Conversation: TJ Gastro Park Eyeing SD
Tijuana had just gone through one of its worst periods. The global recession of 2008 paired with record high drug violence that left the city wounded, barely any tourists were coming and for a city hyper reliant on tourism, it was pretty rough. though, are very resilient. So the locals came up with the ways to make the city something they could be proud of. There were lots of vacancies. Rents were cheap, so the creative youth took advantage of it. They started opening spots that they wanted to go to, not spots designed for tourists, but made specifically for themselves. And Donio gumbo was one of those people. Like many of his generation, he was born in San Diego, but raised in Tijuana. He grew up surrounded by the multicultural electricity of the Quanta, and he was tired of the city's identity constantly being tied to drugs and violence in the media. So as a passionate lover of food with very little cooking ability, he gave his friends a platform, a gastro park called Telefonica that showcases the best food Tijuana has to offer. Telefonica is located inside a warehouse-type space downtown. Part outdoor, part indoor, the gastro park is a collection of food trucks outside, plus more food, wine, and a brewery inside. The decor, the ambiance...the place shows off the more artistic, cosmopolitan side of Tijuana. Hi, I’m Alan Lilienthal and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the border. Today, we take a break from the more produced pieces you’re used to hearing in this show and continue our series of more casual, conversation-style episodes. Before we get to the interview, I’ve got a request for you: The only here team is currently on the hunt for cross-border love stories. We’re looking for families and couples who’ve either been brought together.. or separated by the U.S.-Mexico border. If you’ve got a good cross-border love story, email podcasts at kpbs dot org, that’s podcasts with an s at kpbs dot o r g. Or you can leave us a voicemail at 619-452-0228. Thanks. Midroll ad Like a lot of border people, Antonio Gamboa’s been shaped by his life on both sides of the border. I talked to him about how Telefonica was born and how it grew into a place that attracts a big cross-border crowd. And we eventually get into some exciting news about where the gastro park is going next. Antonio, welcome to the show. Gracias. I would love to hear about where you were born, which side you were born in, and did you, where did you grow up? Well, I was born in San Diego. Like you said, it's very common for my generation 70 something to be born in San Diego and, and being, uh, raised in Tijuana, Tijuana school, Tijuana everything in Tijuana just was born here in San Diego. Yeah. That's the way it was back then. Did you cross the border a lot growing up? Yeah, I crossed the border a lot. I went to little league over here. I grabbed the trolley. We went to the movies over here. I think it was very convenient, my parents and I think the parents from my, uh, my cousins and, uh, my good friends. We just go and, uh, and like whatever. For us crossing the border was very natural. We went to the beach. You, you didn't notice the border. What do you remember about the border crossing experience back then? What did, what did it feel like? It felt, uh. Less crowded for sure. It felt less traffic. It felt a little bit more, um, to say that, uh, the, uh, immigration officers were like, you just said you were a us citizen and they mostly took your word for it in, and if not, you had a, uh, a, a birth certificate. And that was at, you know, you said you lived in Tijuana and. That's, that's it. Where are you going? The beach, the movies, uh, play baseball, whatever, and yeah. What was some of your favorite food growing up? Oh, of course. The tacos, you know, tacos was, is a way of life over there in Tijuana. Tacos over there. I think I had a conversation yesterday with somebody from San Diego. That was, uh, was Sandy have a, like, we love those burritos that, that we have over here in San Diego is very Tijuana. Like, no, like that's a California where we are. That's a San Diego thing and it's very good. It's great. But in Tijuana, you know, you're in Tijuana when you get a taco. And you didn't ask for whackamole and it's got whackamole and it's on a corn tortilla. And that's, that's pretty basic. And Tijuana. And that's, that's very unique in, in whatever part of Mexico. How you get your tacos is where you, uh, you grew up in, you know, you know, you're in Tijuana when you get that sort of taco. What was the food scene like in ? But I think, cause now it's obviously very renowned and you've been a part of that. But back then. Was, were people excited about going out to eat in Tijuana? I, uh, I remember like, uh, when I was young, I, we would go out, uh, I think, uh, Placentia family's like a staple over there, and they start off