I’m almost embarrassed paying only seven bucks.
Two wooden, life-size vaqueros glare out at you from behind their giant cigars. They may be the last evidence that this used to be a curio store, here at the bottom of Avenida Revolución in Tijuana. Now it’s a…what? Museum? Eatery?
Yes and yes. It’s called El Museo; it’s a few months old. It’s 3:00 in the afternoon — Mexican lunchtime — and Agustín, the guy standing outside trying to lure customers in, mentions that they have a three-course lunch special with free lemonade for 65 pesos. That’s about six bucks.
Sounds good, and I’m open to persuasion. My stomach feels like an empty parking lot.
I could sit outside at tables beside the avenue. They also have a streetside bar where you can haul up a stool and down a cerveza. On the other hand, there’s all that museum paraphernalia inside. I’m curious.
So, I follow Agustín into this dignified space, gutted so you can see all the original rafters that are maybe 100 years old. The trophy head of a bighorn sheep looks out from a high wooden pillar to a wrought-iron candelabra hanging over the bar. One wall has been turned into a world map done in a mosaic of different colored marble chunks. Tables are covered in plum-colored linen tablecloths with brown paper on top. Chairs are wicker with red rattan back panels. The rough-timber bar has plain wooden stools any cowpoke would feel comfortable sidling up to, while the paneling beneath the bar is heavy, real-gold scrollwork, like you might find in Madrid, Paris, wherever. Amazing.
I sit down at one of the tables. Agustín hands me the menu, the English version he writes up for tourists. But my eye’s already on the list of cervezas on the wall. “Think I need to start with one of those,” I say. I see something about $1 beers. “It’s a small mug,” Agustín warns. That’s okay. I’m working tonight. Just want a refresher. And it’s perfect, a little half-pint glass that looks like a frosty golden barrel. Agustín says it’s ABC beer, the original Tijuana-made brew they used to serve in the 1920s, when the Long Bar stretched the entire block.
There are pages of dishes, starting with breakfast (which finished at midday). Most are in the six-dollar range. Beef-filet carpaccio, thin-sliced, goes for $6.25. Dinners are from $8.50 (for chicken breast “showered with roasted almond sauce” and veggies) to $11.50 for a beef filet with red sauce and little buttered potatoes. Of course, there are always tacos, around $4.50 each.
The lunch deal includes soup or salad, a plato fuerte (main dish) — chicken breast, fish fillet, shrimp, or pasta — a dessert, and a lemonade. I’m hooked. Even though I know you’d get more gut-filler with the chicken, I go for the shrimp, just ’cause the pic looks so good.
I am not disappointed. First off, Agustín brings tortilla chips and pickled carrots and a pot of dark hot sauce. The chips seem to have their own mole sauce on top and grated cheese on top of that. They’re delicious with the beer. Then he brings a garlic soup. The tomato flavor is mild but absolutely dee-lish; plus, there’s a garlicky toast floater. I don’t want to finish the danged thing. But then come the camarones, with garlicky pasta and Chihuahua grated cheese sprinkled on top. Only four giant prawns — you get eight at night — but they’re enough, what with the pasta and all. The other waiter, Horacio, brings a little pannier of hot toasted bread strips. You butter them, you chomp on a cheese-drizzled shrimp...welcome to paradise.
Just as I finish my cerveza, Agustín brings me a tulip glass of lemonade. Real lemonade. All part of the deal. To finish off, there’s a quartered crêpe with chopped nuts and caramel sauce oozing all over it. I’m almost embarrassed paying only seven bucks (six, plus that beer).
A lady in a white chef’s jacket passes by. Turns out she’s Rosalba Rodríguez, the chef. She used to be at Cien Años, a popular TJ eatery. It was Rosalba’s brother, Juan Carlos Rodríguez, along with 200 others, who four years ago created a 76,000-pound mega–Caesar salad, the world’s largest. Nice way of getting Tijuana into the Guinness Book of Records, considering all the troubles back then.
It’s hard to leave. The place reeks of history. “That’s Al Capone,” says Agustin, pointing to an old photo, “at Agua Caliente casino, up at the racetrack.” He points to a gnarly old blackjack table. It’s loaded with cards and chips. “Capone probably played at this very table,” he says. “It comes from Agua Caliente.”
So do the one-armed bandit slots they have displayed nearby, and the Art Deco chandelier. And that golden scrollwork on the bar.
“See?” Agustin points to a 1920s photo on the wall. It shows the same scrollwork in a swanky ballroom. “That was part of the casino’s Salon de Oro. All of Hollywood danced there.”
So much to look at. Have to come back, if only to check out the hundreds of antique bottles of Cuban rum filling wall shelves, which they found in the cellars of the old Long Bar. Heck, some of them are only half drunk.
So, yes, it’s an eatery, but all this historical gear the owners have collected from the casino, the Long Bar, and other haunts of old Tijuana make it a little treasure house you’ve gotta explore. Even if you only buy the dollar ABC brewski, you’re drinking, well, history. ■
The Place: El Museo Restaurant, 508 Avenida Revolución (by First Street), Tijuana; 011.52.664.638.1203
Type of Food: Mexican
Prices: Mollete breakfast plate, $3; two mole enchiladas, $4.50; executive lunch special, $6 (includes soup or salad, chicken breast, fish fillet, shrimp, or pasta, dessert, lemonade); beef-filet carpaccio, $6.25; chicken-breast dinner with roasted almond sauce, $8.50
Kitchen Hours: 8:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m., Monday–Thursday; till 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday; till 6:00 p.m., Sunday
Nearest Bus Stop: Mexicoach booth on Revolución at Seventh Street