Mushrooms on the mesquite grill
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9680 Rio Colorado, Baja

The road to Kokopelli started here.

Picture this: My buddy Ernie and I are down on a sun-blazing day at this brilliant-sounding Culinary Art School in Tijuana.

Ernie hauled me along — today, he says, the students are strutting their stuff.

One of the students, José Figueroa, tells me, “Everything on the menu we picked, plucked, or waded out and caught, today. We got up this morning at 4:00, drove to the mangroves, dove to pluck the mussels, other clams. We picked herbs, vegetables, fruit…then we came back and prepared this lunch. It’s been quite a day.”

We’re standing in the courtyard of a modern little campus. It’s stark, industrial, lots of deliberate rust, but with smooth-swishing glass doors and a big courtyard that people crisscross all day.

The Black Harder taco: ceviche of sole, squash, toasted chilies, and peanuts

Tables loaded with food and wine and beer fill the space.

My problem: I’m so caught up yakking, I forget to eat before they mostly run out. But I hear about every delicious thing, from local mussels, to oysters in lemon and pico de gallo, to Baja cheeses, aguachile-marinated raw shrimp, goose barnacles…

The one dish still untouched looks incredibly simple. Four lettuce leaves shaped like a propeller, with croutons, cheese, and some creamy-clear gloop in the scoop of the leaves.

“What’s that?” I ask José.

“A Caesar’s salad. Tribute to Caesar Cardini, the Tijuana inventor. My interpretation.”

Four chomps would demolish it, but points for originality? Off the board.

Fact: Baja California food is starting to take off, even without us gringos. Or, who knows, maybe because we’re not there. Identity is big. Digging into Mayan and Aztec foods is big. Partly because of places like this cool school.

It’s starting to pay off. One of the students, Guillermo “Oso” Campos Moreno, graduated and was hired by a Michelin three-star restaurant in Holland called Oud Sluis. José Figueroa himself is about to take off for the UK to join the staff at a famous restaurant, L’Enclume.

So, uh, Kokopelli?

Cut to a few days later. Another hot one. My friend Héctor drops me off at the corner of Calle Melchor Ocampo and Boulevard Aguas Calientes (where Revolución curves round into Agua Calientes).

Right here, on this traffic-zapped street, people huddle in the shade of a white canopy. Broken-cement rocks with strings tied around them hold down the canopy in the wind. Smoke swirls out from the sides.

Customers Claudia, Norma, Gaby

A colored chalk drawing on a blackboard leaned against a plywood fence has “Kokopelli” written under the art. Ah…the southwest’s flute-playing fertility god of spring, right? Pretty good sketch. And by the smell, pretty good taco stand.

The smell’s of taco meat roasting. Three guys in black are at work behind a wood-burning grill, cooking meats, peppers, huge mushrooms, and corn tortillas.

“Mesquite,” says this woman, Norma. “That’s the wood. You can smell it.”

She’s right. She and her friends Gaby and Claudia are here chowing down on octopus-and-pesto tacos that have been flambéed. Dang, but they look delicious.

“It’s called Kraken Pulpo,” Norma says. “It tastes very different from the usual tacos. The tortilla flavor is different because it is cooked on mesquite. It blackens the corn. We’re here for the first time, but they are famous locally. They have taken flavors from the past and mixed it with modern food.”

I ask one of the guys — the one in the cowboy hat, Orlando — what he recommends. He agrees that I need to have the Kraken. (You saw the many-tentacled monster in Clash of the Titans, didn’t you?) That’s the taco with octopus in a Mexican pesto sauce. He also says I should maybe have the Black Harder, ceviche de lenguado — of sole — with calabasa (squash) and a peanut chili, done “in a style unique to Kokopelli.”

Have to say, the Kraken explodes with taste in your mouth. It lies there open-faced, waiting for you to roll it up around a great, long wad of green Anaheim chili. The chili is like a zingy boat, filled with chopped-up octopus and a Mexican pesto. It has poblano chili peppers, cilantro, and other stuff you know they’ll never tell you about, and is that cheese…and avo? What it is is a riot of tastes you need to take time to get your buds around.

Orlando Miguel Delmonte

I get a Mexican Coke to swill it down (75 cents). The Kraken — like every taco here — costs 20 pesos...say, $1.50.

Then there’s the Black Harder taco. Oh, man. The “style unique to Kokopelli” turns out to be ceviche of sole blackened on the grill, then slapped on a messy red layer of toasted chilies, peanuts, and someone says (I think), squash and roasted habaneros in olive oil.

Bottom line: these tacos are danged interesting. Like La Ermita, with its quesotacos and sweet ’n’ savory tacos, these guys here push the limits. Like the gastro trucks in San Diego, too, only really digging into their Baja roots.

Here’s the weird part — Orlando Miguel Delmonte, in the cowboy hat, says that Kokopelli was started by his buddy, chef Guillermo “Oso” Campo. Hey! He’s the guy who graduated from the Culinary Art School.

You’ve gotta wonder: Campo had a post at that three-freakin’-star Michelin restaurant in Holland, and he comes back to sell tacos from a street stand?

Seems what happened was he returned home to TJ to start up his own restaurant in Rosarito. But that partnership didn’t work out. So he said what the heck: he spent what funds he had left to set up this canopy on Melchor Ocampo. He called in his brother Pablo and his good buddy “Cricket” (Orlando), and, six months ago, they opened for business. Serving revolutionary tacos. The word got out, and the crowds are here.

The guy’s flying, helping to fuel the fire under TJ’s rebirth as the street-food capital of the world.

Who knows, this place might become the world’s first three-Michelin-star taco stand.

The Place: Tacos Kokopelli, Calle Melchor Ocampo, on corner with Boulevard. Agua Caliente, Tijuana

Prices: Tacos (e.g. Kraken octopus taco; Gringo en Vacaciones, shrimp in adobo; Black Harder, ceviche of sole), $1.50 each; drinks, 75 cents

Hours: 10:00 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Tuesday–Saturday

Taxi: $5–$8 from the border

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