with the Giuseppes and it's like, uh, you're Felipe, he's over here. And it was a. It's still great. I S I still refer to that restaurant as like, I think when it all like that, that started everything, like just great food, a great experience, and a very family friendly. And you know, you always had your tacos, you always had your tacos. And uh, and for me, that was growing up, uh, in Tijuana. Yeah. After graduating high school in Tijuana, Antonio had no idea what he wanted to do. His family’s business wasn’t doing well, so he knew had to figure something out. He loves eating food, but it took him awhile to turn that culinary passion into a plan. So how did you end up focusing on food? My dad had a bakery back in the day, and I really respected you know, how’d, how that worked, And I think I, always enjoyed or respected, like how these creations, culinary creations came, come, come forward. And I think I've, I've always been very interested in eating these different flavors and having different foods. My, my mom and my, uh, grand mom wa were great cooks. Maybe my mom is still a great cook, but I grew up in a very fortunate that we had. Great, great, uh, Mexican lunches. So I have the opportunities to go to these great restaurants and, eat with these great chefs and everything. And I compare that with the food I grew up with and I'm like, Mo, that's okay. It's not, you know. messy at dice the bag Nico owns . Do you think that kind of high standard. That maybe your life has given you is responsible for the way how much people love Telefonica. I've always wanted to keep those high standards, even though we're a very casual, very friendly, very family orientated, uh, business. Uh, we have these great chefs that are pumping out great creative, new Tijuana, uh, Neo school, Mexican cuisine. It's. Super delicious, super high quality and affordable. You know, it's for everybody. There's no, there's nobody that cannot afford Telefonica. That is a why Telefonica works, because every chef over there also wants you to have that great experience and even though it's coming from a food truck yeah. It seems like food truck parks are more and more popular in Tijuana and in. Really kind of everywhere. Um, but it was probably a very innovative back then when you started it. Why, how did that begin the food truck concept? Why did, why, why specifically doing that? Well, a vacant lot that was owned by my family, uh, where we started actually. So a, a young man came in with a food truck and he said he wanted to choose to park there. So my mom called me up and said, well, there's a young man who was very, a very respectful young man at wants to. Park here, but I don't know what to say to him because, you know, it's not, it's not that easy. So I said, okay, mom, I'll, I'll, I'll come talk to him. So I talked to him and I said, you know what, uh, it's, it's, it's very difficult to let you in here and you know, perming there's no lights, there's no nothing. So, um, I said, but you know what gave me your CV and let me see who you are and let's see if we can do something for you. I, I just, I truly wanted to help him out. He seemed very nice, really. Antonio asked around and found out that the young chef had been trained at the Culinary Art School in Tijuana. Antonio knows the founder of the school, so he called him up and the guy had nothing but praise for the kid’s talent. So Antonio decided to let the chef park his food truck in his family’s lot and do his food-truck thing. Uh, I came to the arrangement with him to, uh, just let my mom eat for free when she was there and to clean up the, the space and, uh, if somebody came from the city or something that, that he just parked there at his will. We didn't know anything. So... they were off to the races. The young chef started serving hamburgers and tacos. But not regular hamburgers and tacos. Tijuana is a multicultural haven, so he started mixing in untraditional flavors, using local and fresh ingredients. There was nothing like it in Tijuana and people took note. Five fans turned into 10, then 20, and eventually there was a little crowd there every time Antonio would drive by the lot. It wasn’t long before another chef took notice and asked if he could park his food truck there, too. And I'm like, huh? Like, let me think about it. So then, uh, so then we, uh, we started, uh, to see if, if, if it was gonna work. So I said, same deal, you know. Don't worry about it. Let's see if we can get it. We could again, get it going right to the second food truck. So then it, a synergy kind of came over like very good, good, uh, good food from, from these little two carts. And then I started with a friend talking about, you know, what, what if I lease, like officially lease the property from my. My family and, uh, get these guys to pay for the, yeah. You know, for the year for the lease. And it's a win win for everybody, right? The