Food & Drink

Michelin Guide goes to Mexico for 1st time, spotlights Tijuana, Baja California restaurants

Several Michelin-recognized eateries are now just across the border

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Up until May 2024, the Michelin Guide, the gastronomical world’s highest measure of good cooking, had never stepped foot in Mexico. 

Now, the guide is recognizing 157 restaurants throughout the country, doling out awards like Michelin stars, green stars, Bib Gourmands, guide recommendations and five special awards to distinguished professionals. 

Looking for the best experiences chefs have to offer, the guide’s inspectors combed through cities and regions of Mexico, including Baja California, Baja California Sur, Mexico City, Quintana Roo and Nuevo Leon — and Tijuana has not been left out.

During a ceremony held in May in Mexico City, four Tijuana restaurants, including a popular taqueria, were recognized by the guide.

What is a Bib Gourmand award?

Tijuana restaurant Carmelita Molino y Cocina was the only one in the border town recognized by the Michelin Guide with a Bib Gourmand. While not as high of an accolade as a Michelin star, a Bib Gourmand award is given out to establishments that serve good food at moderate prices. Before you turn your nose up at this ranking, know that the same five criteria are used to judge restaurants being considered for both awards.

😋 Carmelita Molino y Cocina: Bib Gourmand award

Mole-covered cauliflower over house-made tortillas at Carmelita Molino y Cocina. (NBC 7 San Diego)

This restaurant's namesake comes from Chef José Figueroa's grandmother Carmen (nicknamed Carmelita), who serves as his inspiration for cooking. Situated in Tijuana's Independencia neighborhood, Carmelita treats their corn with care, sourcing it from small family farms around Mexico and processing it in-house. They specialize in cooking with local and seasonal produce and taking what Figueroa says is a 100%-Baja approach to Mexican cuisine through their seafood, cage-free chicken, fresh herbs, vegetables and more.

"Just because we got the Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide doesn’t mean that we’ll change what we are and what we do" Figueroa said. "We are a Tijuana restaurant made by people from Tijuana for people from Tijuana. Obviously, anyone from anywhere is totally welcomed, but our identity is 100% Tijuanense and proudly Baja Californian."

We are a Tijuana restaurant made by people from Tijuana for people from Tijuana.

Chef José Figueroa, Carmelita Molino y Cocina

Since receiving the Bib Gourmand, Figueroa told NBC 7, some things have changed, but others haven't.

"There’s definitely been a slight rise of clientele coming into the restaurant," Figueroa said. "We’ve been receiving lots of Americans lately. But, personally, I think the Michelin Guide is something almost unheard of in certain parts of the country still. Very few people truly know what it's all about."

Carmelita got started as a food truck in 2014 in Tijuana's Telefonica Gastro Park, a type of food hall filled with various food trucks, small eateries and craft beer options. Over the years, Carmelita transitioned to a brick-and-mortar restaurant that just celebrated its first anniversary.

"Personally, I like to call Tijuana’s gastronomy ‘migrant cuisine' because of its different influences from people from all over México and other countries," Figueroa told NBC 7. "Being one of the busiest border towns in the world, we get to see people from all over the world who eventually end up staying here, and most of them survive by selling food, food that the Tijuana citizens enjoy and share with everyone who visits this city. I find that people from this city love going out to eat, exploring new flavors and ingredients, so it's always fun to keep changing our menu accordingly to whatever new produce we can get our hands on."

Several Michelin-recognized eateries are now just across the border

What is a Michelin Recommendation?

While not as top tier as a Michelin Bib Gourmand or a Michelin Star, a Michelin Recommendation still puts the restaurant on the Michelin map and is a sign of both quality ingredients and cooking. Simply put, it's a good meal, according to the guide.

👍 Tacos El Franc: Michelin Recommendation

Adobada (izquierda) y carne asada (derecha) tacos cubiertos de guacamole en Tacos El Franco en Tijuana, México. (NBC 7 San Diego)
Adobada (left) and carne asada (right) tacos covered in guacamole at Tacos El Franc in Tijuana, Mexico. (NBC 7 San Diego)

The popular Tacos El Franc has officially landed on the Michelin Guide's recommended restaurants list. Since starting in 1996, this taqueria has made a name for itself among Tijuana's many taquerias.

Open evenings into late nights (1 a.m., sometimes 3 a.m.), sitting under a covered roof by the street and ordering their best-selling carne asada or adobada tacos will likely leave you satisfied. Take a seat and order from the seasoned waiter who comes to your table. Ask for extra napkins: Tacos slathered in guacamole and dripping in juice could leave your clothes stained but mouth happy.

Bring pesos aplenty, Tacos El Franc is cash only.

👍 Misión 19: Michelin Recommendation

Ostras a la parrilla en Misión 19 con salsa de soja y algas. (NBC 7 San Diego)
Grilled oysters at Misión 19 with soy sauce and seaweed. (NBC 7 San Diego)

Back in 2012 when Anthony Bourdain was in town for Comic-Con, he was asked for a dinner recommendation. After offering due respect to San Diego's restaurants, he said, "I, personally, would drive over to Tijuana and go to Misión 19."

