There was a point in my life that I ran the sales and marketing department for a manufacturing company located in Tijuana. Although we had an issue with toilet plumbing (once getting a $2000 sewer bill), we never had issues finding toilet paper. But, like many of you, I believed that the people of Mexico ate foods that we, in the United States, consider “Mexican" (although chili con carne never crossed my mind). You have no idea how depressing it was to go into a Mexican restaurant only to find that "chips and salsa" wasn't on the menu; nor were there cheesy, messy "chicken nachos" I was so looking forward to. I found, however, many great eats in Mexico that were far better than any Americanized Mexican food could ever hope to be.
One of my favorite lunch spots was a little street diner (a little shack pushed four feet back from the roadway with a few stools slid up to the bar) by the name of "Jolie's." It was run by Jolie (imagine that) who was an extremely pleasant woman with beautiful long, brown flowing hair (that I was quite jealous of), who was just a few years older than I was. She had been operating her little street diner for several years and was quite successful at it. Her place was clean, her food was outstanding, her company was friendly, and for those of us always looking for ways to eat on the cheap, perfect for $5.00. Jolie served a lunch menu that, pretty much, encompassed her restaurant's offering, consisting of a meat of choice (beef, chicken or pork) served with two (pre-chosen) side dishes (refried beans and macaroni salad (off all things)). You ordered the type of meat you wanted, told her how you wanted it grilled (burned, medium, or walking), and she would cook it right there in front of you. Her carne asada was to die for; perfectly spiced, extremely tender, and delicious. The one thing that made Jolie's my favorite of lunch haunts was the fact that she made her own hot sauce, which was more like chili oil with spices. Knowing how much I loved her hot sauce, she would bottle it up for me in used 16 oz. Alhambra water bottles and send it with me back over the border. Talk about customer service!
Another fantastic lunch spot I frequented was a street shack in La Playa, just a short 10 minutes from downtown Tijuana. Owned by the uncle of a co-worker, this place offered giant tamales of the chicken, pork, jalapeno/cheese, or raisin/pineapple varieties for a mere $.80 each. I loved these tamales so much that I would drive across the border on weekends to pick up a bag of them, knowing damn well I would have to fight two to three hours of bumper-car like traffic to get back into the US. I had a lot of patience and carried good insurance.
For meat lovers, the Machaca at the Tijuana Country Club is a do not miss. My introduction to this scrumptious delicacy was when meeting with officials from the City of Tijuana to discuss NAFTA regulations. The ambiance of this restaurant is, mind you, 70's Italian Mafia with dark brown pleather seats and red candles on every table. After picking my lunch off the menu, I was surprised to find the server bringing a large bowl of brown meat in gravy to our table, sided with a large pile of small flour tortillas. One bite was all it took to be hooked on this dish. Although I frequently lunched there, I no longer ordered off the menu, opting only for the Machaca and a side dish. I am sure the owner was always pleased to see me coming…. but hell, it was too fantastic to resist.
I will offer a word of warning to those of you that are either squeamish or on top of your eating etiquette; most food is eaten by hand. Dishes are typically shared family style but, rather than spooning portions onto your own plate, tortillas are used in place of utensils to scrape/grab/scoop the food out of the bowl. Hence, people will be dipping their tortillas (that may have already been in their mouths) into the same food as you. Although this practice is less than sanitary and a bit messy, there are fewer utensils to clean!