Tras/Horizonte chef Guillermo "Oso" Campos' cuisine can be described in many ways, but don't call it "hipster". During a recent interview, I asked if he would consider the most popular menu items at his former Tacos Kokopelli food cart the "...original 'hipster' tacos in Tijuana". This suggestion was met with a grimace, followed by a burst of the chef's infectious laughter.
"We don't like that word because it has a negative connotation" Oso's brother Pablo Campos helpfully instructed. "Use another word, and maybe he will answer your question." We considered "different" and "modern", and finally settled on "contemporary". So, was Kokopelli the godfather of the contemporary taco in Tijuana? "No, we were not the first," Oso acquiesced, "But maybe the first that became well-known."
When Tacos Kokopelli opened their cart on Agua Caliente Boulevard in 2011, they were literally rising from the ashes of some hard years on Tijuana's streets. At the same time, they were also playing a role in elevating the city's street food cred and kicking off a new era for carts and trucks in TJ.
A hit with locals for their imaginative seafood tacos and tostadas, the Kokopelli cart constructed of tomato cartons also became a stop on the "taco trail" for Southern California gringos who were slowly returning to Tijuana to check out the recently lauded culinary scene.
The kraken taco. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
Based on their newfound success, the cart rapidly morphed into a truck, then into three locations in Tijuana and a new restaurant in Chicago's Wicker Park that opened in 2015. Eventually, the brothers, along with their partner Salvador Gonzalez, felt that they were losing control of what was most important, the food. "So we decided to just focus on one thing," Gonzalez recalled, "and that one thing is Tras/Horizonte."
That focus is paying off for the trio and the eatery, still in its first year. The quality of ingredients and flavor profiles of every dish we enjoyed during a recent lunch was top notch. Chef Oso's former roles as executive chef at Parque Bicentenario in Guanajuato and three Michelin-starred Oud Sluis in the Netherlands is more apparent in a restaurant setting than it ever was curbside in TJ centro.
Tras/Horizonte occupies a large space with a high ceiling, set in what presumably used to be a warehouse. A psychedelic mural depicting a jellyfish that wouldn't seem odd outside of a yellow submarine flows across two corrugated metal walls.
Tras/Horizonte. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
Building materials are mostly reclaimed, and the overall impression is one of a more "contemporary" version of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. In homage, perhaps, to their humble beginnings as a taqueria, chef Oso surveys the dining room as he prepares orders from a grill set into the front counter.
Of course, the menu contains some of the tacos that made Kokopelli famous. The kraken is filled with tender, meaty chunks of grilled octopus coated in a rich, herby, Mexican pesto. The pibil taco replaces the familiar pork of this traditional Yucateco preparation with morsels of smoked marlin swimming in a rich, crimson sauce of tangy citrus and smoky achiote. The tacos are very generously portioned, and very, very good.
The pibil taco. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
The raw dishes at Tras/Horizonte are on par with the quality of their tacos. The "Black Harder" ceviche, named in honor of Tijuana's Mariscos Negro Durazo, offers chunks of very fresh, toothsome sole marinated in citrus, soy, ponzu, and squid ink. It's finished with grilled tomato, avocado, cilantro, and sesame and served with a crispy tostada
Black Harder ceviche. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
The cooked dishes demonstrate what happens when chef Oso has a bigger kitchen with room to stretch out. I'd been eyeballing the daily special, the borrego (lamb) t-bone since I'd arrived. Two small, yet thick grilled steaks are rubbed in Mexican pesto (and did I taste a little mint?) and served with garden vegetables, beet salad, and a tomato chile jus.
Lamb t-bone steak. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
"As our name states, we don't know what's on the horizon," Pablo shared earlier, "but we do mostly Mexican-inspired food now." And what could be more Mexican than mixiote (meat rubbed with dried chills and grilled in agave skin)? Tras/Horizonte's mixiote of duck in adobado is served with vegetables escabeche with a side of drunken salsa and hearty house made plantain tortillas.
Mixiote of lamb. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
The last two dishes demonstrated chef Oso's countercultural sensibilities. Given the restaurant decor, his personal style that day, a twist of dreadlocks and a trippy tee and the creativity behind these dishes, there's no doubt that chef Oso has "broken on through to the other side", probably on more than several occasions.
And what did he find there? Aptly, our final course is the fin de mundo, or "end of the world." Why? "It's what you would eat if the world were ending," our waitress flatly exclaimed, surprised that we needed to ask. Of course there are insects chapulines (spiced and fried grasshoppers) served in a cast iron skillet atop a catastrophically scattered pile of farmer's cheese, radishes, jalapeños, chopped avocado and a drunken mezcal-based salsa.
It's the "End of the World" as we know it. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
At the end of our end of the world, the waitress insisted that the end of our meal wasn't possible until we tried chef Oso's signature postre, the "Terrarium". I've seen some visually compelling dishes during my five years of eating all around Latin America Raiz in Mexico City and Maido in Lima served a few dishes plated in decidedly unorthodox ways but I was unprepared for the dish that was brought out.
Described as an "edible ecosystem", the dessert is served in clear glass bowl filled with achiote tangerine, sherried oranges, zapote and passion fruit ice cream, and cherries garapiñado. The rim of the bowl is coated in sugared amaranto and grilled pineapple sprinkled with chia is served on the side. The most extraterrestrial feature are the sprigs of lavender, chamomile, and most notably, tall, thin stalks of Japanese bunapi mushrooms coated in blackberry jam and mezcal that rise from the dish's center.
The "Terrarium". Out of this world. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
Chef Oso conspiratorially admitted, "I've always wanted to make a dessert out of hallucinatory substances, but that's not legal. If I were to do it that way, I would use the San Pedro cactus, psilocybin mushrooms, and morning glory seeds." Note to diners: the Terrarium does NOT contain any hallucinatory ingredients; so don't worry about having to take an Uber home.
Or maybe that Uber is a good idea. Tras/Horizonte boasts a full menu of mixed drinks and hope that their full bar and creative cocktail program will help draw thirsty, as well as hungry, customers. At the end of our meal, we enjoyed a Limonada Negra; mezcal with lemon, salt, triple sec and porter beer, and an El Chapulín Colorado; mezcal with tuna (red cactus fruit), lime, and chapulin salt.
Limonada Negra. Photo www.agringoinmexico.com
"When we first started back in 2011, things had been very bad in the city," Pablo concluded as we prepared to leave. "When we made the original cart, it was our way of taking back the streets, the city. There are a lot more people here doing good things than bad things. We just need to keep doing good things."
And Tras/Horizonte is doing very good and very interesting things, indeed.
Tras/Horizonte is located at Avenida Río Colorado, 22015 Tijuana, Baja California. Open 1-10PM Tue-Thu, 1-11PM Fri-Sat, 1-7PM Sun, closed Mondays. +52 (664) 622-5062, https://www.facebook.com/orilladeviento.
San Diego-based culture, food and travel journalist W. Scott Koenig has explored Mexico and Baja California for over two decades. He founded AGringoInMexico.com in 2012 to report on south of the border destinations, food, culture and adventure. The website has since become an invaluable source of information on the burgeoning food and culture scene in Baja California, as well as the wider scene throughout Mexico. Visit Scott's websites and social media via the links, below.