I never had a meal at the famed Tijuana restaurant Chiki Jai, and now I never will. The restaurant burned down on January 19th.
Founded in 1947, Chiki Jai (“little party” in Basque) was a Tijuana landmark where supposedly Ernest Hemingway sat down and wrote. Despite its history, its attractive blue tile walls, and its heavy wooden door, the place never enticed me. Like the curio shops that still cling to “La Revu” (Avenida Revolución) Chiki Jai seemed old and musty. But some tijuanenses and visitors appreciated its glamorous Hollywood past and gave it legendary status.
“The chef cooked for the kings of Spain in Cancún once, it was his career high,” says Dardin Coria, a tijuanense artist best known for his keyboard work with Tijuana No! and Sonidero Travesura.
“The best thing for me was the filete a la Madrileña,” continues Dardin. “Two beef medallions cooked with red wine on a bed of fried potatoes. It was succulent. They marinated the lamb overnight in white wine and they had crispy chistorra [sausage] with blue cheese. Prices were half of that of Caesar’s, and the place had over 70 years of history. Every city mayor went to eat there and left a plate behind. But honestly, the best was the price, cheaper than many pero comías como un campéon [but you ate like a champ].”
The January 19th fire started above the restaurant at Hotel Express, spread to the neighboring curio and leather shop, down to the empty old Rubik’s ’80s Club, and to La Cantina de Manolo in the back. This is the third fire on Avenida Revolución in less than a year. Between 4th and 5th streets, three local businesses burned to the ground last year, one fire in March and another in October. The ashes of a curio shop, restaurant El Artesano, and a cyber café remain.
The closure of Chiki Jai was well known before the fire. Cosmopolitan Group, owned by business magnate David Saúl Guakil, announced they had acquired the corner and were looking to erect a 19-story luxury apartment complex called “Sie7e” (as in “Seventh”). The famous street corner will be the site of downtown’s tallest building by late 2019 if things go according to plan.
In an agreement with Cosmopolitan Group, Chiki Jai is to reopen temporarily a block away and come back to its original corner after the construction of Sie7e. Weeks before the fire, the restaurant, hotel, and cantina were evicted due to the planned construction. Rubik’s ‘80s Club relocated to Calle Cuarta a month before. Business owners in the area witnessed how malvivientes would enter the empty building to consume drugs. The cause of the fire remains unknown.
“Junkies aren’t exactly cautious,” says Luis Durazo, founder of Teorema, a three-year-old craft brewery located two doors down from the fire. “[Grupo Cosmopolitan] already owned the corner; they have no reason to start a fire. Thankfully, the fire didn’t spread and no damage was done here. If my place burnt down, I don’t think I could rebuild. As for what [Grupo Cosmopolitan] are building, I welcome it.”
In just a few years, several of Tijuana’s landmarks have been turned into dust. Puerta Mexico, also known as “The Shell,” was demolished to make way for extra lanes at the border. Mexicoach, the old bus station with stained glass, was also demolished. Other buildings, like the corner of Sara and Hotel Lafayette, were fully refurbished and new buildings have popped up quickly.