Tacos are not tied to inflation; attempts at increasing the price of less desirable cuts of meat with hot chili sauce and onions are difficult to stomach. In Tijuana, where the exchange rate on the venerable Peso has fallen to less than 6 cents, or approximately 19 to 1 dollar, the value proposition on a taco has never been better in my lifetime.
The Gold Coast of Baja California is a dominant manufacturing center in North America, as the 19th largest metropolitan area in the Americas, it is modernizing. Tijuana has plenty of prescription free ‘medicine’, cheap alcohol, and a long standing title as the largest medical device manufacturer on the continent. It is the most visited border city in the world, and unfortunately most people don’t go for tacos, but they should seriously start.
Tacos are serious business in Tijuana, as the city began with serious beef. A ranching grant established the present day city when California’s mission era ended in the early 19th Century. In 1848, after the Mexican American War (or the war Texans started to take Mexican land, that the United States eventually entered), Mexico lost most of the land in Alta California. The city really began to blossom in the 1920s when Prohibition brought Californians south for legal drinking, horse racing, gambling, and Caesar Salads. The city quickly gained a reputation for lawlessness and hedonism.
Rita Hayworth was discovered in 1928 at the infamous Auga Caliente Touristic Complex. In ’35 President Cárdenas ordered gambling over in Baja California and the party was over. In 1994 a presidential candidate was assassinated in Tijuana, and the ramping up U.S Drug Policy, as well as the dominion of the Tijuana Cartel pushed the murder rate into the hundreds. The dangerous reputation of Tijuana was cemented in the modern imagination, with gun battles regularly erupting in the streets. Today, Tijuana is booming, with nearly 80 thousand people moving there annually. Currently the population is 1.3 million people, and by 2030 it will be the second largest city in Mexico.
Though the city has a reputation for crime, the murders are much more manageable now – mainly focused on the lucrative crystal meth and prescription drug trade. The body counts are lower, yet most are left uncounted, as the bodies are dumped in shallow graves in the Sea of Cortez. The killings usually bear the mark of the leaders of Mexicali and Baja California, the controlling Sinaloa Cartel. The Arzate brothers favor decapitations; the recent movie showing decapitated bodies dissolved in lye hung from highway overpasses was inspired by a Tijuana killing last year.
Upstart cartel Jalisco New Generation is extremely well armed, and have been battling for control of the lucrative Tijuana Plaza, but it seems that Sinaloa has an iron grip on the territory for now. If you avoid buying Crystal Meth and focus on the tacos, you shouldn’t run into any problems.
Right away at Taqueria El Franc I could see that we were in store for real tacos. Our cocinero was more concerned with the city soccer team than the deft movements of his blunt blade, endlessly chopping entrails into pure excitement on warm pressed corn. A kind of ‘call and response’ was ongoing with the Trompo man, busy at work slicing hot sizzling pork off a spit of truely authentic proportions. North of the Rio Grande it’s rare to find a real Al Pastor setup, and more often than not it will be lacking in a Pineapple or proper pork girth.
Flanked by a meat point man and backed up by ladies in aprons non-stop pressing tortillas he casually dipped his hands in and out of the hot gas fired cooker. While these used to be made of cast iron, nowadays they are fashioned with aluminum for a healthy dose of alzheimer’s disease. Real tacos are not pretty, clean or glamorous – just delicious.
They are flopped into wax or newspaper, oftentime unevenly cooked at wet from the combination of stewing entrail meat juice and oil. Guacamole here is taqueria style, likely thinned with Mayonesa (mexican mayonnaise) which differs in the addition of lime or lemon over vinegar for tang. It also is loaded with high fructose corn syrup.
To use the Trompo requires skill and practice. Originally a style of cooking brought by waves of Lebanese immigrants, it now takes place front in center in the tacoverse. Derived from shawarma and a dish called tacos árabes, which originated in Puebla the dish started out with slow cooked lamb meat. Back when everyone was just brown the culinary synergy was at an extreme level, and leave it to Mexican’s to add Pork and up the ante. The Mexican version requires dried chillies, achiote paste, and pineapple. My Rule of thumb is if the Trompo isn’t at least as wide as its operator, and he doesn’t have to stand on his tiptoes to slice off the pineapple, catching it skilfully in a tortilla catchers mitt, we keep walking.