Street food at the Tijuana/San Diego border crossing

I was recently in dear San Diego for a very, very brief weekend.

Actually, that’s not San Diego. I was picked up from the airport and then immediately headed south — across the border — where a fun-loving group of individuals celebrated our good friend’s birthday over the weekend.

Our trip back north was particularly rough, though. For some reason about half of the customs booths were shut down — not exactly what you want during the peak Sunday return time, with everyone from vacationers to weekenders to people visiting family pouring back across the border. Instead of the typical 1.5-2 hour trip, it took us almost 4 to leave Mexico. Eep!

This gave us more than enough time to enjoy the food available on the route through Tijuana. Scratch that. In all honesty, it mainly gave us a lot of time to be starving and wonder at the palatability of the various offerings. If you know me, you know I have very little fear when it comes to street food — but I also know to be careful.

Take, for instance, this Tijuana comida China, that appears to be more auto garage than Chinese restaurant.

Since traffic always is so bad on the way back, a whole industry has sprung up to take advantage of the captive audience. All manner of tchotchkes and knicknacks will be sold to you directly by people walking back and forth between the slow cars — no need to even get out of your vehicle, knockoff soccer jerseys and statuettes of children sitting on benches can be yours! Just flag someone down who has the thing you’re interested in, and otherwise studiously avoid eye contact in order to minimize solicitation.

Of course, people have to eat, and there are plenty of options. From shrimp cocktails (big cups filled with shrimp, plenty of tomato sauce, lime, and sometimes avocado), burritos, bags of chips and other salty snacks, aguas frescas (sweet beverages), candies, sliced fruits, and more. You’re only limited by your own fear of food poisoning.

I ordered an ear of roasted corn, with chile and lime. Let me tell you, it was terrible. This corn had been warmed over for at least eight hours in a cart that was hanging out in an interstate median. All the sugars had totally cooked through and instead all that was left was a terrible, starchy mess. Adding insult to injury is the fact that I am, actually, a sweet corn snob. It has only been in the past year that I started eating it outside of my home state — once you’ve had corn picked that morning, you can never go back.

The one thing that I always get on the trip back, which I unfortunately don’t have any photos of (too dark at this point for my little phone camera), are churros. These are a beautiful example of the donut category, long, skinny fried pieces of dough that are doused in crunchy sugar and cinnamon. I also imagine they’re pretty safe, food-wise, and so I’m comfortable paying my $1.50-$2.00 for a greasy little bag of them to split with the car. Just be on the lookout for a cart with a steering-wheel type device, and make sure you get the attention of someone that is making them fresh. Like most fried things, it’s best warm. Mmm. 🙂

Tips for buying food on the border:

  • Everyone takes USD, and food is pretty cheap
  • You don’t need a working knowledge of Spanish to order, although that can help
  • Look for carts with high turnover = fresher food
  • Don’t drink too much, you likely won’t see a bathroom till you cross the border
  • Eat at your own risk
  • Mexican Coca-Cola really does taste better
  • Relax — the wait can be exhausting, but hey, you’re there, might as well enjoy what you can!
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