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Paella Toñico: past and present

Mother and daughter, Yolanda and Yolinda, are keeping the show going.

My half-serving of paella.
My half-serving of paella.

I jump out of the cab. Cab burps off. What am I seeing? Oh yes. The red and blue Washmobile car wash. And the little slot in their building that accomodates Tortas Washmobile Originales. Been trying to come here since forever. Each time, there seems to be a problem. And, oh man. Again today! This time, it’s time itself. “Tortas Washmobile closes at 2:30,” says a kid. It’s 3:30 now. Dang! I was so looking forward to trying their “El Wash” Torta, that famous crispy ciabatta roll with a ton of carne asada, guac, onions and salsa inside.

But not today, Josephine. 

I look up and down the street. We’re on Jalisco Avenue, in one of the oldest residential parts of Tijuana. But hey, how about that place with the door open, right across Jalisco? A blast from the past: “Paellas Toñico,” a modest little eatery I swear looks the same today as it must have the day it was born, 40 years ago. 

Toñico’s widow, Yolanda, holds my half serving of their famous paella.

Because I’ve been here once before. A bunch of us, actually, pumped up after a, yes, bullfight. Came to share a big round paella platter loaded with shellfish and chicken and sausage and a zillion other things. And this girl with sparkling eyes raised her glass and proposed a toast. “Hasta la placer de ser!” “To the pleasure of being.” That had to have been the most beautiful thought anyone had that day, on either side of the border. 

Toñico himself — Antonio Joven Saldibas — soon appeared, and burst out into a beautifully tortured flamenco lament as we glugged wine and waited for our paella platter. He was famous for this, and you knew he meant what he sang. Way back when, he had found it necessary to escape a dictator’s goons in Spain. Left the country, and forever loved Mexico for giving him shelter. So the feeling, right here in this very room on that night years ago, was electric. 

And today, everything looks totally the same. Even the corner set aside for music. Heck, why not stay for a paella now? I follow two middle-aged businessmen up the step and into the small room.  “My husband Toñico has passed away,” says Yolanda, the woman at the welcoming table, “but the rest of the family is here. My daughter Yolinda sings in the evenings. Ballads, not flamenco laments.” Wow. So mother and daughter, Yolanda and Yolinda, are keeping the show going. 

Jose Luis and Javier’s favorite dish, Estofado Aragonese, $12.50.

Right now, Yolanda’s talking to the two gents ahead of me. You can see they’re regulars. They ask for two bottles of Mexican Coke. Then they go straight to the entrée section and ask for Estofado Aragonese - a beef stew, basically, simmered in red wine. Costs 250 pesos ($12.50). 

Hmm. I do a skim of the menu, because now she’s heading my way, down the step into the main (though pretty small) dining/performance room. The menu has appetizer dishes like Spanish tortilla, ($3.75 for a pincho, snack-size, bite), or chistorra en oliva, (a sausage, $8), or almejas a la marinera (clams, $10.50). Caesar salad with chicken runs $8.50. I’m a little tempted by callos a la madrilena, just because, huh, madrilena means Madrid-style. It’s a menudo with chick peas, blood sausage, and peppers. And this one has pata de puerco — pork leg. Costs $11. 

So yes, tempted, except next up on the menu are the paellas, specialty of the house, maybe Spain’s most famous export after matadors. It’s the dish this place is known for. So I ask Yolanda if their paella is the same today as when Toñico created it. 

Jota Jota: Javier (left) and Jose Luis (in blue), eating - coming all their lives.

“Oh yes. Nothing has changed. Would you like a whole order, or the half order?”

Ah. Now I see the full order is 230 pesos, $11.50, and this is the traditional paella Valenciana, with pork, mariscos, and chicken.

But there is a half order possible for $8.50. They also have a marinara special (on weekends only), filled with shrimp, jaiba (crab), mejillones (mussels), squid, and chicken breast. Cost: $21 and $11.50. “The half order is enough,” says Yolanda.” So I go for the Valenciana half-order. And it is per-lenty. For another $3.50, I get a nice dark bean soup and a basket of hot-buttered, super-tender bread. 

