Mother, Militant, Empath, Hard-Ass

A look at what drives Claudette Zepeda's cross-border cooking.
By Jordana Rothman, Portrait by Tawni Bannister
March 31, 2020

THEY ARE TALL and crooked things, hot to the touch, packed into a brown paper bag darkened with oil, sparkling as their crystals of sugar catch and refract the late-day light. Chef Claudette Zepeda passes a bill to the vendor at her driver-side window and fishes out a churro, releasing a tiny, ambrosial mushroom cloud of powdered canela. “Border churros are the best,” she says. “Something about the texture.”


We’re in Tijuana, Mexico, a few hundred yards from the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry, one of the busiest border crossings in the world. For hundreds of thousands of the 4.9 million people who live in the San Diego–Tijuana region in both countries, traversing the U.S.-Mexico border—for work, to visit family, to run an errand—is part of the daily rhythm of life. But it is July 2019, and the atmosphere is tense with the knowledge that, after being apprehended, at least six children died in custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection over the previous 10 months. Ratcheting nerves even higher, just a day earlier, an 18-year-old American citizen had been released from a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Texas after 23 days of wrongful detention. He’d lost 26 pounds and hadn’t bathed in over three weeks. 


The fear in the air is as tangible a presence as the street vendors weaving through the long lanes of traffic. But for Zepeda, the crossing is also deeply familiar, a quotidian reality of life for as long as she can remember. “In high school, we’d ditch class and come to TJ. It was a speed bump, not a border,” says the chef.


Zepeda was born in San Diego—her mother crossed the border from Mexico two weeks before she was due to ensure her daughter would have American citizenship. Days after her birth, the two traveled back to Tijuana, where Zepeda spent her childhood, learning English from Sesame Street and reruns of Julia Child’s The French Chef. The family moved to San Diego in the 1990s, and Zepeda still lives there today, but her relationship with the two cities remains fluid. She makes weekly trips to Tijuana to shop—for Mexican cheeses that are impossible to find in the U.S., squeeze bottles of tart hibiscus chamoy syrup to whisk into vinaigrettes, and crates of callo de hacha, the sweet, firm half-moon scallops native to the Sea of Cortez that plump so much in aguachile they seem as though they might pop, spilling heady rivulets of tomatillo and lime. 


Tawni Bannister

I’m joining her for one of these trips, barreling south on Interstate 5 until we alight at Mercado Hidalgo, the beating heart, says Zepeda, of Tijuana. Before we can shop, we have to visit Tacos Fitos, a legendary birria stand at the edge of the market where we watch a taquero dunk tortillas in crimson, chile-spiked fat, sizzle them on a griddle, and fold them around shredded meat. We eat the birria tacos between sips of broth while Zepeda dips in and out of her own personal epic, the fits and starts of her journey to the kitchen. She came up working in San Diego, notably for Javier Plascencia at Bracero and Gavin Kaysen at El Bizcocho. She competed on Top Chef Mexico, which she describes as one of the most meaningful experiences of her life; she has the opposite feeling about her turn on season 15 of the U.S. version. “I was just the angry Mexican,” she says of the latter, but the exposure helped her open her own restaurant, El Jardín, in San Diego’s Liberty Station. (She left the project in the summer of 2019 and returned to Liberty Station with a pop-up in January 2020.) 


 A combination of two meats creates the best balance of tender texture (from the chuck roast) and succulence (from the short ribs). Each taco gets slow-cooked flavor from the adobo sauce.

Get the Recipe: Birria Tacos

Photo: Greg Dupree

In the telling, Zepeda often lands as an earth mother, attempting to heal generational trauma in her lifetime: “As women, we carry the burden, the pain and suffering of our ancestors, in our wombs,” she says, speaking to her experience as a single mother of two children before the age of 21, or remembering her grandmother, who knew, she says, exactly two English phrases: “good” and “I love you, too.” But a beat later, she’ll shift gears: “There are certain bridges I have no problem torching to the godd--- ground,” she says, recalling a particularly toxic coworker or a time that she was passed over, unseen, or belittled. One starts to understand that Zepeda’s gift lies in inhabiting both roles—mother and militant, empath and hard-ass, protector and avenger. It’s part of her charm.


At Mercado Hidalgo, we snake our way through the 80 or so stalls, pausing to pinch fresh tamarind pods, to buy pink pine nuts and Ramonetti cheese and tiny chiltepín chiles like edible bang snaps, and to watch vendors wage and lose their infinite battle against bees that swarm around densely packed cones of piloncillo. We pick through crystalline piles of candied dates, pineapples, and mangoes and hunt for paddles of nopales and chayote, a squash that looks like the pubescent, pimpled love child of an avocado and a Bartlett pear. We pack it all into the trunk and push deeper into TJ. 


Charring the tomato and onion before adding them to the red chile sauce is a quick way to create rich, slow-cooked flavor. Thick-cut fresh tortilla chips soak up the sauce and runny egg yolks without getting soggy.

