Pollo Sophia. Thin slices under luscious lake.
She looks down on you as you come in. Sophia. Sophia Loren, that is. Her portrait is on the wall here, lit up like a Mona Lisa. We’re in a very cool-looking building with a canvas-hooped walk-up saying “Exclusivo: Sophia, Cucina Italiana.
This is in Tijuana, in Colonia Madero-Cacho, heading east from the top of Revolución.
Chef Puzzo, receptionist Jasmine, and Sophia.
It’s all happening because I got a craving for paella. Usually, for me, paella’s kinda boring. Just a mess of rice and shellfish. It’s a Spanish dish, not Mexican, so no real spicy heat to dial it up. But now and then, it has a kind of magic, maybe because it’s big and round and golden and your four favorite people are diving into it with you. The place I’m thinking of is Paellas Toñico. It’s usually full of music, noise. Hmm. That’d be nice. And TJ Covid figures are down, too. So, this being a Sunday afternoon, and with light crowds heading south, I decide to hop on the Blue Line and head for the border.
So now I’m jumping out of a cab (I paid $10 from la linea) on Jalisco Boulevard, right outside Toñico’s. This is in an old, settled district of TJ. Working class roots, but definitely gentrifying. It’s around six o’clock. Light’s fading, sign lights are flickering on, new, cool restaurants in old buildings. Only problem: Toñico’s is on the verge of closing — at like six o’clock! Oh man. Blame Covid. Notice a gent hosing down his car. I point to Toñico’s. “Any other places around?” I say.
“There’s a good Italian place around the corner,” he says.
Chef Mino Puzzo: years with Princess Cruises.
Which is how I ended up with Sophia. It is one of those intimate places that you’d expect in, say, Mexico City.
The “Sophia” name doesn’t hit you till you see the face on the wall. Ah. Of course. Ms. Loren. A waiter ushers me in, points me to a table.
I’m not too happy to commit, because hey, feels expensive. And all the people eating here look so rico-suave.
But I sit down at a table, and grab a menu anyway. Keep my eye glued to prices. They’re all in pesos of course. I just keep in mind: one dollar’s 20 pesos, give or take. Then I commit, before I even think about it. A glass of vino tinto, a Sangiovese-cabernet mix by “Casa Magoni.” Hey hey! Local Baja vineyard! From the Guadalupe Valley, just a couple of hours south of here. It’s about the cheapest wine on the menu. Goes for 110 pesos per glass, say $5.50. But straight up, they score with me on two points. One, it’s a big glass and they give it a generous pour, and two, it has a bold, but nice round taste.
Out in the real world, army patrols assure safety in the streets.
So, quick glug, then we’re heads down and let’s find the best bargain!
Hmm. Menu doesn’t look any different than San Diego Italian, except the names are more interesting. Like, how about “Caesar’s Lover” salad with house aderezo (dressing). Costs six bucks. Or duetto di pasta, with fettuccine alfredo and spaghetti bolognese, about $11.50. Or a lasagna romana with beef bolognese and béchamel ($11). All standard Italian stuff, but what I’m noticing is those prices: less than half what you’d pay in a San Diego fine-dining place. And here it is pretty cool. A couple of the chefs have those folded balloon-type chefs’ toques. One lady chef has a very sexy black one. In spite of the place’s modern “less is more” decor, the busy crew in the open kitchen makes you feel like you’re in some 1920’s French painting.
So now Homer’s come over to help me with the choices. Seems to understand I want to keep spending down to a small roar. Fish are up there, around $15 for, say, a mustard salmon entrée. But if you want cheap, go pizzas. Most are $10 max, and I notice the chicken dishes are also in the $10 range, and even steaks, up to the ribeye at $24, ain’t gonna bust the bank.
I settle on a plate of “Pollo Sophia” ($11.50) because, yes, it’s got their name on it, and probably has some signature taste.
What comes out is a plate of thick, tomato-based salsa covering thin slices of chicken, with a clump of veggies. Touch of cream and scattered pine nuts on top make it look and taste classy.
And actually, there’s plenty, even though the plate is not crowded. Guess we’re talking nouvelle cuisine.
But have to say, the garlicky-creamy slices of chicken that come out of the pool of sauce are really sabroso, and this turns into an excuse for endless dipping and slurping of bread. Added bonus: the bread fills spaces in the gut. Without it, I could be a little hungry still. Maybe I should have added soup. They’re only $4. Whatever, I do love my big glass of Guadalupe Valley wine. OK, with the chicken, next time, I might get one of their white Baja zinfandels (only $4 a glass).
“You wouldn’t get this north of the border,” says Homer, who has worked in San Diego. “And the chef, Mino Puzzo — that guy in red — he is from Italy. Calabria. Supervised Italian food on Princess Cruise ships for years. What we get from him is consistency. And he knows what dishes people like.”
Chef Puzzo waves. He pops his head around. “And we never closed,” he says. He’s talking of Covid.
But Homer’s right. This food is not different than what you’d get across the line. It feels like the fine dining experience we know but can’t afford. The choices are the same, but we’re paying way less, just for being15 miles south. And added bonus: full access to these Baja wines.
On my way out, I notice a little phrase in the menu. “Colores, olores, sabores,” it says. “Colors, aromas, flavors.”
Cool. I’d just add “valores.”
- The Place: Sophia Cucina, Calle Colombia 9230, Colonia Madero (Cacho), Plaza Bella, Tijuana, +52 664 200 2954
- Hours: 7am -12pm (breakfast); 1pm-10pm (lunch, dinner), daily; live jazz some nights
- Prices: “Caesar’s Lover” salad, $6 (peso conversions approximate); duetto di pasta (fettuccini Alfredo and spaghetti bolognese), $11.50; lasagna romana (with beef bolognese, bechamel), $11; mustard salmon, $15; caprizziosa pizza (ham, artichoke, mushrooms), $10; calzone with mushrooms, $11; ribeye steak, $24; Pollo Sophia chicken entrée, $11.50
- Taxis: from border