Pasaje Foreign Book, off Constitución between Third and Fourth Streets, Baja
Aha. There he is. Right down the pasaje. Willy Clauson. He’s sitting under a way-big vaquero hat, smoking a cigar and playing his guitar in front of his museum. Song’s “Adelita,” about the Mexican Revolutionary gal who’s still such a heroine. A pan in front of him says, “Tips appreciated.”
Love Willy. Also kind of hold him in awe. He’s a folksinger. World class. He lives down here in Tijuana. He was just a kid in Veracruz when he discovered “La Bamba.” He slowed its tempo down and adapted its words and created a certified U.S. folk hit. Then Ritchie Valens made it an all-round classic. Fifty years later, Willy’s still at it. “If I don’t make up three songs a day,” he says, “I start worrying.” But he has to keep earning money. That’s why he’s outside the museum (where he gives lessons, guides tourists, holds musical events), earning a spare penny or two singing.
“I was thinking of getting something to eat,” I say.
“Well, my friend, I’ve just had some albóndigas at the Hidden Outpost. The Rocha family. Wonderful. About $4, except I pay by the month. Come.”
He walks me down the pasaje, Rodriguez Passage, one of those shopping arcades between Revolución and Constitución, and through to this little eatery that opens out onto the arcade next door, Pasaje Foreign Book, which is where the old Foreign Club of the Errol Flynn era was. Now it’s got a Caliente betting palace in it.
His “Hidden Outpost,” Puesto Escondido, is exactly that, tucked away in this space between the two pasajes. It’s nice. Cream walls, brown tile floor, and a cream tile-topped counter with about eight stools, plus three or four tables, and a roll-up metal front.
But we’ve come in the back way. “This is Margarita,” Willy says, stopping by a middle-aged couple at a rear table. “And her husband Manuel. He’s the chef. You could have albóndigas, but they also do a beautiful shrimp dish. Uh, I’ve got to get back.”
Willy takes off to guard the museum, and Manuel points me toward the front counter. I hoist myself aboard one of the stools. Gal named Lizbeth brings up fork and napkin and a little printed paper menu. It’s dated today. “A new menu every day,” says this guy on the next stool, looking up from his phone. I notice he’s on it full-time, scribbling as he listens, ripping off little pages, going to the next call. Name’s Manuel, too. Manuel Jr. So he’s, what? Taking orders?
He nods. “Ninety percent of our business is para llevar — takeout.”
I check out the menu. I see Willy’s albóndigas al chipotle at the top of today’s menu, 39 pesos, maybe $3.50. Fajitas with chicken breast is the same price. Pretty much everything has this 39-peso price tag, except for tortas, with chicken breast or ham and cheese. They’re 27 pesos, say $2.25. I really want to try the chilaquiles with chicken breast or carne asada. Chilaquiles always used to be known as the “poor man’s dish” because it was just leftovers tossed in with spare bits of tortilla. Nowadays, it’s a sophisticated mix of tortilla strips, sauce, a meat, cheese, maybe some chorizo, all sautéed or even sometimes baked together. And Willy had been making good sounds about the sauce. Hmm. On the other hand, along with tacos and caldos (soups), they’ve got camarones empanizados.
“Is that the shrimp dish Willy was talking about?” I ask Manuel Sr. “No,” Manuel says. “Willy loves the camarones del chef. It’s not on the menu today, but Vida the cook can make it for you.”
He says they’re both 45 pesos. About four bucks.
Well, if it’s good enough for the guy who discovered “La Bamba…” I order that. And get a pleasant surprise. First, you get a molcajete — the traditional black Aztec volcanic rock mortar bowl — filled with chips and salsa. Then, included in the deal, there’s a soup and an agua fresca, either a red jamaíca (hibiscus) or a milky horchata-type. Turns out today’s is cebada — barley. I get that, and it tastes a little like vanilla. Then Lizbeth brings a bowl of “sopa de caracol.” It’s a beef-tomato broth with conch shell-shaped pasta floating in it.
While I’m slurping that, I sniff delicious aromas from where Vida’s clanking away at the stove. She has some oniony-garlicky thing going. Then she tosses on a bunch of shrimp. Now it’s cheese. She whacks it all onto a nice flowery china plate loaded with brown rice, adds an avocado salad, and presto! Plus a round box of hot tortillas. I can’t believe it’s all for four Washingtons.
But the killer comes in the taste. This is sophisticated stuff. Man, with that melted Monterey Jack cheese on top, salsa, rice added in, and a bit of the avocado from the salad, it’s too much. I guess it’s Manuel’s garlicky secret. Also, can’t quite guess what the crunchy stuff with the shrimp is. Whatever, ¡qué sabroso!
“Our family comes from Mazatlán,” says Manuel. “I’ve been a waiter for years. I always dreamed of having our own restaurant. I found the food around Revolución was really bad. So I have tried hard here. But we have to sell a lot, because our profit margin is very slim.”
He says a huge Chinese restaurant is going up across the arcade. It’ll stretch all the way from Revolución to Constitución. He looks a little worried. “I think we’ll be okay,” he says. “Or, we can always go back to Mazatlán.”
So, hey. This beautiful lost corner of really good cooking at really good prices may not last. Best git down here, while the gittin’s good.
The Place: Puesto Escondido, Pasaje Foreign Book, off Constitución between Third and Fourth Streets, Tijuana. Tel 011-52-664-685-1415
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: albóndigas (meatballs), 39 pesos, about $3.50 (depending on exchange rates); fajitas with chicken breast, $3.50; tortas (e.g., chicken breast, ham and cheese), $2.25; chilaquiles with chicken breast or carne asada, $3.50; two tostadas, $3.50; fish tacos, $3.25; caldo tlalpeño soup, $3.25; camarones empanizados (breaded shrimp), $4; camarones del chef (chef’s recipe shrimp with melted cheese), $4
Hours: 8:00 a.m.–6:00 p.m. daily except Tuesday
Bus: Mexicoach from San Ysidro
Nearest Bus Stop: Mexicoach depot at Seventh and Revolución, downtown Tijuana