Cigar Aficionado

Havana Corner: A Little Bit of Havana in Tijuana

I am sorry, but a taxi driver who doesn't speak English is really useless -- especially in the United States. I got picked up early Friday morning from my hotel in Los Angeles and my Armenian driver didn't know how to get to Union Station, the main train station in the city.

He had just arrived a few weeks ago from Armenia. "Don't worry my friend," he told me reassuringly. "I find you that train station. You don't worry."

I was happy I spoke bad Spanish because I asked a few hermanos waiting for a bus where the f--- the train station was when we arrived downtown. We got there in time to get my ticket and the train. I felt sorry for my new Armenian friend, so I gave him a fat tip. He told me that he was saving his money for his family to come to Los Angeles from Armenia.

By the way, the old train station in Los Angeles is beautiful. I had forgotten the grandeur and class, with its solid yet beautiful tile and marble and dark oak interior. It must have been built in the same era as Grand Central in New York City. Shame hardly anyone uses the train in Southern California anymore. I remember coming down with my parents to see the station and trains when I was a little boy. We sometimes took the train down to Santa Ana to visit friends in Orange County.

The ride through the guts of Los Angeles to the south was fascinating. I could see nothing but the concrete along the Los Angeles River, warehouses and graffiti. It seemed like a scene out of Road Warrior or some apocalyptic film. But gradually we got through to Orange County and its beaches and beyond. It was so cool to pass by many of my favorite surf spots as a boy, including Trestles and San Onofre.

I was on my way to Tijuana to visit the La Casa del Habano via downtown San Diego. Owner David Tourgeman Betech was going to pick me up. Unfortunately, we couldn't go on his Ducati 999 because I had luggage.

We hooked up at the station and drove to his small cigar shop in about 20 minutes. It's located on the city's main tourist drag of, which is filled mostly with pharmacies, restaurants, bars, curio shops and hookers. There's something almost Wild West about the streets of Tijuana.

I walked in the store and there was one of the top old rollers from Havana, whom I only know as Taboada, practicing his craft. He had been in Tijuana for a month rolling cigars at the shop and leaving the next day. "Hola!" I said. "Cómo estás? Que haces aquí hermano."

David told me his full name is Rodolfo Taboada Campa, and that Taboada, who is 67, started rolling cigars in the early 1950s at what I believe was the old Henry Clay factory in Cuba. He later moved to H. Upmann and ended up a few years back in the former cigar shop at the La Corona factory in Old Havana. That's where I got to know him.

He is one of the best rollers I know. His cigars always draw perfectly and he knows a thing or two about blending. I think most rollers know jack shit about blending. They are simply told to use two leaves of this, one of that and half of that by the master blenders or heads of factory. And as we all know, as good as a cigar can be made, if the blend is not right, then it's just smoke. Anyway, Taboada had rolled a slightly thinner than usual belicoso to start me off with in Tijuana, and it was delicious. It was fresh and clean with a coffee, dark chocolate character that finished flavorful and rich. It was great with the simple espresso I had in the shop.

As I drank my coffee and smoked my cigar in David's shop, I had flashbacks to Havana. I noticed about a dozen or so Americans in the shop doing the same -- being in La Casa del Habano in Tijuana is the next best thing to being in a cigar shop in Havana.

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