Villa Saverios- Tijuana, Mexico

Tijuana is no longer a place of cheap booze and juvenile festivities- it’s quickly emerging as a new landmark for fine dining and sophisticated continental cuisine.  A visit to Tijuana’s Gastronomic District will quickly prove that talented local chefs and their distinguished restaurants are capable of challenging and taking down any of its counterparts in Los Angeles or New York.  Grabbing the reigns of the Baja culinary movement with full force and steering it into the future is perhaps the most hardworking and dynamic of them all, Chef Javier Plascencia who runs 6 restaurants on both sides of the US-Mexico border.  It started as a family business for Chef Javier when his father, Juan Plascencia, founded Baja’s first pizza parlor back in 1967.  But it’s not just his family history and pedigree that made these restaurants a success- Javier Plascencia, who did his culinary training at San Diego Mesa College and the CIA, has real skill and unparalleled talent.  On my recent culinary trip to Baja led by Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA, I had the opportunity to sample exciting cuisine prepared especially for us by numerous distinguished chefs, from Chef Miguel Ángél Guerrero Yaguës at La Querencia to Chef Martín San Román of Rincón San Román to Chef Benito Molina at Manzanilla.  Each chef had a unique, innovative and delicious take on Baja cuisine, but it was Plascencia’s food that made me purr the loudest.

On one of our evenings, Javier Plascencia greeted us at Villa Saverios in Tijuana for a special chef’s tasting dinner.   This restaurant, unlike his others, serves ‘Baja Med cuisine’ which melds fresh local Baja foods with the best of Italian, French, Spanish and Mediterranean flavors and traditions.  One step inside this beautiful restaurant space and you will be transported to a rustic Tuscan villa with a winding staircase that leads to a private banquet room and a wine cellar downstairs that can host a private dinner.

As the charismatic and handsome chef welcomed us at our table and explained what he was planning to prepare for us that night, we sipped on a fabulous tamarind martini made with Beefeater gin and mashed tamarind pulp.   The whole tamarind pod, fully infused with liquor essence and oozing with juicy sweetness, was ripe and ready for enjoyment.

A trio of miniature tostadas commenced our fantastic tasting dinner, from a creamy spider crab tostada topped with cherry tomatoes and a crisp and fresh geoduck clam tostada with cucumbers and jalapeños in the center to a succulent octopus version topped with savory and smokey Sonoran dried beef machaca.  I was hooked on the surf and turf tostada for its stellar combination play of tender octopus legs in contrast with the slam dunk spice of picante beef.  Each tostada was bursting with fresh and vibrant ocean flavors, showcasing the diversity of the local Baja waters.  The tostadas were paired with a fruity 2009 Sauvignon blanc from La Niña L’ Blanc with pleasant citrus and peach undertones.

Plascencia’s version of chile relleno, an earthy and seductive pasilla chile stuffed with beef cheeks and topped with heirloom beans, arugula, fig granules, ground cacao and pickled red onions was sensational.  The hint of  cacao flavor with the subtle sweetness of figs and beans pulled all of the different elements together for a rustic and memorable dish, beautifully paired with the balanced sweetness of a 2008 Villa Montefiori Sangiovese Rosado from Valle de Guadalupe.

My favorite dish of the evening came from a surprise twist on Peking duck rolls in Plascencia’s interpretation through a duck, cucumber, avocado and cilantro taco wrapped in an almost translucent yet mouthwatering and crisp sheet of thinly sliced jicama.  With a bit of habanero salsa to raise the heat factor and dark magenta hibiscus flowers bringing both honey-like sweetness and a vivid splash of color to the plate, each precious bite of the Mexican duck taco introduced me to a new level of fascinating flavors and sensations.  Paired with a 2007 Mariatinto red from Valle de Guadalupe made with a Cabernet, Petit Syrah and Grenache blend, this delicious dish was one that I will never forget.

2 well-suited servers pulled up to the side of our table each with his own cart stocked full of bowls, bottles and utensils.  One mashed a couple of fillets of anchovies with a flattened fork and whisked in some finely chopped garlic, freshly squeezed lime juice, olive oil, Maggi sauce, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a coddled egg yolk, pepper and parmesan cheese to make a classic Caesar salad.

We watched in awe as his rival made a classic Victor salad with equal skill and finesse.  Anchovies, coddled egg yolk, mayonaise, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, A1 steak sauce, parmesan cheese, ground pepper, vinegar and corn oil went into the terracotta pot to be whipped up into a creamy dressing with the speed of a mechanical whisker and tossed with whole Romaine lettuce leaves.

