This week on The Trip podcast: Chef Ruffo Ibarra on leading a new era of Tijuana culinary excellence, electric flowers, and mind-bending chilis.
The word milpa means different things depending on what part of the Americas you’re in, but at its root it’s an agricultural system, a simple and sustainable combination of the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. The beans climb the corn stalks while the squash shades the ground. Pure pre-Columbian harmony. Good for total nutrition, good for reclaiming poor soil. And it’s a helluva metaphor for what’s happening now with the food scene in Baja California.
There’s been a lot of poor soil in Tijuana over the years. Even before those years when it was some kind of border Fallujah, one of the most dangerous cities on earth, it was a spotty destination for eating and drinking, better known for cheap pills and knockoff tequila shots. The tacos were always good, but the rest, even if it was good, still got overlooked.
Now there’s a new milpa going, a complementary ecosystem of cooks, restauranteurs, producers and providers, brewers and doers, who are part of the reason that Tijuana has reinvented itself in improbable ways, and become a trendy pick, at least among the editors who decide such things, for a top global destination this year.
Wulfrano Ruiz, the owner of Cengrow farms in nearby Valle de Guadalupe, is part of that milpa. The electric flower he grows, along with Japanese mustard and mind-bending chiles grown in the shade of fig trees, are all part of the milpa. And so are the cooks who put these ingredients on the plate, like the guest of this week’s episode, Ruffo Ibarra, who overcame personal tragedy to become one of the leading restaurateurs in Tijuana.
It’s a system, an organized and diverse collection of individuals reclaiming the soil here, and I am rooting like hell for them all. I sat down with Ruffo in the gilded speakeasy that he built behind his restaurant Oryx Capital, drank a showstopping cocktail and talked about Baja food and the rebirth of a city.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Ruffo. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
Nathan Thornburgh: So tell me, what we are drinking?
Ruffo Ibarra: So this is a version of a Old Fashioned. I think any bar now has their own version of the classics, but this is called the Zaragoza. Zaragoza was a name that of Tijuana, before Tijuana. Tia Juana was a ranch. Rancho de la Tia Juana—Aunt Juana’s Ranch.
Thornburgh: I did not know that. Sounds kind of made up, but that was it.
Ibarra: It’s super made-up. I’m that gifted. I’m very creative. No, Zaragoza was the name of the family that first got here. And that was supposed to be Tijuana’s name, or one of the official names, but it never came to be.
Thornburgh: So it lost out on Zaragoza de la Frontera or something.
Ibarra: It’s a lot more Spanish, obviously.
Thornburgh: Well, Tijuana is its own thing, even if it’s a reduction of Auntie Juana. It’s a universally known and an admired name. So what makes this, besides the name being old, an Old Fashioned in your style?
Ibarra: Well, it has Mexico at its heart, so it has mescal, a little bit of citric acid so you get that sourness, and that smokiness balances out with that note. Agave, syrup, and our house bitters.
Thornburgh: That is so delicious.
Ibarra: That’s a nice way to start.
Tijuana started growing back in the 1920s and 30s, when the U.S. prohibited alcohol and gambling and all the good stuff.
Thornburgh: So, describe to me where we are. What is this place?
Ibarra: So this is our speakeasy inside the restaurant of Oryx Capital. This is an homage to the golden age of Tijuana.
Thornburgh: Literally golden. Golden frames, and there’s gold pain in splash in old photos.
Ibarra: And the whole wooden work on the ceiling is gold-leafed, as well as the logo that we have on the floor.
Thornburgh: Looks like you had some Burmese Buddhist come in here and just like, gold leaf, plaster leaf, like they do in Southeast Asia. It’s ostentatious, but it’s also muted and it’s a nice, you got these black leather couches. Why is this sort of Prohibition-era, Tijuana’s golden age?
Ibarra: That’s when Tijuana started growing, back in the 20s and 30s when the U.S. prohibited alcohol and gambling, and all the good stuff. Everybody started coming to Tijuana. So we had all these small cantinas and bars open up in downtown and this grand casino, called Agua Caliente, which means hot water. It was built over hot springs. So, before, the tourism was about the hot springs, so you can imagine, there was no tourism. But as soon as we got the casino and all these bars opened, all the celebrities, all the politicians, and every mafia guy came in Tijuana.
Thornburgh: That’s amazing. I can imagine that evolution from Hey, why isn’t anybody coming to our hot springs to, Let’s build a fucking casino on top of the hot springs and then it’ll become the most popular hot springs in the world. And this is name of the boulevard. It’s still Agua Caliente?
Ibarra: This is still Agua Caliente. The only other resort at that time of this size, worldwide, I think was in Monaco. So it was big and luxurious and very over the top, to say the least.
Thornburgh: Just last week, I was out in Montreal, which had gained the name Sin City, I think, also during Prohibition era. It’s crazy to be on the other side of this border complex and see how our friends in the north and south have made a good living out of our own vices and appetites, as Americans, for a very long time.
Ibarra: You still have them. They’re legal now.
Thornburgh: Right. You cannot build a CBD emporium on top of the casino, on top of the hot springs, and expect to get a bunch of the Californians to come, because they decided to get fucked up at home, which must be disappointing at some level.
Ibarra: They’re kind of boring.
Thornburgh: That’s right. They’re missing the whole travel experience to come over here to do it.
Ibarra: The nickname for Tijuana in that era was the Devil’s Playground.
