By Jennifer Kramer
There’s no question that the cultural renaissance of northern Baja is being led by the chefs of Tijuana. A decade ago, the popular Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana was a rowdy scene of drunken gringos, zonkeys and cheap souvenir shops. With the decline of tourism over the past number of years, the Tijuanenses have reclaimed their city and are slowly turning Revolución into an area with art galleries, craft beer breweries and restaurants that are being globally recognized for their gastronomic inventiveness. These new places are popping up amongst the old institutions and the still-shuttered doors. La Justina, a new gastro bar right in the heart of the avenue, embodies what the revolution on Revolución is all about – nouveau thinking and well-crafted creation in the midst of old school traditions and down-trodden surroundings. This is the new Tijuana.
About two years ago, Jaime Brambila, whose parents used to own Café La Especial (a now-closed Tijuana institution located just below the current space of La Justina in the Pasaje Gomez) started working on creating a gastro bar upstairs from the old Café. He tapped chef Chad White (of San Diego restaurants Plancha Baja Med, Sea Rocket Bistro and the new Común) to create the local menu. Snake Oil Cocktail Co. (also from San Diego) was brought in to help create the inventive cocktail menu. The space was made into a haven of upcycled industrial materials. In early 2014 La Justina opened its doors.
The restaurant is decorated in reclaimed and raw materials – wooden tables and chairs, hanging light bulb fixtures, exposed brick walls, rope chandeliers, a vertical succulent garden on the entry wall. A neon sign, original to Café La Especial, welcomes the stylish Tijuanense clientele. The vibe is effortless-chic by way of rustic-industrial.
We started with cocktails, which were all carefully crafted and delicious. The deconstructed cocktails contain all of the traditional ingredients with an extra kick or two. My Michelada was made with the usual beer and clamato along with a splash of tequila. The margarita adds a slice of cactus and a black ash salt rim. Everything on the menu (both cocktails and food) is well thought-out and carefully executed.
While we sipped our cocktails and perused the menu, we munched on the deliciously spiced house palomitas (popcorn). In the end, I couldn’t decide on trying just one thing, so I decided to try it all with the seasonal chef’s tasting. The chef’s tasting that consisted of courses of fresh salad, raw oysters, seasoned french fries, beets and soft white cheese, pork belly with corn arepas, and muscles and clams in a savory tomato broth. To top it all off for dessert we had tres leches with a crusted caramelized crust and house-made donuts. Perfection.
The full chef tasting plus drinks only came to about $30 per person. You can’t find this echelon of food and drinks at these prices anywhere north of the border. It’s time to join the revolution.
La Justina Gastro Bar
Avenida Revolucion between 3rd and 4th St
22000 Tijuana, Baja California
Open Weds-Sat 5pm-12am
They do accept credit cards
They don’t accept reservations so arrive early
GPS: 32.533766, -117.036648