Not So Starving Artists: Katie Boyts on Tijuana Tacos 3

Today we return to the taqueria where Not So Starving Artists all began. Many moons ago my friend Gina had recommended Tijuana Tacos 3, a Mexican taqueria northeast of Patterson Park. Gina repeatedly raved about their tortillas, their authentic flavors, the beautiful salsa. So as Chris Attenborough and I brainstormed lunch options for that many-moons-ago meet-up, I threw out Tijuana Tacos 3 and he agreed. (As a sidenote: I really respect this kind of naming, giving numerical value to restaurants under the same ownership; it’s specific and direct. I’ll admit that I can’t figure out where #1 is. It appears #2 is on Eastern Ave, though I’m unclear if it’s actually open. #4 is in Quakertown, Pennsylvania, #5 in Glen Burnie, Maryland.)

Anyway, Tijuana Tacos 3 is BYOB. I remember vividly the small blue cooler Chris brought along that day, holding cold Union beers to accompany our lunch. I’ll admit that I don’t remember what I ordered at that meal but I remember liking it. And I remember the decision that we should just keep eating taocs. Because friendships based on themes are obviously the best kind.

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It seemed an apt time to return there and I preemptively requested the beer cooler for our visit to Tijuana Tacos 3. Yes, it was 11:30am on a Tuesday but…. What? Sheesh. Maybe it was nostalgia. Maybe it was that most satisfying of combinations, cold beer and spicy meats, and the way your mouth thrills to the marriage. Whatever it is exactly, it’s completely worth the guilt of drinking beer on a Tuesday before noon.

Tijuana Tacos 3 has a green ceiling. A regular old dropped ceiling painted bright green. I didn’t notice it at first but halfway through the meal, it caught my eye and injected the lunch with another splash of pleasure. The first injections came from the food itself. The guacamole, heavy on cilantro and onions, was delicious. Their house salsa is a spicy salsa verde, served free with chips. Chris ordered three tacos ($3.25 each): carne asada (grilled beef), carne enchilada (spicy meat), and al pastor (marinated pork). All served on the rave-worthy corn tortillas. All holding expertly-grilled meat with the perfect amount of charred bits.

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This time around though, I ventured off the taco theme, aiming for a variation on the theme, ordering a carnitas tostada (roasted pork) and a pollo loco (marinated chicken) sope. Both were topped with refried pinto beans, iceberg lettuce, tomato, sour cream, onion, cojita, salsa and their respective meats. It was a lavish plate at $3.50 for a tostada and $3.99 for the sope.

The sope stole my heart. The chicken was spicy, juicy, and almost citrusy – that bright refreshing flavor that’s difficult to accomplish in meat, but there it was, a welcome hit on the tongue. Looking like thick tortillas, sopes are small masa cakes. The cake is fried only until the exterior is cooked and crisp, which leaves the interior masa soft, pliable, and toothsome. They’re typically pinched up around the edge when half cooked to form a signature rim – presumably to keep all the delicious fillings from spilling over. Tijuana’s sope was beautifully charred a bit on the bottom, which lended a tasty flavor to the masa.

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I find that the sope, as a general menu option, so often gets ignored. It is tucked quietly between the popular tacos and burritos. It is the middle child, the jealous cousin, the bright and witty and warm introvert among a family of loud, boisterous brothers. I’ve long loved sopes but even so I often forget about their existence. I get captivated by the other shiny objects on the page and forego the sope. But it is so solid a choice, especially at Tijuana. Without the fragility of the tostada but maintaining a crunch, without the tenderness of the tortilla but still with a soft touch, it’s subtly unique.

A constant theme in the Mexican cuisine is this subject of contrast. Mexican food combinations are keenly aware of just how pleasing it can be to bite into something that is all at once crispy and soft, hot and cold, creamy and acidic. It is a cuisine uniting the dichotomies all the time, and the sope is a perfect example with its textural contrasts within itself – the crisp exterior and the soft interior.

Sopes are considered antojitos or street food in Spanish, literally translated as “little cravings”. In this context, those pinched edges keeping everything make even more sense. Perhaps they’re true aim is to keep the juices off your forearm as you eat it walking down the street. The thought of Mexican street food launches me back to my visit in Mexico City last year and the modest outdoor taco stall down the street from our Airbnb. Over the course of 5 days, we went back 3 times, drawn in by the display of colorful salsas and the smell of the hot tortillas. If we wanted a tostada or sope, the cook fried it directly in front of us in a concave metal pan, haphazardly splashing hot oil on the seats directly in front of the cooktop, laughing off the accident.

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There is a directness in this street food that I find inspiring. It reminds me of the wisdom my favorite writing teacher would proclaim: “Write about the thing directly. If you can say it in 5 words, don’t say it in 10.” Translated to cooking: Cook it directly. If you can make it in 3 steps, don’t make in 5. In that straightforward approach, we and the food are stripped of the fluff and perhaps even more vulnerable, but all the more delicious for it.

If you’ve never ventured into the world of sopes, if you find yourself constantly maintaining eye contact with only the taco section of the menu, I encourage you to look right at that quiet middle child and invite it onto your plate. Eat a sope. And do it at Tijuana Tacos 3, preferrably with a cold beer from a smaller cooler. They won’t even judge you if it’s 11:30am on a Tuesday.

Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings

All photos by Chris Attenborough.

Tijuana Tacos 3
3001 E. Baltimore St.
Baltimore, MD 21224
Open 7 days:
Sunday-Thursday 10am-10pm
Friday & Saturday 10am-11pm