Thornburgh: Devil’s Playground. That’s a pretty big statement. Even when you were growing up, there were a lot of traces of that. This is the Tijuana of the popular imagination, this is where guys go to lose their virginity, where they come to get super-trucked and fucked up. That was still the thing when you were growing up.
Ibarra: Yeah, anything you couldn’t do in California, you came to do in Tijuana or Rosarito or Ensenada. Just getting fucked up. And especially even if you just wanted a drink—you can drink here at 18. So, a bunch of teenagers trashing the city. Basically, spring break was the trashiest time of the year.
Thornburgh: What is your family’s connection to Tijuana? You’ve got family on both sides of the border. You’ve spent a lot of time up in the States. What’s the connection, I guess, between the two sides for you?
Ibarra: My mother side and my dad side, there was always a part of the family that either grew over there, born over there. My grandma on my dad’s side, was Mexican-American.
Thornburgh: That’s the best kind of Americans. Among the best Americans there are.
Ibarra: I agree. So others migrated by force—not force, but trying to survive difficult circumstances. Unfortunately I was in similar spot for a little bit when Tijuana got really crazy, in 2008 to 2010.
Thornburgh: Define crazy.
Ibarra: This was one of the most violent cities in the world. We’re talking like, Syria right now. It was really bad. A lot of deaths. I’m guessing business was complicated for the cartels, because they started kidnapping and it was really, really, really bad. And unfortunately I lost a brother.
Thornburgh: I’m sorry to hear that.
Ibarra: And we crossed. Fortunately my youngest brother, my younger brothers are Americans. They were both born in San Diego, so we crossed the border. It was easy for us because we had a visa to cross as tourists and that made it easy. So we looked for a place to stay.
I’m extra proud of what we’ve done for the city. To get one of the cities that was one of the most violent in the world and to turn it around to what it is today.
Thornburgh: You mind if I ask, what happened to your brother?
Ibarra: It was difficult to say in the end, because they kidnapped him and then we just didn’t know, because we didn’t hear about it. At that point in time, it was really complicated, because the cartel was basically looking for, I don’t know what they were looking for. Because they got into our house. It was hard. It was hard times.
Thornburgh: How old was he?
Ibarra: A year younger than me. Twenty-one.
Thornburgh: How do you forgive a city after something like that? You know like, how do you come back in Tijuana and just be like, all right, life starts again.
Ibarra: I think it would’ve been easier to go somewhere. I even did a stage and got a job offer at Michelin-star restaurant in Spain. I came back to San Diego, started working in catering. But I don’t know. These are my roots. I love this city. I love being here. Even after all that, the city is not the one to blame. Overall, and even less specifically, for what happened to us. That’s where I’m so happy right now, and that’s why I’m extra proud of what we’ve done for the city. To get one of the cities that was one of the most violent in the world and turn it around to what it is today, and now New York Times and Los Angeles Times are talking about one of the top cities that you have to visit. That means a lot. Tourism changed, everything changed.
Thornburgh: As soon as I started communicating with you about talking on the show, you said, Listen. Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to show you around the town. I’m going to take you around. This is the thing that you’re going to see, and where we’re going to go. For someone who also happens to be running a restaurant and a business, and trying to do all the things that modern chefs have to do, which includes a lot of brain space, it’s pretty remarkable to me that you’re also putting it on your own shoulders, to make sure that you’re the fucking ambassador for everything here, and this is the city that people get to see and hear about.
Ibarra: Yeah. We try. We definitely try. That’s because, the good and the beautiful thing about the new Tijuana is that, since all the tourism left, obviously when it got really bad, because of violence and security reasons, we started building businesses for friends, for locals, for family, for people we see every day. So there was love and a lot of detail into everything everyone was doing. I think that’s a good part of what happened. It wasn’t just a gimmick. It’s wasn’t like, Come here and get fucked up. Like, It’s a coffee shop, and I want all the soccer moms to be here. So a soccer mom opened a coffee shop. And then somebody opened a small restaurant, because he used to make fresh seafood at his house and everybody loved it. So all those details and all that love went into the new businesses. People abroad started getting interested in all these places. A lot of flavor and a lot of love went into every detail.
In Baja California, we break the rules when it comes to food.
Thornburgh: So tell me some of the shit that you’re excited about in town that fits that mold of this kind of high touch, big love kind of culture that’s growing up here.
Ibarra: Well, we’re world famous for our street food. Our tacos are amazing. So, that was one part. The Plascencia empire started growing with Don Tana then Javier. Just made it bigger. And then we had two contrasts. We had the formal, older age clientele, more mature and white table cloths, and then we had the taco stands. So then Culinary Art School opens and you start getting all these young talents, wanted to be creative, and wanted to do more stuff. And a lot of food trucks started popping up.
Ibarra: And I get a lot of questions about what Baja food is and where it’s going, and I’m say it’s an evolution, because of where we’re located. There’s no way of describing Baja food, especially because we don’t have long, strong roots or laws, like an Italian family, where people say, That’s not the way you make the sauce, and a block away, That’s not the way. Here, we break the rules when it comes to food. We play a lot, even with wine. That’s why there are a lot of different blends of wine here. So purists from Italy or France or Spain just go fucking nuts in Baja, because we’re mixing a Tempranillo with a… We fuck with things. As long as it tastes good, and the end result is amazing, we’re going to keep playing this game, and I don’t think it’s going to stop.