Two fifteen-foot-tall skull-headed women loom over me. Remnants from Day of the Dead. But still kinda scary. It’s that time of day. Getting dark already. In front of the ghostly TJ wax museum.
This is when I notice the juggler. He’s throwing four tenpins around, just inside a dimly-lit café opposite.
Now I’m curious. Head up steps under a short tile overhang and past a newly painted sign: “Entremundos” (“between worlds”).
Inside, the juggler flails away next to a mini stage crowded with bongos, amps, wires. Oh, yeah! Now I’m remembering. Wasn’t this La Faraona, an arty place with a theater upstairs that specialized in, like, five-minute plays? Cool.
But this is new. I head in. A couple of guys are at the bar, talking away in Spanish about music.
I take a stool, look around at the lanterns and art on the walls. In front of me, a guy in a long black coat is putting chopped chicken into a frying pan on a regular kitchen stove, then adding peppers and spices. Then he stirs an olla with beans steaming in it, on the next burner.
The tall guy talking comes around behind the bar. “Would you like something?” he asks.
This is Rodrigo. “We opened three weeks ago,” he says. “I’m still getting organized. But we have beer, wine, soft drinks.”
“And food?” I ask. Because that chicken cooking over there is starting to set my nostrils a-quiver.
“We’ll be making pizzas later,” he says. “Pepperoni, vegetarian, for 15 pesos a slice. But that’s tonight. Uh, the chicken?”
He talks to the guy cooking. The guy nods.
“Yes, you can have this one. It’s like pollo asado, with beans and cheese.”
“How much would that be?”
“Oh, around 60 pesos.”
That’s maybe $3.50.
“And anything to drink?”
That savory smell from the chicken gets me thinking, vino. “What do you have?” I ask. “Anything from the Valley of Guadalupe?”
I’m interested in Mexican wines. Last I had, at El Taller, the Baja-Med place on Agua Caliente, was from Guadalupe Valley down south. Bold and beautiful.
“Whatever’s in the fridge,” Rodrigo says. He opens it. Uh-oh. Just an inch of vino tinto in a carafe. “One moment,” he says. Actually, he’s gone five minutes or more, but he comes back with a bottle. “Seeing you were talking about the Valle de Guadalupe,” he says, “I went and bought this.” He puts this bottle of Cabernet-Malbec red down. “Puerto Nuevo, Vino tinto, 2011, Valle de Guadalupe.” Its price label is still on, 92 pesos; about $5.50.
He pops it open, pours for both of us. Mmm. I like it. Robust. And at that price, an incredible deal.
The cook lays a flowery plate in front of me. It’s got a steaming slurry of sliced chicken in a kind of orange sauce, with lots of onions, tomatoes, and other mystery flavorings. Pile of beans fills up the rest of the plate. Rodrigo gets his pocket knife out and starts flaking bits from a brown-skinned ball of cheese. Añejo? Parmesan? The cheese falls onto the beans. At the same time, the cook brings a plate of corn tortillas.
“These we use to wipe our mouths with, or you can roll up some beans in them and eat them.”
He laughs. This guy’s okay. Actually, it all makes a delicious mess. I gouge through it. Cheese is nice and tangy. By now we’ve grown into quite a group. Gal named Milagros — Miracles! — has come in with a tall guy, Giovanni. “People call me Gio,” he says. He’s a percussionist. Plays those bongos over there. Is in the band Cañamo. “It means ‘hemp,’” he says. “We play reggae.” Usually when he comes, he eats slices of Rodrigo’s vegetarian pizza. “Rodrigo grows his own organic vegetables,” he says, “so it’s good.”
Rodrigo, turns out, used to be a theater and movie-set designer in Michoacán and Mexico City. “But there was no money in it,” he says. He studied in San Francisco, then got the chance to bring an underused rancho near Rosarito back to life. He created an organic farm he calls La Elegancia Organica.
“We sell weekly baskets of vegetables. Fifty-peso, 100-peso, 150-peso bundles,” he says. “Butter lettuce, leeks, green onions, Swiss chard, cilantro, celery, golden beets. I sell to regular subscribers, restaurants, and via social networking. I charge half the normal price of organic vegetables.”
Rodrigo thought about selling his veggies in San Diego, but the whole border thing is too much hassle.
Actually, everybody here’s interesting. Gustavo’s a musician who plays charango (Bolivian harp) and the sampoña, the pan flute. Milagros — “Millie” — works across the road at the Agencia Familiar Binacional. “We take care of people with many issues, including AIDS. The biggest problem? Like Charlie Sheen: people don’t tell partners.”
It turns out Rodrigo has the whole building. He’s making the upstairs a hostel. “Entremundos, Embassy of the Arts and Hostel” is the full name. Not only that, but you can camp down in his Elegancia rancho, too, and even help with the work there.
“Between the garden in Rosarito and getting this going, there’s a lot of running,” he says.
“We’re here all the time,” says Gio. “We come to talk, eat, and perform, and because Rodrigo lets us rehearse here.”
“Anybody can come and do a gig,” Rodrigo says. “Saturday nights it gets pretty interesting.”
Now I’m glugging this delicious wine, which works out to about 40 pesos, $2–$3, per glass. For the meal, he charges 60 pesos, about $3.60. Really tasty, lightly spicy, probably toned down for me. But the good thing is knowing it was all grown organically, at his place. No middleman.
When I finally get out, I’m less than ten bucks lighter in the pocket.
Man, I’m thinking, should come down here more often.
“It’s the border,” Rodrigo says. “So crazy. It stops good things happening all the time.”
We joke about President Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Berlin, 1987.
“Where’s Reagan when you need him?” I say.
The Place: Entremundos Embajada de las Artes y Hostal, 8250 First Street (Calle Primera), Tijuana, 011-52-664-379-1818
Prices: Slices of organic vegetarian pizza, $1; sautéed chicken with beans and corn tortillas, $4.50; glass of wine, $3
Taxi from border: $5 (or walk across the footbridge)
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: San Ysidro