Get the Recipe: Chilaquiles Rojos with Fried Eggs and Cotija

Photo: Greg Dupree

That the Caesar salad was created not in Italy but in a hotel restaurant in Tijuana in the 1920s is a reasonably well-documented fun fact, so we stop at its birthplace on Avenida Revolución to pay our respects. It’s a tableside affair, all egg yolk and Worcestershire and Grey Poupon—that’s important, says Zepeda—and long spears of romaine. As we leave Hotel Caesar’s, we drive past a club called Adelita, and Zepeda clucks her tongue. “Adelita is the name for the female soldiers who participated in the Mexican Revolution,” she says. It’s a proud history of courageous women, whose stories of valor live on in many corridos, Mexican folk ballads. “And yet in Tijuana,” says Zepeda, gesturing toward the bar, “Adelita is a whorehouse.” 


Both egg yolks and Dijon mustard help this creamy dressing emulsify easily so it coats each leaf of crunchy romaine. Cotija añejo is an aged cheese with a pecorino-like texture that grates into fluffy crumbles.

Get the Recipe: Baja-Style Caesar Salad

Photo: Greg Dupree

Exalting, and even reconciling, the spiritual role and character of the Mexican woman is at the heart of so much of Zepeda’s work. Before she parted ways with El Jardín, the restaurant carried that message in every choice—the menu’s many nods to Zepeda’s foremothers, the literal and figurative guardians and ministers of Mexican culture; the textiles woven by female artisans in Oaxaca; the bathrooms stocked with tampons from Cora, a company that balances its sales with free products and reproductive education for women in developing nations. 


Fresh young coconut has tender meat that separates easily from the shell; if unavailable, substitute bottled or canned coconut water and fresh or frozen coconut meat. When cut and squeezed, finger limes release tiny citrus-filled spheres that pop like tobiko; substitute lime wedges, if desired.

Get the Recipe: Coconut-and-Scallop Aguachile Verde

Photo: Greg Dupree

“Women are the magic that makes Mexico turn. They are the fountain of power,” Zepeda tells me at Erizo, a cevichería in Tijuana’s Chapultepec neighborhood. We eat aguachile made with those callo de hacha—so named for their ax-head-shaped shells—and drink a juicy, wild Pet Mex from Bichi, a new Tecate outfit at the white-hot center of Mexico’s natural wine movement. The company is owned by Jair Téllez, one of the most significant chefs in Valle de Guadalupe, who runs it with his brother and mom. But, Zepeda says, there’s also Natalia Badan, “the Alice Waters of the region,” a daughter of European immigrants who has been growing wine grapes in Valle de Guadalupe for decades and was a pioneer of better land management in the region. And that’s the way with Zepeda: behind every narrative on the tip of her tongue, a woman she bets you’ve forgotten. 


These griddled tacos are filled with fideos secos, a Mexican dish of thin spaghetti cooked in a chile-based tomato sauce until the pasta has absorbed the flavor and rich red color of the sauce.

Get the Recipe: Fideos Secos Tacos

Photo: Greg Dupree

We make our way out of town, back toward the border, toward those churros, chancing a short lane of traffic only to find that it takes us in a circle and dumps us right back in the center of town. Trying again, we zoom up Paseo de los Héroes, passing monuments to Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza; to Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor; to Abraham Lincoln. (Lincoln was a great friend to Mexico and supported the progressive politics of Benito Juárez.)


But Zepeda doesn’t brake for any of these. Her favorite monument is an avenue over, on Paseo del Centenario: Diana Cazadora, goddess of the hunt, protector of mothers and children. She’s all long hair and muscle, bow cocked, full quiver. She’s ready to let it fly.

Churros require a relatively stiff batter to help them hold their ridged shape, leaving plenty of nooks for cinnamon-sugar. To prevent blowouts while piping the batter, be sure to double-line the pastry bags, which will also give you more control.

Get the Recipe: Cinnamon-Sugar Churros with Cajeta

Photo: Greg Dupree

Claudette's Favorite Wines

California

2016 Populis Licorne Mechante Sparkling Rosé ($23) 


Populis winemaker-owners Diego Roig and Shaunt Oungoulian seek out organic vineyards throughout Northern California to make their zero-intervention, far-out-there wines. The name of this one means “wicked unicorn.” It’s a funky, sparkling rosé made from the Carignane grape variety.


2018 Martha Stoumen Wines Post Flirtation Red ($26) 


Stoumen’s naturally oriented winemaking draws from her experience working in vineyards in Tuscany. Her equal-parts blend of Zinfindel and Carignane is pure California, full of hibiscus, pomegranate, and chaparral notes.


2016 Gonzales Wine Co. Cedar Lane Vineyard Syrah-Grenache ($30) 


Cristina Gonzales, the granddaughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico, sources grapes from California, Oregon, and Washington for her wines. This garnet-hued, peppery red comes from Monterey County.

Mexico

2017 Monte Xanic Grenache Rosé ($19) 


In business since the late 1980s, Monte Xanic is one of the older wineries in Mexico’s booming Valle de Guadalupe wine region. Bright and dry, this unoaked Grenache rosé suggests red berries and pink peppercorns. 


2017 Bichi Flama Roja ($29) 


Acclaimed chef Jair Téllez of Laja restaurant and his brother Noel started this Valle de Guadalupe wine project in 2014, focusing on traditional methods and minimal intervention. This medium-bodied, vivid red blend comes from their home vineyard in Tecate, Mexico.