The Street Food at the Mexican Border Is Fire
Rather than dwell on barely moving traffic and the loss of all personal property, we spent our last 300 pesos on four delicious courses.
All photos courtesy the author
The San Ysidro Port of Entry at the Tijuana/San Diego border is one of the busiest border crossings in the world, processing 70,000 northbound vehicles and 20,000 northbound pedestrians every day. To cross it takes about four and a half hours by car, which is painful as it is but much worse when you don’t have a window, because it was shattered in the process of having all of your possessions stolen.
So we sat there as the hot July sun streamed in through the open space where the window had been, making the car's temperature gauge tick so high we had to turn off the A/C. We wondered how difficult it would be to get across the border without passports, we lamented our losses, we got out to stretch our legs, we commented on the oddities people sell on the side of the road––who is going to buy a giant turtle clock?—and considered the million-dollar idea of portable toilets.
Meanwhile, an array of food was carted by. “Delicious!” vendors said, leaning close to the window and tempting us with steaming churros. “Fresh fruit!” they cried. “Ice cold!” they said, as they carried trays of quickly melting agua frescas.
"You could have a whole meal while waiting in line," we mused. Then, we did just that.
Rather than dwell on barely moving traffic and the loss of all personal property, we spent our last 300 pesos—about $15—on what turned out to be one of the best dining experiences of the trip.
We started with fruit, topped with Tajín—an addictive chile pepper, lime, and salt mixture. It wasn't very stable perched on the center console, but it was, as the vendor had promised, delicious. The cost of cooling down (or at least cooling off our frustrations) with mango, honeydew, banana, and papaya? 100 pesos.
Next up: freshly made potato chips sprinkled with hot sauce and lime, delivered in an overflowing plastic bag. The chips were warm and greasy and a little soft. In other words: amazing. At only 35 pesos, we almost ordered four more bags.
Around us, the sound of music and conversation from surrounding cars mingled. People leaned out their windows to try and see the end of the line. Others walked back and forth along the edge of the road, trying to pass the time. I got out to walk to the one restroom available by the border. There were so many people out of their cars it felt like a block party. On foot, it only took me 10 minutes to travel the distance it would end up taking us hours to drive.
Back in the car, we chatted, read, and geared up for our next course: tamales. I stepped up to the tamale stand and peered into a large metal vat. Steam wafted up into my face as the smell of corn and spice replaced car exhaust. I debated between chicken and pork for too long, until the woman running the stand laughed and said “Get the chicken, trust me!” So I did, plus a cheese one for good measure.
“Is it like this every day?” I asked, pointing to the line. “Every day,” she said. “Maybe even worse now!” I asked if “now” meant since Trump, and she nodded emphatically. “Long, long lines every day.” I thanked her and went back to the car, which had stopped vibrating and was a little cooler finally. Tamales were hard to eat without a table, but we cradled the husks and dug our plastic forks into the masa as best we could, devouring every perfectly spiced bite.
By this point, the magnitude of losing everything from makeup and bras—which didn’t seem to bother the three men I was traveling with—to official documents and all our money started to sink in. But, we had used the one phone that wasn’t stolen to call our banks and cancel our credit cards. We had emailed our bosses and told them we wouldn’t be coming in that afternoon. We had filed a police report and remembered that travel credit card insurance exists. And now we were full of great food. The only thing left to do at this point was get dessert.
Then, things started picking up. The line was suddenly flying, or at least that’s how it felt moving five miles per hour without stopping for a full minute. “We haven’t had churros!” one of us cried. I hopped out to grab them, soft and fragrant with cinnamon sugar spilling everywhere. The car behind us honked angrily, as if an extra 10-second delay really mattered at this point. The line stopped again and we dug into the bag. They were so good. Truly the best churros I’ve ever had, all the sweeter now that we were within sight of the border.
After a few minutes, a group of men were stopped and asked to get out of their car. There was a hold up, and it looked like the police were arresting them. People began to get both curious and angry, they got out of their cars and some even took photos. A middle-aged white man in a truck next to us yelled “throw them all in jail!” and then looked at us and laughed. We stared back a little shocked, though we shouldn’t have been. After all, this is the same border that has served as a prop for President Trump, who claims that “walls work.”
Soon, it was our turn to cross. “Passports,” said the customs officer. “So...we don’t have them,” we replied, explaining our situation. He seemed bored and like he’d heard the story a hundred times. He looked up our names and we were on our way, a much easier process than we had expected and one that was likely expedited by the fact that everyone in the car was very white. “Are you bringing anything back with you?” he asked, not sarcastically, before waving us through.
And then we were on Interstate 5, cruising along at a zippy 70 miles per hour. Tomorrow, we would begin the process of recouping our things, but for tonight, the cinnamon sugar coating our fingers and the scent of tamales permeating the car overpowered any regret about the trip.