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.
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?