lot had been sitting there empty for almost a decade. So he pitched the idea to the family and they said yes. After getting the green light, Antiono’s architect friend offered to do some measurements and figure out how many trucks they could fit on the lot. So a couple of days went and he said, uh, you can put like 19 food trucks here. And I'm like, really? Like, yes. Oh, cool. So. That'd be really good. And then we started thinking that maybe a quality was the way to go and not quantity. And if we had these local young chefs, uh, if there were proposals, if there were enough proposals, um, we can do something with, with them and showcase them here and just have like a 10, you know. 10 that was the magic number, just SAF 10. And uh, make a very, very, a fordable lease that we would, I went from, how much would you spend if you have a food truck and you have to go park it wherever you need to go, park it and then come back again. How much gas would you need to do that? So that was my premises on, that's what you're going to pay rent. That's it. You know? So it was a very. Good proposition. It was a win-win proposition for everybody. So, Antonio put the word out: Any chef with a creative proposal was welcome to apply for a spot on the lot, and apparently there was a lot of interest. because in just a few weeks, heavy hitters like Javier Plascencia - a now world-renowned chef from Tijuana - said they wanted in on the action. Most of the proposals were coming from food trucks that Antonio calls “New School”, or creative and imaginative takes on classics. But there was even interests among some more traditional chefs like Otto, a guy who has a following of his own among Tijuana’s older crowd. And the mixing of the new school with the traditional worked. The spot grew organically and without much more than word of mouth promotion. The locals kept coming and coming. It seemed like Tijuana was hungry for something new. How long were you guys in that? In that vacant lot for about two years. About two years. So and all school guy, uh, auto, he struggled at first. But when like, I think a younger generations told that, Oh, there's auto there too. Maybe his aunt or to his, uh, to his, uh, I dunno, father. Uh, I dunno. No. And he said, Oh, Oh two Oh zero Oh where's the, Oh, what do is there? So, and it was when Facebook was also like starting up all these, so I had to open it up to the whole family up. Yeah. So of just being for the young people, it was now, now you would see, not young people, but older generations. Uh, do you want to incise coming into the, Oh, there's, there's auto or there, you know. Those flavors. I remember they are good. And now younger people said, Oh, this is new for me. These, these all school flavors are new to them also. So I think it's kinda kinda just jelled there. And it really was a, uh, a fortunate mix of very talented and very, um, very responsible and very hardworking. Chefs and people that want it to succeed. And I think they saw the opportunity as well, and it was only going to happen with hard work and they succeeded very well at it. But what point did you realize that you had to move to a new place? When they, when my family asked for the lots that we gotta move, we gotta move, we gotta move. Uh, fortunately, um We saw a place that was block away from there. Um, and, uh, it was a great opportunity with, uh, great people who own that property. And they said yes. And So they moved. And again, new opportunities presented themselves. The new place was much bigger, and with the craft beer craze in Baja on the upswing, Antonio and his partners decided to add a brewery. And on the food side of things, the vendors just kept pushing the envelope. again, an octopus taco and a, uh. Tuna sashimi and a, uh, a bacon hot dog was unheard of also. So, uh, I think everything jelled. Everything, uh, everything clicked at the right time. People were open to, to new things. So craft beer was, is still part of our, I think, a new generation of, uh. Of cuisine over here in Tijuana or in Mexico in those early years, were you getting a lot of cross border folks coming to telephony or was it mostly locals? I think, uh, I think a lot of locals, lot of locals. But, uh, I see San Diego has locals as well. So I think, uh, because a lot of people from Tijuana work in San Diego and they have a lot of friends from San Diego. So when they came to visit, uh, Tijuana for whatever, for, I dunno. Whatever visit, say, well, where do you eat? So they, there, they, they ate at Telefonica. So it began to build up very organically. So people from San Diego were starting to come. And then, uh, just word of mouth, just word of mouth, uh, that you didn't have to go to this, uh, sit down fancy restaurant or pay. Restaurant prices to get this quality of, of food and, uh, and proposals from, from very talented people. And, uh, you know, it's very casual setting. And