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Swiss dogs win in Zona Rio

Nunca comiste una igual,” promises the menu. “You’ve never eaten one like it.”

Mario, Carla, and staffer. In mural, William Tell and son Walter, before apple incident.
Mario, Carla, and staffer. In mural, William Tell and son Walter, before apple incident.

Eduardo Gonzalez guards the door to the dungeon, as he has been doing for decades. Nobody gets past without his say-so. The neon sign shines red. Sótano Suizo. 

“Swiss Cellar.”

Swiss in TJ? 

Well yes. We’re in Plaza Fiesta. Zona Rio. Daylight’s fading rapidly. The neon sign shines with a new brightness. And next to it, in this beehive of bars, Sotano Suizo sticks out, with its wrought-iron art that says “Gourmet Bar. Anno 1989.”

Founder, owner, but still working after 34 years, Rene Bosiger.

A lot of noise comes from inside, so you know the place has kept its mojo since 1989. When I ask about happy hour, Luis, who’s guarding the outside entrance with a temperature gun, points across the Erasmo Castellano Q. alley. “They have happy hour over there,” Luis says, indicating that other, more ordinary-looking place, “five to seven.”

But me, I want to get inside this gothic, gnarled-wood joint with the big brass cow bells from Switzerland, heavy chains, white crosses on red backgrounds, medieval knights in murals, and chalk boards talking about “Bosiger beer” selling for 79 pesos a pint ($4 — I see beer is only 59 pesos across the alley). I pass the temperature test and head inside. Right by me is, hey! William Tell, the Swiss patriot who was forced to put an apple on his son Walter’s head and fire an arrow. Luckily, it split the apple and spared his son - and made him the only Swiss person anybody has ever remembered. William stands in the mural beside the table at which Mario and Carla are drinking. It sounds like they come often. In fact, there’s something clubby about this whole place. Clubby, but not snobby. I like it.

The Sotano Dog: It’s the combo of Hungarian sausage, onions, mustard that’s magic.

“Bosiger, the family name. That’s the name of the beer that Rene Bosiger makes here,” says Luis. Oh yes. Now I remember. I’ve been before! Hot dogs. The greatest hot dogs! But first, a cerveza. The chalk sign says they have “Porter, Pilsner, Euro-Lager,” and a “hoppy San Francisco IPA, all made right here behind the bar. Each is 79 pesos for a pinta. Four bucks. Not bad. The mesero, Raul Cardona, says you can’t go wrong with the Porter. And hey, anything dark, like stout, is good in my book. Porter is usually sweet and rich. I mean, I love the bitter taste-crack of IPAs, but Porters are like an easy relationship with someone you know well. And this Bosiger hits the spot. 

The place is crowded, mostly middle class, some business people, families. One or two gringos. Bar seating is way separated for covid. So I’m standing, checking, sipping, talking with Raul. The menu is pretty standard, but headed in German. In the kalte vorspeisen section (cold appetizers), salads start at $5. Caesar’s is $6, and under fleisch-teller, (cold meat plate), meats and greens go for about $13. For $15, you get meats plus cheeses.

Swiss bell cast in the year Sotano Suizo was created.

But what I’m really looking for turns up in the Warme Vorspeisen (warm appetizers) section. For starters, yes! Cheese fondue, with jack cheese and grated jalapeño ($9). Plus different sausages, climaxing in the “Mamut (Mammoth) Dog,” It’s half a meter of hot dog, made with the place’s own mega house sausage plus Swiss cheese, golden onions, yellow peppers. Enough dog for two or three people. It costs 319 pesos (about $16). “Nunca comiste una igual,” promises the menu. “You’ve never eaten one like it.”

So right now, it’s a hard decision. Dogs, yes, but also that fondue? Or hey, half a dozen snails (Escargots a la Bourgignon) in their shells for $9.50. Or coq au vin (braised chicken, $11.50). I’d love’em all.

But no. Dog wins. I get the half version, the Sótano Dog, $8.50. Believe me, it’s enough, and super scrumptious. The Hungarian dog, which they make here, is spicy-flavorsome, with that paprika coming right through. Also, the mess of Dijon mustard, tomatoes, golden-grilled onions, and yellow pepper makes for dee-licious chomping. Porter’s perfect with it, too. Also: the baguette is crispy but easy to bust up.

The Swiss Cellar, up a narrow alley, but worth venturing in.

