TIJUANA, Mexico — A local food stand in downtown Tijuana formerly known for its quesadillas and delicious ranchero-style steaks has recently switched to an all Haitian-fare menu to give the growing group of stranded Caribbean immigrants a taste of home in Mexico.
Fausta Rosalía, owner of Lonchería Dulce, told me she decided to change her restaurant’s menu when five Haitian women showed up looking for some comfort food. They were far from home, stuck in a foreign land, and needed a familiar meal. Tacos just wouldn’t do the trick.
“The women asked if I would allow them to cook some food for themselves in the kitchen,” said Rosalía. “They don’t like the food from here.”
Then when one of the Haitian women made Rosalía a menu-changing proposal: “What if we cook our food and sell it? I will work with you.”
Over the past few months, a wave of Haitians has arrived at the border city in an attempt to get asylum in the United States. The shelters around the city estimate that there are now over 2,000 Haitians stuck in Tijuana while they wait to get processed for asylum in the United States.
So Rosalía agreed to the business proposal, and took the Haitian women to the market to buy the ingredients needed to make Haitian-style chicken: onions, chives, Habanero peppers, dry peppers, lard, and oil.
That’s how Tijuana’s first Haitian restaurant got its start.
It’s been a month since Lonchería Dulce started selling Haitian fried chicken plates with vegetables, rice and beans for 40 pesos (about $2). It’s been such a success that the former taco stand no longer sells tacos. And with no immediate sign of an end to the Haitian immigration crisis, there’s no plan of switching the menu back.
The Haitian immigrants are thankful for the familiar eats.
“After three months of travel, we are fortunate enough to eat chicken with a taste of Haiti,” said Charles, a Haitian immigrant who asked that his last name be withheld. “A lot of people didn’t make it all the way here.”
Charles, 24, was on the eve of the World Cup and Olympics, but has since nosedived into an economic and political crisis that is pushing people out in search of better opportunities in the U.S.
The two biggest roadblocks on the route to the U.S. are the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, which has been closed by the Sandinista military, and the U.S.-Mexico border, which was closed to Haitians on Sept. 22 when the U.S. government discontinued the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) visas for Haitians. Now they have to ask for asylum in the United States and are subject to deportation if they do not receive legal status.
It’s a difficult situation, which is why a little comfort food goes a long way. The former taco stand, inside an auto-shop on Calle Ocampo, has become so popular that customers arrive early and get a ticket so they can reserve a plate for later in the day. The place is usually filled by 11 AM, and it’s not just Haitians who are coming in for some Caribbean eats.
“Now we get Mexicans and Americans as well,” Rosalía said. “Just the other day, a woman came and asked me for food to take over to the other side [of the border].”
Rosalía says she’s learned the recipes, but says it’s the Haitian women that give the food its magical touch in the kitchen.
“The main difference with Mexican style chicken is the condiments,” she explained. “They also prepare the rice differently. They say ‘habichuela’ but to me it’s ‘frijol’ [bean]. They use a lot of beans in their recipes. Now I’m buying about 6 kilos of beans per day.”
As the Haitians continue to arrive in town faster than they leave, it’s probably a safe bet that Lonchería Dulce won’t be the only Haitian food joint in Tijuana for much longer.