"Chun kun! Chun kun!" A pregnant Chinese lady screams loudly as she walks through downtown Tijuana dragging a greasy dirty cardboard box on a small cart near floor level. The box contains egg rolls of chicken or shrimp that go for $1.25 accompanied by Sriracha. She lingers a while where she knows hungry customers will buy her egg rolls and continues yelling, "Chun kun!" Sure enough, she catches the attention of a few people sipping beer at wooden tables in the middle of an alleyway called Pasaje Rodríguez.
"I could hang out here forever," says Nick Blahna, a personal friend from college in Minnesota that visited Tijuana when his work relocated him to California. I have taken countless people through that alleyway to experience the magic of Pasaje. The first thing they see is Tony Vega, who has a store under the stairs at the very entrance. He sells kitschy stickers, VHS tapes, local art, and stacks of knick knacks. After passing Tony's store, you are greeted by colorful murals of local artisans followed by art schools and galleries, a cafe bookshop (Grafógrafo), Mexican Fashion's clothing and print shop, the nerdy comic store, and other quirky boutiques. Every other Sunday, they host an uber-nerdy Cosplay convention, offering Japanese food, videogame contests, and merchandise imported from Asia. These are hardcore TJ nerds that even speak some Japanese, unlike the lackluster Big Bang Theory fanatics.
But none of the above put Pasaje Rodriguez on the map like Mamut Brewery, which has been enjoying major success recently owed, in part, to their foundational role in the magical alley. After only one year, the growth of the nanobrewery has been exponential. Juan José Quezada and his loyal friend Chapo started brewing 15 gallons in glass jars every week. Now, they make over 300 gallons in the same time frame. Juan's team grew at a steady pace and now he has 12 staff members and several freelance artists that help with the image of the place. Mamut relocated from the tiny office on top of Nodo art gallery, expanded to open their own place in Pasaje (no bigger than a carport), and now rents an adjacent building that used to be a hotel, fully restored by Juan José and his team. In fact, the new Mamut is located in one of the oldest remaining structures in Tijuana, built in the 1930s.
"Este edificio es muy historico, tiene rollo Californiano, cúpula y campanario, era un hotel y el Foreign Club." Juan José tells me about his remodeled place. "There's a myth that this building was built by Italians sent by Al Capone. They say there's a secret tunnel that connects this building to 3rd street and other places, but we haven't found it. It wasn't easy to get this place, but ever since I opened my shop in Pasaje Rodríguez, I've had my eye on it. Once I saw the great potential, I had to rent it."
I met and interviewed Juan José back in September, but much has changed since then. Mamut's popularity exploded and it quickly became a craft beer icon of Tijuana. The original space is a pit stop for those looking to have a casual beer during the day. Now, the new space is reinventing the concept of balcony bars in Tijuana. Getting an interview with Juan José is not that easy these days. For weeks I tried having a one on one with him, but his busy schedule kept him from meeting with me.
"Come over on Wednesday at 8, I'm getting interviewed by [Tijuana photographer] Josue Castro and we'll be showing off the new menu," Juan messaged me via Facebook one day. I was running late to the interview and I had no cash on me for beer, so I ran to the ATM. On my way there, I found a $100 peso bill on the street something that has never happened to me in downtown Tijuana, where even the trash gets picked up quickly.
A table filled with people already halfway through a podcast interview greeted me. I rushed to the table and received coupons for free beer. The guys from Nortec Collective (previously Latin Grammy nominees) sat across the table. The podcast for WTF Radio, under TheKitchen22000, lasted for a couple hours, followed by a Nortec interview. When it was over, I caught Juan to follow up on September's interview.
"Mira caón, mi cerveza favorita siempre es la última que hacemos." Juan's favorite beer is always the latest that his team has brewed. "People have been loving the stout. It's something that Tijuana is not used to having. When we started, people didn't really have a clue of what they were ordering, but now they come in and have stopped asking for clara u obscura."
"I really enjoy [established TJ craft brewers] Insurgentes and Border Psycho, and I'm so happy that there's competition," he continues. "It gives us more variety and it pushes everyone to better their product. We found success because we skipped some steps. We decided not to sell bottled beer, until I'm ready to commit to the product. We've been selling straight from the keg at a low price ever since we started downtown."
So how do Juan José's suds compare to Tijuana's neighbor to the north?
"San Diego's beer has it all," he says. "We can't compare ourselves to them, but we're experimenting every day. We have the people of Tijuana and we're located right in the heart of downtown."
Chef Pablo Tayahua also likes to experiment. First he brought a plate of fish a la achiote, a traditional Yucatan plate that is usually pork, followed by pork zarandeado, which is a typically a fish preparation. These weren't tiny samplers of food, but full on dinner plates paired with Mamut beer. After closing time, the party carried on, switching bars to one of Nortec's favorite dive bars in Zona Norte, El Copacabana. The dingy dive is crawling with rats, but it has the best jukebox in town according to Pedro Beas of Nortec. Caguamas of Tecate (liter beers) were ordered, the music played loudly, and my belly was sate with Mamut beer and food. It was only Wednesday, so I bowed out early and headed home.
VIDEO : "La City" by Nortec Collective : Hiperboreal
Everyone talks about how downtown Tijuana is getting a facelift and completely changing. I've been lucky enough to witness the sprout of this new TJ and of many small businesses that went from nada to widely recognized brands. Not only microbreweries but also restaurants, bars, coffee shops, pizza parlors, fashion stores, art shops, freelance spaces, and much more. Of course, competition has been fierce. Many businesses have opened and closed in a short period of time.
But if downtown Tijuana is getting a heart transplant, the aorta is Pasaje Rodríguez, and the blood pumping through everyone's veins is being replaced from Tecate to microbrews such as Mamut's. If you see the Chun Kun lady, try a few of her egg rolls. Soon, she'll be upgrading from an insulated pushcart to her own Chun Kun restaurant.