"You've gotta go," my friend Héctor said about three weeks ago. "They're unique. Delicious."
So, a couple of days later, I'm down there. Why? To follow Héctor's suggestion: Try my first octopus burger. Except right now, Tijuana seems...odd. People look distracted, like something's happening, or about to happen. I'm at Second and Constitución when, suddenly, all goes quiet. Not a barker, not a cop siren, not a mariachi. In slo-mo, heads turn toward the TV inside the corner electronics store.
"Go-o-o-olll! Go-o-ol de México. México!! dos! Brasil -- cero!!!"
Everyone rushes over, noses against the windowpane, watching the replay and the re-replay of the beautiful, long curveball into the top right of the net.
Once the dust settles, I jump into a red communal taxi up towards the bullring to get out at Colima and lope up into middle-class Colonia Cacho. It's silent. Guess everybody's watching that Mexico-Brazil game. I make my way up a couple of blocks to, uh, Calle Brasil.
And there she sits, mustard yellow, on the corner of Brasil and Colima. I walk across. "El Arrecife. Hamburgesas de Camarón & Grill," which means: "The Reef. Shrimp Hamburgers and Grill." The place is so deadly quiet I'm thinking maybe it's not open for business anymore.
Then, a dozen male voices roar out from inside. "No! No! NO! Oh man!"
I should have known. Fútbol.
Inside, a whole cluster of guys sits hunched around a TV. Brazil just about scored.
One guy steps out to take a breather. "They open?" I ask.
"Oh yes," he says. "But everybody's watching the football."
I can see the gleam in his eye. Mexico's pulling off a miracle.
"But do they have octopus...burgers?"
"Oh yes. We have octopus, shrimp, beef, chicken."
Turns out this is the owner. Daniel Ludim Gómez Vaca, originally from Guadalajara, where shrimp burgers are apparently famous.
I step down into the little room and take a seat at the red-and-white plastic Coca-Cola table, with red Coca-Cola chairs, right under a giant copper sun hanging on the wall. The guys sit around tables ringing the small TV on the counter. They're chowing down on a big plate of chicharrones (deep-fried pork skin strips) and drinking Cokes and brought-in beers. (They don't sell beer here.)
The menu's on the table. "Shrimp burger, with cheese and bacon, 55 pesos" (about $5.00) is first up. And thar she blows: hamburguesa de pulpo (octopus hamburger), also $5.00. La Arrecife combines the two for about $5.50, and La Hawaiana, a shrimp and pineapple burger ($5.50) kinda rounds out the Top Five. Then they have more standard stuff, like beef burgers with cheese ($4.00), chicken burgers ($4.00), or a mix of the two for $5.00, and sincronizadas, two "synchronized" flat tortillas filled with chicken ($4.25) or shrimp ($5.00), and quesadillas -- chicken ($3.00), or shrimp ($3.75) -- or del huerto ("from the garden") chicken salad ($4.00), or shrimp salad ($5.00).
So, lots of chicken or shrimp choices.
Oh, and I see they have a couple of extra especialidades, too: hamburguesas mar y tierra ("surf 'n' turf"), which are either burgers stuffed with shrimp plus beef or chicken ($6.50) or the "Arrecife burger," basically a shrimp and octopus combo plus beef or chicken ($6.75).
Daniel makes his way through the guys -- but wait. Now there's one gal here too, Coral, who's turned up wearing a green "México" football shirt. Daniel recommends the Arrecife -- pulpo y camarón, but I hold to the pure pulpo. That's what I came for. I get some papas fritas too ($2.00) and a can of Mexican Coke ($1.00).
"Normally," Daniel says, "you'd be able to go and get salad from the salad bar, too." He points to a serving trolley in the corner next to the TV. "Unfortunately today, access..."
It's a rich burger, all right. From the sesame-seed top down, you've got tomato, red onion, ranch dressing, lettuce, cheese, bacon, and pulpo. It tastes, well, like scallops, or clams, but more chewy. I stick a jalapeño or two in to add kick. It really is good, and there's so much of it. But the true, honest fact is, I get so caught up in the last crazy half-hour of the game that I don't get all the little subtleties. Next time, though, I'll definitely try the Arrecife, that octopus and shrimp combo.
"Shrimp burgers are big down in Guadalajara," Daniel says. "That's where I'm from. My parents brought me up north with them nine years ago. So I brought this idea to the Colonia. It's upper-middle class around here. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Tijuana. People are sophisticated. Eighty percent of them know shrimp burgers and ask for that. The idea's from Guadalajara, but the recipe's mine."
And the octopus burger?
"Ah. That's completely my idea. They don't have it in Guadalajara, anywhere. I thought, 'Why not? Nobody's tried it.'"
"We come for the shrimp burgers," say two of the guys, Omar and Manuel. We're standing outside on Brasil Street now. The game's finished. Mexico won. Life's returning to the street, as it probably is all over Mexico.
And no, Omar and Manuel and Coral haven't tried the octopus burger yet. "We come because of Daniel and the guys...it's a bit of a hangout. 'Specially on football days," says Omar.
Me, I'm glad I tried it. I dunno. Maybe it'll stay Daniel's thing, or -- hey, maybe this little place will become the shrine, the birthplace of another Rubio's-type chain. Move over fish taco, Octoburgers are comin'!
As they say, there's a sucker-eater born every minute.