Is Tijuana Restaurant in Oakland the Best Old Restaurant in America? – San Francisco Chronicle

Restaurant News

Humans are hardwired for novelty — we crave different experiences. This addiction especially applies to restaurants, which is why we’re always lining up for the next hot opening. The media, myself included, encourages this leaning with the endless lists that usually run this time of year: Esquire, Eater, GQ, Bon Appetit, this very newspaper — every outlet has a Best New Restaurant list.

But what about the old restaurants? I want to know about the ones that have stood the test of time, the restaurateurs who have weathered the downturn storms through resilience and sheer will. That’s why I’ve been making a conscientious effort to patronize more places that have lasted decade after decade, and one of the best old restaurants I’ve come upon this year is Tijuana Restaurant in Oakland.

I’m not sure why no one seems to have written about this 53-year-old restaurant beyond a few enthused Yelp reviews. Admittedly, the space is easy to miss; you might have driven past it a few dozen times over the years. Barred windows, a small sign and a door you’re not sure is actually a door don’t exactly scream “Welcome, come on in!”

Perhaps it could also be the perception of the neighborhood: “Some people who don’t know this area in Oakland are scared a little bit,” says Nicolas Espinoza, an energetic, middle-aged, mustachioed man who has owned and run the restaurant with his wife, Silvia, since 1988.

Nicolas immigrated to Oakland in 1978 from Mexico and took a job as a dishwasher, working his way up to prep cook, then to line cook and eventually to head chef, saving every penny along the way. Then, one fateful day while at the liquor store across the street from Tijuana Restaurant, Nicolas overheard that the owner of the restaurant wanted to sell. He quickly jumped in on the conversation and seized the opportunity, offering up his hard-earned savings to buy the business.

But Nicolas couldn’t run the restaurant by himself. He asked Silvia, then a stay-at-home mother of their three children, if she could help out with the cooking. She brought the recipes from her abuelita: her moles, her salsas, her sazon. Though the Espinozas both immigrated from the same town in Michoacán, some 1,500 miles away from Tijuana, they decided to keep the name of the restaurant the same in honor of the original owner.

Nicholas and Silvia Espinoza work in the kitchen at Tijuana Restaurant on International Boulevard in Oakland.

There were only a few tables next to the kitchen when the Espinozas took over Tijuana Restaurant, but after five years, the couple expanded next door, converting what was a shuttered bar into a dining room. They filled the space with a few long brown wooden tables and decorated the walls with shiny frames of customer’s favorite beer brands — Corona, Modelo, Modelo Negra, Modelo Especial. A year later, they took over a law office in the same building, adding a third dining area and more than tripling the restaurant’s original square footage.

The Espinozas also expanded the menu and included a seafood-centric section, which was what the Latino community was asking for, Nicolas says. And if you go to Tijuana Restaurant, stick to seafood and you’ll be deliciously rewarded.

Spicy oysters served with diablo sauce at Tijuana Restaurant in Oakland.

Like any good meal, start with a dozen oysters, broiled then doused in a spicy diablo sauce for something different than your usual mignonette. Then move on to a peppery ceviche or a seafood cocktail.

If it’s a cold night, try a caldo de mariscos “7” Mares — a seafood soup with clams, mussels, scallops, pieces of fish, octopus, shrimp and a quarter Dungeness crab, all perfectly tender in a delicate, light broth. But be careful not to fill up, because you need to save room for the piece de resistance: the mariscada plate.

The mariscada at Tijuana Restaurant on International Boulevard in Oakland includes steamed mussels, clams and a quarter crab plated along with octopus, shrimp, squid and scallops.

Steamed mussels, clams and a quarter crab are plated along with pieces of octopus, shrimp, squid and scallops that have been simmered until tender then seared until crisp. The plate is topped with a fillet of white fish smothered in a thick garlicky mojo de ajo sauce; I like to ask them to mix in a little diablo sauce to spice it up. A small order will easily feed three, maybe even four if you’ve stuck to my ordering recommendations.

End your meal with flan for a perfectly rich, not too sweet finish.

“Why is this place so good?” I asked Silvia. “¿Que es el secreto?”

“We have heart. We have a family, and the people who work here are another family,” Silvia warmly explains, like the gentle mother that she is. “What I tell my customers is that this isn’t a restaurant — it’s my house, and I cook for you like you’re in my house.”

Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to say I’ve magically stumbled upon this beautiful restaurant like some sort of Christopher Columbus. Tijuana Restaurant has happily fed and served its community for more than a half century; however, I do think it’s important to celebrate and visit these long-standing restaurants just as much as we do the Best New Restaurants every year.

The seven-seafood soup at Tijuana Restaurant on International Boulevard in Oakland.

The Best Old Restaurant in America is Tijuana Restaurant in Oakland. The Best Old Restaurant in America is the diner or dim sum place near your house, the one you’ve passed by a million times but have yet to visit. The Best Old Restaurant in America has had its doors open all this time and has been waiting to greet you. “Welcome, come on in!”

Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco writer and cookie guy. Find him at @ommmar Email: [email protected]

If You Go

Tijuana Restaurant. Open 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. 1380 International Blvd., Oakland. 510-532-5575 or

Recommended dishes: spicy shell oysters ($26.75), assorted seafood soup ($22.95), mariscada ($30.75), mixed tostada ($13.95), flan ($3.50)

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