It’s just a corrugated-metal warehouse, but the sign under its old eaves shines out into the night. It sits in this little side road off Boulevard Agua Caliente: “El Taller.”
I would’ve passed it by, except this gent standing outside with a guitar stops me in my tracks. “I am Crescencio Ortega Gómez,” he says. He hands me a card. “Los Chenchos, and their music that never dies. Tell me about yourself, and I will make up a song. About you. Your own song!”
Turns out, Crescencio’s just been singing inside this place. “El Taller” means “the workshop.” Only it ain’t no mo’. Seems it’s a restaurant.
“Must be good food,” Cresencio says. “Place is always full.”
I look through the door. Plenty of people. It’s about 9:00 p.m. Not late by Mexican standards. But how expensive is it?
“Come see our menu,” says an older man behind the bar to the left. Armando. “We have mainly pizzas. The food here is what we call ‘Baja Med.’ All local and seasonal and found in Baja California. And Mediterranean flavors. It’s becoming quite popular in Tijuana.”
“Just like our wines,” says a man sitting on a stool at the end of the bar. He introduces himself. “Ismael Romo de Vivar Godoy. My vineyard is called the Claudius Winery. It is at the top of the Guadalupe Valley.”
Armando says, “Drink his Reserva de Vivar 2007 and you will taste heaven.”
“It will cost you $70,” says Ismael. “Thank the Mexican government. They slap a 40 percent tax on Mexican wines.”
“Fact is, I’ve only got about $17,” I say. “Can I afford this place?”
“Oh, sure,” says Armando. He hands me the menu.
“We have a wood-burning pizza oven back there.” He points to where the main part of the restaurant and the kitchen bulge out from behind the bar area. “It burns olive wood. The flavors are good and the prices are not bad. Just pick the chico size.”
I take a look. Hmm…all in pesos. Dividing everything by 13. Chico pizzas seem to be $6–$12; the grandes, $13–$25.
Interesting flavors. Under “Pizza Baja-Med,” there are things such as abalone chorizo, lamb, roasted pig, chicken with mole.
What the heck. You only live once. Armando points me back to where that big open kitchen and most of the tables are. Chefs huddle around the glowing mouth of a mosaic-covered pizza oven.
I sit down at a tin-topped table. Wall next to me is all corrugated metal — looks like they left the warehouse as it was, pretty much. The roof’s supported by a couple of massive old wood poles and crossbeams. End walls are rough-cut horizontal boards. A blackboard (also huge) gives a complete list of food. On the other side of it, six or seven cooks and maybe four waiters bustle about, making salads, cutting pizzas, flinging dough around their fingers.
Suddenly, I’ve got Victor Vargas bearing down on me, wanting to know what I’m gonna eat. Sergio Mendez is with him, come to pour water.
I look at the tin-backed stand-up table menu again. Should really try a Baja Med pizza, I guess, find out what the fuss is about. On the other hand, they have dishes such as flank steak and baby-back ribs. On the other other hand, the flank steak costs $17 and change and the ribs are about $15. Yes, you can get a mixed salad for $5.50 and a half roast chicken for about $8 and a Hamburguesa Portobello (patty with mushrooms) for $10, but, no. I wanna try pizza, and I wanna try Baja Med.
“The snail is really good,” says Sergio.
Snail? Snail pizza? I check the menu. There it is, under “Pizza Baja-Med.” “Escargots,” $12 for the chico.
Maybe it’s mostly because of the atmosphere, but what follows is one of the great pizza experiences of my sorry flatbread life. I’ve been disappointed so often with pizzas, but this snail version turns up steaming, packed with arugula, red peppers, sautéed onions, mozzarella, and a bunch of dark, curled snails, looking like ’shrooms, all on a nice thin crust.
So I take a bite and…great. Then Victor lands a square tin platter with five white pots aboard. The center one holds wedges of lime. The four others have got red, brown, and cream sauces in them.
“Certainly use the limes,” Victor says. He points out each of the other pots. “Habanero,” he says, his finger next to one creamy one; then, “garbanzo and garlic,” pointing to the other. “Then the two chile de arbol ones. The first is with tomato and is not toasted.” He’s looking at the rusty red liquid. “And this one,” he says with emphasis, like this last black sauce might be the winning mix, “is arbol with toasted peanuts and olive oil.”
I take the hint, squirt the limes all over the pizza, then dip a wedge into that last pot.
Oh, my giddy aunt. Snail, arbol, peanut, onion, cheese, crust. Beautiful, rich taste. I eat all but the last two wedges. Savory, garlicky, crispy…hey, maybe baking it in the olive-wood fire gives it the final push. It could only have been better if Ismael’s $70 Reserva de Vivar was on the table.
I pay the 12 bucks, add $3 for a tip, and reel out in some kind of seventh heaven.
Pity Crescencio ain’t still around. I’d tell him the story of my life. Tonight’s part of it, anyway.
The Place: El Taller, Baja-Mex Restaurant, Avenida Río Yaqui #2969-B, off Boulevard Agua Caliente, Tijuana, (011.52.664) 686-3383
Prices: Snail pizza (“chico” size), $12 (dollar prices depend on daily exchange rate); flank steak, $17; baby-back ribs, $15; mixed salad, $5.50; half a roast chicken, $8; portobello hamburger, $10
Hours: 1:00–11:00 p.m., Monday–Thursday; 1:00 p.m.–midnight, Friday; 1:00–11:30 p.m., Saturday; Sunday, closed
Buses: Red popular “taxis de ruta” (from 4th Street and Constitución Avenue, near Revolución, downtown Tijuana); or just catch a cab
Nearest Stop: At Big Boy, corner of Boulevard Agua Caliente and Avenida Río Yaqui