How to Eat Tijuana

The Mexican border town has gotten a reboot thanks to a new crop of chefs, food trucks, and hungry young locals

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Neon sign atop chef Jair Tellez's Crema y Verde restaurant.Melanie Dunea

Ever since I was 18, making the occasional trip to Mexico to do tequila shots with friends, I've thought of Tijuana as holding an untold story. A border town in Mexico's Baja California, it wasn't a safe place back in the 1990s. Yet, it held a certain magic that repeatedly lured us along the 30-minute drive from San Diego.

Recently, I'd heard the city had blossomed, and when my friends and I arrived late last year, we were met with a stylish, vibrant food scene fueled by hip, hungry Mexicans. Restaurants in some seedier parts of town still crank out the deep-fried chicken necks beloved by locals, but food truck parks, serving everything from craft beer to local cheese, combined with sprawling open-air markets and elegant new restaurants, are telling the tale of Tijuana—one beyond just tequila shots.

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Nueva Tijuana: Crema y Verde, a chic, new restaurant from chef Jair Tellez. Wash down octopus- and gouda-stuffed blue acorn gorditas (below, left) with something from the thoughtful wine selection or the restaurant's sage-infused water. Calle Orizaba 3034Melanie Dunea
Hidden Hot Pockets
Hidden Hot Pockets: El Tucumano, a parking lot hole-in-the-wall strung up with twinkle lights, serving carne de res empanadas (right), stuffed with beef, hard-boiled egg, and green onion. Corner of Calle 8 and Calle MaderoMelanie Dunea
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Mexican Buffet: Telefonica Gastro Park, where food trucks serve single-origin coffees, local cheeses, craft brews like Mexicali's Cerveza Legion, and adobo-marinated pork ramen with enoki mushrooms. Ave. Melchor Ocampo between Blvd. Agua Caliente and Calle 11Melanie Dunea
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A diner enjoys adobo-marinated pork ramen with enoki mushrooms outdoors.Melanie Dunea
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Market Day: Mercado de Artesanías, one of many outdoor markets, featuring hidden taco stands, pomegranate- and nopales-packed produce stands, not to mention dulce de leche by the bucketful, and life-size Donald Trump piñatas. Corner of Calle Benito Juárez & Ave. NegreteMelanie Dunea
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Pomegranate- and Nopales-packed stands at the Mercado de Artesanías. And an Old-School Bonus: Caesar's Restaurante, the progenitor of the Caesar salad, which still makes its famous dressing tableside, the same way it did in the 1920s. Ave. Revolución 1059Melanie Dunea