I mean honestly, with paella, saffron rice is the main thing you’re eating. It’s just a good, filling mess of pork, interesting shellfish, and a meaty pollo leg. Some really hot hot-sauce and a mild salsa combine to kick it up, taste-wise. Also, I get a copa of vino tinto ($4.25). Perfect with the chicken and sausage. 

Get talking with Javier and Jose Luis, the guys at the next table. Javier’s a businessman and Jose Luis is a doctor. “This is the main paella place of TJ,” says Jose Luis. “It has been here, unchanged, forever. The town changes, Toñico’s, never.” They say paella started out as a potluck lunch shepherds cooked for themselves on an open fire, in eastern Spain, around Valencia. It was mostly rice (which the Arabs brought to Spain 1200 years ago) plus whatever they could add, from snails to beans to ducks. Some say the name “paella” also started as the Arabic baqiyah — leftovers. But others insist the name came from patella — Latin for “pan.”  Still others say it’s from para ella — “for her” — because, as with our American BBQ, it’s mostly men who cook paella. 

Mine is filled with shellfish, but strict traditionalists swear that a true paella Valenciana has no seafood, but chicken, snails, and duck or rabbit on special occasions, plus green and white beans and lots of rice. 

The only thing I regret is having to leave before the musicians turn up. I would like to have heard Tonico’s daughter Yolinda taking his place on that tiny stage.

  • The Place: Paellas Toñico, Av. Jalisco #2433, Colonia Cacho, Tijuana Baja California, 664-684-0941, or 664-200-2636
  • Hours: 11am-8pm daily (till 9pm, Fridays, Saturdays); closed Mondays
  • Prices: Estofado Aragonese (beef stew), $12.50; Spanish tortilla, $3.75, snack-size; chistorra en oliva (sausage) $8; clams, $10.50; Caesar salad with chicken, $8.50; callos a la madrilena, (menudo with blood sausage, pork leg), $11; paella Valenciana (with pork, mariscos, chicken) $11.50; half order, $8.50; marinara (weekend special with shrimp, crab, mussels, squid, chicken breast), $21 ($11.50, half-order); chicken Caesar salad, $8.50; fish your way, $12.25; Serrano ham with cheese (2-4 people), $17.50
  • Taxi from border: about $6
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My half-serving of paella.
My half-serving of paella.

I jump out of the cab. Cab burps off. What am I seeing? Oh yes. The red and blue Washmobile car wash. And the little slot in their building that accomodates Tortas Washmobile Originales. Been trying to come here since forever. Each time, there seems to be a problem. And, oh man. Again today! This time, it’s time itself. “Tortas Washmobile closes at 2:30,” says a kid. It’s 3:30 now. Dang! I was so looking forward to trying their “El Wash” Torta, that famous crispy ciabatta roll with a ton of carne asada, guac, onions and salsa inside.

But not today, Josephine. 

I look up and down the street. We’re on Jalisco Avenue, in one of the oldest residential parts of Tijuana. But hey, how about that place with the door open, right across Jalisco? A blast from the past: “Paellas Toñico,” a modest little eatery I swear looks the same today as it must have the day it was born, 40 years ago. 

Toñico’s widow, Yolanda, holds my half serving of their famous paella.

Because I’ve been here once before. A bunch of us, actually, pumped up after a, yes, bullfight. Came to share a big round paella platter loaded with shellfish and chicken and sausage and a zillion other things. And this girl with sparkling eyes raised her glass and proposed a toast. “Hasta la placer de ser!” “To the pleasure of being.” That had to have been the most beautiful thought anyone had that day, on either side of the border. 

Toñico himself — Antonio Joven Saldibas — soon appeared, and burst out into a beautifully tortured flamenco lament as we glugged wine and waited for our paella platter. He was famous for this, and you knew he meant what he sang. Way back when, he had found it necessary to escape a dictator’s goons in Spain. Left the country, and forever loved Mexico for giving him shelter. So the feeling, right here in this very room on that night years ago, was electric. 

And today, everything looks totally the same. Even the corner set aside for music. Heck, why not stay for a paella now? I follow two middle-aged businessmen up the step and into the small room.  “My husband Toñico has passed away,” says Yolanda, the woman at the welcoming table, “but the rest of the family is here. My daughter Yolinda sings in the evenings. Ballads, not flamenco laments.” Wow. So mother and daughter, Yolanda and Yolinda, are keeping the show going. 

