people. I like that it's messy, you're eating with your hands, and the grill is right there on the street cart. It's not even a food truck."
While most people think of street tacos when it comes to Tijuana, the coastal city has a much richer history than many people realize. During the original 1920s Prohibition, Tijuana became a popular destination to eat and drink, and Italian-born Caesar Cardini likely invented the Caesar salad at his Tijuana restaurant on July 4, 1924. The Cardini family continues to run several restaurants, including Casa Plasencia, which Zarate recommends. Tijuana has undergone many changes in the decades since, and the city that once attracted drinkers trying to escape Prohibition now draws 18- to 20-year-old Americans trying to escape the U.S. age limit on drinking.
"Many people might think Tijuana is too Americanized," said the chef, "but you can go to Lima [Peru] and say the same thing. We're living in a time of globalization, and every place has a little bit of everywhere else. I ate one of the best tacos in my life in Cabo San Lucas, and these tacos in Tijuana are not far off. Tijuana's right next to America, but it is still a frontier. As soon as you cross the border, you see and feel the difference. When it comes to the food, Tijuana has its own personality, and I think it's only getting stronger."
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD. Mirta Rodriguez image by Fabio Camarrgo.