By midday in the friendly Mexican town of Tecate, just over the border in a rocky clutch of mountains near San Diego, the rhythmic tunk-tunk-tunk of cleavers chopping sizzling carne asada drifts down the sidewalks and tope-ridged streets. Topes are speed bumps, and they help determine Tecate's unhurried ambience―a pace quite different from the blazing speed at which the town's masterful taco chefs assemble paper-wrapped packets of puffy, hot tortillas, grilled meat or beer-battered fish, and a dollop or two of each stand's trademark salsa. Tacos are big business here; taste them and you'll know why.
Many of the best taquerías are within walking distance of the tree-shaded main plaza. Finding the plaza is easy, but before leaving the United States, pick up one-day auto insurance ($10-$40; contact your insurance agency―standard U.S. policies are not valid in Mexico). Cross the border via State 188, and head down the hill four blocks to Cárdenas and Juárez streets. Park as close to the plaza as possible. We don't list many addresses or any phone numbers because there are few posted street numbers and there's no need to call ahead―of these four favorites, several are bound to be open on any given day.
If you fancy fish, from the plaza walk two blocks west on Juárez, then north on Obregón street to bright blue Mariscos Chemel (230 Obregón). Its tempura-like seafood tacos have a sublime crunch. Back on Juárez, walk west to Tacos La Guerita (at Santana street) to sample tacos al pastor, made with spicy meats sliced from a vertical rotisserie. Ask for grilled green onions, charred and sweet.
Closer to the plaza, Los Amigos Taquería (corner of Miguel Hidalgo and Ortiz Rubio, southeast of the plaza) sends clouds of mesquite smoke into the air, heralding its popular carne asada tacos and quesadillas. Finally, on the plaza's east side, look for La Placita (30 Ortiz Rubio), where you can sit in leather and split-wood chairs and watch the world go by while indulging in more of Tecate's finest.
WHERE: Tecate is 40 miles southeast of downtown San Diego via State 188, a winding mountain road. FYI: To visit Tecate by historic train, contact the San Diego Railroad Museum: (619) 595-3030 or www.sdrm.org.
CONTACT: Tecate Tourism Trust, on the plaza: 011 52 (665) 654-5892.