You can see the colorful hills of Tijuana from my grandparents’ sprawling house in Point Loma. When I stood on their porch as a kid, stretching to the tips of my toes to get a quick glimpse of the elusive foreign country, the distance between their house and Mexico seemed easily surmountable — and at the time, it was for most Americans. When my mom was young, trips to Mexico involved a simple 20 minutes in the car and a quick stop at the border.
I spent most of my spring breaks during high school traveling to Tijuana, Mexico with my church, which was when I first caught a glimpse at how insurmountable that distance was for the Mexican people living in those hills. Daily, the hardworking people we met stared across the water at the wealth of San Diego, yet they had no way to join it. During every visit I saw poverty, illness and sadness — but that insurmountable short distance between the Mexican people and their American dream was the thing that most broke my heart.
Along with 100 other high school students, I spent a week each year building 10 houses for Mexican families, each of which constituted two rooms. The houses were made of plywood and in retrospect, I feel almost ashamed at how simple they were. But for the people who who eventually lived in them, they were a priceless gift.
One spring, we built a house for a particularly enthusiastic family. I still remember each spring break trip by the color of the house I built: One year, the house was lime green and I came home with all my clothes covered in green paint. The next year, we painted the house an orange-pink hue. During this particular year with the excited family, we painted the house a beautiful peacock blue.
On day 3 of the build, around the time that the walls were going up, the family took us on a trip into the center of Tijuana for lunch. We’d been instructed to avoid street food at all costs, warned that we’d spend the rest of our trip back on our mats at the orphanage where we were staying, puking our guts out from the water our bodies weren’t used to. The family in question, however, took us directly to a sandwich stand on a busy street. Hoping to share some of their favorite pieces of Tijuana, they communicated in choppy spanglish that the sandwiches here were the best.
I got one without asking questions.
I still remember that sandwich in the way only food memories stick with you: crisp bread, the freshest guacamole, smokey charred meat straight off the grill, a smattering of shredded lettuce, and a huge scoop of fresh salsa straight from the Mexican food heavens. After a day spent working under the hot sun, that sandwich was bliss.
I didn’t get sick and neither did anyone else on my team. Thus began my love of trying street meat no matter where I went — hoping to eat like a local, to understand and appreciate where their food traditions come from. To this day, I’m still chasing the flavors of that sandwich. In my kitchen, this is the recipe that comes closest:
Sheet Pan Chicken Fajitas
- 1 bell pepper, cut into strips
- 1 red onion, cut into strips
- 6 cremini mushrooms, cut in quarters
- 6 chicken thighs, fat trimmed (or 4 chicken breasts)
- 3 T taco seasoning (Trader Joe’s is my favorite)
- 2 T olive oil
- 1 avocado
- 1 t lime juice
- 1/2 jalapeno, diced (no seeds)
- 1/2 tomato, diced
- 4 tortillas
- salt and pepper, to taste
- Additional toppings: sour cream, cheese, arugula or spinach, cilantro, green onions, salsa, limes
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, combine the peppers, onions and mushrooms, plus 1 T taco seasoning, 1 T olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir to combine and dump the veggies onto a large sheet pan.
Put the chicken thighs into the same bowl and cover with 1 T olive oil and 2 T taco seasoning, plus salt and pepper to taste. Mix until the chicken is fully covered, then snuggle the chicken thighs between the veggies on the sheet pan, making sure that nothing is overlapping.
Roast at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, then use tongs to flip the veggies and chicken and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the veggies are crispy but not burnt. During the last 2 minutes of roasting time, put a stack of tortillas directly on the lower oven rack, to crisp them up.
While the chicken roasts, make a simple guacamole by smashing an avocado in a bowl, then adding 1/2 diced jalapeno, 1/2 diced tomato, 1 t lime juice, and salt and pepper (if you have cilantro or green onions on hand, add those, too).
Gather up all your toppings: we like sour cream, salsa, cheese, arugula, cilantro and lime.
When the pan comes out of the oven, top the chicken and veggies with blobs of guacamole, sour cream and/ or salsa. Sprinkle everything with cheese and arugula. Garnish with limes, green onions, red onions, and/or cilantro. Place crispy tortilla pieces, cut into triangles, on the sides of the pan. To serve this dinner, we like to bring the sheet pan to the kitchen table and eat right off of it, using forks and knives — it’s part of the fun! Enjoy.