Somewhat hidden on the second floor of an office building, Misión 19's mission is to bring patrons a sustainable and avant-garde taste of Baja California through foods that aren't found more than 125 miles away.

Have your world turned upside down with a fresh tuna "parfait" made with avocado meringue, Mexican sour cream and corn tostada crackling or and grilled octopus in blackened habanero oil and organic tomatoes.

Their dessert carrot bread pudding is a mother's warm hug dusted in pretzel crumble with a side of ice cream and sweet, thick milk.

Since receiving the Michelin Recommendation, there's been more curiosity in Misión 19, pushing the restaurant to work on its skills and dishes, Executive Chef Román Almaraz told NBC 7.

"I feel glad to have the Stars here in Mexico," Almaraz said. "It proves here in the country we have really good food."

👍 Oryx: Michelin Recommendation

Atún de aleta azul de la región de Baja California se presenta como un bocado lleno de sabor en Oryx en Tijuana, México. (NBC 7 San Diego)
Blue fin tuna sourced from the Baja region serves up a mouthful of flavor at Oryx in Tijuana, Mexico. (NBC 7 San Diego)

Chef Ruffo Ibarra and his team have created a favorite restaurant in Tijuana that specializes in contemporary Mexican cuisine sourced with local ingredients. Their menu boasts a range of creative seafood dishes like charred aguachile made with smoked watermelon and their delightful black taco, made with lightly crisp sole fish topped in purple coleslaw and embellished with beet and avocado sauces.

After dinner, stop by their cozy speakeasy, Nórtico, but make sure to ask your waiter for the password.

Map of Michelin-recognized restaurants in Tijuana

Michelin-Starred Baja California restaurants

To be awarded a Michelin Star, an anonymous inspector judges restaurants based on five criteria: the quality of the ingredients, the harmony of flavors, the mastery of techniques, the personality of the chef shown through their cooking and, lastly, consistency throughout the menu and over time.

Back in September 2023, NBC 7 spoke with Chef Roberto Alcocer of Valle in Oceanside, which had just received its first Michelin Star. Alcocer has been an established chef in Mexico for years and runs an Ensenada-based restaurant, Malva. At the time, Baja California had zero Michelin-star restaurants and Alcocer gave his thoughts on why a bustling food landscape like Mexico was still untouched by Michelin. Less than a year later, the state now boasts four Michelin-starred restaurants.

Each restaurant below earned one star, meaning it uses top-quality ingredients to create distinct flavors prepared at a consistently high standard, according to the Michelin Guide.

If you're driving by, the guide would advise: "high quality cooking, worth a stop!"

Animalón: 1 Michelin Star

Animalón invites its guests to dine — under a more than 200-year-old oak tree in Valle de Guadalupe — on contemporary Mexican cuisine that draws inspiration from all over the country. While the al fresco dining is peaceful, Chef Javier Plascencia is known for experimenting with new ingredients to create an exciting gastronomical experience.

The Tijuana-born Plascencia was previously the chef at Misión 19, where he began the restaurant's tradition of using ingredients from no more than 125 miles away.

Diners at Animalón can enjoy beer-braised barbacoa wrapped in a banana leaf, steamed and smoked in a pig's bladder and presented the table for a dramatic display. The roasted duck in guayaba mole will leave you thinking about it for days.

⭐🍀 Conchas de Piedra: 1 Michelin Star, Green Star

Seafood and sparkling wine lovers, rejoice! Deckman's (a nearby restaurant specializing in slow food) has collaborated with the winery Casa de Piedra to create a divine combination, Conchas de Piedra. Diners can gaze upon the magnificent vistas of Valle de Guadalupe (especially at sunset) and enjoy locally sourced shellfish paired exclusively with their sparkling wines.

Oyster lovers will be overjoyed with half shells decorated in tiny flowers on a bed of pebbles and lemon on the side. Clam ceviche is presented on two beautiful Venusian clam shells. For a hot dish, try their tempura oyster taco in spicy sauce or seared abalone in abalone tartar and carrot cream.

Their small menu is based on seasonable availability and changes every day.

Not only did Conchas de Piedra earn a Michelin Star but also a Green Star for superb sustainability. The Deckman's Group has three farms, and the restaurant makes its own olive oil. Conchas de Piedra says it sources mollusks with respect to ecosystems and the law, and uses the shells afterward to prevent soil erosion and as calcium supplements for their farm's vines. To boot, only salt from Baja's San Felipe salt mines is used for their food.

Damiana: 1 Michelin Star

Seated under trees and beneath sparkling lights, Damiana is situated on the Viñedos de la Reina, a wine-tasting room.

Chef Esteban Lluis melds the best locally sourced and farm-to-table ingredients, serving contemporary Mexican in unpredictable ways, like beef tartar dusted in pink peppercorn sabayon or fresh ceviche and raw fish, depending on what was caught that day. You're not likely to get a liver pate with sweet wine aspic and pistachios anywhere else.

Map of Michelin-Starred restaurants in Baja California

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