You can tell a lot about someone by how they react when you suggest going to get a cup of coffee in Tijuana. There are the old “painted donkey and piñata” stereotypers, the “isn’t it dangerous?” types, and the “that sounds like so much fun, when can we go?” people who you want to hang out with. Baja California’s gateway has been welcoming strangers for decades, and just as the USA’s relationship with its neighbor has waxed and waned, so has the attitude of San Diegans to the city which is at once part of home and yet very different. However, Tijuana doesn’t need to be viewed through the lens of San Diego or the United States. It stands alone as a cultural, culinary, and coffee destination. And when you view Tijuana from a chair on a plaza with a delicious cortado, it seems anything but intimidating.
Entering from the US means negotiating the world’s busiest land border at San Ysidro, which—unlike Tijuana—is not showing any signs of becoming more welcoming or interesting. But once you cross into Mexico, the town is easy to negotiate by foot, bike, or ride share. English or Spanish and dollars or pesos are equally accepted at most shops and prices for an espresso drink are in the $2 range.
The Baja wine and food scene has been booming for years, with fine dining at Mision 19 and more affordable (but no less delicious) spots like the Telefonica Gastro Park serving the city’s young, growing, and unsurprisingly not-that-different-from-the US middle class. Unlike much of the wine and food, which requires a drive south, the majority of the speciality coffee shops are focused in the downtown area and serve locals as well as the tourist crowd. Recently, Mexican coffees have been more prominent on the speciality market and most Tijuana roasters tend to source from their home country, which means that a short trip around town can acquaint you with some delicious origins which might not yet have made it to your local roaster.
Coffee shops in Tijuana tend to stay open late, often closing at 8:00 or 10:00pm, and are as much of a “third place” coffee culture as you’ll find anywhere in the US. Expect excellent customer service as the speciality coffee scene is still growing in Tijuana and people—customers and staff alike—are excited about it, meaning your barista or fellow customer might love to hear about your other coffee experiences. Oh and Tijuana gets hot, so don’t sniff at grabbing a cold brew to-go. Most coffee houses offer bottled coffee alongside their regular drink menu.
Nativo Coffee Community
Armed border guards can be pretty intimidating, which is why I always like to follow the somewhat unwelcoming and officious border experience with a much friendlier one at Nativo. A cold drink in one of Nativo’s signature cactus-shaped Mason jars provides the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of “the line” and their outdoor seating makes a great place to sit, grab some wifi, and plan a day in TJ. The shop is just a block away from the new PedWest border crossing, making it a great first stop for a Tijuana coffee crawl, so long as you don’t get there before their 9:00am opening time. On weekends, you can grab a drink and wander around the farmers' market that takes place outside.
Nativo’s menu mixes espresso classics with more inventive drinks that combine their own coffee with Dr Pepper and orange juice amongst other ingredients that pair surprisingly well with sunshine and succulents. The shop itself isn’t large, but you’re only a short walk from a beach, garden, or plaza that makes for a great setting to linger over your drink and one of their donuts, or the deliciously international avocado bagel. There’s also rarely not a dog on hand for petting, along with frequent dog meet-ups, making this one of my overall favorite coffee spots to go to when I absolutely don’t want to get work done.
Situated in an old shipping container in Tijuana’s busy and touristy Avenida Revolución, Container’s architecture might be disposable, but the shop bucks the trend of the area by selling something customers will enjoy and come back for rather than throw away when they realize nobody needs a novelty poncho or sombrero.
Container invites customers to take a moment to enjoy their cup of coffee in a part of town that feels like it stops for nobody. Customers pick from several coffees, all sourced from Mexico, and then select a brewing method in consultation with the knowledgeable and friendly baristas. Then it’s time to take the cup on the shop’s patio and while away half an hour watching the carnival of enthusiastic hawkers engaged in their timeless pursuit of relieving hopelessly clueless tourists of a few dollars as local teenagers strut their stuff and sneer at the whole spectacle. Container has plenty of power outlets, but it isn’t the place to bring your laptop—“Av Rev” provides entertainment enough. If you’re on the go, or a manually brewed coffee isn’t for you, there are delicious single origin espresso and milk drinks from a national level competition barista and bottled cold coffee to keep the post-lunch slump at bay if you’re on your way to, or from, the nearby Telefonica Gastro Park.
Electric Coffee Roasters
A little further from the hustle of the middle of the city is Electric Coffee Roasters, where everything from the clientele to the Instagram account lets you know that you’re in for a curated speciality coffee experience that merits a short Lyft ride or a longer walk. Situated just across from the Estadio Caliente Xoloitzcuintles, the Electric’s Nuova Simonelli machines, scales, Chemexes and bare wood countertops set the scene for the sort of coffee shop anyone would be glad to have in their neighborhood and a great spot to grab a pick-me-up before a game or concert. It’s definitely a local hangout and not a tourist trap, especially in the afternoons when the small shop’s tables can be hard to lock down while local freelancers and students take advantage of the quiet space and curated soundtrack to work. If you find yourself down by the beach in Playas, there’s a branch there as well and the friendly locals are more than happy to offer coffee, dinner or beach tips (or, at least they were to a Spanish-speaking Englishman with a ridiculously large camera).
There’s a full espresso menu as well as several manual brew options for hot and cold drinks. The baristas also craft custom drinks, combining honey, cinnamon, chocolate, and other local ingredients with their espresso, which is roasted right in house. If you’re grabbing something to go, don’t overlook the delicious bottled cold brew, which has fueled many a drive south to Baja’s incredible surf breaks.
Sospeso isn’t a shop you’re likely to bump into on your way to or from the border; it’s in the part of town where suits are more common than sangria-swilling tourists. The shop is more spacious, and local professionals frequently meet here for a coffee and a chat. Meanwhile, local coffee aficionados stop by to sample the variety of roasts, chat with baristas and take home one of the many coffees on offer.
Sospeso is a bigger setup than anything else on this list, complete with TV screens, point-of-sale displays explaining the roasting and harvesting process, and a Kickstarter page to fund their aims to expand north of the border. It’s an operation that turns out phenomenal coffee and really deserves a greater recognition outside of the immediate area. Their online sales program means that even if you’re a long way from TJ, you can now sample their national and international roasts.
This was the only cafe we visited that roasts an international selection of beans. Indeed, the shop’s owner, Alberto Song, is a certified Q grader and a judge at the Cup of Excellence. Sospeso offers Kyoto-style cold brew and bottles of concentrate to-go that look more like the Tequila that you’ll see tourists clutching as they nervously transit US customs. There’s also a brew bar and to-go cups with sleeves that describe the processing method of the coffee you’re drinking.
James Stout is a freelance journalist based in San Diego. This is James Stout's first feature for Sprudge.