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May 17, 2009 09:23 PM

A Surprising Taste of Tijuana Tribute:La Diferencia and La Villa del Tabaco

I started frequenting Tijuana and Ensenada around 1999. A few years had passed since my annual trips to the clubs on Revolucion during my college days, from 1987 to 1990. Back then my gastronomic crawls were not much more than some average tacos on La Revo and bacon wrappped hot dogs. The clubs and Revolucion were overflowing in those days with lines waiting to go into El Torito and other bars. Bartenders were issuing the TJ Tequila shot, where they cover your mouth and shake your head after the shot, usually paid for by a “so called” friend. I remember talking to some girl until the sun came up as she passed out and wretched on the table in mid conversation. I wasn’t getting lucky that night. Everyone was hammered, my best friend had his arm around a girl one night that was so drunk she had soiled herself. We were laughing hysterically pointing to her ass trying to get my friend’s attention but he just kept smiling throwing his thumb in the air triumphantly. One of the last trips, in our drunk and indulgent stupidity, we were sliding on that building as you walk back to the US from the Yellow Cab stands and got shoved into a couple of Tijuana police vehicles for “violating” a federal building. After a little mordida(bribe) we were on our way, broke and relieved to have gotten off so easy for this heinous crime.

Returning at the close of the 20th century I was looking for something a little different. The clubs no longer had anything to offer, but the food? I wandered around Revolucion looking for a break from the old standbys, Café La Especial wasn’t bad, and a few Loncherias provided some familiar but much more soulful versions of everyday Mexican food. Then while I was eating some of my grandmother’s fantastic tamales during a visit to Stockton,CA, my hometown, I spotted an article titled A Surprising Taste of Tijuana by Barbara Hansen, from the LA Times. After a frantic read I almost leaped out of my chair with tamal in mouth a started driving south. I didn’t imagine Tijuana as a place of gastronomy or near wineries. That article, along with a trip to get back in touch with family in Aguascalientes that I hadn’t seen since I was 9 years old, changed my life . I had stopped in D.F. for a couple of days before Aguascalientes, too, and had an unforgettable meal at a souvenir shop on the way to Teotihuacan.

A Surprising Taste of Tijuana by Barbara Hansen from 2002

The next opportunity I had to get back to Tijuana I grabbed a cab and paid extra to get me to La Diferencia, and fast. La Diferencia is a D.F. style alta cocina restaurant in the gastronomic zone of Tijuana’s Zona Rio. There are prehispanic foods like gusanos de maguey(maguey caterpillars and victims of a mezcal marketing ploy), escamoles(ant eggs), and chapulines(grasshoppers) served with little blue corn tortillas and a pico de gallo. Dishes born out of the French occupation of Mexico like crepes of huitlacoche(corn smut) with a poblano chile sauce. These look too good to eat, but you’ll manage. And, during chiles en nogada season in the fall, La Diferencia’s versions are serious. Other chiles rellenos are filled with huitlacoche. The rabbit mixiote is excellent and all dishes are beautifully plated. Alligator machaca has been served among other creations over the years that has earned La Diferencia its name.

The food is substantial enough for the most discerning expert on Mexican cuisine, but you could take mom there and she’d have no problem finding something delicious that need no explanation like salmon in a salsa of mango . The room is classic Mexican elegance from another era. There is a fountain in the center of the main dining area. Waiters here provide professional service, and this is a sure place to have a traditional Caesar’s salad made at your table. Hector Quiroz, the manager, is a true caballero, you will be well taken care of by him and the La Diferencia crew. There are seasonal items like the pre-hispanic foods and the chiles en nogada. Ingredients are top notch and deft cooks are experts in sauces, baking, and grilling. The butter even comes in little corn husk tamale wraps.

Juan Pablo Ussel, the owner has one of the best restaurant experiences you will encounter in Tijuana.

Barbara had also mentioned La Villa del Tabaco in her article for Cuban expressos and cappuccinos. La Villa has become a requisite stop for me when in Tijuana. Cuban ex-patriate Rudy, the late owner of La Villa passed away a few years ago, but he always made you feel welcome like a guest in his home. He was a fine conversationalist. The cigars are authentic Cubans, unlike what you will find on the street. The coffee beans are from Cuba and the expressos here are the best. Rudy’s widow, Elena, now runs the place. She always makes sure I get a little taste of her Havana Club 7 year she has stashed behind the counter. She stocks the usual cigars that we all know, Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, and Bolivar, but I adore the San Cristobal de La Habana and Diplomaticos. The staff is friendly, the store is a break from the noise on La Revo, and if you make it there on a Wednesday all the regulars show up and Elena provide a nice spread.

An expresso in the morning before a day of eating in Tijuana and a nice smoke before hitting the Zona Rio for a world class dining experience at La Diferencia,or the many other fine restaurants. This is why Tijuana makes me happy. I’ve made it a mission to know all the high and low dining of Tijuana, but Barbara Hansen’s ground breaking report is what started it all for me. I might still be sitting there in Café La Especial wondering……there’s got to be more than this.What a nice surprise,verdad?

La Diferencia
Bl. Sanchez Taboada 10611-A
Zona Rio

La Villa del Tabaco
Av. Revolucion 868#15
Zona Centro

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  1. Love Barbara Hansen. You should see if you can find the very good article she did for the LATimes on Oaxacan food in Los Angeles. I think it was sometime in 2004.

    1 Reply
    1. Ha... I don't remember if its the same place.... but I believe it was in 1996 at a Cigar shop in TJ where I first learned of the TJ -> Havana direct flights (dirt cheap)... and that with a Mexican passport I could go to Cuba without any hassles. It was great to see Cubita before it gets changed.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Eat_Nopal

        This would probably be the one. It's right next to what used to be Gigante, think it's now Soriana, at about 2nd and La Revo.

        El malecon, la musica,Havana Club, los daiquiris, los mojitos, los puros, la gente, el ritmo,las mujeres, los Bucaneros helados, Coppelia, y el arroz con pollo..........................

      2. What an Eloquent and Evocative Report

        Thank you, SGLA

        We have dined at La Diferencia many times over the last few years - the decor is beautiful, but you forgot to mention the canaries in the bird cages overhead that sing throughout the meal, and, yes, the food and service is outstanding (I particularly remember a queso fresco, membrillo and ate dessert plate, decorated with raspberry drizzle) .

        2 Replies
        1. re: Gypsy Jan

          Thanks Gypsy Jan.I was thinking about the bird cages and for some reason just didn't put them down.They are an integral part of the charm. Aren't the desserts at La Diferencia amazing? The layered crepe cake,mmmm.

          1. re: streetgourmetla

            Yes, that layered cake, mil "something", is amazing. The French occupation of Mexico brought their breads and pastries, and the Mexicans made it their own - a reverse conquest :>)