Jose Luis and Javier’s favorite dish, Estofado Aragonese, $12.50.

Right now, Yolanda’s talking to the two gents ahead of me. You can see they’re regulars. They ask for two bottles of Mexican Coke. Then they go straight to the entrée section and ask for Estofado Aragonese - a beef stew, basically, simmered in red wine. Costs 250 pesos ($12.50). 

Hmm. I do a skim of the menu, because now she’s heading my way, down the step into the main (though pretty small) dining/performance room. The menu has appetizer dishes like Spanish tortilla, ($3.75 for a pincho, snack-size, bite), or chistorra en oliva, (a sausage, $8), or almejas a la marinera (clams, $10.50). Caesar salad with chicken runs $8.50. I’m a little tempted by callos a la madrilena, just because, huh, madrilena means Madrid-style. It’s a menudo with chick peas, blood sausage, and peppers. And this one has pata de puerco — pork leg. Costs $11. 

So yes, tempted, except next up on the menu are the paellas, specialty of the house, maybe Spain’s most famous export after matadors. It’s the dish this place is known for. So I ask Yolanda if their paella is the same today as when Toñico created it. 

Jota Jota: Javier (left) and Jose Luis (in blue), eating - coming all their lives.

“Oh yes. Nothing has changed. Would you like a whole order, or the half order?”

Ah. Now I see the full order is 230 pesos, $11.50, and this is the traditional paella Valenciana, with pork, mariscos, and chicken.

But there is a half order possible for $8.50. They also have a marinara special (on weekends only), filled with shrimp, jaiba (crab), mejillones (mussels), squid, and chicken breast. Cost: $21 and $11.50. “The half order is enough,” says Yolanda.” So I go for the Valenciana half-order. And it is per-lenty. For another $3.50, I get a nice dark bean soup and a basket of hot-buttered, super-tender bread. 

I mean honestly, with paella, saffron rice is the main thing you’re eating. It’s just a good, filling mess of pork, interesting shellfish, and a meaty pollo leg. Some really hot hot-sauce and a mild salsa combine to kick it up, taste-wise. Also, I get a copa of vino tinto ($4.25). Perfect with the chicken and sausage. 

Get talking with Javier and Jose Luis, the guys at the next table. Javier’s a businessman and Jose Luis is a doctor. “This is the main paella place of TJ,” says Jose Luis. “It has been here, unchanged, forever. The town changes, Toñico’s, never.” They say paella started out as a potluck lunch shepherds cooked for themselves on an open fire, in eastern Spain, around Valencia. It was mostly rice (which the Arabs brought to Spain 1200 years ago) plus whatever they could add, from snails to beans to ducks. Some say the name “paella” also started as the Arabic baqiyah — leftovers. But others insist the name came from patella — Latin for “pan.”  Still others say it’s from para ella — “for her” — because, as with our American BBQ, it’s mostly men who cook paella. 

Mine is filled with shellfish, but strict traditionalists swear that a true paella Valenciana has no seafood, but chicken, snails, and duck or rabbit on special occasions, plus green and white beans and lots of rice. 

The only thing I regret is having to leave before the musicians turn up. I would like to have heard Tonico’s daughter Yolinda taking his place on that tiny stage.

  • The Place: Paellas Toñico, Av. Jalisco #2433, Colonia Cacho, Tijuana Baja California, 664-684-0941, or 664-200-2636
  • Hours: 11am-8pm daily (till 9pm, Fridays, Saturdays); closed Mondays
  • Prices: Estofado Aragonese (beef stew), $12.50; Spanish tortilla, $3.75, snack-size; chistorra en oliva (sausage) $8; clams, $10.50; Caesar salad with chicken, $8.50; callos a la madrilena, (menudo with blood sausage, pork leg), $11; paella Valenciana (with pork, mariscos, chicken) $11.50; half order, $8.50; marinara (weekend special with shrimp, crab, mussels, squid, chicken breast), $21 ($11.50, half-order); chicken Caesar salad, $8.50; fish your way, $12.25; Serrano ham with cheese (2-4 people), $17.50
  • Taxi from border: about $6
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