Eduardo Gonzalez says this hot dog has been an unchanging staple since they opened in 1989. He himself has been working here 26 years. “Does the owner still come in?” I ask him. We’re talking about Rene Bosiger, the gent who created this little piece of Olde World Switzerland, cowbells and all, and yet combined that with top-notch rock and roll and good vibes. It provides a kind of secret getaway feel for this tribe of guys and gals “in the know,” who kind of hide it, for fear The Hordes will come in and spoil it. 

The narrow alleys that lead to the place help protect it, as have the ups and downs of the border since 9-11 and ’08. All through, somehow, Sotano Suizo has rocked on, in its hybrid Swiss-Mex-Cali way. So Rene Bosiger, the Founding Father? The guy must be retired in fat city, I’m thinking, after three decades of success with this place and the house brewery he’s created. I follow Eduardo’s gaze. He looks at me a funny way. “Over there,” he says. “That’s him.” He’s looking at the kitchen with the red mosaic-covered pizza oven in it. A middle-aged gent in a black apron that says “Will Cook For Wine” is shuffling a pizza into the glowing maw of the oven. He looks like a lifer, someone who’s been pushing pizzas around for decades and is still working on minimum wage.

“That’s him,” says Eduardo. “Never stops.” 

That’s the owner himself? Right there, it strikes me, is the whole secret to the success of this jewel. 

The Place: Sotano Suizo, Paseo de Los Heroes, 8-12 Centro Plaza Fiesta, Zona Rio, Tijuana, +52.664.684-8834

Hours: 12pm-2am, daily

Prices: Small mixed salad, $5. Caesar’s salad, $6.50 (with grilled chicken, $8.50); cold meat plate with greens, $13; kozakenwurst (Cossack sausage) with potato salad, $8; Swiss-style cheese fondue with half a baked potato, $9; Sotano dog, with Swiss cheeses, $8.50; Mamut (Mammoth) Dog (1/2 meter long) with Swiss cheese, grilled onions, yellow peppers (for 2-3 people), $16; 1/2 doz snails (Escargots a la Bourgignon), $9.50; coq au vin, $11.50; sandwich of roast beef or grilled chicken, $7.50; mushrooms in red wine, $8  

Taxi from border: $6-8

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Mario, Carla, and staffer. In mural, William Tell and son Walter, before apple incident.
Mario, Carla, and staffer. In mural, William Tell and son Walter, before apple incident.

Eduardo Gonzalez guards the door to the dungeon, as he has been doing for decades. Nobody gets past without his say-so. The neon sign shines red. Sótano Suizo. 

“Swiss Cellar.”

Swiss in TJ? 

Well yes. We’re in Plaza Fiesta. Zona Rio. Daylight’s fading rapidly. The neon sign shines with a new brightness. And next to it, in this beehive of bars, Sotano Suizo sticks out, with its wrought-iron art that says “Gourmet Bar. Anno 1989.”

Founder, owner, but still working after 34 years, Rene Bosiger.

A lot of noise comes from inside, so you know the place has kept its mojo since 1989. When I ask about happy hour, Luis, who’s guarding the outside entrance with a temperature gun, points across the Erasmo Castellano Q. alley. “They have happy hour over there,” Luis says, indicating that other, more ordinary-looking place, “five to seven.”

But me, I want to get inside this gothic, gnarled-wood joint with the big brass cow bells from Switzerland, heavy chains, white crosses on red backgrounds, medieval knights in murals, and chalk boards talking about “Bosiger beer” selling for 79 pesos a pint ($4 — I see beer is only 59 pesos across the alley). I pass the temperature test and head inside. Right by me is, hey! William Tell, the Swiss patriot who was forced to put an apple on his son Walter’s head and fire an arrow. Luckily, it split the apple and spared his son - and made him the only Swiss person anybody has ever remembered. William stands in the mural beside the table at which Mario and Carla are drinking. It sounds like they come often. In fact, there’s something clubby about this whole place. Clubby, but not snobby. I like it.

The Sotano Dog: It’s the combo of Hungarian sausage, onions, mustard that’s magic.