I think San Diego is a very casual city, but in a very, uh, sophisticated way. And I think that's what we. We, we ended up there in Telefonica doing so you weren't necessarily targeting the cause. Right now, Telefonica is huge for people who cross the border. It's like a lot for a lot of people. It's the place they go to. They have to go to, well, I, I feel very, uh, very responsible and very, uh, very fortunate that we have, that we, we can cater to people coming from San Diego, from all over the world and, and give Tijuana this, uh. This a good vibe about it, or maybe they're coming to the doctor or maybe just having a crossing by to go to or going to take a flight or whatever. Um, I want them to come to Telefonica to, to let them know, and they'll, they'll, they're always surprised that, Oh, wow. Well, I didn't, I wasn't expecting this in a good way, you know, in a good way. And, uh, and I think, uh, there's a lot of things in Tijuana that, that are very good for, for Tijuana and for Mexico. yeah. Do you feel, given reputation, um, you said you feel responsible, like, is that something you constantly think about? How. How people coming to Telefonica is a shift that I've seen, at least for many people who have never been or even thought about coming. And then they come and they see telephonic and something in their eyes changes. They're like, Oh, I was, this is not what I was imagining. And wonder, do you feel like an ambassador for food and culture and Dwana shifting the identity? I wouldn't say that. I just feel very proud for my city and very, uh, and, and some kind of, uh, I have. I owe a responsibility, I think for, for the, for the people who are there collaborating with me, the chefs to have telephonic guy as, as this place where people can refer to it in a, in a very confident way. If somebody comes, uh, uh, to visit Tijuana and somebody suggests where to go to eat or where to go to, to have a, maybe a beer or. Go for the day. Uh, I feel that, uh, Telefonica is a very good option to see the new Tijuana, uh, you know, the new Tiguan and how it's evolving. You recently told the LA times that you saw a 30% dip in business when the migrant caravans were coming and president Trump closed the border down.Can you talk a little bit about that and how it's changed or shifted in the recent months? It was kind of uh, was very new. We never had that issue with, uh, migrants. Uh, you know, I lived in Tijuana all my life and have never seen that kind of, uh, issue with migrants. Uh. As far as I know, they, they are taken care of and they, and there are a lot of, uh, nonprofits from both side of the, of the, of the border who, who tend to these matters and tend to them very, very well. And I think this just, uh, came, uh. Just went out of the hands of everybody and they shut down the, uh, the border for a couple of hours, and it affected every, every business in Tijuana that I know because of the publicity it got that shuts down the border. So you cancel reservations for everything. You even doctor's appointments, uh, you know, trips. Oh, it did. It did affect it. You saw a dip in Telefonica? Yes. Yes. Significantly. Yes. Yes. Because, uh, it was in every news station and every newspaper, it was a trending topic that the border was shut down because migrants were, were out of hand. And I think it was, uh, maybe it was 50 migrants, you know, and that against like a army of us, uh.Uh, officials, uh, you know, it, they contain the situation in a couple of hours and, and now is it, has it gone back to normal in the recent months? It was just that issue. It was just that once everything from then on has been back to normal. A, obviously Tijuana has had a reputation of violence for years and this year, again, the numbers that people see are on track to be extremely high.How does that. Affect reality on the ground and, and your business? Well, the reality is that, uh, we see these numbers for violence and, uh, you know, you don't, you don't want to look for violence, but if you look for violence, you will find it. I think Tijuana is very safe place, very, very safe place. Um, the new administration, new, uh, city officials and everything. From what I have, uh, experience doing, uh, a good job and they're trying to, to assess the, the issues. But I think there are ice there. Those cases are very isolated. You won't see any violence or any, uh, you won't see that stuff in The day to day Tijuana. Do you get people bringing that up to you as a reason? They're don't want to come down there? No. No. I think the people who are, who are down there, uh, are aware that this is just a us, us tested a statistic, a stat, a stat that is, that it's real, but you don't see it. I mean, I don't know what is, uh, the stats for that in like a major city in the U S but I would think that. It's not in the hops that where you are. You know, Tijuana has its downtown and it