“Come on, take a photo,” urges a man standing on a corner of Avenida Revolución, locally known as “La Revo.” This is the main street running through T.J.’s touristy Zona Centro.
Luis is trying to get me to stand next to – or on – his donkey that’s been painted white with black stripes. Or has it? It’s definitely not a zebra. Turns out that they are known as Tijuana Zebras; these mostly white donkeys have been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s. Back in the day, visitors' black-and-white cameras would lose the white donkeys on sunny days. Enter the black stripes.
But Tijuana didn’t become known as “the most visited city in the world" (it's really not) due to these pseudo-zebras. It was thanks to America’s Prohibition and heaps of statesiders with a need for some fun – which involved copious amounts of alcohol and the accompanying gambling, prostitution and other vices. After awhile, the Navy had to prohibit its sailors from traveling to Tijuana.
But back to present times: Luis is pointing out a bar on La Revo that has apparently just opened. Yep, I’m thirsty.
I take not even one step inside the swinging-saloon doors before Alfredo, the owner of Mama Tequila Cantina, begins excitedly showing off his framed photos that stream along the left wall opposite the polished wooden bar.
“Here we see the process of making tequila," he says, showing me three pictures of the agave plant.
"And here we see the desired result." (The fourth picture is of a drunken dude in a sombrero hanging onto a bar's ledge.)
Alfredo’s energía doesn’t diminish a bit as he explains the difference between tequila, mezcal (pictured) and pulque.
These alcoholic drinks are all products of the agave plant (which is in the lily, not cactus, family). Tequila and mezcal both use the distillation process during production – the difference is that tequila is made with a particular type of agave found mainly in the Mexican state of Jalisco: the blue agave. Pulque ferments the sap from the agave plant, but is not distilled and isn’t nearly as strong.
Alfredo recommends “El Vampiro" (the Vampire). How can I say no to this man? He’s clearly just as proud of his drink offerings as he is of his new place…and he should be.
The culmination of tomato juice, mango juice, orange juice, something spicy and tequila, El Vampiro turns out to be my favorite drink of the day. The legit drinks (a bit pricey for T.J. at $5, but well worth it) combined with the bar’s vintage feel definitely make this a place to check out.
Now it’s time for some food. But I don’t want anything on La Revo – let’s get out of the heart of touristy T.J. for a second. But not too far. Two blocks to the west, in between streets Benito Juarez and Articulo 123, resides the Mercado Municipal. It’s an atrium made up of about eight different restaurants all serving the same Mexican food, from what I could gather.
Once again I’m thrown back into Peru or Bolivia with their market food stalls. And with the T.J. touch, literally this time, ladies from each establishment are pulling my arms to sit down in their place.
I decide on one place really only because of a nice smile – and I was getting worried about my arms. For six dollars, I get a soup followed by a heaping mound of amazing handmade corn tortillas and a skinny excuse for meat. It’s exactly what I was looking for.
After this, I finally admit to myself that I'd feel weird if I didn’t hang out in at least one uber-touristy restaurant/bar for this visit. This will involve cheap margaritas “on special,” maybe some chips and salsa to see how spicy things are, and definitely some mobile mariachi bands. Plus I need to be woken up after eating too much at the mercado.
A cacophony of sounds immediately fills my ears as I sit down in one of the many 2-for-1 cheap margarita locales. I drink quick…then quicker. The lady at the neighboring table entertains me, courtesy of the Corona beer bottle she balances on her head (above) while dancing. Impressive.
T.J. is looking nicer than I remembered it being. But then again, that's comparing today to an inebriated kid’s recollection as he walked around here just looking for the next beer, margarita or Tequila popper.
I’m not sure if it’s the intense sugar rush from the margies or the piercing mariachi tunes, but I’m done for the day. I’ve asked a few people about local orphanages, and I now have a few organizations to research before returning.
Now it’s time for a nap on the Blue Line trolley headed back to downtown. Man, I’m lucky to live in San Diego.