As many of you may know, it is said that Caesar salad was born in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924 when restaurateur Caesar Cardini improvised with these ingredients when he was low on food supplies and had to make do with what he had to accommodate a party that arrived at his restaurant at Hotel Caesar’s on Avenida Revolución.  The Victor salad is its rival, also born out of a legendary restaurant in Tijuana, although both institutions have since closed down.  Although the Victor salad was delicious,with strong acidity and tartness from the addition of vinegar, I have to say the creaminess and distinct anchovy umami of the Caesar salad was the clear winner.  It probably helped that our Caesar salad maker was a true professional in this art- he worked at the original Hotel Caesar’s and has been making this legendary salad for 17 years.  Javier Plascencia is taking over the old hotel space and reviving the legendary Caesar’s back this weekend .

A stunning dish of farro that Javier’s grandmother used to make for him was reinvented at Villa Saverios with savory chunks of crispy suckling pig, micro cilantro, heirloom ‘eye of the goat’ beans, morel mushrooms and raw cured nopales.  The distinct chewy texture of the farro reminded me of the most perfect bowl of udon noodles with an elastic koshi texture, forming a wonderful canvas upon which the salty pork crisps, crunchy and slightly slippery nopales and spongy morels could shine.  It was a hearty and comforting dish that paired well with the 2007 Tramonte Tempranillo/Cabernet blend that we had.

Meanwhile, Chef Javier Plascencia was busy tending to our final meat course in the wood-burning oven, a perfectly prepared 3 month borrego primal lamb shank cooked in lamb jus and wine with onions, thyme and an indented masa dumpling called chochoyones that was just starting to soak up the beautiful sauce.  The juicy lamb was heavenly, having been cooked to a perfect sear near the crackling flames.  This dish was paired with a 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Kerubiel, an interesting red blend including Syrah, Grenache and Viognier with distinct notes of pepper.

12-14 month aged Ramonetti cow’s milk cheese came decorated with mission figs, pine nuts, a drizzle of honey and basil ribbons.

Thick chunky pistachio ice cream stood out in its minty green hue, accented by a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to enhance the nuttiness of this fabulous dessert.

The Plascencia’s got their start in the business flinging pizza dough into the air, so it only seemed right to end our chef’s tasting dinner with an unusual but heavenly dessert pizzetina topped with quince, Real del Castillo cheese, fig syrup and crunchy pomegranate seeds. 

It wasn’t just the romantic restaurant setting or the flowing wines, but the meticulously prepared and exquisitely flavored cuisine from this seasoned chef that made me an instant fan of the Plascencia legacy.  It’s obvious that Javier Plascencia understands food and how to create magic with it- there wasn’t a single dish that flopped and every bite awakened my senses to a new level of understanding and inspiration.  On a subsequent visit to one of his other Tijuana restaurants Cebicheria Erizo, and a recent one to Romesco in San Diego, I reconfirmed the mastery and savvy of this amazing chef.  Tijuana should be proud of its magnetic culinary representative who is revolutionizing the food culture and reversing the reputation of this once feared city with his bare hands.

Villa Saverios
Blvd. Sanchez Taboada
Esq. Escuadron 201
22320 Zona Rio Tijuana

Baja California, Mexico

Phone Number: 0 11 52 664 6502

Random trivia:  Did you know that tamarind pulp, when mixed with salt and rubbed directly onto the object to be polished, is an excellent  brass and copper polish?

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Rincón San Román- Baja, Mexico

Tijuana, Mexico a.k.a. TJ- what images come to your mind?  Raging drunks, partying college kids, tequila funnels, street drugs, car theft and kidnappings?  That was partly my perception too, before I headed down to Baja California for a life-changing culinary tour with a lovely group of gourmets a few months ago, led by my good friend Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA.  With expectations of eating fish tacos and clams from street stalls all weekend, I was pleasantly surprised by the fine dining experience we had at Restaurant Rincón San Román, headed by one of Mexico’s highly acclaimed celebrity chefs Martín San Román.  He’s one of the faces of Mexican cuisine, having appeared on weekly TV cooking shows and competed in the 1995 Bocuse d’Or competition for Team Mexico.  Raised in Mexico City and of Basque ancestry, San Román’s classical French training and continued membership in the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France provides a solid foundation for his Mexican-French style of cuisine where he incorporates fresh ingredients unique to the Baja waters and land with elegant French concepts and flair.

Driving just a few kilometers south of the bustling streets of Tijuana, we found ourselves gliding along the beautiful coast of Real del Mar where the deep blue sea and the vast open skies melded on the distant horizon.  Going up the hill into the Real del Mar golf complex through a security gate, we parked near the terracotta courtyard flanked by magenta bouganvillea vines.  The sounds of chirping birds and soft winds greeted us into this remote haven that seemed far removed from the city.  It felt like we accidentally stepped into a warp zone that whisked us away to Tenerife, or perhaps somewhere on Santorini. On that particular cloudy afternoon, our cheerful and friendly host Chef San Román greeted us in his beautiful 2 story restaurant that he emptied out for a private lunch just for us.