has his suburbs and it has his financial zone. You don't see anything there. The border, you don't see any violence there. There is ordering Tijuana . So Telefonica is always, seems to be getting more popular and every time I go there's more people. Or if there's not, you're always changing things or improving things. Every time I think like, Oh, this is a model that's. It's great. It works. There's, you're adding something, whether it's the bar or the art gallery upstairs, like where does this hunger to keep, to keep creating come from? What inspires that? I think that's the key. You have to keep changing. I don't think if you're static and any of your successful, you're changing. You're constantly changing. And, uh, I love to change. I love to, I, that's, that's one of my models. I have. Change. Change is good. There's no bad change. There's various not there. Think about it. I agree, and I think that's actually part of power. It's its ability because it has no ties to tradition. It's made up of people from all over the Lord. It's like it's, it's like a city of Legos. It's always constantly changing and I think you've tapped into that. That the energy source of the Quanta that's consistently electric and changing and shifting and seeing what else can be done. Yeah. I think that's the result. Resource for this have a different finances. Like we're changing. We're, we're, we're changing. We're adapting, we're adapting things. We're, we're doing something better. Always full disclosure to whoever's listening. My brother and some friends, Louisa and David are running the new gallery that you're. That is opening this weekend actually. Yes. Upstairs. Uh, what made you want to support local artists and supporting local are important to you? Yes. I think we need more spaces for a culture and art in Tijuana. We have this great, uh, cultural center, but I think we need more, more, uh, spaces that showcase these talented people that, that are here in art. Cities are border cities and, uh, don't have this platform to, to showcase all of these, uh, really neat stuff and cool stuff that I think we need to be more sensitive sense of, realized, uh, are these, uh, type of, uh, of, uh, cultural or things that we don't have spaces to showcase or when, uh. When your brother and some friends came over. I said, great. Like, yes, like, we need this, you know, we need, we need, uh, people from Tijuana to, to immerse themselves in, in more culture. And if it's art right now, great. What is next? you know what? There's going to be something better next. Yeah. And I think it's great because maybe a lot of people, both locals and foreigners that. I wouldn't necessarily go seek an art gallery on on a Saturday. Like they wouldn't do that, but they are going to go eat. So if you're bringing the art to where they already love to be. You're just increasing exposure for the amazing things that are happening in Tijuana that maybe get overlooked? Oh, yes. Yes, for sure. It may people who are, who do a appreciate maybe the food that is being served up in Telefonica and the drinks and the beer that, uh, is made in Baja, uh, appreciate this kind of, uh, art and, uh, in culture that we need to showcase With its mix of food, booze and art, Telefonica has been so successful in Tijuana that Antonio has some dope news… He says he’s ready to bring the gastro park north of the border! He’s in the middle of contract negotiations with a location and not quite ready to name names yet... but a San Diego location is in the works. What's going to be different about the one in San Diego from the one in Tijuana? Are you bringing people from Tijuana up? Yeah. We're bringing people from Tijuana up. Uh, some a familiar Tijuana chefs. Uh, chefs from Tijuana are signed up for Telefonica Norte over here. so Telefonica Norte is the name? And, uh. And just have these authentic, uh, I wanna say, uh, or, or, you know, Baja style of, uh, of doing things and, uh, cooking things in, in, uh, in San Diego. Now. That's exciting. Yeah. Yeah. Hopefully we'll have San Diego get blessed this year by that. Oh, well, hopefully we get blessed by that. Everyone wins. Yes. Yes. Forward Promote: Next time on the podcast… The existential crisis that can hit hard when you lead a truly binational life: *******Tony Part 2: Monologue About Crossing Classes and the privilege of being pocho Crossing on the daily makes you, you know, juxtapose a lot of things about the two cities and about maybe oneself and where you asked me any questions about why I chose this life. *****Tony Part 1 Hard Not To Juxtapose San Diego and Tijuana ……..San Diego isn't the perfect clean city on the Hill, but it's miles away from, uh, from Tijuana. And, uh, it's hard. We talk to a guy who lives in Tijuana, but crosses almost every single day to run a food truck in San Diego. He gets real about both the struggles and benefits of living in both cities.