It was always a truism: Border Mexico wasn’t the real Mexico. What made places like Tijuana most obviously not-Mexico was the throngs of American and other tourists who overran Avenida Revolucion and warped so many aspects of the city’s commerce. The currency was US dollars. The pandering was to American appetites.
For years, I liked both the real Mexico and the otherworldly border zone. I traveled widely in the former, and I frequented the latter. During the early 1980s, I went to TJ at least weekly, for language-practice sessions with a Mexican friend and to report on various stories for the Reader. My friend Jim Holman, the Reader‘s publisher, lived in the infamous Zona Norte for a while. Later, he and Claudia and their firstborn moved into nicer digs. They professed to love living in Tijuana.
It’s hard for me to remember when my TJ visits tapered off — probably once I had kids myself. Steve and the boys and I did enjoy several adventures over the years. But then the World Trade Center attacks in September of 2011 ratcheted up the paranoia about border security, and the lines coming north, never good, became hellish. The fear took a harsh and immediate toll on tourism. I remember dining in TJ one night with out-of-town visitors in 2003 and feeling stupefied by the number of shuttered storefronts on Revolucion. A few years later, escalating drug violence further discouraged border-crossing . It took a long time, but the thought finally struck me: maybe it was too dangerous to go there.
Since then Tijuana’s violence has subsided, however. So Saturday night, Steve and I ventured south again. We assumed it would take less time to cross back into the US on foot than in a vehicle. So we rendezvoused with 6 friends at the transit center in Old Town and caught the 5 p.m. trolley for San Ysidro. (Day passes cost $5.) It filled up, but we all got seats, and it’s an interesting ride, if a long one — just short of an hour.
After disembarking, it took about 20 minutes to make our way to the clattering turnstile that’s the gate to Mexico. We sauntered along the once-bustling pedestrian street that leads to Avenida Revolucion. Now it’s mostly deserted, save for a few pharmacies and gift shops and bars. Just beyond the giant metal arch that marks the north end of Revolucion, the street scene grew livelier. Along the block angles south over to Constitucion, I felt transported to some prosperous and authentically Mexican city in the interior. But we soon cut back to Revolucion, where the ratio of failed to operating businesses increased again. I’ve read estimates that tourism has plunged somewhere between 60 and 95% —
and there’s nothing like a walk here on a Saturday night to drive those figures home. On the other hand, the avenida felt vastly more Mexican than the Revolucion of my youth. All the signs were in pesos. Where hawkers once sang out near-incessant invitations in languages ranging from English to Chinese, only a handful greeted us, and a few of them looked like they couldn’t believe their eyes.
We’d wanted to walk and experience the street life, even though we knew this meant we’d have to miss out on the city’s more acclaimed restaurants, located in the river district. But this decision didn’t leave us a lot of dining choices. We found the old standby Chiki Jai (across 8th Street from the long-defunct Jai Alai palace) open and serving a few customers but in a space that looked small and tired. A block away, at the corner of 8th and Madero, we’d looked for a place called Mexico Lindo, which sounding promising in a Lonely Planet listing. But it had turned into a simple juice bar at some point. At last, we headed back to that other hoary favorite on Revolucion, Caesar’s (founded in 1927 and the much-touted birthplace of the Caesar salad.)
Today Caesar’s includes a stylish tapas bar, but we wanted to sit at a long table together and found seats in the narrow, softly lighted room next to the vintage bar. I ordered a combination of carne asada, cheese enchiladas, and chile rellenos, and when the food finally arrived after what felt like a small eternity, my spirits fell. The components looked like they’d been plopped on my plate without a thought to their appearance. Still, everything tasted great, and my companions raved about their roasted meat and fig-stuffed chicken and seafood entrees. With the tax and tip and goodly amounts of alcohol, the tab came to about $28 a person.
A van big enough to carry all 8 of us back to the border set us back $30. The most menacing part of the outing — getting through US customs and immigration — turned out to be a waltz — no lines of any sort, no stopping, save for a perfunctory swipe of our passports. (We speculated that for some reason, the imminent Mexican national elections had discouraged tourism even more than normal.)
We had plenty of time to catch the 10 p.m. northbound trolley, which got us back to the Old Town parking lot shortly before 11. If we had endured a multi-hour pedestrian snarl at the border, the adventure would have ended with a sour taste. Instead, it felt like a painless way to escape to another country. Steve and I resolved to do it again soon .