After going through the casual cafe and bar area, we stopped at the foot of the stairway to examine Chef San Román’s many achievements proudly framed on the walls.  A team photo from the Bocuse d’Or competition, many plaques of recognition for his fine cuisine, numerous awards and accolades from all over the world- and of course, the infamous LA Times article from 2002 on Chef San Román and his unique Baja cuisine written by one of our culinary tour members, Barbara Hansen.  Our table was set with pristine silverware and wine glasses, and we had an unobstructed grand view of the Pacific Ocean from the second floor.   On clear days, one can see the Coronado Islands floating in the distance.  In this heavenly and serene environment, we were treated to a wonderful cuisine d’auteur tasting lunch created by this accomplished auteur, or artist.

He started us with a plate of tuna tartare with apples, onions, pine nuts and pumpkin seed oil topped with a layer of wine jelly and garnished with freshly ground black pepper and microgreens.  The honey-like sweetness of the wine jelly brought out the flavors of the fresh tender tuna while diced onions and pine nuts added fun textural crunch.  The earthy mellowness of the pumpkin seed oil rounded out each bite with a smooth finish only to be followed by an unexpected jolt of cactus needles tickling my tongue from ancho chile slivers on the crisp bread.  Our elegant tuna dish was paired with a 2008 Concha y Toro Sauvignon Blanc.

The vibrant colors of the New Zealand mussel dish popped out against the black slate dish.  Fresh corn mixed with its nemesis, huitlacoche, added an earthy and smokey layer of flavor while pico de gallo and fresh marjoram danced in fresh celebration on my tongue, all brought together through the creaminess and richness of lobster reduction and panela cheese.

A salad made with crisp hydroponic lettuce and cherry tomatoes from San Román’s garden in the Guadalupe Valley came dressed with a sweet syrupy hibiscus vinaigrette and bacon bits.  We actually had a vase of live hydroponic lettuce on our table on display.

Our seafood course was a rolled fillet of locally caught sole stuffed with graped leaves and smoked marlin, standing tall atop a bed of savory smoked scallop and fish jus sauce.  What looked like a cylinder of classic gratin dauphinois with potatoes and cream, given the chef’s classical French training background, was actually a Baja twist of chayote lasagna.  This delicious vegetable side, along with the amazing sauce and the smoked marlin, or ‘jamón of the sea’, brought a wonderful level of savoriness and richness to this creation.

An artistic plate of Mexicali beef tenderloin with salsa de pimenta verde was plated with abstract expressionism under the skillful hands of the restaurant’s auteur. A yellow circle of seared guava with crunchy round seeds lay still next to a twig of fresh rosemary from the garden that released pungent freshness into the air to entice our olfactory senses.  Crunchy flakes of chicharrones sparkled on a painted landscape of browned sauce, inviting us to savor its seductive crackles with every bite.  Perfectly paired with a bottle of 2007 Adobe Guadalupe Jardín Secreto, this dish demonstrated the sensitivity and sensuality of Chef San Román.

The most memorable and striking of all dishes that afternoon was the Tijuana crepe cake, copied by many throughout Baja but never equaled by its original creator, Chef Martín San Román himself, who created this delightful dessert back in 1989.  I fell in love with the crepe cake when I had it for the first time at Chef Yaguës’ La Querencia, but the one and only original here at Rincón San Román was beyond perfection.  Fine layers of crepe interspersed with feathery soft and light creme simply melted in my mouth along with thin shavings of white chocolate, as I licked the strawberry and raspberry sauce squeaky clean off the plate.

Tijuana was the last place that I ever imagined sitting down for an elegant meal with paired wines and white tablecloth fine dining, but here I was, enjoying an amazing meal prepared especially for us by a distinguished and notable chef.  My preconceived notions of Tijuana and Baja Mexico were slowly but surely changing through this eye opening culinary trip.  Baja is no longer a place that’s solely famous for fish tacos, spring break partying and sleepy fishing villages.  It’s emerging, much to my delight, as one of the most fascinating locations in the world with a contemporary and sophisticated style of cuisine that cannot be mimicked by others.  Many talented and motivated chefs are flocking to this peninsula to test their skills with the local seafood that is unique to the 2 bodies of water that sandwich this rich land.  Notable wines are being produced in the Valle de Guadalupe that are as good as the wines in Europe.  Organic farming and hydroponic cultivation are creating sensational produce that are rich in nutrients and flavor.  Beautiful Baja California is now a food lover’s paradise.

Restaurant Rincón San Román

Km. 19.5 Tijuana – Rosarito toll road
Blvd. Real del Mar 1074 – 21 Real del Mar Golf Resort
Zip Code 22565

Random trivia:  Did you know that mussels secrete a highly adhesive protein through their hairy ‘beard’ that makes them stick to rocks in turbulent waters, a substance so adhesive that it can even make a mussel stick to Teflon?  Due to the highly sticky nature of this unique mussel glue that remains adhesive even in wet environments, research is being done to see if this substance can be used for ophthalmologic and orthopedic surgeries.