Another One For Manila’s Mexican Food Lovers

This is where I go to get my Mexican food fix.

When it comes to Mexican food in Manila, the choices are surprisingly numerous. Tia Maria’s (or is it called Cantina now?) is my sentimental favorite. There’s also Agave (forgettable), Ristras (extra-large and turbo-charged but demands equal-sized stomach space), Jalapeño, Baja, and its sister, Tijuana (or TJ’s).

TJ’s (as I will call it here) or its proper name, Tijuana Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar, is located in Ortigas’ City Golf Plaza. The strip gives off a this-is-our-secret-place vibe since it’s easy to miss the U-turn that takes one into the complex that also houses Razon’s, Barcino Tapas and Wine Bar, Angel’s Pizza, etc. But once you’re in, parking’s easy.

TJ’s sister restaurant, Baja, is located in Greenbelt 3 and related though they may be, their impression on me is starkly different. While Baja is all sunshine yellows and adobe browns, TJ’s is what I describe as darkly sleek. Chocolate and hues of clay tempered with mustard yellow and surprise, sailor blue (it works, trust me) make up an interior that’s tasteful and at turns, whimsical. The artfully done mosaic of a cowboy (I’ve dubbed it TJ’s Cactus Man) leaning on a cactus is genius and provides amusing debate: is he leaning? or sleeping from satiety? or fatigue?

As for the menu, it doesn’t try to please everyone, it’s compact and a large party could easily order one of everything. The servers, outfitted in black tops and jeans topped with a wide sombrero, will quickly recommend the kebabs. Admittedly, it’s not the first thing that automatically comes to mind when I think Mexican, but it’s a winner choice. Kebab meats include chicken, beef, and shrimp, and are offered in combinations under the aptly described, Combination Plates. I like the Beef and Shrimp Kebab (P290). The cook always seems to ensure that the meats are cooked just ‘til juicy: the beef cut used is tenderloin (yes, really) and the shrimp is semi-butterflied so at certain angles, it looks like it’s flying.

Dip the kebabs in the two house sauces, the rather simply-named white sauce (sour cream, dried herbs, maybe a spritz of lime) and the red salsa which is thin and watery but not unpleasantly so kicked up with fresh cilantro. This pair of sauces don’t “spice things up” so to speak, so ask for the house hot sauce, a fiery wild saffron-yellow concoction that’s heavy with cayenne pepper and paprika: hoo-wah, there’s the heat! Another salsa I must tell you about is the roasted tomato salsa. A shamefully small smear that also comes with the Combination Plates, it’s a chunky paste that’s many good things at once: smoky, sweet, sour. I assume that it’s made with tomatoes that have been mixed with sugar, pepper, and vinegar and then slow-roasted to coax out the tomatoes’ inherent sweetness. The soft paste that results is then mixed with cumin and cayenne and other spices; the longer it sits, the chunkier, thicker it gets; I love it. I ask for a larger portion and smear it liberally over everything I eat here. I realize now that I don’t see any guacamole on the menu – funny, considering avocados are at their peak now.

Just like at Baja, Tijuana’s also serves a mean fish taco (P85/P185). The name conjures all sorts of strange combinations in the mind – and not all pleasant – but it’s nothing more than a deep-fried fish fillet ensconced in a soft tortilla wrapper with shredded lettuce, grated cheese, sautéed onions, and tomatoes. The cook at Baja seems to have a heavier hand with the cumin and likes to fry the fish ‘til it’s crispy while the cook at TJ’s likes to keeps things light, both in the frying and the addition of spice. Your choice. Of course there’s nothing like a contrast in textures to keep the mouth interested but what I like about the fish taco is its relative subtlety compared to its big-flavored brethren.

BBQ Wings: a perfect example of a dish that doesn’t look anywhere near as good as it tastes.

When it comes to big flavors, the BBQ Wings (P165) are right up there. A riff on buffalo wings as opposed to the Buffalo Tenders (P165) that are boneless thighs, these come to table fearsomely brown in color with hearts of orange that seem to glow from within. At first bite, it tricks the tongue into thinking that it’s sweet and sour chicken and then the cumin and chilies set in; first, tease then tantalize. The BBQ Wings are my Bin’s favorite dish at TJ’s and he insists that it must be eaten with a side of the yellow rice that comes with every Combination Plate order. I agree. The cumin-speckled rice provides that lull that prepares the palate for yet one more bracing finish.

Bin so likes the BBQ Wings that he’s beseeched the owners of TJ’s to come up with a BBQ Wings burrito. I definitely think it would be an improvement over the somewhat benign Chicken Burrito (P185). Moist though bland meat just can’t compete with equally bland lettuce and tomatoes. There has to be a dominant flavor here somewhere to provide some cohesion. Other burritos that generate more excitement are the Chimichanga (P215), Wet Burrito (P225; ’tis baked), and the California Burrito (P190; fries instead of the rice).

I can’t forget the margaritas. Wanting to veer away from the strawberry margarita that’s my usual at Baja, I try the blackberry margarita at TJ’s. No, unlike the fruit, it doesn’t come to table black as night or even petrified purple – more of a moody champagne, I say. It tastes like blackberries, somewhat understated and salty too, with the requisite tang that comes from the berry’s tartness. There are all kinds of beers here too, mostly local. I’m not a beer drinker but I understand that the people who come here are quite the discriminating ones. One time I’m here, the man at the next table is quietly but firmly arguing with the female server that his beer isn’t ‘below zero.’ “Have the boys do it,” he says. “They know how to do it right. “ Ouch. (For those of you who care to, please explain to me in the Comments section this whole “beer below zero” concept).

I’ve been talking about Baja and TJ’s in this post – comparing, contrasting, eating at both. They’re sisters yes, and I’m told that it’s relatively the same food, just different interiors. Whatever it is, I prefer TJ’s for its more welcoming, creative ambience – it’s just got that feel-good vibe – and the food appears to be prepared with more thought and care. Naturally, all that makes for better tasting food too which is what matters most.

Tijuana Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar
City Golf Plaza
Julia Vargas St., Ortigas, Pasig
11am-11pm (Sunday-Tuesday)
11am-2am (Wednesday-Saturday)

Baja Mexican Cantina
3rd Floor Greenbelt 3, Ayala Center, Makati

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