“Bosiger, the family name. That’s the name of the beer that Rene Bosiger makes here,” says Luis. Oh yes. Now I remember. I’ve been before! Hot dogs. The greatest hot dogs! But first, a cerveza. The chalk sign says they have “Porter, Pilsner, Euro-Lager,” and a “hoppy San Francisco IPA, all made right here behind the bar. Each is 79 pesos for a pinta. Four bucks. Not bad. The mesero, Raul Cardona, says you can’t go wrong with the Porter. And hey, anything dark, like stout, is good in my book. Porter is usually sweet and rich. I mean, I love the bitter taste-crack of IPAs, but Porters are like an easy relationship with someone you know well. And this Bosiger hits the spot. 

The place is crowded, mostly middle class, some business people, families. One or two gringos. Bar seating is way separated for covid. So I’m standing, checking, sipping, talking with Raul. The menu is pretty standard, but headed in German. In the kalte vorspeisen section (cold appetizers), salads start at $5. Caesar’s is $6, and under fleisch-teller, (cold meat plate), meats and greens go for about $13. For $15, you get meats plus cheeses.

Swiss bell cast in the year Sotano Suizo was created.

But what I’m really looking for turns up in the Warme Vorspeisen (warm appetizers) section. For starters, yes! Cheese fondue, with jack cheese and grated jalapeño ($9). Plus different sausages, climaxing in the “Mamut (Mammoth) Dog,” It’s half a meter of hot dog, made with the place’s own mega house sausage plus Swiss cheese, golden onions, yellow peppers. Enough dog for two or three people. It costs 319 pesos (about $16). “Nunca comiste una igual,” promises the menu. “You’ve never eaten one like it.”

So right now, it’s a hard decision. Dogs, yes, but also that fondue? Or hey, half a dozen snails (Escargots a la Bourgignon) in their shells for $9.50. Or coq au vin (braised chicken, $11.50). I’d love’em all.

But no. Dog wins. I get the half version, the Sótano Dog, $8.50. Believe me, it’s enough, and super scrumptious. The Hungarian dog, which they make here, is spicy-flavorsome, with that paprika coming right through. Also, the mess of Dijon mustard, tomatoes, golden-grilled onions, and yellow pepper makes for dee-licious chomping. Porter’s perfect with it, too. Also: the baguette is crispy but easy to bust up.

The Swiss Cellar, up a narrow alley, but worth venturing in.

Eduardo Gonzalez says this hot dog has been an unchanging staple since they opened in 1989. He himself has been working here 26 years. “Does the owner still come in?” I ask him. We’re talking about Rene Bosiger, the gent who created this little piece of Olde World Switzerland, cowbells and all, and yet combined that with top-notch rock and roll and good vibes. It provides a kind of secret getaway feel for this tribe of guys and gals “in the know,” who kind of hide it, for fear The Hordes will come in and spoil it. 

The narrow alleys that lead to the place help protect it, as have the ups and downs of the border since 9-11 and ’08. All through, somehow, Sotano Suizo has rocked on, in its hybrid Swiss-Mex-Cali way. So Rene Bosiger, the Founding Father? The guy must be retired in fat city, I’m thinking, after three decades of success with this place and the house brewery he’s created. I follow Eduardo’s gaze. He looks at me a funny way. “Over there,” he says. “That’s him.” He’s looking at the kitchen with the red mosaic-covered pizza oven in it. A middle-aged gent in a black apron that says “Will Cook For Wine” is shuffling a pizza into the glowing maw of the oven. He looks like a lifer, someone who’s been pushing pizzas around for decades and is still working on minimum wage.

“That’s him,” says Eduardo. “Never stops.” 

That’s the owner himself? Right there, it strikes me, is the whole secret to the success of this jewel. 

The Place: Sotano Suizo, Paseo de Los Heroes, 8-12 Centro Plaza Fiesta, Zona Rio, Tijuana, +52.664.684-8834

Hours: 12pm-2am, daily

Prices: Small mixed salad, $5. Caesar’s salad, $6.50 (with grilled chicken, $8.50); cold meat plate with greens, $13; kozakenwurst (Cossack sausage) with potato salad, $8; Swiss-style cheese fondue with half a baked potato, $9; Sotano dog, with Swiss cheeses, $8.50; Mamut (Mammoth) Dog (1/2 meter long) with Swiss cheese, grilled onions, yellow peppers (for 2-3 people), $16; 1/2 doz snails (Escargots a la Bourgignon), $9.50; coq au vin, $11.50; sandwich of roast beef or grilled chicken, $7.50; mushrooms in red wine, $8  

Taxi from border: $6-8

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