Sorry lonely promoters and tequila girls hanging on the balconies of empty super nightclubs, Tijuana has moved on from the Coko Bongo days. Don’t get me wrong, this is a town that likes to party, and the next morning no one is in the street besides the sad zebra-painted donkey until 10 a.m. But the drinking options and settings have definitely expanded in recent years. Indie brewers are making some of the best beer in Mexico, mezcal has taken off, and the cocktail game is well on its way up.
Imagine an outdoor mall, like a grand bazaar of bars. Head down the hallway for a bathroom and you’ll pass a doorway into another bar, hop from karaoke to black and white tiled craft breweries to a pulqueria’s dark wood benches. The ends and beginnings of each bar blend and that’s purposeful: to avoid the prohibitive cost of licensing several craft breweries opened in tightly intertwined spaces here, taking advantage of a loophole that allows them to share one license. It’s genius. The one-block nightclub center was left mostly vacant and divey after a storm of narco violence, and as of last year it has evolved into a center for Tijuana-made craft beer. We went to Cerveceria Insurgente for an absurdly affordable flight of good beers.
You can skip a lot of the bars on La Sexta, an infamous drinking street whose sidewalks narrow and crowd on a Saturday night. But don’t miss Tijuana’s crown jewel of drinking redemption, La Mezcalera. The bar has three sections, a front room adorned in retro red and blue oilcloth and tiles, a middle disco room and a huge back patio with a stage, two bars and a stationary convertible for reserving on special occasions. The DJ, really feeling himself under a machine gun-shaped piñata with a cigarette in the side of his mouth, played some trap, cumbia and reggaeton mash-ups, which kept us dancing at least for a little while. There’s one house line of mezcal from Oaxaca and a few bites. Try the pechuga, tobala, and the passion fruit blend. FYI, they check IDs here (weird).
Our TJ guides assured us that the cocktail scene still has room for growth in Tijuana and that after La Justina it was all downhill. I didn’t have enough time to survey many more cocktails, but it would be hard to top these. I loved the labios rojos, a watermelon cocktail with vodka, mezcal, and a guajillo pepper torched over the glass. I liked how the chef here, a bearded gringo who’s earned a place in the hearts of the Tijuanenses we talked to, is honoring local foods. I never realized pozole seco was a thing: almost like a reduction of all the ingredients of pozole, piled on a tostada, but in a tribute to Sonora’s heavy culinary influence here, a switch from pork and chicken to marlin.
Come here for a classic cantina. A friend’s brother’s name is painted on the ceiling, and at least everyone else who grew up in Tijuana has a story to tell about this place. A juke box, red plastic chairs whose backs barely meet my lower ribs, pictures of old movie stars, buckets of beers, and a red light chandelier— what more would you want?
Calle Paseo de Los Héroes 10001, Zona Urbana Rio Tijuana (Next to Plaza del Zapato)
On Av Revolucion between 3rd and 4th Streets.
La Mezcalera & Dandy del Sur
On La Sexta (6th Street) between Av Revolucion and Madero.